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Sunday, August 30, 2015

One Timers

Fisherman's Log:  Sunday, August 30, 2015.
Conditions:  Overcast/drizzle
Water Temp:  58 degrees
Species:  Summer Steelhead
Location:  Favorite Oregon River
Method:  Skating Foam Flies
Equipment:  11' 6wt Cabela's TLr, Hardy 3 7/8 perfect, 360gr Airflo Rage, Hand tied Maxima Leader, #4 Chartreuse/Purple wang skater.

I've been getting out regularly after summer steelhead since early June.  While it's always great to be out on the water and taking in the beauty where our favorite gamefish draws us to, the fact remains that I've been having a tough summer season.

With Wendi's weekend plans coinciding with mine, we were able to arrange for our schedules to allow us to both get out to enjoy the respective things that we love - bingo for Wendi and steelheading for me.  It turned out that I was I able to hit the water friday, saturday and today.

I drew my typical blank days on friday and saturday, but things changed a bit today.  I was optimistic with the overcast and drizzly weather as fall is now in view, but my optimism was tempered by the reality of the skunkitis I can't seem to shake off.

I decided to fish runs that I have not been hiting lately as I have gotten into a rut of fishing the same water, even when this strategy has not produced.  I got to a promising run before first light and I sat in my car and dozed off for a few minutes as I waited for daylight.  As I sat there, I pondered over how it seems that the days get shorter more quickly than I realize during this time of year and maybe I don't have to get up so darn early anymore.

I was woken as a car sped by and I idly wondered if that was another fisherman heading to another promising run.  When there was enough light to see in the overcast morning, I lazily got into my waders and gathered the stuff I'd need for the day's fishing:  rod/reel, box of skaters, wheatly clip box containing wet flies gifted to me by friends (or OPs - flies from "other people"),  waterproof point and shoot camera, cell phone.  The box of wet flies is brought along just in case I ever raise a steelhead and need a little sparse wet fly on the "comeback".

The first run fished beautifully in the dim light of dawn.  I was reminded of how nicely this piece of water swings a fly and I also remembered a few years ago, when I stopped my friend Terry Robinson off to fish this spot while I fished a run above and when I returned to pick Terry up, he told me the story of a steelhead that almost pulled his rod out of his hand when it came up for his skater.

I started in the smooth upper section of the run and felt anticipation as I neared the area of Terry's episode of almost loosing his rod to an angry steelhead.  I fished to the bottom of the run and while I was able to get some decent cackhanded single speys out and some nice swings, no steelhead were impressed.

I briefly fished a couple pools upstream, then worked my way downstream over the course of the day.  When I stopped at the pullout of an obscure run that is a bushwhack, downhill slog for one casting station deal, I realized the effects of drinking coffee on my digestive system and decided to head for another spot where an outhouse is close by.  I figured if the runs by said outhouse were open by the time I got done with my "paperwork", I'd fish them.

I got my paperwork assignment done and went out to hit the near-by runs that were open.  These runs had surely been fished earlier in the morning, but on a day like this, you never know when new fish may move in, so I fished the first run with all the confidence a hard luck steelheader could muster.

This pool is a well known producer, but it has yet to produce as much as a single definitive steelhead rise for me.  I worked by way down to the very bottom of this juicy tailout and an unmistakable bulge of water appeared at my fly as a steelhead rolled at my skater.  While the steelhead didn't actually try to take my fly and I didn't get a clear view of the fish, the nature and amount of water displaced on the rise left me confident  that it was not a trout.  I went into "comeback mode":  made the same cast - 0, shorted up, tied on a riffle hitched greaseliner - 0, shorted up, tied on a smaller green/purple skater - 0, shorted up, tied on a small, sparse riffle hitched wet  - 0!!  I went back through with the skater I started with, still nothing, so I finally moved on after giving that fish the best comeback effort I could.

I fished the other runs downstream and came up empty so I drove back to the run I had planned to fish when nature called.  Not surprisingly, it was still open so I took the usual treacherous decent down the bank and slogged my way to the single casting station.    I have raised and hooked into steelhead in this spot before, but I can't say it has given me any consistency.  It has given up rewards often enough to be worth the occasional visit and today was the day, since I haven't been down here in awhile.

I worked my Rage head out and for some reason, found myself using compact double speys rather than my typical cackhanded single speys.  I didn't seem to remember the huge boulder upstream from me that made cackhanded singles difficult today.  I wondered if that boulder had recently fallen into the water or if I had been making adjustments with my casting and forgot having done so.

By the time I was casting the Rage head plus 8 strips of running line out, my fly was reaching near the far bank and I was getting into the "zone".  There is a submerged boulder alongside an exposed boulder where I have gotten rises before.  Apparantly, steelhead occasionally like to rest alongside that submered boulder.  As my skater swung towards the hot zone, a current caught the line and leader and accelerated the cross stream  swing of the fly.  In an instant, I saw the broadside rise of a buck steelhead of maybe 7 or 8lbs.  This steelhead still had some brightness to him with the rainbow stripe still a faint red.  I let the fly continue to swing past the exposed boulder in case my steelhead decided to follow the fly - it didn't.

I went through my comeback routine and same parade of fly changes with no results.  I was thrilled to encounter a second steelhead on this day, but very puzzled with the one time appearance of this fish.  I wondered what would cause these fish to only rise once.  Maybe they are on the move and no time for "seconds"??

With limited time remaining before having to stop fishing by the "2pm emergency closure" (thanks ODFW, but no lethal water temps around here since early July!!), I had a couple runs in mind to finish out the day.  The first of the two is a nice bouldery run with nice structure at the bottom.  As I approached the rocky structures in the bottom of this run, I braced for action as it seems that this is a day that steelhead are willing to rise and I was hopeful to find a steelhead that would actually eat my fly.  No such luck in this locale so I left for my "closer".

I had just over a half hour left to finish out the day at this last run.  I have hooked and landed steelhead in this often overlooked locale (including a hot, mid teens hen in Sept 2011), but I wondered if this year's low water has made it less appealing for steelhead to hold in.  As I got towards the bottom of this run, I watched for a dimple on the surface that seems to indicate some kind of bottom feature that has drawn rising steelhead to hold there in some of my happier moments.  I simultaneously watched for shoreline features that confirm that I am in the zone that I want to be in.

As I watched for the surface texture I was looking for and also surveying the landmarks on shore, I felt like I was starting to get past where I have raised steel in the past.  My skater was coming through the wake of water that signals the structure I've been watching for and the rise comes - a bulge of water at the fly, but no actual take.  I looked at my watch:  1:45pm.  It appeared that the steelhead followed the fly a few feet as I saw another more subtle bulge under the fly.  I let the fly swing all the way in and waited a couple seconds.

Since this steelhead appeared to have followed the fly after the initial rise, I was bracing for the grab on the next would have been nice, but no, it didn't happen.  Nor did it happen after I went back with a smaller skater, riffled grease liner and sparse, riffled green butt skunk (thanks to Tony Torrence).  By the time 2pm hit, I was still left with the question - "what da...".  I was hoping to close out the day with a bent rod, but raising 3 steelhead to the surface in day's fishing is nothing to complain about, God is Good!

The trill of raising steelhead to the surface is always worth all the time and effort it takes to make it happen.  It can be tough to keep the faith when there is no feedback from the prize we seek, but even during lean times, I try to maintain focus and consistency with my casting and presentation since these are things I do have some control over.

I am thankful for the feedback the steelhead gave me today because it is what I needed as I prepare to leave for BC with friends Adrian Cortes and Steve Turner this next coming weekend.  Consistent casting and presentation are always critical with surface steelheading and I look forward to the pleasant rhythm of skating for steelhead on the big, broad runs of BC rivers.

My favored vitange Perfect sitting on my $79.95 Cabela's TLR.

My chartruese/purple skaters and comeback flies

Monday, August 24, 2015

Dry Fly Steelhead - A Great Lakes Perspective

By Larry Halyk

I’ve been an avid follower of this blog for some time now, so when Todd asked me to offer a Great Lakes perspective on dry line steelhead, I jumped at the chance.   I’ll be the first to admit that there are many skilled anglers in my home province of Ontario who are more dedicated to pursuing steelhead on a dry line than I.   On my home river, I have several friends who will stick to swinging their beautiful gut eyed Spey and Dee flies just under the surface regardless of how many fish we ‘tip dredgers’ are hooking.   

So yes, I admit it.  I spend most of my Great Lakes river time swinging with tips.  However I do love waking/skating  dry flies, and am convinced that Great Lakes steelhead can be caught on the surface  consistently if you pick the right times and locations, are prepared to make more casts between hookups and (most importantly) fish with confidence.  

According to my outdoor journals, I’ve caught 32 Ontario steelhead on waking flies over the last 25 years.  My dry fly Catch Per Unit Effort (CPUE) over this time period is 0.085 (i.e.  it took me on average 11.7 hours to land one fish) compared to 0.208 (4.8 hours per fish) swinging sub-surface.   These hard facts don’t tell the complete story since the data are tainted by a number of factors and biases (yes, being a retired biologist makes me a data nerd).  The main thing is I had modest success on one river in the late 80s and early 90s, then didn’t really fish dry much until I picked it up again eight years later on a completely different river.   

In the early years (1989 – 1992, 6 on a dry) I targeted Skamania strain steelhead on the lower Saugeen River when both Michigan and Ontario were experimenting with a Skamania program on Lake Huron rivers.  After stocking practices changed, Skamania returns fizzled and my dry fly success there went down the toilet.  This early dry fly success started me on a path though.  My first dry fly steelhead was 37” long and took a Waller Waker just weeks after I first watched that famous 3M video featuring Lani on the Babine River.  To say I was hooked would be an understatement! 

The river I now spend most of my time on supports a unique strain of wild fish that are genetically programed to show up as early as Labour Day so they can jump a 9 foot high dam and quickly run 60-80 miles of warm water to stage in cooler holding pools below their spawning tributaries.   These fish are very grabby, and some aggressive individuals will chase waking flies with the same abandon as a Skeena fish if all factors align.  My records show that for two years in a row, I caught dry fly steelhead on this river while practising for my late September Skeena trip (5 fish over 19 hours), yet caught zero dry fly steelhead on the Bulkley those same two years (a total of 29.5 hours on top).  Some of these ‘practise fish’ were real players that came up 2 or 3 times before being hooked. 

The above experiences convince me that on the Great Lakes, both hatchery and wild fish will take a surface fly, but the more important factor is whether or not the fish are in the river at times when temperatures are optimum for metabolism and aggression.   A good start would be to focus on a river that has good numbers of active fish present in the early fall or late spring.    

On my home river, my best dry fly CPUEs are in September or early October when temperatures are in the 50-60 degree range.   By late October, the fish are usually less aggressive and my dry fly CPUE drops – probably due to a combination of lower water temperatures and higher fishing pressure.   My sub-surface swinging CPUE over the years has remained at a pretty consistent level on this river right through to the close of the season on December 31, so I don’t think my dry fly success dropped off due to lack of fish – just lack of aggressive fish.    

September and October is a great time to hunt for aggressive steelhead, but it is also a time when spawning salmon are present on many of our rivers.  I find that I don’t do well with the dry fly or dry line on rivers where spawning salmon are abundant.  I think it has a lot to do with the ‘egg hatch’ on these rivers that may reward the steelhead for looking down instead of up.   My favourite Great Lakes dry line river doesn’t have a salmon run and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.   
A completely different time to do fairly well on top (OK not great but possible) is in the late spring during mayfly hatches.  The takers are mostly mended kelts feeding on duns or spinners, and the best technique is a dead drift imitation just like fishing for resident trout.  The best chance of finding this type of ‘match the hatch’ scenario is on rivers with wild fish and good insect hatches.  Wild fish populations have broader migration and spawning windows than runs dominated with hatchery fish, and quite a few Great Lakes rivers have some fish kicking around well into late May.  These fish can be exposed to some pretty prolific hatches.  

Fishing pressure plays a big role in toning down the aggression level of fish that may be vulnerable to chasing a surface fly.   I have no data to prove it, but I suspect that years of heavy harvest pressure over many steelhead generations can exert selection pressure against fish that could potentially pass in aggressive behavior to their progeny.  The stretch of river I fish most has catch & release, artificials only regulations.  That not only reduces mortality and allows ‘recycling’ of fish after release, but also reduces the overall pressure because many will choose to go where harvest and gear rules are less restrictive. 

Pressure is still a factor on this river though.  When I first started fishing there for steelhead about fifteen years ago, the trout/steelhead  season was closed on September 30 and most anglers didn’t even know it had an early fall steelhead run.  I and a few others fished it through the month of September with virtually no competition from other anglers.   When I had a good pool to myself (which was often back then) I had the luxury of fishing through it first with a waking dry, then with a mono leader and wet, then a tip.  Most fish were caught on a tip, but the dry fly was productive enough that I always tried it first if I had the time.  Now, fishing pressure is much greater on these pools and even though most anglers are well behaved and practice pool rotation, I rarely have the luxury of fishing through three times without company.  Now when I find a good pool empty, I’m tempted to go straight to a tip before the competition arrives.  I hate myself for that and long for those lazy days of casual experimentation. 

Regarding flies, I’m not sure if it matters too much.  I tend to use a big buoyant searching fly like a Bulkley Mouse or one of those foam backed thingies, then switch to something smaller, darker or wetter if a fish shows and/or won’t come back.  The closer is usually a dark wet if all else fails. 

If I had to pick the one most important factor that will lead to success on the surface, I’d have to say it’s having confidence in both the technique and the fish.  If you don’t truly believe it will happen, it probably won’t.  That first surface fish is usually a long time coming and it takes perseverance to stick with it.  The second and third will come a bit easier, and part of the reason is you are building up an experience base to recognize when conditions are good for a decent shot at success, and when they aren’t.  For example, I’m not confident fishing dries my home river when it runs less than 3 feet of visibility.  I’ll bet I’m too conservative, but success hasn’t happened for me yet during these conditions and I doubt it will in the future; mainly because I won’t give it a fair chance.    

My experience learning to have confidence waking dries was similar to my experience weaning myself off my centre pin float rod in the 1980s.  At first I would only experiment with dries when the fishing was slow with tips.  I was setting myself up for failure because if conditions are tough subsurface, they will probably be even tougher on top.  It was only when I started switching to dries shortly after hooking a couple of hot aggressive fish caught on a tip that I started to see some consistency in results.  It takes discipline to abandon a system that works, but fishing dries when conditions are optimal is the best way to build confidence in the technique.

Larry Halyk

My first dry fly steelhead, taken in 1989 on a rod totally inadequate for the job.  I never release hatchery fish.

This early October wild buck took a big Buckley Mouse searching fly on the first pass.

This fresh wild hen showed twice before taking this foam back on the third pass. 


Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Banana Boat

The Banana Boat

An new era begins...

I just purchased a new/used beater car to get out on my fishing adventures.  Wendi saw this 1987 Chevrolet Spectrum CL with a for sale sign on it a couple weeks ago and encouraged me to take a look at it.  For sure, it's not a Honda, but it only has 80,000 miles on the clock and appears to be in decent mechanical condition.

When I brought the car home, Wendi took a closer look and said eww... as she noticed that the windows were custom sealed with yellow duck tape ( the rest of the roll thrown in for free) and one of the cheap plastic hubcaps were missing.  For some reason she didn't like my idea of just trashing those hubcaps all together so she ordered a new set from Amazon to pimp my ride.

Granted, I needed to put two new tires on the front right off the bat, but still got a decent deal on this car for a few hundred bucks and no car payments.  As an added convenience, there are no power windows, cruise control, and automatic door locks on this bad boy.  No reverse camera either.  Just for my entertainment, I almost immediately started to hear a screeching noise coming from the front, telling me that the wear indicators on my front brake pads were doing their job in conveying the urgency of changing them out.

Okay then, off to the parts store to grab new brake pads and they had to be special ordered since "they didn't make many of those cars".  I picked up the brake pads a few days later and to my joy, I realized when trying to install them, that they were the wrong part!  Back to the parts store........ oh, they did a mid year change in 1987 so my pads are listed with the 1988 model, no wonder they look different.  Again, the pads needed to be special ordered.  Finally, after just a few bad words went through my mind, I got the pads installed and my car stops without sounding like a tire's about to fall off.

The car is adorned with a bright yellow Maaco paint job, complete with some chipping and masking lines still visible.  I decided to call this new fishing vessel "The Banana Boat", but just was reminded today by Josh Browning, via Facebook, that bananas are bad luck as to fishing.  I've been on a dry spell anyway so don't know how things could get any worse, but if my luck doesn't change I may have to change the name to "Yellow Streak".

I took the Banana Boat on it's maiden voyage to the North Umpqua this weekend.  Wendi is off to Strugis with her dad for the week so I took advantage of having no adult supervision.  I'll never get anywhere fast with this beast, but I did make it to the river without incident and found a camp spot for a weekend of solo fishing.

I decided to gut the rear seat out of the car so I could load all of my gear with the convenience of the hatchback for access.  I had room to spare and figuered that I'd bring my generator next time so I can keep my cell phone charged and crank up my coffee maker in the mornings.

I'd have to say that my first fishing trip with the new rig was a success.  I was able to lug all my junk to the river and this little car did great with jumping from me spot to spot.

It was great being out on my favorite summer river, however, due to the record warm weather, ODFW has issued an emergency closure with no fishing allowed from 2pm until an hour before sunrise until further notice.  Apparently, some folks didn't get the memo as I saw a couple guys who had been fishing after 2pm and didn't know about the closure until I told them about it.

Much to my surprise, I fished under overcast conditions most of the time on Saturday and all day today.  There was even some drizzle today, such a nice unexpected change with the scorching hot weather we've had.  Sometimes I'm glad when weather predictions are wrong.

I'd heard that a weather change like this can really turn the fishing on, but apparently that didn't apply to me.  Nevertheless, it was a great reprieve to fish in cool conditions and even having to wear a rain jacket in August.  I always enjoy being in this beautiful place and am always blessed with getting into the rhythm of the river.

I ended up going retro this weekend with equipment and brought out my Sage RPL 9'7wt that I built in 1993 and Lamson LP 3 fly reel bought at around the same time.  I uploaded the rod by two line weights with a Sage Saltwater WF9F line and that combo single hand spey cast just wonderfully.

With more idle time in camp due to the closure at 2pm, I was also able to get some fly tying done.  I was pleased with coming up with yet another color combo for my foam skater, this one incorporates chartreuse cactus chenielle and looks like a winner.  No end to my maddness with foam and cactus chenielle.  I'll post pics of this fly in the near future.

The Happy Zone