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Friday, April 11, 2014

Low Water Surface Steelhead

I keep a fishing journal and a good thing about keeping a journal is being able to reflect back on special days on the river, whether or not fish were caught.  With the slow winter steelhead season I've been having, I got to reminiscing about a day I spent on a summer river during low water conditions in mid-summer, 2010.

August 1, 2010:
My alarm went off at 3am, left my house by 3:30am (I am a fanatic afterall).  I arrive at the first stretch I wanted try by about 5:30am, I proceed to drive up looking for the landmarks described by a friend.  I noted other landmarks to give myself a frame of reference on the new location I was fishing this day.  I locate the river access I was looking for so I figured I'd just start my day there.  I am elated that it is an overcast morning.  I fish all the likely looking pockets and head ins at that area with nothing but some small trout to show for my efforts, so I figured since I was in new to me territory, I'd just continue to explore.  I continued upstream and found another pulloff that looked promising.  I walked down the trail to see what was in store below.

I dragged two rods down there with me, my light spey rod (12'6', 6/7 wt) and my old Sage RPL 9' 4wt.  This is pretty small water so I opted to use my 9' 4wt.  I also chose to use this rod because I did not pack my 9' 7wt and my 9.5' 8wt when I moved over from HI and because I read about Frank Amato using 4wt single hand rods for Deschutes steelhead in the early 90's.  I hooked and landed my only other steelhead on this rod in 1996 at another location further downstream on this same river on a riffle hitched steelhead caddis and I landed that fish with no problems.

During low summer flows in this river, much of the water that steelhead may be holding in are small pockets.  When I explored this water back in the mid 90's, I realized that the condtions on this river in late summer is similar to what Bill McMillan described in the chapters of Dry Line Steelhead when he was fishing SW Washington rivers.  I remember reading about how Bill describes simply hanging a surface fly, such as a riffle hitched steelhead caddis with just the leader and a few feet of fly line out the rod tip in white water pockets.  These pockets can be present in the middle of rapids where large rocks provide a soft cushion, at the heads of small pools, and the seams alongside and behind large boulders that break the flow.  It's a whole different game than using a swinging presentation and is almost like Tenkra fishing for steelhead.

So, back to that day of fishing.. As I work my way back down stream and fish every likely looking pocket,  I am enjoying the light weight and efficiency of the little trout rod for fishing pocket water.  When I am about two pockets away from where the trail comes down, I am fishing this little bucket that runs along the far bank.  I have some trout coming up for the #6 steelhead caddis as is typical with this kind of fishing.  As I reach the very bottom of this piece of water just before it spills over to the next pocket, this steelhead comes up and attacks the caddis with a sudden explosive rise!  It is instantly hooked and I briefly see it turn around and mayhem breaks out... It goes out of the little pool, stairsteps down though the next couple sets of pockets, and then it goes between these two very large boulders.  All I can do is hold my rod as high as possible as my fly line and backing are down and around the corner somewhere.  When I get my wits about me, I start reeling and simultaneously flounder down through slippery rocks, trying to catch up with the fish.  Surprisingly, the hook didn't pull out and the leader held.  Thankfully, the fish stopped in the pool out from where the trail comes down.  I put the wood to the steelhead with the little trout rod, using side pressure, and after several back and forth runs up and down the pool, I had it on the bank.  It was a hatchery female, 31" long.  Luckily I had decided to keep a cooler with ice in my car, so I bled the fish and hung on a tree until it was time to slog it back up the hill.

I fished another few spots but these efforts proved uneventful.  Lightning would not strike twice that day, but it would have been a great day even if I had not hooked even the one steelhead.  I saw several groups of deer and I enjoyed relative solitude on a mostly overcast and pleasant summer day. 

When I hooked that fish that day, it grabbed right in the midst of trout also going after the caddis.  I have wondered if when a steelhead occupies a piece of water, do they "establish dominance" - where trout would vacate the pool for fear of being attacked/harrassed by the steelhead?  Evidently, the trout in that pocket weren't bothered that the steelhead I hooked was there with them.

As for purposely using the little trout rod for steelhead fishing, Frank Amato was right, if a fish is fought aggressively, it can be brought in reasonably quickly, as was the case with my fish that day.  Using side pressure, a tight drag, and a strong tippet (my typical 8lb Maxima Ultra Green) are key, along with playing the fish aggressively.  I had the drag knob on my little Scientific Anglers 5/6L turned about 3/4s the way around.  (Times have changed and I presently only use click/pawl reels today).

This was only the second steelhead I've ever hooked and landed on the hanging surface fly technique that Bill described in Dry Line Steelhead.  Seeing a steelhead come up for a surface fly at such close range is a real thrill!


  1. I agree, getting that steelhead in small water was a kick. Maybe someday we'll have to try small water steelheading.