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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Journey To Surface Steelhead Obsession - Inspirations by Bill McMillan

Promising Steelhead Water.  Photo by Todd Hirano
 You arrive at the final pool of the day as dusk approaches.  The river's brilliance overwhelms you in the glow of this mid September evening.  You've fished this pool many times and it has been the most consistent producer of steelhead rises for you over the course of time that you have fished this famous summer steelhead river.  As you approach the lower part of the run, you recognize the subtle break in the current that marks the hold where steelhead rises have come in the past.  You are comfortable in a nice casting rhythm where your skater is consistently reaching and swinging through the zone.

Your anticipation is high and when you reach the point where your skater swings over the familiar dimple of current, it happens:  a large explosion of water overtakes your fly and unbelievably, you feel nothing except a sudden rush of adrenaline.  You manage to keep your cool and allow the skater to continue swinging as you maintain a subtle twitch on the fly.  As your skater continues to swing a few more feet, another eruption at your fly occurs as it approaches the dangle.  Again, you are in total disbelief that your fly is not lodged in the mouth of the chrome attacker.   You allow the skater to settle to the dangle just in case a take might occur on the hang down.  After a few seconds go by, you are satisfied that the steelhead has returned to it's lie.

You take a breath to allow your nerves to settle and then you strip in as you prepare for your next cast.  You pray that you can maintain your calm to be be able to make another clean delivery back to the zone. The reverse snap T goes out briskly and turns over nicely in the dimming evening light.  The skater swings through the grid and again, a large rise occurs at the fly in the same location, yet there is no tactile indication following the violent encounter.  Likewise, the follow up lunge comes a second later and your skater bobs back to the surface and continues through the swing, unscathed.  By now your nerves are a tangled mess as you can't imagine how it is possible that you have not connected with the majestic creature after those massive, aggressive attacks at your fly.

You tell yourself to pull it together as you gather your senses and make your next cast, again praying for a clean turnover.  As hoped, the reverse snap T goes out with the loop of line unfolding nicely over the evening flow and the skater is back over the lie.  A couple seconds into the swing the fly suddenly disappears in a massive rise that somehow seems even more definitive than those that preceded it and then all !@#$% breaks loose.  The line comes tight in an instant and your reel is making a high pitched scream.  The next thing you know, backing is flying out through the guides of your little vintage 8' 7wt glass rod.  It seems like the steelhead will not be stopping anytime soon and just when it appears that it will be breaking over into the pool below, the steelhead stops and allows you to slowly gather the backing and running line.  You get part of the Ambush head back in the guides and then the steelhead takes off on another blistering run as hot and long as the first one.  The steelhead again appears to stop just short of the break and you manage to methodically regain your backing and most the the fly line.  The steelhead briefly holds out from you then it takes off on a third, shorter run.  You sense the steelhead tiring and as you slowly gain ground on this powerful prize, the bright glow of the steelhead can be seen, not 10-15 feet off the bank.  You feel a sense of awe and fear as you catch a glimpse of what appears to be a large, bright hen steelhead in the mid teens range.

This is a steelhead much larger than you are typically used to seeing and you are in sensory overload as you take it all in.  The movements of the steelhead start to slow and you begin to feel like you might actually have a chance of landing the beast.  Just as you begin visualizing how you will bring this steelhead to hand, it makes a quick flip and turns.  As you brace for another run, your skater pulls out of the mouth of the grand fish.  The sting of disappointment comes over you, but you somehow start laughing as you find humor in the irony in losing something you wanted so badly.  All you can do is pause as time seems to be standing still and you realize you can feel your heart beating in your chest.  Finally, you gather yourself and look up at the grandeur of this beautiful place set against the evening sky.  As you gaze up at the heavens, you are taken by feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for being so blessed to experience such an incredible thrill that gives all meaning to your life as an angler.

The quest for surface steel tends to draw me to beautiful places.  Todd Hirano photo
Experiences such as the one just described are what I live for in my pursuit of steelhead on the surface.  I have to admit that the joys of surface steelhead have become an obsession for me.   The word obsession has been defined as "an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person's mind" (thanks Google). When it comes to seeking steelhead rising to surface flies, you could say the term obsession fits me to a T. I find myself fishing surface flies just about exclusively from late spring through late fall. I even fish surface flies for the great majority of the season during winter and early spring.  I daydream about steelhead surface attacks at work, at home, while driving, while waiting in line at WalMart and sometimes even when my wife Wendi is talking to me about something important (like things I should get done around the house).

I've been under the grip of surface steelheading for the past twenty eight years or so.  My fascination with steelhead dry fly fishing started when I began reading Bill McMillan's famous book Dry Line Steelhead in the late 80's/early 90's and when I viewed footage of steelhead taking surface flies in Lani Waller's famous 3M videos.  Watching Lani Waller skate up steelhead on the Dean and Babine got me excited about trying for steelhead on the surface, but it was Bill McMillan, through his writing in Dry Line Steelhead that gave a much deeper meaning to pursing steelhead with surface methods.

Bill McMillan's descriptions of the exhilaration and excitement that comes from the experience of raising steelhead to the surface resonated deeply in me even as a novice steelhead fly fisher who was yet to even hook a steelhead by any fly fishing method.  As I read and re-read Dry Line Steelhead, I came away with the realization that fishing for steelhead with a fly was about much more than trying to catch the maximum number of steelhead by whatever means it took.  Coming to such a realization early in my steelheading life was of great benefit as I would come to experience for myself that fishing for steelhead with a swung fly is rarely a game that yields big numbers and non-stop action. The fishing ethic instilled in me through Dry Line Steelhead had prepared me for a game of persistence and perseverance in a pursuit that can yield random, yet rare and often scarce rewards.

Just as my early interest in surface steelheading began to peak, my family and I moved from Oregon back to my childhood home of Kauai, Hawaii in July 1990 and we remained in Hawaii until 2009, with a brief move to Bozeman, Montana from  1993-1994.  This meant a nearly twenty year time frame living far away from steelhead country with at most two trips per year in pursuit of steelhead.
Desert steelhead that took my skater in a large broadside rise.  Todd Hirano photo
In 1995, a trip to BC was planned where I met up with my father in law Jim Jones and his friend Toby on a famous Skeena tributary.  During that trip, I experienced my first steelhead caught on a fly, which was also my first steelhead taken on a surface fly, which was also my first steelhead taken on a two handed rod (Sage 9140).  I was able to land the next 5 consecutive steelhead that I hooked on the surface during the course of that trip, along with raising many others.  The thrills I experienced in getting into those inaugural surface steelhead was indescribable and my fate was sealed as an obsessive surface steelheader at that point.

During that initial trip to BC, my readings of Dry Line Steelhead replayed in my mind and gave me confidence through my unsure beginnings in trying to get steelhead on the surface.  I was able to manage not ripping the fly away when steelhead would suddenly appear with a massive explosion to my waking fly and I persisted with the surface fly even during spells involving many unanswered casts and swings.

Misty Morning on a BC river where surface steelhead await.
Upon returning to home to Hawaii from my trip to Steelhead Paradise, I was brimming with excitement from those initial surface steelhead encounters.  I felt a strong connection to the images of surface fishing as conveyed by Bill McMillan through his chapters in Dry Line Steelhead and to have been blessed with my own experiences of what Bill had written about forged deep emotions within me.

I mustered up the courage to write to Bill, care of Amato Publications, to thank him for the inspiration he had provided me through his writing and to share stories of my initial surface steelhead experiences in BC.  To my surprise, I received a letter back from Bill about two weeks later!  I was impressed by the humble and unassuming words of a man that I look up to and so dearly respect.  There was not even a hint of any kind of celebrity tone in Bill's letter.  It was evident that Bill took the time to write a thoughtful response full of encouragement and appreciation.  Bill's warmth and kindness came through in that letter, which made my regard for him run even deeper.

In subsequent steelhead trips from my former Hawaii home to BC, Oregon, and Washington, I still persisted with the surface fly even in spite of those trips being infrequent and involving long distance travel and financial expense.  I managed to get into several more steelhead on surface flies during those long distance trips to steelhead country, but I was occasionally questioned about my sanity with remaining committed to a generally lower percentage method under circumstances where most normal folks would want to maximize their chances of encountering the chrome prize.  The only possible answer to such questions........obsession.

I returned to live in Oregon in 2009 when our family settled in Springfield.  Just prior to moving back to Oregon, I was able to re-establish contact with Bill and we have regularly stayed in touch.  We have become good friends and I feel ever so blessed to have a connection with my surface steelheading mentor.  We have communications about steelhead conservation issues and of course we also share stories about surface fishing for steelhed.  It is so great to see and hear from Bill today, the same level of excitement about steelhead rises, just as he conveyed back in the day when he wrote his famous articles on the subject.  My friends Adrian Cortes, Steve Turner and I have also been able to visit Bill at his home for the past few years as we travel north to BC each fall.  Our visits with Bill are always enriching and memorable, where a few hours can pass by as we thoroughly enjoy Bill's company.
My Mentor and Steelheading Icon.  Photo by Steve Turner

Bill McMillan in his study that he refers to as the "Inner Sanctum"  Photo By Steve Turner

Since returning to live in Oregon, I have since had regular access to steelhead rivers and my commitment to fishing surface flies continues to be unwavering.  I can go through significant periods of searching and waiting, punctuated only by the occasional interruption from an aggressive surface steelhead, but I find those rare interruptions more than worth waiting for!  I just can't get those images of surface steelhead attacks out of my mind.

Over the years, I have communicated the thrills of surface steelheading through some of my posts on fly fishing forums like Spey Pages, on my blog "Dry Line Steelhead - Oregon", and of course through conversations with my fishing friends and acquaintances.  There seems to be a rising interest is surface steelheading in recent years which has been so great to see as I have felt like a lone ranger in the past with my unusual commitment to fishing surface flies.  I was accustomed to getting puzzled or even unbelieving looks from fellow steelheaders as I talked of the thrills I was experiencing with bringing steelhead to the surface.  At other times, I have even gotten some angry responses or been accused of feeling "superior" when I have spoken of my surface steelhead passion.  I am glad that in the current steelheading culture, with surface steelheading being more in the mainstream, I am more frequently seen as a harmless eccentric who is just stubborn and single-minded.

Since my early experiences with the thrills of surface steelhead, I find it difficult to fish subsurface if there is even remote chance that I could bring a steelhead to the top.  My reasoning is that one's chances of getting a steelhead on the surface are greatly reduced if one is fishing a wet fly.  This may sound snobbish to some, but it is just a matter of a guy doing what he likes, never mind that being more versatile will result in more steelhead encounters.  Another bit of my skewed logic:  Many people adapt their methods to suit prevailing conditions, but I prevail until conditions suit my method.  Another question to ponder:  Would you rather experience the subtle hesitation of a strike indicator or the surface explosion to a waker??

I also realize that experiencing some success with getting steelhead on surface methods doesn't push every one over the top like it has with me.  I actually know of people who have experienced some surface steelhead success, think it's great, then happily go back to fishing wets/tips if the fishing is slow or if they just feel like it.  Of course there's nothing wrong with that, but in my mind I may be thinking things like "what do you mean you are giving up on the waker, the river's not frozen over yet and there's at least 6 inches of vis".

My original battered copy of Dry Line Steelhead, held together with packing tape and binding glue.  Todd Hirano photo
It is great thing when a person's hero or mentor lives up to the vision we have of them - this has certainly been the case with Bill McMillan.  Bill continues to be the humble, unassuming person I was impressed with in that letter I received in 1995.  When speaking to Bill you would immediately feel comfortable and welcome while being greeted with warm, sincere conversation.  Bill and I continue to have spirited discussions about our respective fishing experiences and of course we also talk about current issues impacting our beloved wild steelhead.  Bill has even accepted some of my crude flies (even some tied with foam), fished them, and caught steelhead on them - a great honor for a purely functional tyer such as myself!

The surface methods that Bill inspired form the fabric of who I have become as an angler.  However, I am thankful that Bill's passion for steelhead fly fishing birthed  possibly his greater passion: the protection and conservation of wild salmonids.  Through those influential chapters in Dry Line Steelhead, Bill taught me about significant conservation issues.  In those early years in my steelheading life, Bill's writing opened my eyes to the negative impacts of intensive hatchery management on most of our steelhead rivers.  Up to that time, a steelhead was a steelhead to me, whether wild or hatchery, and I didn't realize that hatchery steelhead could be harmful to native stocks.  Bill was ahead of his time when he brought this controversial information to light to the fishing public in the early 70s.

Bill has spent most of his adult life working tirelessly in scientific study in the name of protecting wild steelhead.  Even though Bill retired as the president of the board of the Wild Fish Conservancy in 2011, he continued, up until just recently, to be actively involved in ongoing studies on wild salmonids, especially in the Skagit basin. He has conducted extensive spawning surveys in the local spawning tributaries near his home and the data he has compiled have been showing signs of wild steelhead recovery with the cessation of  hatchery plants in the Skagit, beginning 2014.   Bill has generously shared his scientific documents with me and he has kept me informed of current issues with steelhead conservation.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Bill as my fishing life is truly inspired by his writing, methods, and conservation work.  My fishing style and ethics can be primarily traced to Bill as a singular source.  As a result, I fish a dry line pretty exclusively.  I primarily fish surface flies in the summer and fall and continue with the dry line throughout the winter and spring, using heavy irons or lightly weighted patterns.

I must extend many thanks to Bill for all he has contributed to the sport of steelhead fly fishing and for his years of conservation activism and dedicated scientific study aimed at educating fisheries managers and the public alike in the name of protecting wild steelhead.  His influence has had a profound impact on me and my generation of steelhead fly fisherman and we are all better protectors and stewards of our resources because of him.  Most of all, I am so thankful to have Bill as a friend and mentor who has far exceeded the visions and expectations any student of steelhead fly fishing could have - for this I am ever grateful.

Visiting with Bill on the Skagit beach fronting his home.  Steve Turner photo.

A chunky North Umpqua hatchery hen that took my skater as it ripped across a riffle on a broadside cast that I erringly cast "too far upstream".  The beauty of the steelhead surface rise just never gets old.  There is no greater thrill for me than when my waking fly suddenly disappears in a massive explosion of water, during a broadside shark attack, in a big gulp, or in a toilet flush.  The riseforms are always unpredictable and unforgettable.  I have my favorites and in general, the more aggressive the rise, the better I like it.  Although I would never pass on those quieter gulps, I tend to fish my surface flies on relatively fast swings with casts made as broadside to the flow as the currents allow and these brisk swings seem to elicit the most viscous surface attacks.  Sometimes a casting error or the wind may even blow my cast a bit in an upstream orientation, causing my fly to whip down and across stream at a frightening pace.  I have had some exciting rises on these fast swings where steelhead have literally launched themselves across the surface to keep my little hair and foam intrusion from escaping.  The take home:  don't worry about mending!  Todd Hirano photo

Multiple fly changes eventually brought a stubborn BC steelhead back.  It ate a black/blue little wang.
 Perhaps the greatest surface steelheading thrills come when one encounters a "player".  In this scenario, an agitated steelhead may boil at your surface fly and miss.  As long as the angler does not react with a bassmaster hook set, this angry steelhead my come back and miss multiple times as the fly continues to track to the dangle on the swing.  Subsequent casts may bring the steelhead back with continued "misses".  The angler's nerves will typically be in tatters by this point, but if Mr. Steelhead stops rising, changing to a different surface fly (maybe smaller, darker) will sometimes bring a player back for more.  The mantra for any beginner at chasing surface steelhead should be "do nothing" when a steelhead rises to the fly.  This cat and mouse game often ends up with the steelhead determined enough to come back to the fly with a rise that leaves no doubt of what will happen next - the line snaps tight, your reel is screaming and a leaping chrome form appears with your heart beating in your throat! Adrian Cortes photo.

Adrian Cortes raises a steelhead multiple times in a pocketwater hold and briefly hooks it on the fifth rise.  Todd Hirano photo.

Little Wang skater.  Todd Hirano photo.

I have been honored that a waking/skating fly that I developed in the name of pure function  has been enjoyed and utilized by others.  My unusual fly got the name "Little Wang" when an early prototype was shown to steelhead guide Jeff Hickman by my friend Steve Turner.  Jeff apparently commented about the foam "visibilty post" that I utilize on my pattern saying "it looks like a little wang".  Like it or not, the name has stuck.  I feel most confident with surface fishing when I can see my fly and when my fly stays on top through most surface currents that I may encounter.  My fly was designed with these needs in mind, I just should have came up with a name sooner!

Spreading the Gospel:  Adrian Cortes tying a greaseliner in hand along the banks of a BC river.  Photo by Steve Turner

There are times where I have felt pretty extreme with my passion for surface steelhead.  Thankfully, I have found some like-minded company in recent years with my good friend Adrian Cortes.  Adrian and I became friends through online fishing forums including Speypages and of course Adrian is well known for his outrageous talent in tying beautiful classic Atlantic Salmon flies in-hand, in the way of old school ghillies of days gone by.   Adrian is a prolific donor to the Fly Fishing Collaborative, where his museum quality classics help in the FFC's mission in saving children from human trafficking.

When I first started fishing with and regularly communicating with Adrian sometime around 2012, he was happily tying and fishing his classics and finding much satisfaction in getting into steelhead with patterns developed in prior centuries.  As I posted up stories of my surface steelhead experiences and talked of the possibilities of surface fishing with Adrian, his enthusiasm and curiosity began to grow.  Adrian even experienced some surface hookups on a famous Oregon summer steelhead river in  the summers of 2013 and 2014, but it wasn't until our trip to a famous BC river in fall 2014 that his obsession began take firm hold of his entire being.

Adrian, Steve Turner and I traveled to Skeena country in September 2014 and we were greatly blessed that our destination river was fishing well with some runs producing multiple rises and surface hookups for each of us over the course of the week we were there.  I had mentioned to Adrian of seeing Harry Lemire fishing this famous river during my first visit there in 1995.  With Mr. Lemire being a primary inspiration of Adrian's in hand tying of classics, Adrian thought to honor Mr. Lemire's legacy by tying up a greaseliner in hand to try out.

On the first day of our trip, Adrian encountered his first hookup on the greaseliner on a slow moving pool. In rhythm with the flow, the rise was slow and Adrian thought he missed the fish, until a few seconds later, when his line came tight and his reel was screaming! Over the remaining course of the week, Adrian encountered many more rises and hookups on the classic Lemire fly and his fate as an obsessed surface steelheader was sealed.  It was great to witness such a transformation!!

Even with the beautiful classics that Adrian ties, he consistently fishes, with great success, classic Lemire surface flies like the Greaseliner, Thompson River Caddis, or Fall Caddis.  Adrian has been known to refuse tying on a wet fly, even when he knows that the subsurface presentation would be a sure fire method to hook the steelhead he knows are present in the local lies he knows so well on his homewater.  In summer and fall, Adrian has gotten to the point where if he can't get them on top, then he doesn't want them at all.  Snobbish guy??  Nah, I think he is just obsessed.


  1. Bobber down! Can't shake the surface addiction. To clutter a beautiful peaceful meandering stream brimming with visual poetry by teasing an aggressive searun rainbow to explode on the surface should be criminal...swinging a fly should be meditative and serene, none of this "eat it! Eat it! Eat it! and Kersploosh!" behavior.

    - Call me a Dry fly felon. (What Bill is to you, You are to me) -

  2. The surface addiction is better than most! Glad to have you riding the crazy train with this fellow criminal. Nothing like that surface attack crack.

  3. Just reserved a copy of Dry Line Steelhead from my local library...!

    1. Earl,
      I think you will find Dry Line Steelhead to be a very influential read.

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