Saturday, April 22, 2017

He Is Risen!

A solitary morning in a quiet place
It was on the eve of Easter when I headed to the river on yet another solitary late winter quest after a seemingly unattainable prize - to find a winter steelhead willing to rise to a surface fly.  As I drove through the coast range in the predawn light, I reflected over my winter steelhead season, which was quickly drawing to a close.  As usual, I started the season with great optimism.  Rivers were flowing at winter levels beginning in November so my hope was for some early winter steelhead to be in the river by opening day on December 1.  As the season progressed through December and into January, it became apparent that this was going to be a tough year for winter steelheading.   Along with the cold, sometimes snowy conditions and endless successions of high water events leaving limited windows of good conditions, reports from fellow fisherman were depicting a poor return year.  Many of my friends either got blanked all together or were getting far fewer hookups than average on their swung flies.  While I was hearing of some isolated reports of good fishing in some areas and by some fisherman who were lucky enough to encounter pods of steelhead, the overall picture had most of us getting lots of casting practice, racking up lots of character building time, and reminiscing of the good old days (which could have been just a few years ago for some like me, when I recall actually catching a few winter steelhead on the dry line).  It has been pretty grim as I even heard of some gear and indicator guys getting skunked on the combat zone hatchery ditches that normally produce good numbers of steelhead, especially on those deadly methods.

 This has been a season where I have taken mostly solo trips over to the coast.  I started a new job within the state of Oregon in the late October, where I no longer work 4 ten hour days a week.  This means no more Fridays off for me.  While I miss my three day weekends, I currently work in a position with the Self Sufficiency program where I have about 10 times less stress than I had while working in Child Welfare, so I feel healthier and less traumatized.  With my fishing days now coinciding with the weekend warrior crowd,it sometimes takes some delicate domestic negotiations each week in my efforts to maintain a regular fishing schedule.  My strategy has been to kind of let weekend fishing plans sneak up on my better half as the time approaches or I just let things "hang" as my wife always knows fishing is "in the air".  Sometimes I just say nothing until Friday evening, then Wendi says "so where are you fishing tomorrow?".   That's when I know I am golden.  This pattern of getting last minute hall passes to fish can make advance planning difficult - tough to get a buddy to fish if you have to call or text at 10pm Friday night to fish the next morning.  When I have had the opportunity to make advanced plans, things have usually not worked out: one time my buddy Craig was out of town fishing elsewhere and another time, my friend Lee was down with a stomach bug.  I have often met up with my friend Keith on the river, but for the past two weekends, he has been indisposed as well.

I actually don't mind solo fishing at all. I can hit whichever spots that I like and I can fish at whatever pace I feel like.  On this day, I idly wondered the normal things like, since I haven't hooked or risen a winter steelhead the entire season, what would make this day any different?  My routine doesn't get too creative as I settle into the normal sequence of: getting to the river, get wadered up, hit familiar spots and every now and then explore a new run, try not to fall in, and throw a few casts out without getting hung up in trees.  I have not veered away from using a dry line at all this year.  With the milder conditions of spring, I have been fishing my wacky foam skaters the great majority of the time and this day was no exception.   In fact, with the increased possibility of inadvertently casting over actively spawning steelhead in the late winter season, I am fully committed to fishing surface flies during this time to avoid head on collisions with unseen spawners. 

There was a recent rain event which bumped the flows, but by the time my weekend fishing window came, the river had dropped into shape, barely on the low side of perfect.  This was a rare day when it didn't rain at all so I didn't have to deal with my leaky rain jacket sticking to my cheap hoodie while I would slowly become a damp mess.   It was so pleasurable to be fishing in dry, yet mostly overcast conditions.   My game plan was to start in the upper stretch of river that I normally fish.  All of the upper pools fished nicely and even despite my chronic lack of success, I continued to fish every likely spot with confidence and anticipation.

With the moderately low flows and excellent clarity and visibility, I settled on one of my skaters in size 6.   For some reason, I either had a bunch of flies in either large or tiny sizes and had neglected to stock up on medium sized, natural colored skaters.   I found a single bedraggled "royal green" little wang between the two boxes of skaters tucked in the top of my waders.   The bright green floss body was ragged from being chewed on by overly aggressive trout on trips in seasons past, but I decided to tie the battered skater on anyway.  I chuckled to myself wondering how a guy who has tied over a gross of these skaters, just over the course of this winter, can find himself "short" when attacking the river.   Of course I made the mental note to tie myself a few Royal Greens when I got home.

In the course of working my way downstream, I did end up exploring some new water that I had eyeballed down around the bend from a short run that my friends and I often fished. This riffly run always looked inviting when we fished the pool above and this day was a good time to check it out since the water was low enough to allow me to confidently wade across the tailout of the pool I just finished skating a fly through. As I got closer to the new found water, I quickly realized that it didn't look as promising up close as it did from a distance.   There were a couple big exposed boulders that broke up the flow and too many uneven currents to make for a good swing run.  I fished the pockets that I could since I was down there, then quickly turned around and headed back towards the car.
This was a day when I did not see another soul out fishing.   It felt like nobody else got the memo that this was a perfect day to be out and I didn't mind that at all.  Every run that I wanted to fish was open, which actually made it tough to decide where to fish next.  This is a predicament I prefer to have rather than picking your next spot based on what's open.  As I looked at my watch and figured that I'd call it a day my mid afternoon, I decided to continue in the downstream direction.  I wanted to cover as much water as possible so I planned to fish a couple runs that where right near pull offs which didn't require much walking.  I fished through two quick, short runs and at the current flow, with the river on a slow drop, these runs fished my foam skater beautifully.  The conditions were absolutely perfect for my chosen method and I simply relished in what were rare circumstances for the season.  I continued to feel hopeful, especially when my fly swung over areas that have produced hookups in the past and were known to hold steelhead.

By the time I arrived at what would be my final run for the day, I figured that I would have enough time to fish this larger piece of water at a leisurely pace and maybe even make a second pass if I felt so inclined. Getting to this run does require a short walk, but it is surely worthwhile because it is one of the juiciest spots that we have found on this river.  With the lower flows, the upper section of the run revealed some exposed mid river brush that was typically covered in the normally higher flows that I was used to this season.  I started right out from the trail and gradually began lengthening my casts.  I was fishing my recently purchased Cabela's LSi 10'6" switch rod with an 8wt Ambush line and vintage Hardy Marquis 10 reel.   I was enjoying the way my toys were performing as this set up made for a perfect match under the current conditions.

When I had the 20' Ambush head and several strips of running line out, my casts were settling into the zone where my skater was landing in the middle of the deeper channel that was running about 2/3's of the way across the river.  On one of those casts, as the purple/green skater was coming towards the nearside edge of the channel, a greyish form with a hint of pink suddenly appeared and made a half-hearted charge at my fly. It took a moment to register - that was a Steelhead!  After going literally months without a steelhead rise or hookup, my brain had gone numb.   I continued gently twitching my skater as it came towards the dangle hoping for a follow up rise, but my fly continued uninterrupted on it's journey.  I paused and made the same cast with tensed nerves and as the skater again approached the zone, but nothing happened. I decided to change to the all black Ninja, size 10.  I cast back to the zone and as I watched the black posts of the Ninja slicing through the silvery surface currents, I saw the greyish form appear and nudge at the fly for a brief moment before it turned away, just as the Ninja came over the shelf on the nearside of the channel.  I made the obligatory second cast with the Ninja, but I got no satisfaction.

I took a breath and considered my options. I had finally raised a winter steelhead to the surface and wanted to maximize my chances to hook into the beast on my terms.  I decided to try the smallest foam skater in my box - a grey/black Little Wang tied on a short #10 Mustad S80 hook.   I had tied this fly to go after trout, but hoped that the small drab fly might entice this stubborn steelie back to the top.  I took my time tying the tiny skater to my leader to rest the fish.  I put the tiny fly back out to the lane where the steelhead showed and after a couple casts, there was no sign of interest.    

By this time, despite my stubborn desire to get this steelhead back to the surface, I decided it was time to succumb to trying a wet fly on the comeback, before my fish was totally put off by my pestering.   I peered in my box and found some inspiration when I remembered a Lady Caroline that Tony Torrence had gifted me on our trip to BC last fall.   I pulled the classic fly from my box and admired the sleek precision that my good friend is gifted with in his tying.

I reeled in several feet of running line to start in about 10' short of where the steelhead initially appeared, just in case he moved upstream.   I anxiously made my first cast back in, then the second, and then the third, which put the fly right over where the steelhead came up for the skater.  The Lady Caroline swung through the channel and over the ledge with no signs of enthusiasm from my finned quarry.  I resigned myself to making one last cast over the lie and then I would continue working down through the run, under the assumption the steelhead was either bored or left town.  My cast ended up further upstream in an unintended departure from the swings I had been making.  This caused a belly to be formed in the line which in turn pulled the wet fly in a downstream direction before it would begin tracking cross stream.

The take occurred just as the fly began to straighten out on the turn with the line suddenly coming tight and then a couple headshakes were felt as I swept the rod towards the near bank.   As I felt a lively weight on the end of my line, I saw the form of the steelhead at the edge of the channel as it made a turn.  I held back on the rod to keep tension on the fish and in the next second, there was lifeless resistance and my prize swam off, probably giving me the fin.

I felt the sting of disappointment, yet a spirit of appreciation quickly came over me for what I had just been blessed to experience. I fished through the remainder of the run hoping for another player, but I was left to be content with my single steelhead encounter for the day. As I walked the trail back to the car, I realized that I had waited the entire season to raise a steelhead to the surface and it finally happened on the eve of Easter. The parallel of the timing of this special event with the day I was about to celebrate served to remind me of the salvation that I have through my savior Jesus Christ, who suffered the most painful death on the cross to pay for our sins, who was then raised from the dead and lives in me. I am always thankful that believing in and confessing Jesus's sacrifice on the cross makes salvation a gift to anyone who chooses to receive it. May God's Grace be a gift that all will receive!
The sequence:  Royal Green, Ninja, Lady C

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Skater Of The Month For April 2017 - Purple Reign

This month's featured skater is my latest color blend. With the success and appeal of the all black Ninja, I decided to experiment with a predominately purple version of the Little Wang. I combined purple UV Krystal flash, purple globrite floss, purple cactus chenille and purple foam. I added a hot orange globrite floss butt and the fly pictured is the result. Will see how my purple skater fares in the coming summer season. I am thinking of how some great anglers have good success with purple muddlers, hopefully my purple creation will find some surface action in my summer waters.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Waker Of The Month: March 2017 - McMillan's Steelhead Caddis

Bill McMillan's Steelhead Caddis.  Tied by Todd Hirano  (tying this fly a bit sparser than what I have pictured here wouldn't hurt)

In the book Dry Line Steelhead, Bill McMillan spoke of taking steelhead consistently on Muddlers in the early seventies.  By the mid seventies, Bill decided to try tying a sparse muddler like fly to imitate October caddis and his Steelhead Caddis was the result.  Bill described that the Steelhead Caddis was the fly that gave him confidence to fish surface flies anytime during the year, even during winter.  He found that he was able to raise winter steelhead to the surface with the Steelhead caddis and that anytime water temps reached 44 degrees, that surface methods were well worth a fair trial.  Bill also found that anytime water temps were 48 degress or above, that surface methods took more steelhead than any other methods.   The Steelhead Caddis was the primany stimulus for Bill's broadened confidence in fishing for steelhead on the surface.

I began tying and fishing the Steelhead Caddis in the early nineties after being fully immersed in my readings of Dry Line Steelhead.  I loved the functional simplicity of the pattern that even an amateur tyer like myself could pull off.  A simple dubbed body, tented turkey wing, and sparse deer hair collar was all it took to tie this effective fly.  Before I knew it, I had a box full of the famous pattern tied up.

I was amazed how a riffle hitch placed behind the head of the fly kept the sparse pattern on top in just about any surface current from smooth tailouts to white water pockets.   My first success with the pattern came in a small summer stream where I discovered steelhead holding in a pocket in the midst of a stretch of rapids between pools.  I recalled the method Bill McMillan described of simply hanging the pattern on a short line in white water pockets.  I raised a couple steelhead in that bathtub sized pocket, but my opportunity was thwarted when some kids came blasting through in inner tubes.  I later found another steelhead in the very head of a small pool that required the same technique of simply hanging the fly in a confined lie.  A steelhead lunged at the fly and missed, came back again, took the fly solidly and took off down stream, fully testing the 9'4wt rod I was using before coming to the bank.

The Steelhead Caddis has also proven itself in larger traditional runs and it has also worked well  in getting steelhead "on the comeback", when my gaudy foam patterns have brought steelhead to the top and failed to bring on a return appearance.

The drab pattern also produced a memorable experience on the lower Deschutes when I was fishing a tailout in bright sun during a late afternoon in August   I was fishing a short line with the fly swinging in front of some boulders as I was "killing time", waiting for the sun to set behind the canyon wall.  As I gazed at the Steelhead Caddis's seductive wake coming across the calm tailout, a broad shouldered form suddenly appeared and in an instant, my fly disappeared and line was ripping off my reel at an alarming rate.  As the fish turned with my fly I was able to glimpse the form of what appeared to be a large hen steelhead in the 35 inch range.  This steelhead continued downstream and was simply untoppable!  Next thing I knew, I noticed that I was on the last couple layers of backing before hitting the arbor knot and just at that moment, I felf my line go slack.  I reeled as quickly as I could, hoping the steelhead turned back towards me, but I came to realize that she took my fly with her.  The curl at the end of my 8lb Maxima Ultragreen tippet told the story of a powerful creature (likely with Idaho origins) that I would never forget.

When I first started fishing this fly regularly, I worried about the aesthetic issues of ruining the fly when a steelhead was hooked with the riffle hitch damaging the clipped head.  I have found it to be true that a hooked steelhead will typically mangle the head on the pattern.  However, I found it is a very simple to "repair" the fly by simply untying the collar/head of the fly and then retying a fresh one back on and the fly is good as new.

I haven't fished this pattern as often in recent years, since my development of the Little Wang, but after writing these random thoughts and reflections on this wonderful  fly, I'm jazzed to tie a few and put them to work again!  

Monday, January 30, 2017

Lemire's Thompson River Caddis: "The Closer" by Adrian Cortes

(The waker of the month for February 2016 is kindly brought to you by my good friend Adrian Cortes.  This will give my readers a much needed break from my monthly foam creations.  Thanks to Adrian for this fine article and photos - enjoy!)

Lemire's Thompson River Caddis: "The Closer"   by Adrian Cortes

15 minutes ago, your surface fly landed softly nearing the front edge of the tailout in a classic glide.  The moment you waded in on this particular pool, it felt electric.  You reached this tailout with a fly unmolested so far; doubt creeps in whispering you should switch to a wet fly.

A retort, "well, I will probably finish the tailout in the next 10 casts...I'll stick with the dry fly". However, the focus has already wandered to the next pool as the fly tracks close to the dangle...and that's when it happens.  A large push of water disturbs the surface, its energy creating a bulge that makes your fly bobble yet the hook continues its course to the shallows.

Fast forward to 15 minutes later after a few repeat casts and maybe a fly change or two.  That fish never came back.  You've tried resting the fish, shortening your line, twitching the're at the point of contemplating that wet fly box again.  Before you tie on the wet fly, may I make a suggestion?  Amidst the layers of hair, foam, and sparkle dominating your surface box is a somewhat diminutive pattern named the Thompson River Caddis.

This is an actual Thompson River Caddis tied by Harry Lemire. He tied it in hand for Marty Sheppard. In his generosity, Marty gifted this collectible to me. That gesture has been an important part of my steelheading and life in general.
In 1986, Harry Lemire (1932-2012) developed the Thompson River Caddis intending to target summer-run steelhead as a low-riding, waking fly.  Harry fished it with a floating line while dressing the leader and fly with floatant.  It soon became one of his favourites, vying for the number 1 spot against the Grease Liner.
 *pg 95, Contemporary Fly Patterns of British Columbia.
It was a tough day fishing until this nice BC summer doe slurped the gifted TRC tied by John Lauer.You can see that the light wire hook took its toll from the hard fighting wild fish.
Let's go back to that steelhead that lunged at your dry fly.  It hasn't come back to any of your other attempts.  There's a decision to be made.  If I may oblige, and there is no one following behind you on the run, tie on the Thompson River Caddis.  The pattern's low profile, surface imprint, and uncanny ability to pique the interest in a shy steelhead is worth a swing.  

While larger patterns such as foam wakers or deer hair flies may elicit that initial aggressive attack, the Thompson River Caddis closes the deal for a confident steelhead response.  It lulls the steelhead to think "oh, I can eat that".  Let the water rest and cast the TRC without any pulsating...just that predictable swing.

There you are, you've decided to give the dry fly one more dance.  The TRC tied securely on your tippet.  Either Mr. Lemire’s preference for floatant or your choice of a riffle hitch will keep the pattern on top.

Things get quiet and you ignore the ouzel bobbing on the exposed boulder below you.  Line gets picked up with a familiar fly rod.  The cast sails out effortlessly, placing the fly in the window before the current catches the leader and line.  Nearing the zone where you thought the fish lay, you mumble "don't set the hook...don't set the hook".  As if on cue, albeit prematurely from where you expected, materializes a significant head-and-tail rise.  The Thompson River Caddis disappears in a swirl.  Standing like a statue, waiting for the line to tighten, and the reel to start clicking feels like a minute has passed. In real time, it takes 3 seconds before the reel starts screaming.  The rest is anti-climatic.

A smile for the camera, as this steelhead seems joyful to have eaten a Thompson River Caddis river (Interestingly, the same fly tied by John Lauer that took the BC fish above)
From my experience, if there is one pattern that will move a summer/fall run steelhead to eat, it is Lemire’s Thompson River Caddis.  It is no wonder why the fly became a favourite of his.

If you are a tyer, here is the recipe and I suggest "less is more":

Hook: size 4 to 8 Partridge Wilson salmon dry fly or 3 to 7, Alec Jackson
Body: Insect green, black, gray, golden yellow or orange dubbing
Rib: black, tying thread
Hackle: moose body hair spun to form head and hackle
Wing: Two green phase ring-necked pheasant back feathers, one shorter than the other

The above TRC took 3 nice steelhead within 15 minutes on a run that I have a trying time getting fish to commit on other dries. After the third steelhead, a large buck, the hook gave up the ghost. Be prepared to have back up TRCs on hand. You give up a little durability when you tie on light wire hooks to keep the sparse pattern on top.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Waker Of The Month For January 2017 - Baby Blue

Yet another color blend with with my favorite waker.  I bought some baby blue glob rite floss at my local fly shop and sought to find a way to highlight the material in my pattern.   The result includes an orange gloBrite butt, pink cactus chenille thorax, black cow elk wings, black foam shellback/lip, and royal blue Krystal flash.

Just to show that just about every color blend will catch a fish if kept on the line long enough a couple examples are noted below.

Desert steel bends the gap open on this baby blue. 

My first surface steelhead of 2016 munched on a sz 6 baby blue.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Winter Transition

After having a mediocre summer/fall season of surface steelheading, I have settled into my winter steelhead visions with the typical hesitation and saddness that comes with the reality of leaving consisent surface fishing conditions behind.  The tumultuous ups and downs of the winter season is upon us and finds my car pointed in the direction of the coast.

I always come to terms with the change in season soon enough and find my excitement for winter fishing rekindled as I gather my boxes of winter dry line flies and ponder my rod/reel/line choices for the season.  I reminisce over past seasons as I mentally prepare my game plan for the cold, wet season ahead.  Will this be a season that will yield hookups on my favorite Winter's Hopes?  Will I be able to raise/hook a full sized winter steelhead on a waker this year?

As I headed out on my first winter trip a couple weeks ago, I rejoiced in the hope and optimism that comes with life as a steelheader.  Each season brings anticipation of the possibilities that lay ahead; each trip to the river could provide anything from an epic, multi-hookup day to perpetual skunkings, to anything in between.  Regardless of the outcomes, steelhead fly fisherman tend to be a group that appreciates being out on rivers for much more than how many or how often the elusive chrome unicorns are encountered.

We have had winter water levels in our rivers since November so I have been anticipating some early winter steelhead being around on my favorite winter stomping grounds.  I theorized that the good flows over the past month should have encouraged steelhead to ascend their home rivers ahead of schedule.  I have made two winter steelhead trips thus far and there have been no indications of any early winter steelhead being around in waters where I have been tossing my flies.  None of my friends have heard of any winter steelhead caught on our home rivers yet either.

It is still early in season and in the spirit of a steelheader's optimism, I will continually get out over the course of the season with great anticipation of seeing how things will unfold.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Waker Of The Month For December 2016 - The Pink Panther

The Pink Panther

This month's waker is another version of my pattern that came about through a request from my friend Steve Turner.  Steve was planning for his first trip to the Dean a couple years ago and so he contacted me to request some pink versions of the Little Wang in a large size.  Steve had a trip booked through Jeff Hickman's Kimsquit Bay Lodge on the lower Dean in late July/early August.  Jeff had been telling Steve that the ocean bright lower Dean steelhead would aggressively take large pink flies so Steve asked me to tie up a few monster versions of my skater in all pink.

Knowing of the aggressive nature of Dean river steelhead and also knowing of that strain's ferocious fighting characteristics, I decided to tie more than just a few flies for Steve: I decided to gift him with a dozen of the big pink wakers, just in case of break offs and just in case Steve decided to share a fly or two with other fisherman.  I had tied those early versions on size 2 Mustad 9672 hooks which are an old school 3xl streamer hook.

Steve is such a generous guy that he did indeed end up sharing some of those flies with other fisherman at the lodge.  He was ultimately left with just a few remaining flies from the dozen I gave him.  He got a nice coho and raised a steelhed on the pink panther on his first trip and he hooked into a nice Dean steelhead on the pink panther on his most recent trip this past summer.  One of the guests that was at the lodge with Steve a couple years ago hooked and landed a nice Dean steelhead on the fly as well.

Steve recently requested more pink panthers, but this time he asked for me to try tying them on tubes as he wanted to share some with a renowed steelhead guide who intends to go after winter steelhead with them.  My friend Tony Torrence gifted me with some hooks and pink tubes so I could beging tying prototypes of my first tube wangs.  The pink panther pictured above is the result.  I have tied the rear half of the fly on the stinger hook itself and the front half of the fly is tied on the pink tube.  I burned a hole in the bottom front of the tube so the leader goes in from the bottom of the tube.  Early field testing finds that this pattern skates well.  Further field testing will reveal if winter steelhead will show some interest in this pattern - stay tuned!

I am so thankful whenever Steve requests flies from me as his requests have brought about new versions of my pattern and his fly requests give me a rare opportunity to reciprocate, even if in a small way, Steve's kind-hearted generosity.