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Friday, February 8, 2019

Dry Fly Winter Steelhead

With all the fun I was having experiencing surface steelhead into early December,  I just couldn't get myself to stop fishing on top, even as winter steelhead season was definitely upon us.

It was a chilly 38 degree morning on December 14, 2018, but my homewater was still running at summer levels so I stayed with my summer gear and summer approach with a surface fly.  I started at the top of a favorite run and I was pleasantly surprised with a sudden aggressive rise to my green-butt yellow stimuwaker.   The steelhead was instantly hooked and taking off on it's first run.  I was anticipating that I hooked into another late hatchery summer run, but this steelhead seemed to fight with more determination than I'd expect from a tired hatchery brat.  As the steelhead drew closer I was able to see that it was not a large fish but that it seemed quite bright.  I  was then determined to land this steelhead so I could get a better look.  I wondered if it might even be late running wild steelhead.

I fought the steelhead carefully,  but with steady pressure.   I was eventually able to lead the steelhead into a shallow bay.  It was a bright hatchery hen in perfect form.   I took a few photos and rejoiced in the blessing of getting a second dry fly steelhead in December.  Water temperature was 44 degrees.

I later emailed a picture of the steelhead and the story of it's capture to Bill McMillan. Bill responded that he felt like the steelhead looked like a winter run which must have strayed up my way possibly from the Clackamas. At the time of encountering this steelhead, there were 3 non-finclipped winter steelhead counted that ascended Willamette falls.  Catching this steelhead on a dry fly was definitely like finding a needle in a massive haystack!

On December 30, 2018 I found myself on river that is better known for it's hatchery winter steelhead run and parades of sidedrifters that pursue them.  This is not among the popular winter steelhead fly swinging rivers, but as an extra opportunity to fish coincided with my better half's plans, I went for it.

I drove into a little town along the river and managed to find some river access up and down from a popular boat launch.   The water above the boat launch looked and fished well, but it was no surprise that I didn't find a steelhead that was willing to rise in the 44 degree water that was also showing some color.

I made my way to the water downstream of the boat launch and noted it to be running fairly briskly as it came out of the rapids below a long pool.  As I surveyed this run, I saw that there were two rocky outcrops on my bank that broke up the current and formed soft cushions downstream as the current evened out.   I fished the first bay and felt that it swung my surface fly nicely,  providing a miniture flat where a winter steelhead would have a break from the main flow.

I felt a fair amount of confidence and anticipation,  even in this unlikely location and under atypical surface steelhead conditions. There was a high water event the week before and the river was on a steady drop, so at least I had that on my side.

That first piece of water below the rock break didn't produce any excitement  so I proceeded down to the second outcrop to swing through the soft water below.

I had just recently purchased a 11' 3wt Vector trout spey that was on sale from my local Cabelas and balaced with a 200gr OPST Commando head and 50gr 10' floating trout tip. I was enjoying casting my purple and black Bivisiwang with this light setup.

I remembered that there are folks who are concerned with overplaying and tiring steelhead out with such a light rod.   I knew that as long as I was staying with my typical 8# or 10# maxima for tippet,  that I would still be able to fight steelhead aggressively with a low rod position and clamping down on my click/pawl reel.

As I settled into fishing the flows below that second break, I noted that the rock structure extended diagonally underwater towards mid river.   This made for cover and soft cushions where steelhead could hold.  As I fished through this juicy stuff I was imagining what it would be like to put the light rod to the test with a legit winter steelhead pulling on the other end. 

I made a cast across the break formed by the diagonal rock structure and as my Bivisiwang came past the bump of current, I suddenly saw the boadside form of a steelhead launching itself across the surface as it took my fly.  My line drew tight and the fight was on.

My chance to confirm my ability to quickly land a winter steelhead on a light trout spey presented itself quicker than expected! I lowered the rod as I tightened into the steelhead with my little 3 5/8 Perfect.  The steelhead made several short but powerful runs, but I kept as much preesure as possible on the reel to slow and tire the steelhead without breaking the 10# maxima tippet.

Within about 5 minutes, I had the steelhead near shore in a convenient shallow area. I was able to get a few photos while noticing that the steelhead was still very strong and fresh.

Getting 3 steelhead on surface flies in December has never happened to me before.   This has given me enough encouragement to fish on the surface full time through the rest of winter and beyond!  I hope to have more dry fly winter steelhead stories to tell in the coming weeks.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

December Dry Fly Steelhead

Dry Fly Steelhead in December, a first!  Photo by Todd Hirano
I have so much fun with pursuing steelhead on the surface that I have a hard time putting my surface flies away when winter steelhead season comes.  I generally switch gears to subsurface fishing with big irons swung on a dry line by the time December 1 arrives.  This is also when many winter steelhead rivers open for the season.

By this time, I generally stop fishing my homewater as winter rainstorms typically keep the middle fork Willamette running high and dirty.  This year has been an unusual exception.   Dry conditions have allowed my local ditch to stay at summer levels, so of course,  I have continued to fish it with summer methods, despite the cooler water.   Obviously, I am not always in touch with reality, but it's too late to change.

On this day (Sunday,  December 9, 2018), I was able to negotiate an extra day of fishing since my normal friday fishing day was cut short.  To make appearances of being a decent husband,  I came home early from fishing on Friday to drag the brand new 500lb hot tub my wife purchased from the garage where it was delivered,  to the back of the house where project management wanted it.  I felt like I earned some extra credit.

I elected to hit a coastal drainage in pursuit of winter steelhead like normal people do.  I fished hard from about 8:30am til about 2pm.  I readily got back into the flow of swinging my favorite Winter's Hopes on a full floating Beaulah Aerohead cast with my vintage Sage 7136.  I had an enjoyable time fishing through the overcast and light drizzles through the day.

By early afternoon, I had not received any chrome feedback so my mind wandered towards heading back towards home and trying for one last dry fly steelhead for the year on my homewater.  At the end of the last run, my line drew tight and the lively pulse of a fish was felt. Just as I thought that my plans to head homeward was being joyfully interrupted, I realized that my fishy encounter was smaller in scale than hoped for.  I stripped in the scrappy fighter and found it to be a perfect male cutthroat of about 15 inches. A respectable prize, but when a guy's mind runs on one track, expectations can become distorted.

After releasing  the hardy cutthroat, my focus returned to getting in some time on familiar runs close to home.  I made the drive back through overcast and intermittent drizzles.  As I rounded the bend to a favorite run,  I noticed a drift boat with gear fisherman anchored low in the water that I typically fish through.   I wondered "what could those guys be thinking fishing here today?"  Then I thought of what those gear guys might be thinking about a fly angler fishing through there in hopes of getting a steelhead on a surface fly today..

I figured to start fishing at the top of the run in spite the unexpected company on this unlikely day.  As I set up and began walking to the top of the run, the gear guys pulled anchor and of course,  they also fished through the lower run that I intended to fish as well.  I guess solitude is not a guarantee, even when one might assume folks would be focussing their attention elsewhere so late in the season.

I fished through until my swings were overlapping the area where my gear chucking friends were achored.  With less than 30 minutes left before dark,  I left for the lower run, never mind that the gear boat just fished through.  I was fishing the my usual foam waker with a couple tweaks:  two forward facing indicator posts - one black and one white,  tied on a #4 gamakatsu octopus hook.

Purple and Black "Bivisiwang" tied on #4 Gamakatsu Octopus hook.  Photo by Todd Hirano
With the overcast and silvery/greyish glare on the water, the black post on my fly showed up best.  As I approached the bottom of the run, I could only occasionally pick out the black post of my fly in the rapidly dimming light.  With the cooler water,  I fished at a slower pace and strived for swings that lingered over likely water longer.  I was near the lower limit of the run when I saw and heard a splash in the distance and then I  felt a pull.  I realized that I raised a fish, but was it a steelhead and would it come back after feeling resistance?  The next cast went out cleanly and as I desperately sought to spot my fly in the near darkness, I faintly saw and heard another splashy rise in the same area.  I didn't feel any resistance as I continued to gently twitch my fly into the dangle.  I continued to be hopeful for the opportunity to confirm the identity of the rising fish and also that it might be the December dry fly steelhead I was after.

The third cast to this fish went out cleanly as my vintage Sage 7136 and Beaulah Aerohead did their job in executing a smooth double spey.  I twitched my waker through the swing and in the familiar location,  the same rise came, this time followed by solid resistance.   I instinctively swept the rod towards the bank and came tight to something that was definitely more substantial than the cutthroat I hooked a couple hours ago.  The creature fought doggedly and powerfully. It had enough authority to be immovable at times, but it eventually succumbed to steady side pressure and when it came closer to the bank, I was able to positively identify it as a steelhead. I was eventually able to pull the steelhead to the bank and contained it by kneeling down in the river to keep the steelhead between me and the bank as I took photos. (Water temp: 45.3 degrees)

What a unique surface steelhead season it has been!  I have gotten steelhead on the surface every month since May.  I am truly blessed by God beyond mere existence,  but blessed in exuberant abundance!

Bivisiwang cannot be seen as it is hooked in the tongue of this December Buck.  Tying my waker on the Gami Octopus hook proves to hold steelhead solidly.  Todd Hirano photo.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Best Laid Plans

A Peaceful Place.  Photo by Todd Hirano

Sometimes the best laid plans take unexpected turns.  After recently surviving a week in Disneyworld,  I was anxious to get back into the swing of things. As the weekend neared, another roadtrip was schemed.  Plans included meeting up with a new friend made through social media (Surface Steelhead tends to bring fanatics together).  This kind fellow recently discovered the thrills of surface steelhead and he was offering to show me around his homewater, a difficult offer to refuse.  As the weekend approached, I  was reminded of an appointment on my end which had me leaving town at midday rather than at the pre butt crack of dawn.  It also turned out that my new friend had prior commitments that he had forgotten about so this became a solo venture.

I hit the road,  but as I got a ways into my multi hour drive, traffic became an issue as well. Thoughts of arriving on the river by mid afternoon were reduced to the possibility of getting to a run just before dusk.  With the traffic delays, I thought of just getting settled in for the evening and setting my sights on fishing the following day, but the voices in my head never stop, saying things like "you might as well drive up there anyway, get the lay of the land, maybe even wet a line if there is a bit of daylight left".  Upon arrival at the river, it turned out that I was left with about a half hour of daylight to select a run to fish on a river I had only once briefly fished in 1997.  I had no real memory of the layout of this river so I was largely dependent on intel messaged from my new friend.

In the dimming light, I managed to scope a run that seemed to look fishable, but I had no sense of it's possibilities. I was not even sure I had arrived in an area my new friend had described.   I quickly fished a riffle leading into a bend pool and found as supected, that the flow quickly eddied out due to swirls formed by the inside of the bend.  I reeled up and surveyed the flows upstream.

With light quickly fading,  I jumped in my rig made a quick run a couple hundred yards upstream.   There appeared to be a narrow run with the main flow pushing along the far side.   The upper section seemed fast so I fished through quickly until I arrived in the lower half of the run.  The river widened and the flow spread out.  I was barely able to discern that there was good depth until the bottom began to rise near shore.  I saw some potential with this water but I felt the urgency of my time running out.

As I hurriedly fished down,  I could periodically make out the white foam post on my fly.  At dusk with my fly no longer visible,  I heard a splash near the end of a swing followed by a pull.  I was barely able to make out the surface disturbance in the near darkness.   After a second, it registered that I had encountered a steelhead, but I also know that often, when a steelhead feels unusual resistance from a tiny object waking in the surface, suspicions are raised and the game is over.  Never mind logic, another cast was made and in the same nearshore locale, another surface splash was heard and barely seen, followed by another firm pull.  My fly continued to the dangle as my system tensed with excitement and anxiety over whether this steelhead's second unusual encounter with a unmovable purple and black bug would have surely taught a cautionary lesson about going after weird flies.  The next cast went unanswered by Mr. Steelhead and I thought that my chances for a hookup went down the tubes.  I pondered my next move and figured a fly change would be difficult at best in the near darkness, so I decided to shorten up my cast by one strip, or about 3 feet.  The next cast went out with diminished hopes, but as my notorious foam fly swung from the deeper main flow towards the nearshore rise, the steelhead came back with another splashy rise, followed by a firm pull, but this time, what followed was a screaming 3 5/8" Perfect.

The steelhead took off on a series of runs and I initially thought it was a typical sized fish, but when it seemed to be able to do whatever it wanted, I realized it might be above average in size.   At one point the steelhead came toward me and my line totally went slack.  As I was recovering line, I resigned to feeling the sting of a lost fish, then the line suddenly came tight again and the fight resumed.   Consistent side pressure with my 10'6"  5wt switch ultimately got this beautiful steelhead to hand.

I was in awe at the sight of the broad shoulders and length of this steelhead that was larger than those that I normally encounter.  I was extremely happy to find success in such a small window in unlikely circumstances. Some days, I am surpremely blessed by these kinds of incidents and never take them for granted!

(I had fished the river the following day at a more leisurely pace with no success but had a chance to take water temperature readings.  My thermometer read 44 degrees in the morning and 45 degrees in early afternoon.  This was a warmer day than the day before, so the steelhead encounter described above would have occurred in water temperature no warmer than 45 degrees, considered relatively cool for surface fishing.  Sometimes steelhead like to break rules and persistence with the surface fly pays off.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Player

Solo camp.  Todd Hirano photo
For those that visit my blog from time to time, I must apologize for being  remiss in posting for over 6 months! I actually have a good "excuse" for being absent from my own blog - I've been fishing like a maniac (what's new, right).  The long days of summer put me into a frenzied state where I was fishing before and after work, not to mention on my days off and weekends.  My determination has been further fueled by the fact that this summer and fall have been producing some decent dry fly steelhead action.  However, not to complain, but all of my surface steelhead success has occurred on my homewater. I am ever so blessed and thankful to have dry fly steelhead opportunities 10 minutes from my home or work, but as is often the case with steelheaders, the grass always seems greener if I drive at least two hours away from home.

Now, being in the middle of fall and looking back on my road games, I have recalled perhaps raising a couple steelhead to the surface and very briefly feeling a pull on one of those rises.  I also hooked and lost what appeared to be a small one salt steelhead/large half pounder that I mistook as a trout so mostly stripped in until the hook pulled out.  All this amounts to a dismal record for all the hours driven and gas burned in my crazy pursuit of dry fly steelhead.

In spite of my poor road game record, I recently decided to make the multi-hour drive to one of those fall dry fly friendly rivers that flow east of Portland and west of Montana.  It was to be a solo overnight trip which would involve putting more miles on my faithful Geo Tracker (286,000+miles on the odometer and a leaking front crankshaft oil seal) and the risk of freezing my gonads off while sleeping on my cot in my thin walled tent.  The weather forecast only called for lows in the 40s at night so I hoped to have a chance at staying toasty as a marshmallow as I slept

Upon my arrival in mid afternoon,  the day was warm and bright so I decided to leisurely set up camp and ate a late lunch consisting of a tuna sandwich,  crackers, pepperoni and cheese (non keto, right?).  I then wadered up and pondered my game plan for the afternoon/eve.  Three runs are near camp so I would start at one where I found success before and then hit the others.

The first run fished well, but no steelhead made their appearance on the surface.   I fished the second run, again with no excitement provided by the steelhead.   By the time I finished fishing the second run, there was still ample daylight remaining.   I thought of taking a second pass through the run to fill the remaining 45 minutes of daylight in my typical never give up, diehard style, then I remembered that in my rushed packing routine, I forgot to bring my headlamp and lantern. I decided to go back to camp, eat more of the same junk food for dinner and then get situated for bed before darkness set in.

With the short days of fall, I had a long, lonely night ahead.  I turned in early and decided to trust the walls of my tent to protect me against any cougars, bears, or psycho deer or elk that might want to harass a lone Asian. Sleeping on a cot is nicer than sleeping on the ground,  but it is still not the same as my bed at home.  I tossed and turned,  periodically woke up and checked my watch.  All the while I kept thinking it felt cold for being in the 40s.  I also noted weird noises being made by critters outside during the night, but I tried not to think too much of what was causing them.  Hopefully, the racket was being made by harmless birds or overactive trolls, rather than some apex predator plotting my demise.

Morning came and I found that I didn't feel as rested as expected,  probably due to the cold and freaky noises I tried not to think too much about.  When I rolled out of the tent, I realized why the night seemed cold for being forecast to be in the 40s.  My waders were frozen solid as they were perched from the roof rack of the Geo and the Geo's windows were frosted over.

Since there was no point in rushing to the river under the frozen conditions, I leisurely broke camp and ate more junk food for breakfast.  In the meantime, I pried my waders off the roof rack and let them thaw while I blasted the Geo's heater on them.

When my Simms G3s thawed enough to be manipulated without breaking into pieces, I got suited up and realized that I forgot my winter gloves and cap at home as well.   Obviously, I have not gotten fully into the cold weather fishing drill after months of tropical fishing conditions.

I did my best to stay warm with all the layers that I brought,  along with my hoodie and rain shell as a windbreaker. My first steps across a little side channel allowed my boot laces and gravel guards to fully thaw out so I was able to fully synch myself together as I walked to my campwater run.

This run is classically configured,  with a nice head and broadening seam.  I felt like a steelhead could be holding anywhere from the very top, down to where the current began to tank.  I got into an easy rhythm as the quiet morning allowed smooth cack handed single speys with my lightweight Cabelas 10'6" 5wt switch and my newest favorite 3 5/8 Hardy Perfect.  The 330grain Rage head flew out with tight loops as it pulled out 10 strips of 25lb slickshooter with a satisfying jerk at the reel arbor at the end my better casts.

By the time I reached the bottom of the run,  I realized that no steelhead interrupted the bliss I was experiencing as I exercised my favorite equipment and latest version of my foam waker.  I pulled out my thermometer to take a water temperature reading, as if that would explain my ineffectual effort.   The thermo read 51 degrees, after the freezing night, not surprisingly, down from yesterday afternoon's 57 degrees.  Of course 51 degrees is still ideal for surface steelhead activity so maybe no steelhead were in the run or they weren't awake yet.

I arrived on the second run which is one where I have encountered surface steelhead in the past.  I started in the faster water leading into the head of the run so my swings would be covering the uppermost corner or "armpit" of the run.

As I began to get past the armpit and into the upper seam of the run, I remember feeling discouraged and thinking I would probably be chalking up another empty roadtrip to my season record.  I then prayed for a steelhead rise to my green butt yellow stimuwaker.  As I contemplated feeling guilty in praying for something I wanted as a selfish indulgence rather praying for something of noble need, I noticed a surface disturbance in the periphery of my daydreaming gaze.  Before I fully realized what happened,  the steelhead made another lunge at my fly as it swung through the seam along the main current.

My selfish prayer was promptly answered, proving that sometimes God even answers prayers of the self-absorbed!  I stayed calm and allowed my fly to settle into the soft water near the bank at the end of it's swing.  I made the same cast and the steelhead came back with a playful rise, clearly short of the fly.  I made another cast with no results.

I worried about the possibility of not bringing this steelhead back to the surface so I decided to take my time in tying on a different fly for a comeback presentation.   My new friend Adam Snyder had just gifted me with some Lambroughton style wakers so I tied one on with a Garoutte hitch.   I made the cast and watched for the fly on the swing. I could not spot the fly and realized it was being pulled under the surface.  When the swing was completed,  I stripped the fly in and applied some paste floatant to it.  On the next cast the moose haired waker was still being pulled under so a change was in order.

A size 10 purple and black wang was knotted on for the next comeback attempt. The little fly was quickly spotted when it splashed down in the main flow.  As the tiny waker came through it's swing into the near seam, a head appeared making a "slurpee" kind of rise, missing the fly.  The subsequent cast brought a similar rise and miss of the fly.  The cast after that brought no response.

By now, my system is in overload with excitement while also dealing with the anxiety of whether I would get this steelhead on the hook or be given the cold shoulder after being strung along for this cruel, crazy ride.

Next on the docket was a size 10 Royal Green wang that I normally use for trout skating.   I tried shortening up, in case my steelhead moved into the armpit of the run after all the commotion I was causing.   Nothing happened until I was back to casting with 8 strips of running line behind the Rage head.  The steelhead came back to the surface in the same place and nosed at the trout sized offering,  again missing the fly.  The repeat cast brought a boil behind the fly along the inside edge of the seam.  The next two presentations drew blanks and I feared that my window of opportunity was closing.

I remained hopeful and the only thing I could think of doing at that point was to tie on the original fly that drew that steelhead to the surface to begin with. The green butt yellow stimuwaker (GBYS) went back on the line along with another selfish prayer. The fly landed on the far side of the main flow and came across broadside as I gently twitched it along during it's swing.

As the bright posted circus on a hook came into the danger zone it was aggressively intercepted by a "big gulp".  I  soon felt tension on the line and I responded with a smooth lift of my rod.  The steelhead took off on a run then made a short jump and thrashed on the surface.   A few more runs followed and my little Perfect did its job of recovering line and slowing the steelhead down as I applied pressure to the spool face.

I eventually brought the modestly sized wild hen near the bank as I tailed it in the shallow water.  I was filled with joy and gratitude as I gazed down at the answer to my selfish prayers and exclaimed to myself  - God is good!
This player made for my first victory on the road for 2018.  Todd Hirano photo
After I got a few photos of my hard earned prize, she swam off with vigor, having had enough of my harassment.   I reflected in amazement of the thrill that this steelhead provided through coming back with 7 rises through 4 fly changes and finally eating the fly she originally rose to.

I love every surface steelhead encounter I am blessed to experience,  but those players that keep coming back through multiple fly changes until getting hooked are among the most memorable. The suspense that builds as one strategizes through the excitement of getting a series of comeback rises make my connections with players the highlights of my dry fly steelhead seasons.
Evidence of the comeback routine. Todd Hirano photo

Green Butt Yellow Stimuwaker opens and closes the deal.  Todd Hirano photo

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Journey To Surface Steelhead Obsession - Inspirations by Bill McMillan

Promising Steelhead Water.  Photo by Todd Hirano
 You arrive at the final pool of the day as dusk approaches.  The river's brilliance overwhelms you in the glow of this mid September evening.  You've fished this pool many times and it has been the most consistent producer of steelhead rises for you over the course of time that you have fished this famous summer steelhead river.  As you approach the lower part of the run, you recognize the subtle break in the current that marks the hold where steelhead rises have come in the past.  You are comfortable in a nice casting rhythm where your skater is consistently reaching and swinging through the zone.

Your anticipation is high and when you reach the point where your skater swings over the familiar dimple of current, it happens:  a large explosion of water overtakes your fly and unbelievably, you feel nothing except a sudden rush of adrenaline.  You manage to keep your cool and allow the skater to continue swinging as you maintain a subtle twitch on the fly.  As your skater continues to swing a few more feet, another eruption at your fly occurs as it approaches the dangle.  Again, you are in total disbelief that your fly is not lodged in the mouth of the chrome attacker.   You allow the skater to settle to the dangle just in case a take might occur on the hang down.  After a few seconds go by, you are satisfied that the steelhead has returned to it's lie.

You take a breath to allow your nerves to settle and then you strip in as you prepare for your next cast.  You pray that you can maintain your calm to be be able to make another clean delivery back to the zone. The reverse snap T goes out briskly and turns over nicely in the dimming evening light.  The skater swings through the grid and again, a large rise occurs at the fly in the same location, yet there is no tactile indication following the violent encounter.  Likewise, the follow up lunge comes a second later and your skater bobs back to the surface and continues through the swing, unscathed.  By now your nerves are a tangled mess as you can't imagine how it is possible that you have not connected with the majestic creature after those massive, aggressive attacks at your fly.

You tell yourself to pull it together as you gather your senses and make your next cast, again praying for a clean turnover.  As hoped, the reverse snap T goes out with the loop of line unfolding nicely over the evening flow and the skater is back over the lie.  A couple seconds into the swing the fly suddenly disappears in a massive rise that somehow seems even more definitive than those that preceded it and then all !@#$% breaks loose.  The line comes tight in an instant and your reel is making a high pitched scream.  The next thing you know, backing is flying out through the guides of your little vintage 8' 7wt glass rod.  It seems like the steelhead will not be stopping anytime soon and just when it appears that it will be breaking over into the pool below, the steelhead stops and allows you to slowly gather the backing and running line.  You get part of the Ambush head back in the guides and then the steelhead takes off on another blistering run as hot and long as the first one.  The steelhead again appears to stop just short of the break and you manage to methodically regain your backing and most the the fly line.  The steelhead briefly holds out from you then it takes off on a third, shorter run.  You sense the steelhead tiring and as you slowly gain ground on this powerful prize, the bright glow of the steelhead can be seen, not 10-15 feet off the bank.  You feel a sense of awe and fear as you catch a glimpse of what appears to be a large, bright hen steelhead in the mid teens range.

This is a steelhead much larger than you are typically used to seeing and you are in sensory overload as you take it all in.  The movements of the steelhead start to slow and you begin to feel like you might actually have a chance of landing the beast.  Just as you begin visualizing how you will bring this steelhead to hand, it makes a quick flip and turns.  As you brace for another run, your skater pulls out of the mouth of the grand fish.  The sting of disappointment comes over you, but you somehow start laughing as you find humor in the irony in losing something you wanted so badly.  All you can do is pause as time seems to be standing still and you realize you can feel your heart beating in your chest.  Finally, you gather yourself and look up at the grandeur of this beautiful place set against the evening sky.  As you gaze up at the heavens, you are taken by feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for being so blessed to experience such an incredible thrill that gives all meaning to your life as an angler.

The quest for surface steel tends to draw me to beautiful places.  Todd Hirano photo
Experiences such as the one just described are what I live for in my pursuit of steelhead on the surface.  I have to admit that the joys of surface steelhead have become an obsession for me.   The word obsession has been defined as "an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person's mind" (thanks Google). When it comes to seeking steelhead rising to surface flies, you could say the term obsession fits me to a T. I find myself fishing surface flies just about exclusively from late spring through late fall. I even fish surface flies for the great majority of the season during winter and early spring.  I daydream about steelhead surface attacks at work, at home, while driving, while waiting in line at WalMart and sometimes even when my wife Wendi is talking to me about something important (like things I should get done around the house).

I've been under the grip of surface steelheading for the past twenty eight years or so.  My fascination with steelhead dry fly fishing started when I began reading Bill McMillan's famous book Dry Line Steelhead in the late 80's/early 90's and when I viewed footage of steelhead taking surface flies in Lani Waller's famous 3M videos.  Watching Lani Waller skate up steelhead on the Dean and Babine got me excited about trying for steelhead on the surface, but it was Bill McMillan, through his writing in Dry Line Steelhead that gave a much deeper meaning to pursing steelhead with surface methods.

Bill McMillan's descriptions of the exhilaration and excitement that comes from the experience of raising steelhead to the surface resonated deeply in me even as a novice steelhead fly fisher who was yet to even hook a steelhead by any fly fishing method.  As I read and re-read Dry Line Steelhead, I came away with the realization that fishing for steelhead with a fly was about much more than trying to catch the maximum number of steelhead by whatever means it took.  Coming to such a realization early in my steelheading life was of great benefit as I would come to experience for myself that fishing for steelhead with a swung fly is rarely a game that yields big numbers and non-stop action. The fishing ethic instilled in me through Dry Line Steelhead had prepared me for a game of persistence and perseverance in a pursuit that can yield random, yet rare and often scarce rewards.

Just as my early interest in surface steelheading began to peak, my family and I moved from Oregon back to my childhood home of Kauai, Hawaii in July 1990 and we remained in Hawaii until 2009, with a brief move to Bozeman, Montana from  1993-1994.  This meant a nearly twenty year time frame living far away from steelhead country with at most two trips per year in pursuit of steelhead.
Desert steelhead that took my skater in a large broadside rise.  Todd Hirano photo
In 1995, a trip to BC was planned where I met up with my father in law Jim Jones and his friend Toby on a famous Skeena tributary.  During that trip, I experienced my first steelhead caught on a fly, which was also my first steelhead taken on a surface fly, which was also my first steelhead taken on a two handed rod (Sage 9140).  I was able to land the next 5 consecutive steelhead that I hooked on the surface during the course of that trip, along with raising many others.  The thrills I experienced in getting into those inaugural surface steelhead was indescribable and my fate was sealed as an obsessive surface steelheader at that point.

During that initial trip to BC, my readings of Dry Line Steelhead replayed in my mind and gave me confidence through my unsure beginnings in trying to get steelhead on the surface.  I was able to manage not ripping the fly away when steelhead would suddenly appear with a massive explosion to my waking fly and I persisted with the surface fly even during spells involving many unanswered casts and swings.

Misty Morning on a BC river where surface steelhead await.
Upon returning to home to Hawaii from my trip to Steelhead Paradise, I was brimming with excitement from those initial surface steelhead encounters.  I felt a strong connection to the images of surface fishing as conveyed by Bill McMillan through his chapters in Dry Line Steelhead and to have been blessed with my own experiences of what Bill had written about forged deep emotions within me.

I mustered up the courage to write to Bill, care of Amato Publications, to thank him for the inspiration he had provided me through his writing and to share stories of my initial surface steelhead experiences in BC.  To my surprise, I received a letter back from Bill about two weeks later!  I was impressed by the humble and unassuming words of a man that I look up to and so dearly respect.  There was not even a hint of any kind of celebrity tone in Bill's letter.  It was evident that Bill took the time to write a thoughtful response full of encouragement and appreciation.  Bill's warmth and kindness came through in that letter, which made my regard for him run even deeper.

In subsequent steelhead trips from my former Hawaii home to BC, Oregon, and Washington, I still persisted with the surface fly even in spite of those trips being infrequent and involving long distance travel and financial expense.  I managed to get into several more steelhead on surface flies during those long distance trips to steelhead country, but I was occasionally questioned about my sanity with remaining committed to a generally lower percentage method under circumstances where most normal folks would want to maximize their chances of encountering the chrome prize.  The only possible answer to such questions........obsession.

I returned to live in Oregon in 2009 when our family settled in Springfield.  Just prior to moving back to Oregon, I was able to re-establish contact with Bill and we have regularly stayed in touch.  We have become good friends and I feel ever so blessed to have a connection with my surface steelheading mentor.  We have communications about steelhead conservation issues and of course we also share stories about surface fishing for steelhed.  It is so great to see and hear from Bill today, the same level of excitement about steelhead rises, just as he conveyed back in the day when he wrote his famous articles on the subject.  My friends Adrian Cortes, Steve Turner and I have also been able to visit Bill at his home for the past few years as we travel north to BC each fall.  Our visits with Bill are always enriching and memorable, where a few hours can pass by as we thoroughly enjoy Bill's company.
My Mentor and Steelheading Icon.  Photo by Steve Turner

Bill McMillan in his study that he refers to as the "Inner Sanctum"  Photo By Steve Turner

Since returning to live in Oregon, I have since had regular access to steelhead rivers and my commitment to fishing surface flies continues to be unwavering.  I can go through significant periods of searching and waiting, punctuated only by the occasional interruption from an aggressive surface steelhead, but I find those rare interruptions more than worth waiting for!  I just can't get those images of surface steelhead attacks out of my mind.

Over the years, I have communicated the thrills of surface steelheading through some of my posts on fly fishing forums like Spey Pages, on my blog "Dry Line Steelhead - Oregon", and of course through conversations with my fishing friends and acquaintances.  There seems to be a rising interest is surface steelheading in recent years which has been so great to see as I have felt like a lone ranger in the past with my unusual commitment to fishing surface flies.  I was accustomed to getting puzzled or even unbelieving looks from fellow steelheaders as I talked of the thrills I was experiencing with bringing steelhead to the surface.  At other times, I have even gotten some angry responses or been accused of feeling "superior" when I have spoken of my surface steelhead passion.  I am glad that in the current steelheading culture, with surface steelheading being more in the mainstream, I am more frequently seen as a harmless eccentric who is just stubborn and single-minded.

Since my early experiences with the thrills of surface steelhead, I find it difficult to fish subsurface if there is even remote chance that I could bring a steelhead to the top.  My reasoning is that one's chances of getting a steelhead on the surface are greatly reduced if one is fishing a wet fly.  This may sound snobbish to some, but it is just a matter of a guy doing what he likes, never mind that being more versatile will result in more steelhead encounters.  Another bit of my skewed logic:  Many people adapt their methods to suit prevailing conditions, but I prevail until conditions suit my method.  Another question to ponder:  Would you rather experience the subtle hesitation of a strike indicator or the surface explosion to a waker??

I also realize that experiencing some success with getting steelhead on surface methods doesn't push every one over the top like it has with me.  I actually know of people who have experienced some surface steelhead success, think it's great, then happily go back to fishing wets/tips if the fishing is slow or if they just feel like it.  Of course there's nothing wrong with that, but in my mind I may be thinking things like "what do you mean you are giving up on the waker, the river's not frozen over yet and there's at least 6 inches of vis".

My original battered copy of Dry Line Steelhead, held together with packing tape and binding glue.  Todd Hirano photo
It is great thing when a person's hero or mentor lives up to the vision we have of them - this has certainly been the case with Bill McMillan.  Bill continues to be the humble, unassuming person I was impressed with in that letter I received in 1995.  When speaking to Bill you would immediately feel comfortable and welcome while being greeted with warm, sincere conversation.  Bill and I continue to have spirited discussions about our respective fishing experiences and of course we also talk about current issues impacting our beloved wild steelhead.  Bill has even accepted some of my crude flies (even some tied with foam), fished them, and caught steelhead on them - a great honor for a purely functional tyer such as myself!

The surface methods that Bill inspired form the fabric of who I have become as an angler.  However, I am thankful that Bill's passion for steelhead fly fishing birthed  possibly his greater passion: the protection and conservation of wild salmonids.  Through those influential chapters in Dry Line Steelhead, Bill taught me about significant conservation issues.  In those early years in my steelheading life, Bill's writing opened my eyes to the negative impacts of intensive hatchery management on most of our steelhead rivers.  Up to that time, a steelhead was a steelhead to me, whether wild or hatchery, and I didn't realize that hatchery steelhead could be harmful to native stocks.  Bill was ahead of his time when he brought this controversial information to light to the fishing public in the early 70s.

Bill has spent most of his adult life working tirelessly in scientific study in the name of protecting wild steelhead.  Even though Bill retired as the president of the board of the Wild Fish Conservancy in 2011, he continued, up until just recently, to be actively involved in ongoing studies on wild salmonids, especially in the Skagit basin. He has conducted extensive spawning surveys in the local spawning tributaries near his home and the data he has compiled have been showing signs of wild steelhead recovery with the cessation of  hatchery plants in the Skagit, beginning 2014.   Bill has generously shared his scientific documents with me and he has kept me informed of current issues with steelhead conservation.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Bill as my fishing life is truly inspired by his writing, methods, and conservation work.  My fishing style and ethics can be primarily traced to Bill as a singular source.  As a result, I fish a dry line pretty exclusively.  I primarily fish surface flies in the summer and fall and continue with the dry line throughout the winter and spring, using heavy irons or lightly weighted patterns.

I must extend many thanks to Bill for all he has contributed to the sport of steelhead fly fishing and for his years of conservation activism and dedicated scientific study aimed at educating fisheries managers and the public alike in the name of protecting wild steelhead.  His influence has had a profound impact on me and my generation of steelhead fly fisherman and we are all better protectors and stewards of our resources because of him.  Most of all, I am so thankful to have Bill as a friend and mentor who has far exceeded the visions and expectations any student of steelhead fly fishing could have - for this I am ever grateful.

Visiting with Bill on the Skagit beach fronting his home.  Steve Turner photo.

A chunky North Umpqua hatchery hen that took my skater as it ripped across a riffle on a broadside cast that I erringly cast "too far upstream".  The beauty of the steelhead surface rise just never gets old.  There is no greater thrill for me than when my waking fly suddenly disappears in a massive explosion of water, during a broadside shark attack, in a big gulp, or in a toilet flush.  The riseforms are always unpredictable and unforgettable.  I have my favorites and in general, the more aggressive the rise, the better I like it.  Although I would never pass on those quieter gulps, I tend to fish my surface flies on relatively fast swings with casts made as broadside to the flow as the currents allow and these brisk swings seem to elicit the most viscous surface attacks.  Sometimes a casting error or the wind may even blow my cast a bit in an upstream orientation, causing my fly to whip down and across stream at a frightening pace.  I have had some exciting rises on these fast swings where steelhead have literally launched themselves across the surface to keep my little hair and foam intrusion from escaping.  The take home:  don't worry about mending!  Todd Hirano photo

Multiple fly changes eventually brought a stubborn BC steelhead back.  It ate a black/blue little wang.
 Perhaps the greatest surface steelheading thrills come when one encounters a "player".  In this scenario, an agitated steelhead may boil at your surface fly and miss.  As long as the angler does not react with a bassmaster hook set, this angry steelhead my come back and miss multiple times as the fly continues to track to the dangle on the swing.  Subsequent casts may bring the steelhead back with continued "misses".  The angler's nerves will typically be in tatters by this point, but if Mr. Steelhead stops rising, changing to a different surface fly (maybe smaller, darker) will sometimes bring a player back for more.  The mantra for any beginner at chasing surface steelhead should be "do nothing" when a steelhead rises to the fly.  This cat and mouse game often ends up with the steelhead determined enough to come back to the fly with a rise that leaves no doubt of what will happen next - the line snaps tight, your reel is screaming and a leaping chrome form appears with your heart beating in your throat! Adrian Cortes photo.

Adrian Cortes raises a steelhead multiple times in a pocketwater hold and briefly hooks it on the fifth rise.  Todd Hirano photo.

Little Wang skater.  Todd Hirano photo.

I have been honored that a waking/skating fly that I developed in the name of pure function  has been enjoyed and utilized by others.  My unusual fly got the name "Little Wang" when an early prototype was shown to steelhead guide Jeff Hickman by my friend Steve Turner.  Jeff apparently commented about the foam "visibilty post" that I utilize on my pattern saying "it looks like a little wang".  Like it or not, the name has stuck.  I feel most confident with surface fishing when I can see my fly and when my fly stays on top through most surface currents that I may encounter.  My fly was designed with these needs in mind, I just should have came up with a name sooner!

Spreading the Gospel:  Adrian Cortes tying a greaseliner in hand along the banks of a BC river.  Photo by Steve Turner

There are times where I have felt pretty extreme with my passion for surface steelhead.  Thankfully, I have found some like-minded company in recent years with my good friend Adrian Cortes.  Adrian and I became friends through online fishing forums including Speypages and of course Adrian is well known for his outrageous talent in tying beautiful classic Atlantic Salmon flies in-hand, in the way of old school ghillies of days gone by.   Adrian is a prolific donor to the Fly Fishing Collaborative, where his museum quality classics help in the FFC's mission in saving children from human trafficking.

When I first started fishing with and regularly communicating with Adrian sometime around 2012, he was happily tying and fishing his classics and finding much satisfaction in getting into steelhead with patterns developed in prior centuries.  As I posted up stories of my surface steelhead experiences and talked of the possibilities of surface fishing with Adrian, his enthusiasm and curiosity began to grow.  Adrian even experienced some surface hookups on a famous Oregon summer steelhead river in  the summers of 2013 and 2014, but it wasn't until our trip to a famous BC river in fall 2014 that his obsession began take firm hold of his entire being.

Adrian, Steve Turner and I traveled to Skeena country in September 2014 and we were greatly blessed that our destination river was fishing well with some runs producing multiple rises and surface hookups for each of us over the course of the week we were there.  I had mentioned to Adrian of seeing Harry Lemire fishing this famous river during my first visit there in 1995.  With Mr. Lemire being a primary inspiration of Adrian's in hand tying of classics, Adrian thought to honor Mr. Lemire's legacy by tying up a greaseliner in hand to try out.

On the first day of our trip, Adrian encountered his first hookup on the greaseliner on a slow moving pool. In rhythm with the flow, the rise was slow and Adrian thought he missed the fish, until a few seconds later, when his line came tight and his reel was screaming! Over the remaining course of the week, Adrian encountered many more rises and hookups on the classic Lemire fly and his fate as an obsessed surface steelheader was sealed.  It was great to witness such a transformation!!

Even with the beautiful classics that Adrian ties, he consistently fishes, with great success, classic Lemire surface flies like the Greaseliner, Thompson River Caddis, or Fall Caddis.  Adrian has been known to refuse tying on a wet fly, even when he knows that the subsurface presentation would be a sure fire method to hook the steelhead he knows are present in the local lies he knows so well on his homewater.  In summer and fall, Adrian has gotten to the point where if he can't get them on top, then he doesn't want them at all.  Snobbish guy??  Nah, I think he is just obsessed.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Manic Muddler by Keith Tymchuck (Skater Of The Month - March 2018)

The idea for the Manic Muddler was born during one evening of tying with Todd, in front of a Coleman lantern, at a camp table in the Susan Creek campground on the NU.  That camp table session resulted in a prototype tied with red Cactus Chenille and dyed black deer hair, material I pilfered from Todd's box.  I lost the original fly first thing the next morning but the idea was set in my head.  Once home,  I ordered some blue and hot orange Cactus Chenille and some purple deer hair.  My next efforts resulted in the pattern you see now and a blue/purple one which seemed way too gaudy and was never fished.  A week later, on the first morning of my next sojourn to the NU, I tied on the orange version, promising myself that I would swing it all morning and then through the evening.  About 9:30, fishing the Swamp Creek run in bright light, a spunky little hen made an aggressive grab just as the fly was nearly swung out. She took off dead down stream but soon enough she was brought to my hand. My love affair with the MM was born.  The hottest NU fish I have ever had the pleasure of getting to know came to the Manic Muddler two summers ago.  You had to be there, my descriptions do that amazing fish no justice.  I hope you can duplicate the good luck I have had this pattern.  Tail:  4 strands of hot orange Krystal Flash.  Body: Silver tinsel (oval or flat) then 3 or 4 wraps of hot orange Cactus Chenille.  Make sure you leave plenty of room for the deer hair which is spun on then. The head is clipped.  I always fish the MM with a hitch.  By the way, the flies in the photo sit atop a fly box my daughter Blair gave my for Christmas.  It was custom made, with a map of the North Umpqua laser-engraved on the top.  A very cool gift!

(Thanks to my good friend Keith Tymchuck for sharing this piece.  Keith and I are regular fishing companions during winter and summer.  Keith is also one of my fishiest friends - he somehow gets steelhead when no one else can.  Keith and I met through the Speypages forum and he is a regular contributor there.  Lookup him up as "Moethedog", you will see more of his fishy creations in the fly tying forum there.)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Dad's Rod by Rick Fielder

Dad's Rod

It's been a year and a half since my dad passed away and I was lucky enough to inherit his steelhead fly rod: a beautiful 9 foot 3 inch Orvis Advantage 7 wt. with a walnut reel seat spacer.  He paired it with a Hardy Zenith and a Scientific Angler's 8 weight steelhead taper line.  The rod casts like a dream and the one weight heavier line helps the rod load perfectly and turn over bushy steelhead dries that my dad loved to fish.  At his death, I brought the rod home and placed it, in its tube, on pegs over my fly tying bench.  The reel was placed in its leather pouch in an open cubby just in front of my tying vice. These two cherished objects haunt me in both a wonderful and bitter-sweet way.

Each time I sit down to tie I see the rod and reel and am immediately flooded with memories. Steelhead on the Umpqua, warm summer days swinging small wets on the Roque River in Southern Oregon, casting in the wind on Deschutes riffles with the August sun pounding down on us. What great times we shared.  The camp food, the lazy days, the beauty of it all were made better as we shared the fellowship of a cold beer and talked of our dreams and the events of the world.  We spoke of baseball, of philosophy and art, of teaching children, and of our mutual love for fly fishing. The world didn't seem so harsh when I was with him and we were on the river. These events are forever etched in my mind.

Sometimes, when I see dad's rod I flash back to my boyhood and my dad teaching me to drift Velveeta cheese baited gold treble hooks on hand cut willow rods with 10 foot of 4 pound leader in small streams.  I remember crouching down and putting the "sneak" on a 20 foot long current seam as it split a boulder.  Dad showed me how to drop my offering in at the head of the current, dead drift it around the rock into the middle of the run, and lift it toward the surface at the tail out. It was a sure fire method in those mountain creeks of Northern California in Humboldt County back in the 1960's. The native rainbows were feisty fighters and willing to "take the bait" enough to keep an 8 year old "Huck Finn in the making" looking to fish-up a big one.

Those simpler "willow rod" days, and listening to dad as he taught me life lessons while sunning on a remote stream bank taught me to love "river time" and nature and I've held fast to these guide posts throughout my lifetime. These experiences have influenced my existence and have been the foundation from what I've built my fly fishing life and have forged my values. Clean water, fresh air, honesty and truth, along with quiet reflective times are what I'm all about.

That Orvis rod has a life of fishing memories within it and those memories live in my mind and guide me each day. They live as I hope the man who lived them does in some alternate place- in the spiritual world. Dad's rod is a spiritual totem from which I draw energy to face life's challenges. It guides me to excitement, exploration, pursuit of beauty, and happiness. It emanates pleasure, security, and fun. I am blessed to have it resting above me as I tie flies. It transports me to a place so innocent and wonderful that I'm brought to tears of eternal gratitude.

Thanks Dad, thanks for sharing the spirituality and grace one receives when fishing. You may be gone, but your rod is here. It and the memories it holds within its cork and slender graphite help me live. Dad, I remember, and since I do- you will always live. Your rod is my hope and your reel is my song. I only hope I can pay your gifts forward. I look to the day we can talk and exist together in the alternate space-the spiritual place-I have so much to say and share.

Rod Fielder's Inspiration Was Zane Grey