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Friday, February 26, 2016

A Bit Of Winter On The Surface

A little winter surprise

To say I've had a tough winter season is an understatement....  My friends have gotten steelhead, people on Facebook and Instagram have gotten steelhead, but me, I just continue doing what I do with only leaky waders and casting practice to show for my efforts.  At least I keep my cack handed single spey tuned up so I'm ready for skating in summer, but a fishy interruption in my mundane winter routine would always be welcomed.

It doesn't help my odds that I fish a dry line all winter and that I even fish a skater a fair amount, but I have come to accept my fate with my self-imposed limitations and non-negotiable conditions with my chosen methods.  I am the poster child/role model of insanity....

I hit a favorite winter river today with my regular winter fishing partner Craig Coover.  With a break in the rains, the river was in fine shape and we happily found our favored starting spot open.  Craig gears up quicker than me so he bolted to the water while I finished tinkering with my gear.  I was setting up two rods, my JM Reid 8'5" 9wt cane single hander and my high end Cabela's 11'6wt TLr.

When I arrived on the run, Craig had decided to hit the top, so I got in the middle.  It was a mild day and as I suspected, water temps were also mild, with 49 degrees reading on my thermometer as I dipped it in the winter river.  I knew what I was planning to do even before lowering my thermo in the drink, it was time to skate!

As usual, I continually tie as many of my foam skaters as possible so I have extras on hand for gifting friends and I've even sold a few dozen on Speypages to help fund a much needed set of Simm's G3 waders.  I also completed a few dozen to donate to the Fly Fishing Collaborative, but last week, I decided to tie one for myself - a size 4 "yellow stimuwaker" version.  I tied this fly for myself out of nostalgia as I got my one winter steelhead on the surface while fishing this same fly nearly three years ago on this same river.

I was fishing my yellow skater down this prime run and enjoying the rhythm of casting my bargain stick and watching the bright post of my strange fly coming across on each swing.  As I was stepping down the run, I reminded myself that I wasn't just searching for "a" fish, but that I needed to find "my" fish.  In other words, I knew not every winter steelhead will come to the surface, even in the mild conditions, but only a chosen one may be willing to come up to the top to grab a piece of foam.  As such, I moved through the water fairly quickly, looking for my player.

As I got to the lower section of the fishable water, I turned back to Craig and jokingly remarked "I'm not sure if I'm getting deep enough".  Somehow, even in unlikely conidtions, I am still able to muster up enough confidence and commitment to stick with an improbable method.  The swings felt good and the anticipation of a grab, and the appreciation of being where I was were satisflying enough.

I was doing what I always do, casting like I always do, and swinging/twitching like I always do when a sudden rise came to my skater as it settled into the beginning of it's swing.  The brisk surface commotion was followed by some headshakes and a jump, then my line went slack as this little gal ran towards me.  I stripped in line as quickly as I could and when I caught up, the fish was still on.  I eventually managed to reel up all the loose line into my antique JW Young and this miniture steelhead made a few more runs and then another jump.  I was able to lead the steelhead near shore and had the opportunity to admire and photograph a beautiful little hen steelhead of about 21-22".  I noted that her belly was soft and her vent distended so she had done her business and was quickly on her way out of here, hopefully to return next year.

As I was getting set for one last photo, the steelhead decided she'd had enough and with a flop and turn, she got loose of the hook and returned to the river, all in one motion.  As she swam off, I pondered over her life history and thought that due to her small size, she must be bred to utilize a certain habitat niche.  Perhaps she just came from a small feeder creek, one where only small, one salt steelhead can utilize for spawning.

I am reminded of what Bill McMillan wrote about in Dry Line Steelhead about a small tributary on the Washougal where one salt steelhead were perfectly suited to traverse the skinny sheet of water flowing over what he initially throught was an impassible barrier for anadromous fish.  Bill also recently wrote about some of the small creeks near his home on the Skagit that steelhead use for spawning.  I was amazed that he found that some steelhead even utilize some of the smaller creeks that run dry by summer.  I am reminded of how amazingly diverse and resilient wild steelhead are.

While my little prize was not exactly a slab, she more than made up for what she lacked in size by the exciting rise and frisky battle she put out.  The sense of wonder I was left with after being blessed with encountering this little gem was definitely worth the price of admission.

I took this active little steelhead as a good omen for the remainder of the day, but Craig and I didn't manage to hook any other winter ghosts by day's end.  I did encounter what looked like a 4-5lb steelhead that appeared to have risen to blue winged olives a couple times in one of the other runs I fished.  Of course I optimistically put my skater over what I assumed was an active fish, but that steelhead would have nothing to do with a foam mutant.  Craig had one quick pull at another spot and that was it.

Experiencing a winter day when a skater "outfishes" other methods is definitely a rarety!  I guess I managed to find "my" fish...

Yellow "Stimuwaker" does it again.

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