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Thursday, May 21, 2020

Confessions Of A Gear Junkie: Going Through Phases

Ever find yourself having a hard time trying to decide which set up (rod, reel, line) to choose when you are heading out on your next surface steelhead excursion?  As a dry fly steelhead fanatic who also happens to be a pack rat, I have come to be a 56 year old equipment hoarder with self-imposed, yet unnecessary complexities in choosing what to wear for the day as to equipment.  This is akin to women who have an amassing of clothes and shoes who just can't decide what to put on each day.   Sometimes I envy the inherent simplicity of being a newbie to this sport.  When I first started out in fly fishing I had a single fly rod, reel, and line so the choice was easy.  Similarly, when I got into two handed casting in 1995, I had just my single Sage 9140 brownie, Orvis Battenkill reel, and DT line.

Of course as time went on and my experience and passion grew, I realized that I needed new setups for certain situations.  For instance besides a general purpose 9' 5wt for trout, I also needed a 4wt for dry fly fishing, lighter/shorter rods for small streams, a 9' 7wt for streamer fishing, etc.  I actually started off with a 9 1/2 foot 8wt Sage RPL for steelhead in the early 90's before getting into the two handed game in 1995.  My two hand rod collection continued to grow with a Sage 8136 IIIe being added to the mix in 2004 and then the trend towards shorter/lighter two handers resulted in the 6126 Echo Classic and 6126 Decho being added to the fold around 2008.

I went crazy for old single hand Fenwick glass rods around 2011 to 2012.  I was combing through ebay constantly as I built up my collection of these classic rods.  I had great fun returning to single hand casting.  The use of Wulff Ambush lines made single hand spey casting on these glass rods an absolute blast.  These setups worked quite well both for summer and winter steelhead.  It was fun to be doing something that no one else I knew  was doing (I do seem to enjoy being different).  It was also during this timeframe when I fully converted over to vintage click/pawl reels.  Hardy's and JW Youngs became the mainstays of my reel collection.
Vintage Fenwick at work

In 2014, I discovered the inexpensive, yet great performing Cabela's TLR line of rods.  I stared off with the 11' 6wt switch and was so impressed with the performance of this bargain priced rod (purchased on sale for $79.95), that I continued watching for sales as I continued purchasing the majority of the other TLR rods in the line up.  My collection ended up including everything from the 11'6" 8wt down to the 9' 4wt. There were times when these rods were on sale for as low as $59.95.  I felt badly for purchasing all these big box rods rather than saving for a single high end rod by our well known custom builders, but I was having too much cheap fun.

By late 2018, Cabela's came out with trout speys and when the 11' 3wt Vector went on sale at my local Cabela's, I promptly picked one up.  Of course I routinely use "trout tackle" for steelhead so this rod promptly went to work after dry fly winter steelhead.  I caught heat on social media for proclaiming that I intended to fish for winter steelhead with this light rod, but I reminded folk that light gear can be used for steelhead as long as appropriate steelhead tippet is being used and the steelhead is fought aggressively using a lot of manual drag on the reel and a low rod position, using the power of the lower section of the rod.  I proceeded to raise, hook, and land a bright, 8/9lb winter dry fly steelhead on December 30, 2018 using the whispy rod - elapsed fight time: 5-7 minutes.

Dry Fly Winter steelhead on 11'3wt 

The ll'4wt Cabela's Vector went on sale in March 2019 and it was promptly purchased as well.  I was having a lot of fun fishing with both of these trout speys so of course, I continued fishing with them through the remainder of the summer/fall season.  Summer steelhead up to 12/13lbs (on the 11' 3wt) were raised, hooked, and landed with these rods with no problems at all.  I found OPST commando heads with 10' floating steelhead tips to work very well with these light rods.

Dry fly steelhead on 11' 4wt Vector 

As the above paragraphs illustrate, I have quite the amassing of equipment!  As I tend to keep accumulating equipment, my collection just continues to grow.  I envy friends who do well with the self discipline to sell some equipment if they are buying new equipment.  I don't' often sell stuff because I worry about the regret I may have if I let go of something I should have held on to.  Every now and then I hear of those folks with the better self discipline, who have regretted selling a rod or reel that they wished they had kept.  Those situations just confirm why I need to continue my sick hoarding behavior.

So, what's  the problem with all these rods, reels, and lines coming out of my ears?  Well, sometimes I nearly have an anxiety attack trying to decide which rod/reel/line combo I should use for a coming day's fishing.  I have worries about equipment going too long without being used, thus being wasted; and I also seem to attach human emotions to equipment - worrying about stuff feeling neglected.  All irrational stuff:  I probably need a good therapist, maybe even meds.

What I do find happening is that I seem to go through phases.  If there is certain setups that I am just having fun with, I keep using them.  Like when glass rods were the flavor of the day for a couple years, or when those TLRs were the thing because I couldn't believe I was having so much fun for so little money.  Or the trout spey phase where I was once again proving to myself that I could make trout class gear work for steelhead.

With the low water conditions of last fall, I went back into Long Rod/Long Line mode since the broad stretches that abound in these conditions allow for big D loops with lots of space for the bigger setups to shine.  Among my other longer rods, my 1st two hander, the 24 year old Sage 9140 brownie, has come back out from oblivion to reenter the rotation of gear I have been using.  The vintage rod still casts a Delta or Beulah Aerohead like butter and is still such a pleasure to fish with.

I just love having a wide array of gear, even despite the space it all takes up.  I have been able to manage my anxiety over which setup to use by defaulting to what my mood leads me to, secondary to what river conditions dictate.

Due to the sheer amount of time that I spend on the water, I am able to  transition pretty readily between setups that are radically different from each other.   On a fall trip to a desert river I alternated between my 11' 3wt with a short head and my 15' 10/11wt with a long line.  At other times,  I may fish a single hand rod one day, then a switch rod the next,  then a long rod with longer line after that.

It is generally good advice for beginners to become proficient with a given set up and casting style before moving onto another setup and casting style.   I have found it very useful to have learned to cast various rod/reel/line combinations over the years as it adds to my fun and versatility with my fishing.  Spending lots of time fishing and casting keeps me somewhat in the groove where I can adjust to using a single hand rod one day, then going to one of my longer rods with a longer line the next or anything in between.  It is a true blessing that life (and my wife) allows me to maintain a regular diet of river time.

In July of 2019, an unbelievable deal literally fell into my lap. I was in the market for new waders as my frequent forays to the river was wearing my bullet proof Simms G3s to shreds.  My birthday was coming up and my dear Wendi informed that she would gift me with new waders to celebrate my 56 years on earth.  I had just submitted my special order form to Simms for new custom made G3s, when I received a message from a friend who was wanting to unload a new in box set of Simms G4s, a  like new Winston 7129 BIIITH, and a gently used Sage 6129 VXP, all for less than what my replacement G3s were going to cost.  I quickly canceled my order with Simms and promptly went over to my friend's home to take delivery of my new treasures.

The G4s fit perfectly and were brand new as advertised.   I wasn't in the market for more rods but since I had two more in hand,  I had to at least test cast them.  I took the Winston out for a quick test drive and instantly became enamored with the unlikely acquisition of such high end gear.  I could not help but find humor in the irony that the high end stick I was holding was worth more than the combined value of the dozen or so bargain rods I had purchased over the past several years!

The Winston cast effortlessly and beautifully.  It has a buttery smooth action and lots of reserve power.  It's as if it was telling me, "we can take it easy, or we can kick butt if you feel like it".  My friend told me the rod has mojo as he got a winter steelhead on the North Umpqua the first time he used it.  I  suppose he was right about the mojo as I got a dry fly steelhead within an hour of taking possession of the rod.

Breaking in my first Winston 

In February 2020, I ended up with another Winston when my good friend Tony Torrence gifted me with his 13'3" BIIX 7/8wt as a token of friendship. I was in awe of this generous gift from my dear friend and I could not believe that I was in possession of another high end rod in a short time.

Of course,  this Winston was taken out the very next time I was on the river. I was totally blown away by the way this rod cast and came away feeling like the 13'3" BIIx was probably the sweetest two hander I'd ever cast.

About a month later,  I happened to notice that a Winston 14' 8/9wt BIIX was on sale on Speypages classifieds for a reasonable price.  With how sweet the 13'3" BIIX is, I was betting on the 14'er being similarly appealing.   Well, I didn't quite have enough mad money on hand so I hurriedly tied up more of my zany surface flies and put them up for sale.   Thankfully,  there are people who are actually willing to pay for my crazy ties and I had enough funds to purchase the rod in a short time.

The immediate field testing of the 14' BIIx confirmed my bets on it being a great rod.  So clearly,  I have re-entered a long(er) rod phase.  With my homewater being on the medium/large scale, the longer rods actually fit in well and allow me to cover more water.

To take the irony of a cheapskate owning three Winstons within 8 months even further,  I continued on an impulsive buying spree.  I continued in a frenzy of tying and selling more of my Steelhead dry flies (blame the pandemic and lock down insanity).   Over the course of the next month or so, I added more toys to my collection: 
- 3 3/4 prewar Perfect (a very nice vintage reel)
- English made dark faced Hardy Salmon 2 in pristine condition
- Hardy made Scientific Anglers System 11 (a unique reel, 4 inch diameter,  falling between the Salmon 1 and Salmon 2)
- used 8/9, 52', 575gr Beulah Aerohead line.
Prewar 3 3/4" Perfect. The long foot calls for electrical tape.

Signs of maddness

Unique 4"  Hardy made SA System  11

OK, I think I'm good with equipment.....for now.

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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