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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Surface Steel: A Blessing And A Curse

By Adrian Cortes

A short story for you gents that may be mildly entertaining (emailed previously to a steelhead circle of friends). That September trip to BC, as beautiful and meaningful as it was, has left me with this cursed void that is seemingly filled only with the crash of a surface steelhead. Having our Todd Hirano report on his successes raising fish on the Willamette has fed to this laser-like focus of begging these steelhead to come up to my offerings. When I'm stuck close to home, the Clackamas has been my reluctant acquaintance to somehow share her summer hatchery fish to a surface angler.

To be perfectly honest, if it wasn't for Todd's encouragements I would have limited confidence in raising hatchery brats to dries. However, having the BC steelhead freshly imprinted in my mind, what could I lose by skating on the Clack? Preaching to myself the self-justification of already knowing the feel of a wet fly "take" on a Clackamas steelhead, I had to raise the bar with the surface hatchery steelhead challenge ("had" being the operative word because I used up my "multi-day fishing passes" that my wife in her limited generosity handed out. I would rather angle wilder anadromous rivers if given the opportunity).

With the wonders of Autumn in the air, it was time to fish the local river (which was now devoid of the summer's rubber hatch fiasco). It wasn't long before I raised steelhead on my home river. Surprisingly, I raised quite a few steelhead, but only one had connected to a Red Sparkle Green Butt Little Wang...and on the last cast of the session. A nice hen that put up a spirited fight in fast water. She was disposed of properly and enjoyed by the local church pastor who had time to prepare the fish.
With the immediate action that I encountered on the surface, I asked myself: Why can't I be like Todd and fish on workdays after my shift? (I work night shifts in the hospital). I could spare 2-3 hours before I crashed to bed in preparation for the next shift. So that's what I've started to do on certain days. This surface fish action is quite an addiction. Truth be told, frustration reared its ugly head...not because I didn't raise fish, but because these hatchery steelhead would slash on my fly and would miss the hook never to come back. Bulging wakes, splashy rises, chasing down the fly...but there it was: my fly continuing to bob on the surface...unmolested.

To my chagrin, a local angler whom I met last year, swinging the opposite bank with a wetfly of his own design went 3 for 5 in nearly the same amount of time I was on the river. Another man's success tempting me to ditch my personal challenge. And yes, I tried the comeback techniques with no success. As inspiring as was Todd's 5-fly-comeback steelhead in BC, a guy can only change flies so often before he's down to his leader butt or left to his last strand of patience. I made the false assumption that these Clackamas brats, while moving to a dry fly, will not come back if they miss...pure laziness. Or so, I thought. 

These hauntings bugged me throughout the work week. Yesterday, viewing the river levels after the rains we had 2 days ago, I thought "It's perfect". Off I went to the river soon after arriving home from work. No time for the cane rod on these brief jaunts...I had to make use of every available minute afforded to me and taping up the cane/breaking it down would not be ideal. A plastic rod (no offense for I respectfully jest to my peers) paired with a semi-vintage Hardy's St. John winch will suffice. Pulling in to my destination 12 minutes away, I first swung the tertiary and secondary holding areas with nary a look from steel. Dean Finnerty's Steelhead Skater that Todd gave me was the fly of choice. Wading across mid-river to the primary lies, I noticed a brighter hen steelhead actively working the current...the snafu: she was above where I had waded in. Drats. I had to see if she would play with an upstream dead-drift cast. With the same Finnerty's Skater, I cast upstream above that steelhead and she actually moved up to look at the fly with some interest! But I quit after that...I was in no shape to mess around on that faster flow of water...especially after being up all night working a shift.

Carrying on with the same skater, I covered all the primary lies with nothing to show. Man, was I bummed. It was perfect as far as conditions go. I only had less than an hour left. Dare I fish a wet? Reluctantly, I opened up the Wheatley Box (that I purchased from Keith) loaded with Atlantic Salmon wetflies. Kelson's Black Jay caught my fancy. The line was lengthened covering the same primary lie and I felt a quick yank in the nice slow swing. "That was steelhead", I thought to myself. I recast after the hangdown. Same amount of line, same swing arc and...Viola...same fish.  This time he took solid and acted out the usual acrobatics that frightened steelhead tend to portray in tailouts.

​Now, I'm not being an ingrate (or maybe I am), but it was at this moment while fighting this angry buck that I wished he had grabbed a surface fly; or that at least he was bending a cane rod. There's that curse...what is wrong with me? The fish was caught proper on a dryline with a vintage wetfly pattern - fighting quite well for a hatchery fish. Interestingly, there I questioned the whole event...glancing at my watch, unsatisfied, and contemplating do I have enough time to tie on a skater?

The curse.

A Black and Blue Little Wang found its way to my tippet and calmly twitched through the same tailout. When it got to the hot zone, a steelhead showed itself and bulged across at the fly without breaking the surface tension of the water. Am I to be hosed again with these "One-time Charlies"? The hangdown came soon enough without any activity. Shortened casts and recasts with the same fly produced nothing. Minutes left to spare, I pulled out my new favorite...the Greaseliner.
You know that feeling, gents. That indescribable knowing of a fool-proof plan. For me the combination of the fish showing itself to the Little Wang, the perfect weather, and the Greaseliner as the comeback was gonna seal the deal. Forgive me for this (for I was born in the 70s with a childhood in the 80s and I know Harry Lemire would probably be shaking his head at the following actions), but I turned my point-and-shoot camera on and excitedly adjusted it to the video setting. The digital display flashed 47 seconds left to film on the SD card. Now or never, Mr. Surface Steelhead. I just knew....

...First cast, same lie, filming with one hand, rod in the other...quiet hangdown. Lengthened one strip...cast, fumbling the camera back out of my waders, rod in the other hand employing the skating twitch...and boy, I giggled on the inside. I have attached the video clip (hope it works for you, if not let me know) and while it is no GoPro-steelhead-guide-surface-grab on the famed North Umpqua, it was quite a hoot for me.

Dry Fly Comeback Steelhead Eat from Adrian Cortes on Vimeo.

The fish were dispatched properly and filleted for friends. I bring back memories for myself so I can sit through another grueling shift in the hospital, but this time with a smirk in my head.
Thanks for bearing with me on this long if I could only get them to crash my fly like they crash Steve Turner's flies...

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