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