It's tough to describe the excitement that comes from the sudden bulge of water at your skater and the open-mouth explosion that follows. Sometimes you get a more subtle gulp and your fly is gone or sometimes you get the toilet bowl flush followed by a screaming reel. In slower water, I've had steelhead come from 10' away as I watched a wake coming to my fly and then being punctuated by the heart stopping shark attack grab. I also remember a few surface steelhead from last season, again in slower water, that slowly came up, gulped the fly, and as I mistakenly waited for the line to come tight expecting the fish to turn with the fly, the fly just bobbed back to the top and continued skating - should have set up more quickly on those! You never know what to expect when a steelhead comes to the surface to grab your fly, but one thing is certain - it's the most exciting sight in all of steelheading to me.
Often times steelhead come up short for the fly with a big bulging explosion of water. If one's nerves hold up, one will continue allowing the fly to swing without jerking the fly away from the fish. Many times the steelhead will come back multiple times before the end of the swing, leaving one a frazzled mess of nerves. Again, it is important to let the fly sit for several seconds at the dangle and every now and then the steelhead will grab with the fly hanging directly below - unfortunately the hooking on the hangdown is usually the lowest percentage hookup due to there being no angle left in the swing to put the fly in the corner of the steelhead's mouth. However, some steelhead are so aggressive, they will literally overtake the fly and be hooked solidly. In fact, I'm surprised at how many deep hookings I've encountered with fishing surface flies for steelhead. Luckily most of these deep hookings were on my local hatchery fish so they were bonked anyway, but these deep hookings indicate to me a pretty aggressive response, even coming from pellet heads.
Those steelhead that come up and miss the fly and keep coming back can be the most fun. These player fish afford one multiple opportunities to get a steelhead on the hook. Once you get a steelhead to come up to your fly, it's anyone's guess what the ultimate outcome will be. A hookup could come on the next cast with the same fly and same length of line. Other times, shortening up and working back to the fish will bring it back. Sometimes changing to a smaller skater or a riffle hitched muddler or steelhead caddis will get the fish hooked. Probably the surest, but my least favorite way to get a player hooked is to go back with a small, sparse wet fly. This method usually eliminates the visual element of the grab that I seek so dearly so I save the small wet fly closer as a last resort. Sometimes, after changing flies multiple times, I've given up on the fish and as I continue working down the run, a steelhead comes up and grabs my fly within the next few casts. I think that a fish that has been risen to the top may startle itself and then drop down the run a few feet, or who knows, I may just be encountering a whole different fish that was holding lower in run as I move down.
Speaking of players, I recall one particular steelhead that I raised in the shallow, upper section of one of my favorite local runs a few years back. This fish lunged at my skater on the dangle, just before I started stripping in for the next cast. I allowed the fly to sit still and the steelhead came back again. I would sway my rod toward mid stream and back and ended up raising this fish 10-12x! I was able to prepare myself to drop the rod on several of these rises, allowing the skater to be sucked into the steelhead's mouth, but somehow, I could never hook this fish! I'm assuming this was a hatchery steelhead since non finclipped summer steelhead are very rare on the Willamette - whatever the case, this was probably the most nerve wrecking player I've ever encountered.
As of late, steelhead on my home water have started to look up. I've raised several to the top and hooked and lost one last week. I don't know what causes the switch to go on with my local hatchery steelhead, but I don't typically start raising these fish to the top until late summer at the earliest. I've continued to make efforts to raise steelhead to the top on my outings to the North Umpqua, but the NU has been a tough nut to crack for me this year. I've raised a total of one steelhead to a skater so far for the season down there.
My friends have been much fishier than me with most of them them raising and hooking steelhead on top much more regularly than me. Such is this game of random rewards we play. On the upside, I have been tying a green butted skater that my friends seem to like so I've been regularly having these flies picked out of my boxes - good thing, I'd rather give my flies to friends than lose them to branches along the river. The irony is that these flies have not been raising/hooking steelhead unless I put them into the hands of my friends. The reports have frequently been "hey, I hooked/raised a steelhead, by the way, with your green butted skater".
Here's Cory Dixon with a steelhead caught on top:
Cory also reported that he also got a steelhead on a yellow/orange version of my skater on his first pass on the Deschutes last week. The guy is unstoppable. I'm just glad my flies work for those who recieve them.
I spent a wonderful day on a beautiful river with Ty Holloway on 8/9/13. We sought surface grabbing steelhead, but ended up just being content with having a great time on our favorite water:
Conditions seemed perfect for some surface activity with overcast in the morning and more overcast in the afternoon., but just being out in God's creation is always enough. Fishing with Ty was a pleasure. We had an easy paced and relaxing day, sharing water and taking in the beauty of the North Umpqua. Ty is a young man that totally gets it about chasing surface steel. He is easy going, non-competitive, respectful of the resource, and great company. Ty works at the Caddisfly shop in Eugene where he guides and provides quality customer service. He and brother Clay have also begun thier own guiding business, check them out: http://hollowaybrosfishing.com/