Thursday, August 4, 2016

Last Cast

Waiting for an evening rise.

Got out for an evening session after work with low expectations due to the summer heat we are experiencing.  Afternoon/evening water temps have been getting into the high 60's - not the best conditions for bringing hatchery steelhead to the surface on my local ditch, but my motto is "the best time to fish is when you can".  It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

Upon arriving at the river, I got out of the steelhead taxi to suit up and realized that I left my waders at home...  I then figured maybe today was the day to wet wade, then I remembered that my fishing license was in my waders.  I could have chanced it and fished anyway, but just my luck that OSP would decide that today would be a good day to check licenses on random Asians.

I drove back to the house and grabbed my waders and was back at the river in about 20 minutes - nice to have a homewater so close by where there is a chance to get steelhead to come to the surface.

I was armed with a couple new items to test out;  a brand new Cabela's TLr 10' 7wt (on sale for $59.95!  A gift from my dear wife, "just because") and my latest gold wang modeled after my friend Rick Fielder's skater.  Rick showed me the appeal of gold this past weekend when he hooked into a nice buck and also had another steelhead clamp down hard enough on the fly on the grab to smash in the gap of the hook and bend the shank sideways as well.
Newest toy from Cabela's - $59.95 of pure joy...

Rick Fielder's gold skater, note the bomber hook that got the gap smashed in by Mr. Steel
My version of gold

Sun was still on the water and I was on river right, so I walked to some new water that I had never fished before.  As I waded into this little run, I was intrigued by the structure and depth of the water.  It was also nice to be in shade so I could stay cool in the heat, maybe if I felt good, the steelhead felt good in there too.

As I got about halfway down this new found run, I noted some bottom structure causing two breaks in the current with a sandwich of calmer water between them.  My single hander and Ambush line were the perfect medicine in these tight quarters.  I cast just past the mid stream break and as the flashy gold skater came through the chop, the broadside olive back of a steelhead suddenly appeared as it slashed at the fly.  I kept twitching and felt nothing so I let the fly settle to the dangle.

I tried a tiny #10 yellow stimuwaker on the comeback - zip, then a black bodied McMillan Steelhead Caddis-riffle hitched - 0, then a #2 Yogi - nada, then a midnight special - nope.  Back to the gold wang - still got a goose egg so I just continued down through the run and drew a blank.  I was still delighted to have discovered new water in my backyard, more options for future trips, and a nice little spot that seems to rarely get fished.

I also drew a blank in the next couple runs but I enjoyed the rhythm and feel of my new rod and I was also encouraged by raising a steelhead on the gold wang.

I had about 20 minutes of daylight left when I hit the last run for the evening.  By this time, an annoying breeze kicked up that was blowing diagonally towards me from the side.  This made my casts collapse, even as I used the short fighting butt to turn the single hand rod into a mini switch to help with cack handed single speys.

I fished over sections of the run that held promise in the past, but no one answered doors when I knocked.  As I neared the bottom of this run, my hopes just about ran out with the annoying side wind and low light level that basically left me fishing blind.  Not even hardy twitches on the waker helped me locate it.

I decided to make the obligatory last cast.  There was a brief lull in the breeze and my line went out somewhat straight into the darkness.  I blindly twitched my fly as I would be preparing to reel up to get home.  Near the end of the swing, I heard an explosion and my line instantly came tight with fly line peeling out of my vintage SA System 8 (Hardy Marquis).  As I idly joked with myself "I think that's a steelhead", a 10-12lb form leaped from the water and landed with a splash.

As I reeled to recover line, I continued to feel weight, but my line stopped.  I pulled back and no give or pull from the steelhead.  I played out some slack and still nothing.  I figured my steelhead must be tangled in a rock or log or got off and left my line caught up on some unseen object.

It turned out to be the latter.  I kept jerking on my line and it came free with my fly still attached.  There was some slight fraying on the tippet, but no other damage aside from my hook needing to be sharpened.  I reeled up and headed for the car with a great sense of fulfillment with the surface encounters I was blessed with under less than ideal conditions.  I glanced at my watch and was reminded that the long days of summer are slowly starting to get shorter as it was nearly full dark by 8:45pm.  The glory days of fall are around the corner, yet at my age, I don't want to rush time and am reminded to treasure the present.

I suppose I am a bit superstitious and assume certain pieces of equipment have more mojo than others.  Raising two steelhead and solidly hooking one of them while using my brand new Cabela's TLr single hander for the first time does draw that tendency in me to think that some inanimate object can have some magical power to lead me to steelhead.  I even thought of the reel I was using and realized that for some reason, while using it, I have raised/hooked/landed a disproportinate number of steelhead relative to some of my other reels, and I don't even use it constantly - mojo??  I guess a guy can tend to think in weird directions when steelhead encountered are few and far between.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Waker Of The Month - August 2016 - The Midnight Special

The Midnight Special is my latest color blend with my common pattern platform
I kept looking at the black cactus chenielle at my local shop and finally decided to buy some and create yet another color blend for my crazy fly.  I thought that including some purple would set off the black cactus chenielle nicely.

Frank Amato's Night Dancer came to mind so I ended up including purple cow elk wings, red Krystal flash in the tail and black Krystal flash behind the wing.  I couldn't resist adding a green butt as well.

This color blend brought steelhead to the top in short order.  I raised a local steelhead to the top the day after I tied my first rendition of the Midnight Special and I just raised several more this weekend on a more famous river to the south.

Unfortunately, the steelhead I have encountered have continued to be Teflon mouthed one timers.  Luckily, I am happy enough whenever I can bring steelhead to the surface,  regardless of whether I hook them.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Teflon Surface Steelhead

Today, July 3, was an easy going day where I slept in, tied some flies (Celestial Skaters) and helped with just a bit of housework before getting out for a pleasant afternoon/evening of fishing from the bank on my local flow.  I got on the water by about 4pm and my game plan was to stay on river left to stay in the shade until evening approached when I could switch over to runs on river right.

I started off at a favorite run and started at the very top and worked all the way down until this big glide forms a tailout above an island.  As I got lower in this run, the afternoon shadows lengthened across the river and the old anticipation came back as I recalled years past when I consistently found steelhead scattered about this flat.  In this kind of water, my waker is plainly visible, and likewise the rise of a steelhead is unmistakable, with the smooth flow breaking into mayhem when the bulge of water comes and the fly disappears in the next instant.  Those old images replayed in my mind, but by the time I got to the bottom of the run, reality set in that I have not risen a steelhead in this water for the past several years.  I have wondered why this stretch of perfect skating water could provide incredible surface fishing one year and then never again since.

I got in my car and drove across the river to fish another favorite run.  The low angle of the late evening sun was now shining directly towards me as it started set behind the tree tops on the opposite bank.  I held up my hand to block the glare from my eyes so I could track the silhouette of my fly's namesake "indicater post" during it's cross stream path on each swing.

I would occasionally lose visual contact with my fly as it tracked through choppy currents in the low light conditions and blinding glare, but I managed to monitor the general location of my waker as I caught occasional glimpses of it's vertically mounted anatomical feature.

I fished through the run anticipating surface grabs in all the likely holds, but no players made an appearance during this session.   I wondered if my local hatchery subjects would begin occupying their typical stations in multiple places in this run as the season progresses.

As dusk approached,  I considered calling it a day but I impulsively decided to hit one last spot to fish into evening's darkness.  At the top of this short run, I have leaning branches at my left shoulder so I began with miniature double speys.  As I worked my Scandi head plus 7 strips of running line out, I began stepping down.  The sun was behind the treeline on the opposite bank by now and I was enjoying the soft glow of evening.  In the soft light, my waker silhouetted nicely against the mirrored surface of this quiet glide.

As I worked  my way down, I was full of anticipation as I made swings along a beautiful seam that led to a soft cushion above the tailout.

As I negotiated around a leaning branch,  my casts began reaching the soft cushion.
  As I watched my fly coming into the fishy zone, I realized that I had chosen an ideal run to fish at last light. I just felt like I was in the right place at the right time.

My senses were full of expectation as I made my last few swings of the day.  I watched my fly coming through the final quarter of a swing and just knew that if a steelhead was going to come up to eat my freshly tied Celestial Skater, this is where it would happen. .

Suddenly, the rise came like a miniature parting of the Red Sea as my waker disappeared into the abyss of dark water.  I simply waited and felt solid weight pulling in the next instant.  My vintage Hardy began playing out line with that classic English growl.  My heart probably skipped a few beats as I began sweeping my rod towards the bank.  Just as I felt the power of the steelhead, the hook pulled out.

I stood there dumbfounded as I yelled out "dang" to no one in particular.   I made my last few casts by the time dusk set in and concluded that the steelhead I briefly encountered felt the hook and didn't have any company.

Some rises just stand out in my memory and the encounter just described is one that will replay in the gray matter for a while.  It is moments like this that keeps me in hot pursuit of the next rise.

This summer has been a strange season thus far.  That is, strange in a good way.  Since getting my first surface steelhead for the season on June 23, I have been raising steelhead to the surface on most of my outings since then.  This is the first year  that I have encountered my local hatchery brats coming to the top so consistently this "early" in the season.

Unfortunately, the steelhead I have risen have been one timers - one rise and no more comebacks.  Out of these risers, I had one that started to pull line from my Perfect, then got off and on a couple others, I felt a brief pull after the rise with no hook up.  It's as if these steelhead are made of Teflon because I can't get them to stick!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Skater Of The Month - July 2016 - Celestial Skater

Celestial Skater

It seems that no fly selection is complete without using a black/blue color combo.  I began tying my skater using the black/blue color scheme in September 2014 and not surprisingly, the fly found almost immediate success.  My black and blue fly went with me to our trip to BC in Fall 2014 and BC steelhead promptly gave the fly their nod of approval.  Upon returning to Oregon after that trip, my local steelhead continued to show their approval of the black/blue "Little Wang" as well.

I posted pictures of the fly on Speypages and got supportive responses from members.  I ended up sending a few of my flies to Mike Papais (GR8LAKES FLYER) to reciprocate his generosity in sending me a fine selection of hairwing wets, of course, tied in hand.  Upon receiving my gift of flies which I typically ship in an Altoid tin, Mike's daughter Celeste was fascinated upon seeing the look of my strange flies and said to her father:  "Hey daddy , those look like they're wearing life jackets , the salmon will think they're helpless and you'll get one for sure " .......  Because of Celeste's child-like faith in my fly, with Celeste's permission, I decided to name my fly after her.

This is just further validation that black and blue is just a magical color combo on steelhead for some reason.  The composition of this pattern continually lends itself to endless color combos  I have even been seeing postings of folks tying their own versions of this fly and I am just amazed and honored by the renditions I have seen of my humble fly.

My local steelhead continue to be looking up with fish raised on almost every trip lately.  This has been the earliest that I have encountered consistent surface responses by my local anadromous quarry.  However, these steelhead are currrently in "one timer" mode - they come up once and either they are hooked on that rise or if they miss, they won't come back.  Will be interesting to see when these steelhead start getting into comeback or player mode - I just love the excitement of steelhead coming back to the surface multiple times and giving me extra chances at a hookup.  My nerves are totally on edge and my senses on high alert during such exciting times.

Wishing you all an blessed skater season!


PS:  I was reminded on one of the fly fishing forms that my fly is actually a waker, not a skater.  Wakers push a v-wake in the surface and skaters are typically hackled flies that ride on the surface by hackle tips making a more subtle disturbance.  Bill McMillan discussed these differences in Dry Line Steelhead as well.  As our steelhead fly fishing culture has evolved, the two terms have been used interchangeably and I am guilty of deferring to using the terms skater and skating when my fly is actually a waker, that wakes.  The semantics are not a huge deal to me, but I also want to respect history and tradition in our sport.

Top view

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The First

Jim Jones fishing a promising run.  Todd Hirano photo
My in laws Jim and Barb Jones were in town visiting from Idaho, so plans were made for me to take a day off from work and take Jim out on the Willamette on thursday June 23, 2016.  The weather was perfect with overcast conditions and chances of a shower forecast for  the day.  Jim had asked about how the fishing has been and I told him that steelhead were being caught on gear and wet flies on tips, but no steelhead taken on top yet.  By common logic, I suggested that if Jim actually wanted a chance to catch a steelhead, he could fish wets on a dry line, but then Jim tells me "I only brought your flies with me" - I tend to be a bad influence on people...

We a had a full day to float so I planned to put us into a stretch of river that would give up plenty of options of runs to fish.  I was honored that Jim trusted floating down the river with a guy who recently sunk a drift boat, but Jim is the fellow who taught me to row back in 1994, so I owed him a day off from rowing.  I lost my front seat compartment in my boating accident so we made do with using a lawn chair for the front seat.  This actually works out pretty well since it gives more space to maneuver around when getting in and out of the boat.

We put in just after dawn and found that we were the third boat to go down the river, judging by the two other boat trailers parked at the put in.  We got aced out of the first two runs that I would normally stop to fish, but no big deal since we had a lot more water ahead of us.  We continued on through the normal channel that I take when coming to the first split in the river.  A short time later, we came to the dreaded area where I sunk my boat in late May.  Even with the lower water level, I still pulled my boat over alongside the island and walked it through by the anchor rope as the root wads still present a dangerous obstacle.

As we floated below the island we scanned the water for objects that I lost during by boating accident, including the aforementioned seat compartment and back pack containing two JW Young fly reels and several Rage heads.  No luck in finding any of my stuff, so we continued on to the next classic swing run about a half mile downstream.

As we came around a bend, I thankfully saw that the big run that I like was open.  I pulled in and we got to fishing.  Jim started below the boat and I walked to the very top of the run to start at the top corner or water I call the "armpit" of the run.  I was fishing my original 6126 Echo Classic with a old school Rio AFS head and when I have the head and a few strips of running line out, I am in the zone were a nice soft cushion of water forms on the inside of the main flow.  I watched my foam fly swing into the soft shallow water where multiple wakes form, indicating basketball sized rocks scattered about.  As my waker comes near the dangle, a quick, but substantial rise comes to my fly and I feel a quick pull on my line.  My waker disappears from sight for a few seconds and then bobs back to the surface.

I am confident that this encounter was with a steelhead and I was hopeful that my quarry did not feel the hook on the rise.  I made the same cast with no result, then I changed flies several times, ultimately going to a small wet and still no comeback.  I am thrilled with encountering my first surface steelhead rise for the season and am not surprised that my steelhead would not comeback after the one rise as this has been my typical experience with the early season steelhead on my homewater.

I continued down the run and when I was standing even with the boat, another steelhead came up with a splashy rise to my waker on a broadside swing.  I followed with the same comeback routine and got the same result:  no comeback steelhead.

We stopped at a few more minor runs before coming to the midpoint of our float.  I wanted to time things so we would have enough opportunity to take advantage of the prime water in the lower half of the float.  By about 11:30am, I wondered if we would have too much time on our hands to get through the runs in this lower section so on a whim, I decided to stop at a run formed by a little island.  I have not hooked any steelhead in this water for probably 5 years, but figured we could kill a bit of time at this "secondary" locale.

I took the top of the run again and Jim fished the mid section.  I opted to use my Fenwick 8' 7wt glass rod with a 7wt Ambush line to take advantage of fishing the short game at the armpit of this little run.  I got the Ambush head and a few strips of line worked out and watched by baby blue waker coming over the dropoff noted by a color change in the bottom.  As the fly came into the choppy flow on the inside of the dropoff, a quick, trouty rise came to the fly.  I didn't think much of it and made another cast.  In the same area, in only about a foot of water, a bigger rise came to the fly and my line instantly tightened and my little glass rod soon had a good bend in it.  This steelhead gave a stubborn, yet powerful fight, making short bursts, but mostly fought in close.

I kept steady pressure on the fish, using a low rod position and clamping down on the palming rim on my old Hardy Marquis.  When I got the steelhead close, I backed up on the island until I had my prize flopping on the small gravel bar.  Of course, I do this knowing these are hatchery steelhead and I would never drag a wild steelhead onto the bank.
In my happy place, single handed surface steelhead!  Jim Jones photo

Jim and I got a few photos and I took in the blessing of getting my first surface steelhead for the season.  This was a day when it paid off to be prepared with a cooler for chance of harvesting a steelhead.  After putting my fish in the cooler, I had Jim go through the top again, in case another active steelhead was around.  When Jim got down past where I parked the boat, he later told me that he raised a steelhead, but did the trout set and missed him.
Finally......... Jim Jones photo
True to form, my first day of encountering surface steelhead came during the third week of June.  If I'd listen to my own data and experience, I would only start fishing surface flies for my local steelhead in mid June, but the crazy voices in my head still have me fishing on top starting in May.

We continued through the float with much anticipation due to the surface activity we had been finding, but as luck would have it, no more steelhead came to our flies as we fished the remaining runs with a few light rain showers gracing us later in the afternoon.  The anticipation of the grab was satisfying enough and I was glad to have Jim with me on a day that steelhead were looking up!

Perfection.   Todd Hirano photo

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Waiting For the First

Early mornng on the Willamette with Lee Lashaway
 As the winter steelhead season came to a close in April, I’ve since been eagerly watching the steelhead counts over Willamette Falls to monitor how the summer steelhead season is shaping up.  So far so good!  Over 10, 000 steelhead have ascended the falls as of this writing.  Even divided among 4 rivers, the odds keep getting better, with  200 to 300+ summer steelhead coming over each day as the current pattern suggests.
We had a very poor showing of summer steelhead last year, with just shy of 4,000 summer steelhead over the falls for the entire season.  My theory is that the extreme heat we experienced last summer created a thermal block which made it impossible for typical numbers of summer steelhead to make it up to our rivers.  We had weeks of water temps over 70 degrees in my area.   I’ve wondered if some of last year’s run turned around and went back to the ocean due to the extreme heat and may be coming back with this year’s run, bigger and meaner!  It will be interesting to see if more 3 salt steelhead turn up in angler catches this year.
I began the summer season with a few casual bank fishing trips to local runs and found no signs of early steelhead around.  I did my first float trip on May 20, 2016 and took my new friend Rick Fielder out in my drift boat.  Unfortunately, I crashed my drift boat into a root wad and sunk my craft on that trip which is a whole other story to tell.  I was fortunately able to recover my boat a few days later and have taken several more floats down the Willamette since, managing to keep my drift boat floating and away from root wads.  This has been an unusually dangerous year for boaters with a total of at least a dozen boats being sunk between the Willamette and McKenzie.  Many trees have fallen into the river and familiar paths to take while floating the river are not too familiar any more.  This, coupled with the high, fast water has even thrown experienced boaters into bad situations.  Fortunately, I have only heard of gear being lost in these incidents thus far.  The take home:  wear life jackets, scout sketchy spots, line your boat through if necessary, and be sure to get info before launching of hazards to avoid.  Better yet, go through with an experienced boater first or a buddy with a sled to get a good read on the lay of the land.
The water levels have just recently been dropping into more typical summer levels which makes floating the river a little easier and opens up more water that swings a fly well.  I continue with my method of maintaining one “constant” among all the other variables that come with steelheading.  That is I pretty much fish a skating fly all the time.  I have experimented with other variables, such as floating different stretches of rivers and fishing several new runs.  I’ve also continually tinkered with my gear as I rotate through various set ups on each trip out.  One day I may have a single hander and a switch, other days I bust out the long rods and Delta Spey lines.  A guy knows when he has too much stuff when the decision of which setups to use on a trip causes some stress and anxiety.
As each summer season comes along, my goal is always to find out what it takes to get steelhead on the surface and to learn more about the conditions and other factors that promote the kind of steelhead behavior I like to see.  Since I moved to Oregon in 2009, I have noted that for whatever reason, I have not encountered my local hatchery summer runs really starting to come to the top until late mid/late June.  I have wondered if this has to do with numbers of steelhead in the system, water levels, salmon fishing crowds, etc??  Water temperatures are definitely in a favorable range by May, but I have yet to raise one of these local steelhead to the top in May.
My recent outings to the river have been pleasant excursions spent becoming reacquainted with my local homewaters.  The fluid grace of  the cast, the hypnotic rhythm of the swing and the intent focus on the cross stream path of my skating fly keep me filled with anticipation of encountering my inaugural surface steelhead of the season.  I will keep the faith as I continue waiting for the first…..
A day spent floating the river alone.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Skater of the Month - June 2016 - The Yellow Stimuwaker

Yellow Stimuwaker

This month's featured color blend on my skater design represents my early earliest version of what has become my standard pattern platform that several other color variations have been based on.  In 2010, my son in law Shaun Frasier began fly fishing for steelhead and of course my influence of fishing dry flies rubbed off on him.  He happened to see some size 6 Yellow Stimulators sitting in my trout boxes and asked if they would work for steelhead and I said "sure, why not, try them".  A short time later, Shaun found himself hooking and landing his first Willamette summer steelhead on the trout pattern.  Shaun would continue to find consistent success with the yellow stimulator and he explained that the steelhead would either take the fly on a short dead drift before going into the swing, during the swing, or on the dangle as the fly bobbed under (no hitch used).

I started experimenting by simply tying more yellow stimulators with a foam lip and those stayed on top and caught fish, but I didin't quite like the look so I kept tinkering.  The idea of a splayed wing version came about and with ideas from other patterns being melded in.  The whole deal with the indicator pieces of foam on top was my idea to enhance visibility of the pattern.  The pattern was borne out of functional necessity.

While I have come up with many more color combos on this fly, including some that look more like the neon signs in Vegas, the basic yellow stimuwaker still remains a favorite of mine.  With my more natural colored skaters, I tend to omit flash with the exception of the cactus chenielle thorax.

Life has been busy lately and I have several more blog posts in draft form that I need to complete.  The early summer steelhead season has begun on my local water with decent numbers of fish coming over the falls.  I crashed my drift boat into a root wad on my first float of the season a couple weeks ago and that story will be told.  I've also been tying flies to fill orders and I also plan to get a set sent off the FFC.

Wishing all my fishing friends a wonderful summer steelhead season.  The "skater season" has arrived!