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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Patient Pesistence

Dry Fly Steelhead taken during a solitary morning session during a low return year

Patience and Persistence:
Each year, as summer approaches, I find myself in a game where going against really low odds is the rule.  There are so many variables working against the possibility of finding that first surface steelhead of the season.  I generally start putting serious efforts in finding dry fly steelhead on my local waters in May.  In good return years, May steelhead counts over Willamette falls has numbered several thousand (most recently during the 2016 season).  In recent years, the May numbers have been much smaller.  Water levels in May can also be a deterrent as the Army Corps tends to release more water to flush newly released hatchery steelhead and salmon smolts downstream.  The higher water changes where steelhead may hold and I theorize that the increased flow tends to keep steelhead on the move rather than settled into specific lies for any length of time.  With flows pushing along the banks, there is a reduction of areas that can be waded effectively and the amount of soft dry fly steelhead water is compressed.

Despite the difficulties, I still regularly fish my home water during the early season.  The river is quiet and peaceful during this magical time.  Summer crowds have yet to show and the bulk of the salmon fishing traffic is still weeks away.  Low steelhead returns also keeps many other fisherman off the river.  It may not be worth the time and effort for the “catch your limit” crowd.  Thankfully, I am drawn to the river for reasons beyond simply catching fish, so dealing with the near impossibility of finding an early dry fly steelhead doesn’t stop me.  Having water to myself without the pressure of other anglers closing in on me is a wonderful luxury.

I find that conditions in May remind me to be flexible and adapt to the changes that higher water brings.  Mentally accepting the scarcity of opportunities and spiritually finding contentment in the circumstances give me peace, joy, and a renewed sense of gratitude for all that steelhead and rivers provide.

I have been regularly fishing my home water, the Middle Fork of the Willamette, every season since moving to Oregon in 2009.  My local ditch hosts primarily hatchery steelhead and is not exactly a world class steelheading destination.  It has nevertheless, been a convenient playground close to home where steelhead occasionally rise for waking flies.  I have learned a lot about surface steelhead from having this humble waterway 10 minutes from my home.  Being in close proximity has me on the water almost daily from May through November and sometimes into December if flows allow.

My frequent forays have given opportunities to become very familiar with holding water at various flow levels.  There has also been the joys of discovering new holding water and the sense of confirmation when a steelhead rises to my fly in a freshly discovered area that my experience and intuition has led me to.

In the seasons I have fished the MFW, the earliest I generally begin raising steelhead to the surface is around the third week of June.  This has been the case even during years with good returns by May.  This reality has been both puzzling and frustrating at the same time.  When May arrives, water temps are generally warm enough for steelhead to rise, yet, my efforts typically just bring casting practice and continued opportunities to build my resolve.

During those better return years, , the river can start getting busy as early as April.  During seasons of greater abundance, May can find the gear crowd and deeper running fly fishing crowd getting in to fish with some regularity.  With me sticking to the surface fly almost always, finding no success during those seasons of relative plenty was puzzling.  Having folks catching steelhead all about while I single-mindedly kept a stupid hair and foam thingy tied on seemed like insanity.

Ironically, during a couple recent low return years, I have raised and hooked steelhead by late May and onward through June and into late fall/early winter.  It is possible that the lower number of boats and other anglers on the river may have worked in my favor.  Perhaps the steelhead that were present found themselves less disturbed and thus in a happier mood for eating on the surface.

In my crazy, ongoing “ dry fly steelhead experiment”  there are certain constants and also certain variables. 
The constants include:
  • Utilizing only fly fishing gear
  • consistent use of floating lines
  • full time use of surface flies.
  • Getting out on the river at every opportunity from May through December.
The variables include:
  • numbers of steelhead present in the river
  • time of year
  • weather conditions
  • fishing pressure
  • size of the spring salmon run (which in turn influences the level of boat and angler traffic)
  • river levels
  • water temps
  • numbers of boats on the water
  • changes in river configuration due to flood events
  • water types fished

What have I learned through my ongoing experiment?
  1. “Good” returns do not necessarily equate to good dry fly steelheading.  Possibly due to more pressure that greater numbers bring to the river.

  1. Most of my dry fly steelhead success comes in low light conditions during early morning, evening, or during overcast weather.   While this generally makes sense and is accepted as common steelheading wisdom, it could also have to do with when I spend most of my time on the water.  I have gotten a few dry fly steelhead with sun on the water, but I generally avoid bright conditions due to my own needs for comfort.  (I am a wimp when it comes to summer heat and blinding sunburn weather).

  1. Dry Fly Steelheading is a “numbers game”.  While I am not a numbers guy (in terms of needing to catch as many steelhead as possible), finding steelhead on the surface can require persistent effort and putting time on the water.  I reason that my odds increase if I am on the water once a day vs. once a month.

  1. It is important to keep moving.  A  couple runs that I fish tend to provide the majority of my surface action, but having multiple runs to cover increases the odds of finding an active steelhead. 

  1. Exploring new water is also worthwhile to expand your possibilities and to test one’s ability to read good dry fly steelhead holding water.  There is great satisfaction when  that smashing rise comes in that new location that you just had a certain feeling about .  Finding new water is also a great way to get away from the crowd.

  1. Stay positive.  Steelhead can be gone today and here tomorrow.  I have fished some favorite runs regularly over periods of time with no success then one day, I raise and hook steelhead in multiple locations in a given piece of water that seemed barren of life in days prior.  Steelhead are on the move and each day brings new possibilities.

  1. Learn to adapt to various river conditions.  When the river runs at a given level for a period of time, I can become locked into a routine of how and where to fish.  I will be counting on steelhead to hold in certain locations where I can reasonably hope for a rise.  When levels change, whether the  river drops or rises, it can be disorienting and even discouraging.  Those familiar holding lies may have changed or disappeared with the change in flow.  Typically, lower flows push holding lies further into the main flow and higher water puts holding lies closer to shore.  Relearning the rivers at different flows can be exciting and rewarding, again, like finding new steelhead holding water.

  1. Find Peace and Joy in being on the water, regardless of whether the steelhead rise to the occasion.  It is a great blessing to enjoy nature as the river refreshes my soul.  As I reflect back on my days as a former Child Welfare Caseworker, I realize that being out on the river was literally lifesaving self-care that helped sustain me in a very stressful career.
Have fun out there and remember, to find success with surface flies, you must tie one on and keep it on.

Dry fly hen glows in the low light of an overcast morning