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