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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Dropping the Rod

I've gone through various phases in the course of my journey with surface steelheading.  Needless to say, my surface flies have continually evolved over time and I think will always continue to change as I am always tinkering with ways to make a better mouse trap.  Another aspect of my surface steelheading that has continued to evolve is my technique of hooking into the rare steelhead that I have managed to raise to a surface fly.

In the beginning of my surface steelheading journey (early to mid 1990s), due to my inexperience, I just concentrated on being able to do nothing when a rising steelhead finally came to the surface.  I would hold my rod at a fairly low angle while making "straight" swings (ie., the days before "twitching" became fashionable).   I actually managed to hook and land my first 6 surface steelhead in BC in 1995, by just "doing nothing" on the rise.

I probably continued the "do nothing" routine until about 2006, when I read Dec Hogan's book "A Passion for Steelhead".  Dec described holding a 30-36" loop of line during the swing and letting the steelhead pull this loop out before sweeping or lifting the rod.  I used this method until maybe 2010.  I can't really say that I experienced having a steelhead pull the loop out very many times as some steelhead don't immediately turn.  I wasn't really sure if this method was helping my hooking/landing percentages so I went back to the "do nothing" routine where I would not hold a loop and just held the line to cork whether fishing wet or dry.

 From 2010 until just recently, the "do nothing" routine seemed to be serving me well enough.  However, over the course of the past summer and fall steelheading season, I have been extremely blessed to have been able to experience some of my best surface steelhead fishing to date.  It didn't hurt that a trip to BC was in the mix.  However, I've also had better than average surface fishing on my homewaters in Oregon.

After returning from our trip to BC, both Adrian and I have both had some periods of great surface steelheading on our respective homewaters and it's been fun having emails going back and forth as we each found surface steelheading bliss to help ease our withdrawls from BC.

I have been fortunate to have some local water that, at times, can provide some predictable surface activity from the local anadromous inhabitants.  On one of the runs I fish, I noted certain specific lies that tended to hold steelhead that would kindly oblige to attacking pieces of foam swinging overhead.

In one of my prior posts, the one about the "Wild" Willamette steelhead, this was a steelhead that was aggressive enough to come back to the fly multiple times.  It was while fishing over that fish that Bill McMillan's writings about giving slack or dropping the rod to a rising steelhead  came back to mind.  Since I had the location of that steelhead pegged because of it's repeated rises, I knew where I could expect another rise to come so I was able to prepare to drop a loop of line to the steelhead on the next rise.  On the following cast, the steelhead obliged and dropping the loop of line resulted in a solid hookup and a landed steelhead.

During a subsequent outing, I managed to raise another steelhead to one of my foam skaters that I missed.  On the comeback attempt, I ended up using one of Adrian's Greaseliners that he tied during our BC trip.  This time, when the Greaseliner came back into the strike zone, I had my rod held high and nearly vertical.  I planned to drop the rod if a strike were to come.....  The steelhead came back on cue with a quick, bulging rise and my response was timed where I dropped the rod just after seeing the rise.  I didn't immediately feel weight so I slowly swept the rod to the bank and the fish was on.  The result:  another steelhead hooked and landed with the help of immediate slack given on the rise.

I wondered if I could manage to drop the rod on a steelhead on it's initial appearance so I continued with the habit of  holding the rod tip high with a vertical or near vertical orientation during the swing.  Of course, now that Ive been prepared to drop the rod on the rise, the local surface fishing slowed down for some unknown reason.....  After what seemed like an eternity, and several skunky outings, a steelhead responded to my "experiment".  In the middle of my favorite run, a steelhead come up with a "jack in the box" type of rise and I managed to drop the rod just after the appearance of my favorite fish.  I didn't immediately feel weight so I slowly swept the rod to the bank and it was fish on.  Another hatchery steelhead hooked, landed, and bonked.

So far, it's 3 for 3 with giving slack/dropping the rod on the rise.  While this is a very small sample, I realize that I should have listened to Bill McMillan's writing a long time ago!  I'm praying that I'll have another opportunity or two to "practice" my newly learned surface steelhead hooking technique before winter weather blows out my local ditch.

Now that I am practicing the "dropping the rod routine", I'm wondering how many more steelhead I could have gained a solid hook hold on.  I'm thinking of those steelhead locally and in BC that have come back to the skater repeatedly and "missed", that I could have hooked into more efficiently by dropping the rod on the rise.  I remember in my initial communications with Bill McMillan (nearly 20 years ago) about hooking into surface steelhead, that he mentioned his opinion that the vast majority of steelhead rises involve steelhead fully intending to take the fly and that "misses" are usually our fault for not providing immediate slack on the strike (actually our miss, not the steelhead's).  I guess I'm a very slow learner!

Although hooking into more steelhead "sooner", ie., hooking up on the initial rise or on the next follow up rise sounds great, I have to say that seeing steelhead come back to a skater repeatedly is a lot of fun!  Keeping the line tight throughout the swing often accomplishes having steelhead "miss" the fly and coming back after it.  On one hand, I'd like to be more successful at hooking and landing steelhead, but seeing those repeated rises is hard to give up.  For now, I'll see if I can get better at hooking into the surface steelhead I do encounter and maybe have a more informed opinion in the matter after a just a few more hookups!
Dropping the Rod did this guy in.


  1. Great thoughts on this Todd, definitely needs tinkering on what might work. I read the thread on Speypages and William's experience also makes sense. Knowing that a fish is in a likely holding area (perhaps by already showing itself on an initial missed rise) prepares the angler to give the player some slack for a solid grab. I've been successful on a few occasions where I have dropped the rod tip and solidly hooked the player...but I think those were all on comeback fish where the player had showed his card and I expected the take. Yesterday, I had a fish swirl on a Grease Liner in an unexpected location...missed the fly...I recast without any action...moved a few steps upstream to work my way back down and that fish went airborne to try and crash down on the fly! I thought for sure the hook up would be automatic (I pointed the rod tip at the fish) but I'll be darned if my fly just ended up bobbing on the surface. I never got that fish to comeback again.

    One thing that's been challenging to me is when the fish grabs the fly and just settles back down to it's lie (just like your comeback Greaseliner fish). This occurence happened yesterday as well. It was also near the hangdown and a large fish (I say mid teens) came up a grabbed my Grease Liner, and settled back down after moving a few clicks on the reel. I was waiting and felt slight tension and was in the process of slowly swinging to the side and the big girl spit it out. She later chased down the same fly in really shallow water but never connected on subsequent casts.

    I knew she was big because I had seen her playing around in that shallow tailout. Later on, I stood on a rock to see why she felt comfortable in the shallows and I spooked her not knowing exactly where she was (she was in a lot shallower water than what I would deem comfortable if I was a large fish...maybe ankle deep but there was a 2 foot depression where I think she was holding). She was big and bright, too! It makes me wonder as a local fly shop has mentioned that a few early winters have been seen, and a gear angler also had remarked the same. Dang, I had her on and wish I would have swept to the bank sooner before she spit that fly out. It would have been cool if it was a fresh winter caught on a skater....all I can do is wish...

  2. Adrian:
    I agree, dropping the rod after raising a fish first is a lot easier since you've got his number and can be prepared on subsequent casts. The whole dropping the rod/giving immediate slack thing is totally counter intuitive, but I think, in most instances, it can result in more solid hook holds. I still need more feedback from the steelhead. Those steelies in your neighborhood have been a lot more cooperative than those in the waters I've been fishing. Send some surface friendly steel my way will ya?

    Maybe next time out, that big guy will still be there for you. Keep up the late season skating!