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Friday, September 6, 2019

Fall Promises

Dramatic tailout in fall colors.  Todd Hirano photo
It was an early November morning when I arrived at a familiar stop on this famed summer steelhead river.  I was taken by the beauty of the river corridor and the peacefulness of the late fall conditions.  While I am always content to be at my happy place, I questioned the feasibility of this late season visit.  I don’t normally visit this river so late in the season, but this outing was an opportunistic jaunt in the midst of other family activities which created an escape that I couldn’t pass up.    As I stood on the ledgerock along the well-known run, I knew the water temperature would be below the 48 degree threshold of what I would normally consider ideal for surface steelheading.  I dipped my stream thermometer in the river and it read 46 degrees.  I tried to convince myself that it could still be possible to raise a steelhead in such conditions as I recalled the temperature graph that Bill McMillan described in Dry Line Steelhead.  44-47 degrees was what Bill described as the cold water transitional range where steelhead surface activity decreases but decent surface fishing is still possible.  I was banking on any possibilities that this day could bring.
The monochrome river scene was serene with the dim lighting of an overcast morning and the last remnant of fallen leaves scattered along the river’s edge and on the river bottom.    Air temps were cold enough to warrant layers under my waders and pulling on my winter coat.  I felt a sense of antsiness as fall was quickly transitioning to winter.

I walked along the river's edge to the top of the run feeling unsure of my possibilities due to the timing of being at the outer fringe of the fall season.   My local homewater, the Middle Fork of the Willamette, is regulated by Dexter dam and thus runs relatively warm (48 degress and above) until winter storms blow out the river.  I had been experiencing consistent late season surface steelhead success close to home with the warmer water temps there, but I had some doubts about raising steelhead in the cooler water that was flowing out of the Cascades.

I began with short casts at the top of the run.  The upper corner (water I call the "armpit") fished nicely with short casts and I enjoyed working through this piece of water that I seldom fish during the peak of the season when it is frequently occupied by guides and other anglers.  On this day, I was fishing a fly which was basically a yellow stimulator with a foam lip attached.  My son in law Shaun was a newbie to steelheading and had been finding great success with our Willamette steelhead on #6 yellow stimulators so I decided to create a fly that would skate reliably, but retain the look of the stimulator.  I called the resulting fly "the stimuwaker".  (This fly was actually a precursor to the skater I use today, the Little Wang)

When I had about half of the scandi head out, my fly was swinging through the main current and would slow down in the soft cushion near shore.  After a few casts, a bulge of water suddenly appeared at the fly, catching me by surprise.  As the fly swung to the dangle, I silently questioned what had just happened - was that actually a steelhead rise??  As I stripped in for my next cast, I realized that there was no doubt that with the size of the commotion made during that rise, it had to be a steelhead.   Steelhead rises are typically distinct and it would not have been possible for a 12" cutthroat to displace that much water.  I made my next cast, and as my skater came into the soft cushion near shore, the steelhead came back with another rise to my fly.  I felt a brief tug, but there was no satisfying pull of a hooked, angry steelhead to follow.  I was amazed and pleased with raising my first "cold water" steelhead.  Unfortunately, none of my follow up casts brought that steelhead back.

I was feeling content with my accomplishment of raising a steelhead in the chilly water, but I still had the remaining two thirds of the run left to fish.  As I continued down, I wondered about the likelihood of raising another steelhead in these cool conditions or was my good fortune just a one time fluke?  My casts lengthened as I got to the middle of the run and the answer to my question came soon enough as another steelhead rose to the top to smash my fly.  This was an aggressive shark attack type of rise in the chop of the main flow.  My fly instantly disappeared in a void of water left by the fleeting appearance of flash and color.  My line drew tight and my rod bucked to the weight of the steelhead.  As I braced for the fight, my rod sprung back as the steelhead found a way to rid itself of the hook as it took off on it's initial run.  

I was feeling the buzz from the fast paced surface action I was experiencing on this day of uncertainties and self-doubt.  My vow to live and die by the skater was further validated, for better or for worse.  I wondered to myself what the chances were of encountering this kind of surface fishing at the tail end of fall?  I still had the bottom half of the run to fish so of course I wanted to see if things could possibly get any better on this special day.

I was back in the groove and just a couple casts below where I had encountered that second steelhead, a third steelhead came up to play.  I could hardly believe what had happened when this steelhead came up with a big crash to the fly and missed.  On the next cast, as if on cue, the steelhead returned for a repeat show, but this time the fly was got securely lodged in his mouth.  The sound of a screaming reel could be heard and this powerful buck bored back and forth across the pool several times.  Just when I would get the steelhead close, it would take off on another strong, powerful run, while I prayed that the hook and tippet would hold up to the viscous antics of this angry steelhead. 

I was eventually able to get this robust male to hand.  As I leaned down to reach for my leader to lead the magnificent fish towards me, I was struck by the muscular build and brilliant colors of this beautiful fall buck.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that part of the steelhead's maxillary was missing, my guess was possibly from it being hooked by a fisherman as a smolt.  Missing part of his jaw didn't stop this spectacular steelhead from taking the stimuwaker deeply and getting hooked in the bottom of the mouth, behind the tongue.  I was able to get a few photos and before I could attempt to unhook my fly, the steelhead made a flip and took off with my fly, easily snapping my 8# Maxima tippet with his weight. 

Late Fall buck with my Stimuwakter hooked in the back of the tongue.  Note part of maxillary missing.  Todd Hirano photo

There is no doubt that fall is my favorite season to be out chasing steelhead on the surface.  By early to mid September, the first subtle changes of the season can be felt.  The searing heat of summer begins to ease away and transitions to cool, mild temperatures.  The bright summer conditions have given way to frequent overcast and the softer lighting  that comes with the lower angle of the sun.  The surrounding foliage becomes a brilliant display of color as leaves change and fall.  On windy days, you may wish that you have a weed guard on your skater as leaves can blanket the surface of the river, frequently finding the hook of your fly.  The first of the fall rains bring new life and refreshment to rivers that have been bleached by the summer heat.

As the season progresses, there is a sense of urgency in knowing that winter is just around the corner, days are growing shorter, and the remaining opportunities for comfortable steelheading in mild weather is quickly dwindling.  While the season brings the most peace and joy to my soul, I become impulsive, abandon adult responsibilities, and fish at every break that life provides, as the optimum window becomes smaller and smaller.  Fishing trips to places near and far get put on the itinerary, with a week in BC included for good measure and with destinations that stretch further east as the season progresses.

Adrian Cortes and Bucky Buchstaber contemplate a stream crossing on a desert river in November.  Todd Hirano Photo
Adrian Cortes casting for steel on a BC river as a train approaches.  Todd Hirano photo

Somehow, it seems that steelhead respond to the change of season with their own sense of reckless abandon as well.  Fall conditions provide the most consistent (though never easy) surface steelheading of the entire year.  My fishing journals show a marked increase in surface steelhead encounters when September rolls around, with the peak always coming sometime in October, and in good years, November yielding some decent top water steelhead activity as well.

I am fortunate to live about 10 minutes away from some ideal surface steelhead water on the Middle Fork Willamette.  While this is not a destination steelhead fishery, it provides a convenient opportunity for me to get my fix on a consistent basis.  By September, I find myself looking for every window of time to get on the water, sometimes even for an hour after work before darkness sets in or whenever there is a break between family activities on weekends.  Like other summer steelhead rivers, my homewater is at it's very best in fall.  

During typical years where the counts at Willamette Falls indicate that at least several thousand steelhead have entered my home river, I can expect to raise steelhead to the surface on the majority of trips that I spend astream.  Steelhead hold more predictably in certain runs and even in particular holds within runs.  It is this greater possibility for consistency that causes my obsession with surface steelhead to peak in fall.  My local quarry are of predominately hatchery origin with a few non-finclipped feral/wild steelhead thrown in to beg other questions of whether wild summer steelhead could have been ever native to the basin, but that's a whole other discussion.  

Despite stereotypes of hatchery steelhead needing to have flies right in their face to elicit interest, I blissfully find my local hatchery brats very receptive to moving off their lies to come to the surface to intercept my flies during autumn.  Not only do these local hatchery steelhead come to the surface with regularity in fall, they often come to the surface multiple times until they get your hook lodged in their mouth, making for some exciting comeback fishing to players.  I once had one of these steelhead boil at and miss my fly at the dangle, but with no more swing left, I simply slowly swayed my two handed rod alternately outward towards mid river and back towards the bank, causing my skater to track back and forth in a small banded in and out swing.  In the course of this process, I raised that steelhead a total of 10-12 times!  I was able to anticipate the rises and I was even able to drop the rod on the strike. allowing my fly to drop in the steelhead's mouth, and I still couldn't connect with a hookup.  The steelhead finally decided that I was pathetic after giving me so many chances and probably swam off to find a more worthy fly fisherman to mess with.  

While I am fully an advocate of wild steelhead, I hypocritically cannot pass up rising steelhead ten minutes from my house, even if they are synthetic versions of the real thing.  Many locals think I am nuts for chasing these hatchery steelhead with surface flies as the frequently accepted hometown wisdom is to fish a Skagit line with 10' of T-8 or a longer type III sinktip.  Apparently, being nuts is my preferred state of mind as I can't get myself to put on a tip when I know these hatchery mutants will rise to the surface. 

Local hatchery steelhead that couldn't pass up my foam skater during a brief evening session afterwork.  Todd Hirano photo.

Success in steelheading with a surface fly is never a forgone conclusion, but fall conditions on Pacific Northwest rivers provide the greatest degree of predictability and consistency that one could ever expect in this game of what can seem like dim-witted persistence.  It is during this time of year that I may log multiple consecutive trips of raising, hooking, and landing steelhead with surface flies.  This is prime time and the pace of surface action you may encounter will typically be unsurpassed compared to any other time of year.

Late fall day on the North Umpqua with Lee Lashway.  Todd Hirano photo.

It is also during this special time that you are most likely to encounter "the player".  These are steelhead that typically "miss" your fly on the initial appearance and then continue to come back on consecutive casts with explosive displays, sometimes multiple times during the swing.  Some players will continue coming back to the same fly until they are hooked.  Others may stop rising to the same fly, but can be brought back to the surface with a change to a smaller, darker fly.  Using a small wet fly as a closer is almost a sure thing with these players, but I stubbornly insist on making all efforts to get a full surface grab so I stick with changing to other surface flies until the steelhead stops rising all together, or until I run out of tippet material from too many fly changes.

 Perhaps the greatest highlights of my fishing year that most often occurs in fall, is when I encounter the "loaded run".  It's those days you dream about:  you may raise a steelhead at the upper corner/armpit of the run, then you continue down and find another player further down the run, then you encounter another one towards the tailout and perhaps at other points in between, or you may even find multiple steelhead that are holding in the same general area.  It can feel like Christmas in October!  Your soul is so full of excitement that experiencing the loaded run is something you will never forget.  However, even though this experience can leave you feeling like you are floating on a cloud for weeks, it is never taken for granted, for we know how tough this pursuit can be and these rare highlights are to be cherished and reflected upon, or even written about on your blog.

Hatchery steelhead that traveled several hundred miles from the ocean to take my skater on a beautiful eastern river in October.  Adrian Cortes photo.

Scene of a loaded run on a desert river in October.  Todd Hirano photo
Indeed, the promises of fall are what I look forward to the most each year.  Everything about the season pleases me: from the cooler weather, softer lighting throughout the day, aggressive steelhead on the surface, and yearly traditions of gathering with friends on special rivers.  Fall is my chance for redemption, having the opportunity to validate that all my efforts through countless blank days over the course of the year were not made in vain. 

May the fall season bring your surface steelhead dreams to life as well. 

November steelhead camp with Bucky Buchstaber, Aaron Ostoj, and Adrian Cortes.  Todd Hirano Photo.

Pick your poison.  Adrian Cortes and I compare notes and realize we each have our own styles in this game.  Natural and traditional for Adrain;  foamy, synthetic and weird for me.  Todd Hirano photo.

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