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Thursday, December 26, 2019

What Really Matters?

Lee Lashway tight to a steelhead on a clear November morning.  Todd Hirano photo
As I have grown and hopefully, gracefully matured as a middle aged adult who chases steelhead with dry flies, I like to think that all the time I spend on rivers has taught me things beyond the simple act of trying to catch a fish.  It has been said that some fishermen go through an evolutionary process:  at first, just being able to catch a fish,  to trying to catch as many fish as possible, to trying to catch the biggest fish,  to trying to catch the most difficult fish, to catching fish on methods that bring challenges and satisfaction, etc.

I suppose I have gone through evolutionary phases myself - from catching tilapia on a cane pole, bobber and worms as a child in Hawaii,  to catching various gamefish on conventional gear, to learning to fly fish for trout and bass, to entering the strange and unlikely reality of chasing steelhead with dry flies.  I have thought that I reached the end of my evolving journey when I began achieving continued success with surface steelheading,  but I am realizing that I am continuing to grow and learn in this journey.

For instance, I have been having a love/hate relationship with social media in recent times. I was initially hesitant to engage in Facebook to begin with because I saw so much self absorption, arguing, and trivial crud being posted every day. I mean who really cares about what I am about to eat, where I am , who I am with and how many ways people can argue about politics?  Some folks seem to worry that the world will forget what they look like so they post selfies every day.

Well, after my Facebook account sat mostly dormant from time I opened it in 2010, I finally decided to begin participating in the world of social media in 2014, which is also when I realized that most of my fishing friends were on Facebook as well. Facebook seemed like a good way to stay connected with my fishing friends. I also opened an Instagram account shortly thereafter as well,  also for the same reason.  It was also during this time that I began noticing that the actvity on internet fly fishing forums like Speypages had really died down.   This probably due to many people also moving to social media as their preferred platform for fly fishing interactions as well.

Of course,  I began posting about my fishing activities and it seemed like a fun extension of my passion. Before I knew it,  I was finding myself caught up in the trivialities of it as well. I was posting about everything from fish I caught, to who I was with, where I was, flies I was tying and yes, sometimes even what I was eating. The only thing I didn't get into was posting selfies every day.

During the summer of 2018, I began experiencing some of the best dry fly steelhead fishing I have ever had. It occurred to me that I would be shooting myself in the foot if I continually posted current pictures and stories of the surface steelhead I was getting. I was experiencing solitude due to low returns and fishing was decent, I believe largely due to the lack of pressure.

I went into incognito mode and mostly just texted my close friends to keep them in the loop of my fishing activities. I mostly stopped posting up to date pictures of steelhead I was catching.   Another reason that I mostly stopped posting current fishing pictures is that such posts beg questions around where and when -questions I don't always want to answer to the world, for purely selfish reasons!  I also could not blame folks for asking these questions - who doesn't want the inside scoop on where steelhead are being currently being caught? 

It was through this abstinence of posting every fish caught and continually updating the world of my activities, that I realized how far gone I was.  How had I gotten sucked into the meaninglessness of social media?  It actually happened easily:  we all can be vulnerable to wanting approval and recognition, it's just our human nature.

In recent times, I have been back to posting less and less on social media.  When I am scrolling through my social media accounts,  I find myself  seeking posts with meaning and substance, but they can be hard to find.   Even pictures of steelhead can become ordinary,  especially if there is no story or relevance behind them. Another social media hazard:  Everyone's posts of the awesome fishing they are having can lead to comparisons of what my life is lacking and that can lead to depression!

I started questioning my own motives with using social media. Why did I need to keep the world updated on what I was doing, where I was fishing and reporting on every steelhead caught in real time?  Don't get me wrong, there are benefits of social media:  it is a great way to stay in touch with family and friends, there are some great inspirational stories, quotes, and images that appear, and I love some of the funny stuff that is posted.   However,  I can find myself overly absorbed in my social media accounts and tuning out life,  not really being present with those who are important to me.

I realized that telling the world about everything I was doing on social media in real time was no longer a priority.   What I did discover is that encouraging others in their journeys in dry fly and dry line steelheading is what I find most valuable and meaningful.  I am always honored when folks have reached out to me to learn more about my chosen methods. I am humbled when things I have written and spoke about in this blog and elsewhere has given inspiration to others.  Thus, I realized that my online presence is best served right here on my humble little blog.  I will still post on social media from time to time, but not so much in the realm of real time reportage.

Another change I have noticed in myself over the past few years is my current criteria of a successful surface steelhead encounter. As a younger angler who chased steelhead with dry flies, I had a narrower perspective of what I considered success in my chosen game. If a steelhead was raised, hooked, but NOT landed, and with no photograpic proof, it didn't "count". Thus, I would be terribly disappointed whenever steelhead escaped my hook,  especially after a good fight with the steelhead close to shore.

Now,  almost 30 years into my dry steelhead fly journey, the loss of a steelhead during the fight stings less and less.   It's always great to behold the beauty of a steelhead up close and to be able to capture that beauty in photographs. However,  I am now more grateful for every steelhead rise I am blessed to experience. The excitement of the rise is the ultimate reward for my perseverance and confirmation of my intuition, ability to read water and to present my surface fly in way that appeals to a steelhead.

When I think about it,  hooking and landing steelhead are the parts of the experience that I have little to no control over.  When a steelhead takes a fly, there is no way to  predict how the hook will be oriented in the steelhead's mouth or jaw.   The only part of this process I do have control over is resisting the urge to immediately raise the rod to set the hook.  It is also critical to fight steelhead aggressively and quickly,  keeping maximum pressure during the fight. 

Otherwise if I am lucky, my hook will find purchase in the corner of the jaw or in some other location in the steelhead's mouth where a solid hookup is ensured.  If I am not so lucky, my hook only catches a patch of skin and pulls free after a brief or sometimes extended fight. Ie., actually landing a surface steelhead is more of a crapshoot and less dependent on actual skill. Will I get to the point of fishing for rises only and cutting the points off my hooks as Lee Spencer does on the North Umpqua?  While I agree that we should minimize our impact when pursuing our precious wild steelhead, my selfish nature still loves the adrenaline rush of the power that steelhead display during the fight.

Since eliciting steelhead rises really is the feedback I seek as a dry fly steelheader, I am joyful whenever my efforts result in those thrills regardless of the ultimate outcome. I like to think that the accomplishment of raising steelhead to the surface is what requires much more than dumb luck - although dumb luck can help, but should never be depended on.  In the end,  I am more than happy in getting an aggressive attack to my surface bug, maybe a few pulls off my reel and a jump - that's what counts anymore.  No need for a steelhead in hand and a picture every time, much less an immediate post on social media - maybe a quick text or message to my close friends to celebrate and I call it good.
Surface steelhead that came to my Black/Blue wang in mid November
What about you?  Where has your journey in this game taken you?

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Little Wang Fly Tying Video

Many thanks to Courtney Morris (@sculpinarmy on Instagram) for putting this video together which documents the step by step instructions in building my favorite steelhead wakers.  Also thanks to Homewaters Fly Shop for posting these videos on their YouTube channel. 

Some commentary on fishing the Wang.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Morning Redemption

It was overcast morning in the middle of October as I donned my waders along a favorite summer steelhead river.   While I prepared for a brief morning session before heading to church, my mind started to wander. After experiencing a surprisingly productive summer dry fly steelhead season,  I found myself in the midst of a dry spell coming through late summer and early fall.  I had gotten spoiled with the periodic, but less than consistent surface action the rivers provided me from early summer through late summer, but the seemingly sudden downturn in top water steelhead activity started to mess with my head.  My summer surface steelhead connections showed me beating the odds, especially with current low returns,  but fall is prime time for surface steelhead and my recent results didn't reflect that truism.

I was armed with my 11' 3wt trout spey and the natural bomber variant that I have been tying in recent months.  This fly is basically a split winged bomber with a cow elk wing added between the trimmed deer body and front facing split calf tail wings.  After fishing primarily foam waking flies for the past 10 years, I sought to come up with an all natural pattern that met my critieria for visibility and staying on the surface with consistency.  I finally came close enough with my "bivisi-bomber-wang".  I had raised steelhead on the pattern but had not actually landed any while using it yet.

I started at the top of the run, lengthening line with each cast until my OPST Commando head and a few strips of running line were out the tip of my rod.  It was a cool morning and I was enjoying sips of hot coffee from my thermos cup that I keep tucked in the front of my waders as each cast approached mid swing to the dangle.  It was before I had my normal "9 strip" cast out that I heard a gulp and saw a splashy rise in the periphery of my vision as I had my coffee cup tipped back for a drink.  My line drew tight in an instant and the steelhead took off on a run as I tucked my coffee cup back into the front of my waders and switched the rod over to my left hand so I could crank on my 3 5/8" Hardy Perfect with my right hand.

The steelhead made a couple more short bursts and leaped a time or two as I drew it closer to me.  I kept steady pressure with a low rod position and tension on my reel.  After a few mintutes, I had the steelhead in the shallows along my bank.  Just as I was able to get my sights on what appeared to be an average sized steelhead in the 6-8lb range , the hook pulled out.  Ah well, there was still time remaining to see if other steelhead were around.

I resumed my position and extended my cast out to the 60-70' range.  This amounts to what is a comfortable casting distance with the light rod and short head.  I continued working down the run and when I was about 20 feet below my starting point, another explosive rise came to my bomber in mid swing, and again, the line quickly came tight with a run and a leap.  Judging by visual appearances and the nature of the fight, I could tell that this steelhead was above average in size.  Steady pressure and exerting as much tension as I could on the steelhead had it coming towards me in a short time.

I have been criticized for using light gear for steelhead, however as has been demonstrated through my personal experiences repeatedly, exerting maximum pressure (palming/fingers on the reel spool) , maintaining a low rod position, and staying with appropriate steelhead tippet (8 or 10lb Maxima for me) get steelhead in quickly.

There was not a convenient area that would allow me to draw the steelhead near to the bank so I got the steelhead as close as I could.  I did the trick of drawing in line by stripping to allow for my rod to be lifted above and behind me as I reached for the leader.  The trick worked and I carefully hand lined the steelhead within grasping range.  I was impressed by the broad shoulders of the hatchery buck which I guessed to be in the 12-13lb range.  I could see that the bomber was firmly lodged in the mouth of the steelhead.  This whole process is an awkward maneuver as one is simultaneously grasping the leader and being constantly prepared to release pressure if the steelhead tries to run off, while trying to keep track of loose line not tangling in the guides of the rod, should the leader need to be released.  Things were going well and I was about to grab the wrist of the steelhead's tail, when he gave a last ditch flop which popped the 12lb section of my leader.  I made a desperate attempt at getting a hold of my prize, but he was quickly gone with my freshly tied bomber and tippet section. I was surprised that my tippet snapped in the stronger 12lb section.  I figured that I either had a wind knot or that the loop knot I used weakened the mono.

I can say, I was just a little bummed at losing probably the largest steelhead that I had hooked into for the season.  However as a steelheader gets older and crustier, those losses don't tend to hurt as much.  I wasn't really in the mood to deal with harvesting, filleting, and freezing a late season hatchery steelhead.  A picture would have been nice, but even that is not as important to me anymore.  I don't post fish pics on social media as much as I used to - probably because I realized that I don't have anything to prove and there are plenty of steelhead pics on Instagram already.  I got everything I could have asked for from that steelhead - a beautiful rise, a powerful and exciting fight and an up close look at the prize that I seek.

I still had the lower half of the run to fish and enough time to fish it,  so I tied up a new tippet section and went back to work with another one of my bomber variants.  As I got near the bottom of the run, I slowed my pace because this stretch of water has held rising steelhead in multiple locations.

 As I got into the beginning the hot zone,  I was startled as yet another aggressive rise came to my fly near  the dangle.  The steelhead made a series of short runs until I had it with in range to see it was seemingly a twin of the first one I hooked into earlier,  in that 6-8lb size window.  The steelhead was drawn close to my bank when the hook pulled out.

It was not a day for getting fish slime on my hands,  but I was beyond content with the fast paced surface action in the compressed timeframe of about an hour.  It was that magical time that may happen a time or two each fall when I luck into a loaded run.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Fall Promises

Dramatic tailout in fall colors.  Todd Hirano photo
It was an early November morning when I arrived at a familiar stop on this famed summer steelhead river.  I was taken by the beauty of the river corridor and the peacefulness of the late fall conditions.  While I am always content to be at my happy place, I questioned the feasibility of this late season visit.  I don’t normally visit this river so late in the season, but this outing was an opportunistic jaunt in the midst of other family activities which created an escape that I couldn’t pass up.    As I stood on the ledgerock along the well-known run, I knew the water temperature would be below the 48 degree threshold of what I would normally consider ideal for surface steelheading.  I dipped my stream thermometer in the river and it read 46 degrees.  I tried to convince myself that it could still be possible to raise a steelhead in such conditions as I recalled the temperature graph that Bill McMillan described in Dry Line Steelhead.  44-47 degrees was what Bill described as the cold water transitional range where steelhead surface activity decreases but decent surface fishing is still possible.  I was banking on any possibilities that this day could bring.
The monochrome river scene was serene with the dim lighting of an overcast morning and the last remnant of fallen leaves scattered along the river’s edge and on the river bottom.    Air temps were cold enough to warrant layers under my waders and pulling on my winter coat.  I felt a sense of antsiness as fall was quickly transitioning to winter.

I walked along the river's edge to the top of the run feeling unsure of my possibilities due to the timing of being at the outer fringe of the fall season.   My local homewater, the Middle Fork of the Willamette, is regulated by Dexter dam and thus runs relatively warm (48 degress and above) until winter storms blow out the river.  I had been experiencing consistent late season surface steelhead success close to home with the warmer water temps there, but I had some doubts about raising steelhead in the cooler water that was flowing out of the Cascades.

I began with short casts at the top of the run.  The upper corner (water I call the "armpit") fished nicely with short casts and I enjoyed working through this piece of water that I seldom fish during the peak of the season when it is frequently occupied by guides and other anglers.  On this day, I was fishing a fly which was basically a yellow stimulator with a foam lip attached.  My son in law Shaun was a newbie to steelheading and had been finding great success with our Willamette steelhead on #6 yellow stimulators so I decided to create a fly that would skate reliably, but retain the look of the stimulator.  I called the resulting fly "the stimuwaker".  (This fly was actually a precursor to the skater I use today, the Little Wang)

When I had about half of the scandi head out, my fly was swinging through the main current and would slow down in the soft cushion near shore.  After a few casts, a bulge of water suddenly appeared at the fly, catching me by surprise.  As the fly swung to the dangle, I silently questioned what had just happened - was that actually a steelhead rise??  As I stripped in for my next cast, I realized that there was no doubt that with the size of the commotion made during that rise, it had to be a steelhead.   Steelhead rises are typically distinct and it would not have been possible for a 12" cutthroat to displace that much water.  I made my next cast, and as my skater came into the soft cushion near shore, the steelhead came back with another rise to my fly.  I felt a brief tug, but there was no satisfying pull of a hooked, angry steelhead to follow.  I was amazed and pleased with raising my first "cold water" steelhead.  Unfortunately, none of my follow up casts brought that steelhead back.

I was feeling content with my accomplishment of raising a steelhead in the chilly water, but I still had the remaining two thirds of the run left to fish.  As I continued down, I wondered about the likelihood of raising another steelhead in these cool conditions or was my good fortune just a one time fluke?  My casts lengthened as I got to the middle of the run and the answer to my question came soon enough as another steelhead rose to the top to smash my fly.  This was an aggressive shark attack type of rise in the chop of the main flow.  My fly instantly disappeared in a void of water left by the fleeting appearance of flash and color.  My line drew tight and my rod bucked to the weight of the steelhead.  As I braced for the fight, my rod sprung back as the steelhead found a way to rid itself of the hook as it took off on it's initial run.  

I was feeling the buzz from the fast paced surface action I was experiencing on this day of uncertainties and self-doubt.  My vow to live and die by the skater was further validated, for better or for worse.  I wondered to myself what the chances were of encountering this kind of surface fishing at the tail end of fall?  I still had the bottom half of the run to fish so of course I wanted to see if things could possibly get any better on this special day.

I was back in the groove and just a couple casts below where I had encountered that second steelhead, a third steelhead came up to play.  I could hardly believe what had happened when this steelhead came up with a big crash to the fly and missed.  On the next cast, as if on cue, the steelhead returned for a repeat show, but this time the fly was got securely lodged in his mouth.  The sound of a screaming reel could be heard and this powerful buck bored back and forth across the pool several times.  Just when I would get the steelhead close, it would take off on another strong, powerful run, while I prayed that the hook and tippet would hold up to the viscous antics of this angry steelhead. 

I was eventually able to get this robust male to hand.  As I leaned down to reach for my leader to lead the magnificent fish towards me, I was struck by the muscular build and brilliant colors of this beautiful fall buck.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that part of the steelhead's maxillary was missing, my guess was possibly from it being hooked by a fisherman as a smolt.  Missing part of his jaw didn't stop this spectacular steelhead from taking the stimuwaker deeply and getting hooked in the bottom of the mouth, behind the tongue.  I was able to get a few photos and before I could attempt to unhook my fly, the steelhead made a flip and took off with my fly, easily snapping my 8# Maxima tippet with his weight. 

Late Fall buck with my Stimuwakter hooked in the back of the tongue.  Note part of maxillary missing.  Todd Hirano photo

There is no doubt that fall is my favorite season to be out chasing steelhead on the surface.  By early to mid September, the first subtle changes of the season can be felt.  The searing heat of summer begins to ease away and transitions to cool, mild temperatures.  The bright summer conditions have given way to frequent overcast and the softer lighting  that comes with the lower angle of the sun.  The surrounding foliage becomes a brilliant display of color as leaves change and fall.  On windy days, you may wish that you have a weed guard on your skater as leaves can blanket the surface of the river, frequently finding the hook of your fly.  The first of the fall rains bring new life and refreshment to rivers that have been bleached by the summer heat.

As the season progresses, there is a sense of urgency in knowing that winter is just around the corner, days are growing shorter, and the remaining opportunities for comfortable steelheading in mild weather is quickly dwindling.  While the season brings the most peace and joy to my soul, I become impulsive, abandon adult responsibilities, and fish at every break that life provides, as the optimum window becomes smaller and smaller.  Fishing trips to places near and far get put on the itinerary, with a week in BC included for good measure and with destinations that stretch further east as the season progresses.

Adrian Cortes and Bucky Buchstaber contemplate a stream crossing on a desert river in November.  Todd Hirano Photo
Adrian Cortes casting for steel on a BC river as a train approaches.  Todd Hirano photo

Somehow, it seems that steelhead respond to the change of season with their own sense of reckless abandon as well.  Fall conditions provide the most consistent (though never easy) surface steelheading of the entire year.  My fishing journals show a marked increase in surface steelhead encounters when September rolls around, with the peak always coming sometime in October, and in good years, November yielding some decent top water steelhead activity as well.

I am fortunate to live about 10 minutes away from some ideal surface steelhead water on the Middle Fork Willamette.  While this is not a destination steelhead fishery, it provides a convenient opportunity for me to get my fix on a consistent basis.  By September, I find myself looking for every window of time to get on the water, sometimes even for an hour after work before darkness sets in or whenever there is a break between family activities on weekends.  Like other summer steelhead rivers, my homewater is at it's very best in fall.  

During typical years where the counts at Willamette Falls indicate that at least several thousand steelhead have entered my home river, I can expect to raise steelhead to the surface on the majority of trips that I spend astream.  Steelhead hold more predictably in certain runs and even in particular holds within runs.  It is this greater possibility for consistency that causes my obsession with surface steelhead to peak in fall.  My local quarry are of predominately hatchery origin with a few non-finclipped feral/wild steelhead thrown in to beg other questions of whether wild summer steelhead could have been ever native to the basin, but that's a whole other discussion.  

Despite stereotypes of hatchery steelhead needing to have flies right in their face to elicit interest, I blissfully find my local hatchery brats very receptive to moving off their lies to come to the surface to intercept my flies during autumn.  Not only do these local hatchery steelhead come to the surface with regularity in fall, they often come to the surface multiple times until they get your hook lodged in their mouth, making for some exciting comeback fishing to players.  I once had one of these steelhead boil at and miss my fly at the dangle, but with no more swing left, I simply slowly swayed my two handed rod alternately outward towards mid river and back towards the bank, causing my skater to track back and forth in a small banded in and out swing.  In the course of this process, I raised that steelhead a total of 10-12 times!  I was able to anticipate the rises and I was even able to drop the rod on the strike. allowing my fly to drop in the steelhead's mouth, and I still couldn't connect with a hookup.  The steelhead finally decided that I was pathetic after giving me so many chances and probably swam off to find a more worthy fly fisherman to mess with.  

While I am fully an advocate of wild steelhead, I hypocritically cannot pass up rising steelhead ten minutes from my house, even if they are synthetic versions of the real thing.  Many locals think I am nuts for chasing these hatchery steelhead with surface flies as the frequently accepted hometown wisdom is to fish a Skagit line with 10' of T-8 or a longer type III sinktip.  Apparently, being nuts is my preferred state of mind as I can't get myself to put on a tip when I know these hatchery mutants will rise to the surface. 

Local hatchery steelhead that couldn't pass up my foam skater during a brief evening session afterwork.  Todd Hirano photo.

Success in steelheading with a surface fly is never a forgone conclusion, but fall conditions on Pacific Northwest rivers provide the greatest degree of predictability and consistency that one could ever expect in this game of what can seem like dim-witted persistence.  It is during this time of year that I may log multiple consecutive trips of raising, hooking, and landing steelhead with surface flies.  This is prime time and the pace of surface action you may encounter will typically be unsurpassed compared to any other time of year.

Late fall day on the North Umpqua with Lee Lashway.  Todd Hirano photo.

It is also during this special time that you are most likely to encounter "the player".  These are steelhead that typically "miss" your fly on the initial appearance and then continue to come back on consecutive casts with explosive displays, sometimes multiple times during the swing.  Some players will continue coming back to the same fly until they are hooked.  Others may stop rising to the same fly, but can be brought back to the surface with a change to a smaller, darker fly.  Using a small wet fly as a closer is almost a sure thing with these players, but I stubbornly insist on making all efforts to get a full surface grab so I stick with changing to other surface flies until the steelhead stops rising all together, or until I run out of tippet material from too many fly changes.

 Perhaps the greatest highlights of my fishing year that most often occurs in fall, is when I encounter the "loaded run".  It's those days you dream about:  you may raise a steelhead at the upper corner/armpit of the run, then you continue down and find another player further down the run, then you encounter another one towards the tailout and perhaps at other points in between, or you may even find multiple steelhead that are holding in the same general area.  It can feel like Christmas in October!  Your soul is so full of excitement that experiencing the loaded run is something you will never forget.  However, even though this experience can leave you feeling like you are floating on a cloud for weeks, it is never taken for granted, for we know how tough this pursuit can be and these rare highlights are to be cherished and reflected upon, or even written about on your blog.

Hatchery steelhead that traveled several hundred miles from the ocean to take my skater on a beautiful eastern river in October.  Adrian Cortes photo.

Scene of a loaded run on a desert river in October.  Todd Hirano photo
Indeed, the promises of fall are what I look forward to the most each year.  Everything about the season pleases me: from the cooler weather, softer lighting throughout the day, aggressive steelhead on the surface, and yearly traditions of gathering with friends on special rivers.  Fall is my chance for redemption, having the opportunity to validate that all my efforts through countless blank days over the course of the year were not made in vain. 

May the fall season bring your surface steelhead dreams to life as well. 

November steelhead camp with Bucky Buchstaber, Aaron Ostoj, and Adrian Cortes.  Todd Hirano Photo.

Pick your poison.  Adrian Cortes and I compare notes and realize we each have our own styles in this game.  Natural and traditional for Adrain;  foamy, synthetic and weird for me.  Todd Hirano photo.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Patient Pesistence

Dry Fly Steelhead taken during a solitary morning session during a low return year

Patience and Persistence:
Each year, as summer approaches, I find myself in a game where going against really low odds is the rule.  There are so many variables working against the possibility of finding that first surface steelhead of the season.  I generally start putting serious efforts in finding dry fly steelhead on my local waters in May.  In good return years, May steelhead counts over Willamette falls has numbered several thousand (most recently during the 2016 season).  In recent years, the May numbers have been much smaller.  Water levels in May can also be a deterrent as the Army Corps tends to release more water to flush newly released hatchery steelhead and salmon smolts downstream.  The higher water changes where steelhead may hold and I theorize that the increased flow tends to keep steelhead on the move rather than settled into specific lies for any length of time.  With flows pushing along the banks, there is a reduction of areas that can be waded effectively and the amount of soft dry fly steelhead water is compressed.

Despite the difficulties, I still regularly fish my home water during the early season.  The river is quiet and peaceful during this magical time.  Summer crowds have yet to show and the bulk of the salmon fishing traffic is still weeks away.  Low steelhead returns also keeps many other fisherman off the river.  It may not be worth the time and effort for the “catch your limit” crowd.  Thankfully, I am drawn to the river for reasons beyond simply catching fish, so dealing with the near impossibility of finding an early dry fly steelhead doesn’t stop me.  Having water to myself without the pressure of other anglers closing in on me is a wonderful luxury.

I find that conditions in May remind me to be flexible and adapt to the changes that higher water brings.  Mentally accepting the scarcity of opportunities and spiritually finding contentment in the circumstances give me peace, joy, and a renewed sense of gratitude for all that steelhead and rivers provide.

I have been regularly fishing my home water, the Middle Fork of the Willamette, every season since moving to Oregon in 2009.  My local ditch hosts primarily hatchery steelhead and is not exactly a world class steelheading destination.  It has nevertheless, been a convenient playground close to home where steelhead occasionally rise for waking flies.  I have learned a lot about surface steelhead from having this humble waterway 10 minutes from my home.  Being in close proximity has me on the water almost daily from May through November and sometimes into December if flows allow.

My frequent forays have given opportunities to become very familiar with holding water at various flow levels.  There has also been the joys of discovering new holding water and the sense of confirmation when a steelhead rises to my fly in a freshly discovered area that my experience and intuition has led me to.

In the seasons I have fished the MFW, the earliest I generally begin raising steelhead to the surface is around the third week of June.  This has been the case even during years with good returns by May.  This reality has been both puzzling and frustrating at the same time.  When May arrives, water temps are generally warm enough for steelhead to rise, yet, my efforts typically just bring casting practice and continued opportunities to build my resolve.

During those better return years, , the river can start getting busy as early as April.  During seasons of greater abundance, May can find the gear crowd and deeper running fly fishing crowd getting in to fish with some regularity.  With me sticking to the surface fly almost always, finding no success during those seasons of relative plenty was puzzling.  Having folks catching steelhead all about while I single-mindedly kept a stupid hair and foam thingy tied on seemed like insanity.

Ironically, during a couple recent low return years, I have raised and hooked steelhead by late May and onward through June and into late fall/early winter.  It is possible that the lower number of boats and other anglers on the river may have worked in my favor.  Perhaps the steelhead that were present found themselves less disturbed and thus in a happier mood for eating on the surface.

In my crazy, ongoing “ dry fly steelhead experiment”  there are certain constants and also certain variables. 
The constants include:
  • Utilizing only fly fishing gear
  • consistent use of floating lines
  • full time use of surface flies.
  • Getting out on the river at every opportunity from May through December.
The variables include:
  • numbers of steelhead present in the river
  • time of year
  • weather conditions
  • fishing pressure
  • size of the spring salmon run (which in turn influences the level of boat and angler traffic)
  • river levels
  • water temps
  • numbers of boats on the water
  • changes in river configuration due to flood events
  • water types fished

What have I learned through my ongoing experiment?
  1. “Good” returns do not necessarily equate to good dry fly steelheading.  Possibly due to more pressure that greater numbers bring to the river.

  1. Most of my dry fly steelhead success comes in low light conditions during early morning, evening, or during overcast weather.   While this generally makes sense and is accepted as common steelheading wisdom, it could also have to do with when I spend most of my time on the water.  I have gotten a few dry fly steelhead with sun on the water, but I generally avoid bright conditions due to my own needs for comfort.  (I am a wimp when it comes to summer heat and blinding sunburn weather).

  1. Dry Fly Steelheading is a “numbers game”.  While I am not a numbers guy (in terms of needing to catch as many steelhead as possible), finding steelhead on the surface can require persistent effort and putting time on the water.  I reason that my odds increase if I am on the water once a day vs. once a month.

  1. It is important to keep moving.  A  couple runs that I fish tend to provide the majority of my surface action, but having multiple runs to cover increases the odds of finding an active steelhead. 

  1. Exploring new water is also worthwhile to expand your possibilities and to test one’s ability to read good dry fly steelhead holding water.  There is great satisfaction when  that smashing rise comes in that new location that you just had a certain feeling about .  Finding new water is also a great way to get away from the crowd.

  1. Stay positive.  Steelhead can be gone today and here tomorrow.  I have fished some favorite runs regularly over periods of time with no success then one day, I raise and hook steelhead in multiple locations in a given piece of water that seemed barren of life in days prior.  Steelhead are on the move and each day brings new possibilities.

  1. Learn to adapt to various river conditions.  When the river runs at a given level for a period of time, I can become locked into a routine of how and where to fish.  I will be counting on steelhead to hold in certain locations where I can reasonably hope for a rise.  When levels change, whether the  river drops or rises, it can be disorienting and even discouraging.  Those familiar holding lies may have changed or disappeared with the change in flow.  Typically, lower flows push holding lies further into the main flow and higher water puts holding lies closer to shore.  Relearning the rivers at different flows can be exciting and rewarding, again, like finding new steelhead holding water.

  1. Find Peace and Joy in being on the water, regardless of whether the steelhead rise to the occasion.  It is a great blessing to enjoy nature as the river refreshes my soul.  As I reflect back on my days as a former Child Welfare Caseworker, I realize that being out on the river was literally lifesaving self-care that helped sustain me in a very stressful career.
Have fun out there and remember, to find success with surface flies, you must tie one on and keep it on.

Dry fly hen glows in the low light of an overcast morning 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

IF4 in Eugene - come support the Fly Fishing Collaborative

Fish Well, Do Good!
Join True West Custom Fly Rods for the International Fly Fishing Film Festival April 17th at the Wildish Theater. The IF4 is a wonderful collection of professionally made fly fishing films from around the globe that highlight the beauty and culture of fly fishing. The IF4 is an exciting night of films and raffling off over $4000 in great fishing gear, art, and trips all for a great cause!
The film festival is a fundraiser for Fly Fishing Collaborative, a Portland based non-profit working to provide sustainable solutions to human trafficking. By partnering with the fly fishing community and local leaders in high trafficking areas, FFC fights for freedom and recovery for children affected by human trafficking each year.
Watch the trailer, and then hit the link and get your tickets. Every ticket purchased helps to put power in the hands of the powerless!

The Run Down:

  • April 17th @7pm- Doors open at 615 to view raffle prizes
  • Wildish Theater in Springfield, OR
  • Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at Homewaters and Caddis Fly Shops or online below

2019 IF4 Trailer
Buy Tickets
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Sunday, March 31, 2019

Surface Steelhead Tips

Surface steelhead addict Adrian Cortes chasing the ghost.  His motto:  #surfaceattacksarecrack

Without a doubt, seeing an aggressive steelhead attacking a fly on the surface is the ultimate thrill in my experience as an angler.  Nothing else comes close to the rush of those sudden explosions, boils, and giant surges at my fly that create visions that never go away.   My initial success with raising steelhead to the surface took place in the fall of 1995 on a famous BC river.  Those initial surface steelhead encounters left a profound impression on me to the extent that I have been known to be rather single-minded in the pursuit of encountering my next surface steelhead fix.  Having the good fortune of meeting with willing surface steelhead early in my journey could have led to my unshakable passion and perseverance with surface methods.  For better or for worse, I have evolved into an angler who is hopelessly impassioned with the whole process of getting steelhead to rise. 

Like many anglers, my early attempts with surface methods was met with uncertainty and being unsure of what I was doing.  My humble beginnings were also hampered by living as far from steelhead country as one could imagine (Hawaii is not paradise for a steelheader).  While I was mentored from a distance by Bill McMillan through Dry Line Steelhead, I had no one around my Kauai home who could provide any personal stories or instruction on fishing for steelhead on the surface.

In our current steelheading age, many newer anglers are experiencing their first surface steelhead episodes thanks to the knowledge and excitement that is generated through the broad, instantaneous sharing that is afforded by various online resources including social media, forums, blogs, youtube, etc.  Through the advances of modern technology, the learning curve for the current generation of anglers is thus, much shorter.   However, for many, the road leading up to that initial surface steelhead encounter can be long and hard.  Diminished steelhead returns in recent years has tested the patience and faith of even a die hard such as myself, with rises from surface oriented steelhead often few and far between.

I sometimes think to myself that being a beginning steelheader trying find surface friendly steelhead with the recent low return years we have had could be really tough.  It is often the case that the only thing that has kept me going is being able to draw from prior experiences of raising steelhead to the surface.  For those that are new to this game, I encourage you to keep the faith and continue believing in the reality that if you stick with surface methods long enough, success will come.

Having been a newcomer to this pursuit at some point myself (hard to imagine that was almost three decades ago),  I can relate to some of the questions that have been posed by newer anglers.  Most questions have been about tackle, technique, and water type that suits surface methods.  In this article, I hope to provide some advice that may help anglers confidently  persevere in this endeavor.

The classic down and across or cross stream/greased line swing with a fly designed to wake either by it's own design or through the use of a riffle hitch are the most commonly used surface methods today.  A common addition to the tight line swing presentations is to impart action to the fly with twitches.  This method was popularized by legendary steelhead guide Tony Wratney and friends (including Mark Stangeland) on the North Umpqua in 80's.  The twitched swing is the method I employ most often.  I tend towards a more gentle, pulsating twitch while others may prefer a more aggresstive twitch.  The twitched presentation is typically utilized with foam lipped flies but hair flies such as Muddlers and Greaseliners can be twitched as well.

Steelhead can also be taken with a dead drift dry fly and in the right conditions, it is possible to find success with the method.  The technique is the same one used in presenting dry flies upstrem to trout.  The dead drift lends itself to fishing over known steelhead holding lies and when one is able to encounter unpressured steelhead.  While getting a steelhead using this method is quite the accomplishment, the tight line swing presentations are most commonly employed because they cover the most water in a methodical way.

The common term for the surface methods we commonly utilize to fish for steelhead these days is often referred to as "skating" and we tend to refer to the flies we fish with while using this method as "skaters".  In a recent correspondence with Bill McMillan I was reminded of his description of the method of skating (as was noted in Dry Line Steelhead).  Bill referred to skating as a method that utilizes a tight line swing and flies tied with stiff hackles (either feathers or hair) that ride on Top of the surface rather than IN the surface as riffle hitched or other waking flies do.  Therefore, most of the surface flies we use to swing for steelhead today (Bombers, Greaseliners, Ska-oppers, Foam Domes, Muddlers, Little Wangs, etc) are what Bill refers to as waking flies.  Utilizing actual skating flies such as the MacIntosh or stiff hackled Steelhead Bees is relatively uncommon today, but Bill described that those high-riding skaters tended to elicit exciting rises, but fewer hookings as compared to waking flies.

Bill McMillan had described in his book Dry Line Steelhead, another surface method that involves simply hanging a surface fly in pocket water holds such buckets in the midst of rapids and cushions in front of and behind boulders.  I have utilized this method in summer conditions in areas where pocket water became the most likely areas to search for steelhead due to the confines imposed by low water.  I have had success with this method by mimicking Bill's example of using a size 6 riffle hitched Steelhead Caddis with just the leader and maybe 5 feet of fly line outside the tip of my 9' 4wt rod and simply hanging the fly in miniature buckets in the midst of fast water.  When fishing in this way, it feels like Tenkara fishing, but when the surface steelhead attack comes at such close range, you will have a hard time shaking the images from your memory.

A few years ago, I had watched some YouTube videos of large Atlantic Salmon taking dead-drifted Bombers.  Watching these videos created some excitement within me and I soon found myself thinking about tying some Bombers and dead drifting them for steelhead.  A few size 6 natural colored Bombers quickly emerged from my vise and I anxiously awaited my next trip to the North Umpqua that August.

As I stood perched along one of the North Umpqua's famous pools, I recalled an article that I read in Amato's Flyfishing magazine in the early/mid 90's.  It was an article written by Bill McMillan about surface fishing.  At the time, Bill was conducting seminars on surface methods for Little Creek outfitters on the Grande Ronde.  In that article, I remembered Bill referring to using a turle knot "in reverse orientation" on his Moose Turd bomber so that it would wake without the use of a riffle hitch.  Tying the turle knot in reverse caused the leader to come out of the bottom of the down eyed hook, giving the effect of using a riffle hitch, but without the wear and tear that a riffle hitch can cause to a fly.

Back to that North Umpqua pool: I tied my Bomber to my tippet with that "reverse turle" knot, figuring that I would dead drift the fly in areas that suited that method and then I would allow the fly to come around and wake on the bottom half of the presentation when the fly came tight on the swing.  I managed to raise a 5 to 6lb steelhead on the dead drift in an area that didn't lend well to the swung presentation and I also found that the bomber waked fairly well with the "reverse turle" knot when it came tight on the swing.

I shared my experience of utilizing the "reverse turle" knot with my friend Adrian Cortes and I also began using the knot on a foam lipped fly I often use.  I have come to realize that this knot enhances the waking ability of any fly that is tied on a down eyed hook.  I most often tie my surface flies on down eyed Mustad signature hooks (R73, S80, S82) so I utilize this knot almost exclusively.  I find that my waking flies stay on the surface more consistently with this knot compared to when I used to employ a loop knot.  Adrian has been tying his Lemire Greaseliners with Gamakatsu light wire down-eyed hooks to take advantage of the superior waking characteristics afforded by this knot.

Shortly after I began utilizing this knot, I was in a conversation with steelhead guide Marty Sheppard, (he and wife Mia are current owners of Little Creek Outiffiters).  In regards to what I was calling the "reverse turle" knot, Marty recalled the origins of the knot and mentioned that it was named after a fellow named Mike Garoutte of Elgin, OR.  Mr. Garoutte is a skilled, long-time angler on the Grand Ronde.  My recent correspondence with Bill McMillan confirmed what Marty conveyed to me.  Bill had fished with Mr. Garoutte during the timeframe in the early/mid 90's when he was conducting dry line seminars for Little Creek Outfitters.  Bill mentioned that he was simply amazed when Mr. Garoutte showed him this simple alternative to using a riffle hitch, an alternative that worked even better due to consistently getting the proper angle coming off the bottom of the fly and with the further advantage of not causing damage to the fly.  Bill began referring to the knot as the Garoutte Hitch, while noting that Mr. Garoutte was a very modest fellow who may have preferred to keep a low profile.
Begin by inserting your leader into the downeyed hook from the bottom.

Form the "slip loop" just as with the normal Turle knot.

Draw the knot tight slowly, ensuring that the loop doesn't get fouled and seats properly around the eye of the hook.

Finished Garoutte hitch showing perfect downward orientation of the leader from the fly.

Anglers who are new to surface fishing for steelhead sometimes ask me what type of leaders I use.  While many folks currently like to utilize floating poly leaders, I still prefer hand tied mono.  The floating poly leaders add mass to the line system and I find that they can slow the turn over of the head or line. I feel that mono leaders provide a brisk, positive turnover with the wind-resistant flies that I fish with, along with my chosen line systems.  I construct my leaders out of  old school Maxima Chameleon and Ultra Green.  Maxima has worked well for generations of anglers before me and up to the present day - no need to change a good thing.  Maxima possesses the right amount of stiffness and durability that make it ideally suited to steelhead fly fishing.

I tie my leaders with a perfection loop on the butt section then taper down with blood knots ending with another loop on the end of the mid section of the leader.  This allows me to loop on tippet sections and also allows me to later replace them as they wear and are cut back from fly changes.  For lines and heads from about 290grains and heavier, I tend to tie butt/mid sections tapering from 40# to #15.  For lines and heads that are lighter than 290grains, typically on single hand rods, I will tie up the butt/mid sections tapering from 30# to 15#.  These are rough guidelines and each individual may have their own preferences.  I have found either Maxima Chameleon or Ultra Green works well for the butt/mid sections of my leaders, but for the tippet sections, I always go with Ultra Green.  In summer and fall, I am typically using 8# Maxima Ultra Green for tippet.

Examples of leader formulas that I use -

14' leader for Switch and two handed rods:
Butt/mid section:
40# - 4'
30# - 3'
25# - 1'
20# - 1'
15' - 1'
(Loops on both ends)
Tippet section (Ultra Green):
(loop) 12# - 6"
10# - 6"
8# - 3'

12' leader for light switch or single hand rods:
Butt/mid section
30#  - 4'
25# - 3'
20# - 1'
15# - 6"
(loops on both ends)
Tippet Section
(loop) 12# - 6"
10# - 6"
8# - 30"

The formulas above are roughly based on the 60/20/20 ratio of butt/mid/tippet.  My formulas are not an exact science and they can be tweaked and altered to suit an individual's style.  If one desires a longer or shorter leader, all that needs done is to change section lengths to suit one's preferences.  The butt/mid sections tend to last multiple seasons for me unless I damage them on rocks or have to pull them through bankside foliage on too many bad casts.  The tippet sections can be tied to suit current conditions and are easily replaced as they wear and get cut back from multiple fly changes as you are trying to get that player to come back.

I have come to accept that when fishing bulky surface flies, they often spin on the cast - even more so when using a riffle-hitch or Garoutte hitch.  I had accepted twisted leaders and running lines as the price I had to pay to fish the surface flies that I had confidence in.  I would periodically spin my rod in a direction counter to the twists in my line or I would cutoff my fly and strip out my head and running line to untwist in the flow of large runs.  These processes took up precious fishing time and I simply lived with having to go through these rituals so I could have some relief from the frustrations of fouled running lines and leaders.  A couple years ago, I found a solution that alleviated the hassle of twists in my line system to a good extent. While not for everyone, especially those with traditional tendencies, I have taken to using tiny high quality swivels - one in my tippet section (between the 10# and 12#) and I have been making my own "spey swivels" that utilize braided loops to place the swivel between my head and running lines.  I have found #10 SPRO brand swivels at my local Cabela's that work very well.  These spey swivels are constructed out of Rio braided loops drawn through the swivel at each end and pulled back into itself.  They provide a cheaper and less bulky alternative to the commercially available version.

Keep in mind that this setup my not be in compliance with fishing regulations if you frequent the North Umpqua river during the summer season as the swivel in the leader may be considered an additional "attachment" or "attractor".  I suppose the tiny swivel could be considered an attractor as on at least one occasion, I have had steelhead take a swipe at something in front of my fly - probably the swivel as it was seen erratically  moving as I twitched the fly.

In my time spent fishing surface methods for steelhead, I have used everything from a 9 foot 4 weight trout rod to my old Sage 9140 "browinie' (14 foot 9weight) two hander.  I tend to be an equipment junkie so I own way too many rods and reels to the point that I can have an anxiety attack just trying to pick a single rod and reel for a day's fishing.  I sometimes carry multiple rod/reel combos with me to the river and unless I am in a boat, this can add too much complexity to something that should be fun and relaxing.  Lugging multiple setups tends to hamper my mobility when I am bank bound, which is the case most of the time I get out.
32" surface rising buck that was subdued by my trusty Sage 9140.

Vintage Sage 9' 4wt RPL had no problems fighting this 31" hen (hatchery version, thus not kept wet) that was holding in a bathtub sized pocket water lie in low summer conditions.  The steelhead took a #6 McMillan Steelhead caddis (riffle hitched) hanging in the current.
In an overall sense, I tend to be very "blue collar" with my tackle purchases.  I don't own very many top name equipment items and the high end brand items that I do own tend to be very well used to the point of being barely recognizable as top drawer gear.  My rods run the gamut of old fiberglass single handers from a bygone era to a few well used Sages from the early/mid 90s, to a large array of entry level switch and single handers purchased over the past few years from a big box retailer (some were on sale for $59.95).  There are no current generation top grade rods in my collection that cost more than my fishing rig, a beat up 1995 Geo Tracker.

As to fly reels, I have completely gone to vintage click/pawl models since 2011.  Again, all were relatively inexpensive purchases, many off the big auction site.  I have several Hardys: Marquis models in various sizes, a 3 7/8" Perfect, and a beater St. John.  The remainder of my reel collection is made up of those made by JW Young, the ultimate poor man's clickers.

As to fly lines, I have used the Wulff Ambush for the vast majority of my surface fishing over the past several years.  The Ambush lines make single hand spey casting a pleasure and they work very well in tight quarters with switch rods.  I sometimes use traditional WF lines like the peach Cortland 444 or SA steelhead taper with my single handers, especially in situations when I have enough room to form larger D Loops.  I have also utilized Scandi heads such as Airflo Rages and Scandi compacts and the old RIO AFS on my switch rods and shorter two handers.  I like "longer" lines like the Rio Windcutter, Airflo Delta Spey, or Beulah Aerohead on my 13.5'+ two handers.

In general, I tend to choose setups that match the size of the water I will be fishing.  Small streams call for single hand rods or a light switch rod.  Medium sized water usually calls for switch rods or shorter two handers.  Big water has me getting my biggest two handers out.  This logic of matching your setups to the size of the water works well most of the time.  However there are always exceptions, like those runs on big rivers with the fishy seam running close to shore that call for shorter casts that the big rod is overkill for, or those broad runs in smaller streams where the small rods just never have enough reach.  It's these exceptions that tempt me to burden myself with lugging an extra setup or two with me, but in the end, I usually find the benefits of keeping things simple and being mobile outweighs trying to impersonate a tournament bass fisherman with a full arsenal of rod/reel combos.

Another exception to the "matching your setup to the water logic" is when your mood just dictates what you feel like fishing with, regardless of where you are fishing.  This "mood logic" has often manifested when I have purchased a new toy.  An example is when I was just getting into the inexpensive Cabela's TLr switch rods:  I just loved that 11 foot 6 weight with a 350grain Ambush head, paired with my Hardy 3 7/8 Perfect.  I was having so much fun with that particular setup at the time, that I wanted to fish it everywhere, no matter what the size of the rivers I fished seemed to dictate.  In fact, I took that setup with me to a large BC river that fall and I got into most of my surface steelhead using it there.  I made the compact setup work on big water by fishing seams that I could reach.  There have been other times where I have made small rods work in big water, just because I felt like it, so sometimes it's best to just fish with what your mood leads.
My 11' 6wt Cabela's TLr did the job with this 33" surface grabbing  BC buck.

I have had some fellow anglers tell me that they only fish surface flies under "ideal" conditions such as in smooth tailouts in the shade of mornings and evenings.  While success with surface flies can certainly come in such places during low light periods, there are many other places and times where surface flies can produce.  I have fished with friends who are less obsessed with surface fishing than me, who have asked if I would fish on the surface on various pieces of water we came upon throughout a given day.  What I realized is that there is relatively little water that I would NOT fish a surface fly through!  Water types I tend to avoid include deep pools with little to no current, heavy rapids, and very shallow riffles with no cover or depth that could hold a steelhead.  I tend to look for water with a moderate current speed with some surface texture and some structure.  Having the sun on the water is not necessarily a deal breaker either, especially on water with a broken surface, so don't give up fishing on top just because conditions have brightened up.

One of my favorite places to fish surface flies is at the very top or head of  runs.  As a rapid or riffle begins to spread out to form a run, a narrow seam begins to form up high.  I have come to nickname that uppermost corner the "armpit" of the run.  I often position myself in the bottom of the rapid above the run so I can begin fishing short casts that swing into the armpit.  I have had steelhead sitting in water so shallow in that upper section that it seemed these steelhead  have had to turn sideways to come after my waker!
Fishing the "armpit"/upper corner of a run.  Photo by Todd Hirano
As I continue through a typical run, I always concentrate on the seam between the main current and the cushion of softer water on the inside.  The fishy seam generally widens while progressing down stream.  Sometimes the softer water on the inside of the main current can form a wide flat that can hold steelhead in multiple locations, especially if there are boulders that break up the flow.
Fishing the seam along the main flow.  Photo by Todd Hiirano

I generally cast into the main current and allow the fly to swing into the soft water on the near side.  I tend to make my casts as broadside or square to the current as possible, depending on current speed.  This results in swings that covers the most water and adds some speed to the fly.  In certain runs, especially on small water (as pictured above), I may even cast completely over the main flow and to the far side.  This causes the fly to briefly pause, then come speeding downstream until it begins coming across in the lower part of the swing.  I often find myself drawn to faster swings because they tend to elicit the most violent and aggressive rises from steelhead.  The hair-trigger response of a steelhead launching itself across the surface to crush your fly tends to leave a lasting impression!

On some pieces of water, the productive zone will continue until it culminates in a well defined tailout.  I tend to keep fishing deep into the tailout as steelhead sometimes hold in slots in the very bottom which is often assumed to be to shallow.  Some runs just continue to widen and slow until a big slow pool is formed.  In that case, I will fish down until the water gets too deep and slows to the point where the main current is no longer discernable.
Lower section of a run where the water deepens on the far side as noted by the darker green color and with boulders providing cover, this looks fishy to me.  Todd Hirano photo.
As noted above, I also fish surface flies in pocket water, especially in low water conditions on small rivers.  These types of places include the cushion in front of boulders, the convergence behind boulders, depressions that slow the current in heavy water, and the heads of miniature pools.  The technique of simply positioning yourself above suspected holding water and hanging your waking fly in the zone on a short line is often the only way to fish these compressed lies.  Allow your fly to weave with the current for several seconds in each spot and brace yourself for lightning fast takes at close range.
The whitewater convergence behind a boulder can sometimes hold small water steelhead.  Todd Hirano photo.

The head of a miniature pool where steelhead could be tucked right in the white water.  Todd Hirano photo.
So there you have it, a few tips and confessions from an everyday steelheader with an extreme passion for surface steelhead.  I hope that these simple suggestions can help those who are new to  chasing after the surface steelhead dream.  The rewards can be hard to come by and the catch 22 is that it is difficult to develop confidence in a method where feedback from steelhead is typically infrequent.  I suggest putting your subsurface gear away (at least temporarily) and fully commit to fishing the surface fly, especially during late summer and fall.  You may be pleasantly surprised.  You may even be lucky enough to find yourself on a "loaded run" where multiple surface friendly steelhead repeatedly  rise to your flies, giving you a glimpse of heaven.  Once you experience those initial surface steelhead encounters, your life may never be the same.  Those visions of surface steelhead attacks have a way of intruding in your everyday life for good.  Beware: friends and family may no longer recognize you when the surface steelhead affliction takes hold.