“Ten Things Every Beginning Steelheader Should Know” first appeared in the October 2015 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide. I had a lot of fun with this piece, as it mixes humor with practical advice. Even if you’re an old hand, you might find something useful here. Many thanks to MAFFG for allowing me to share it on currentseams.
So, you’ve decided that you’re going to take up fly fishing for steelhead. I don’t know whether to congratulate you or console you. No other form of fly fishing produces such soaring emotional highs or soul-crushing lows. But, the least I can do – as someone who was once in your bright-eyed position – is prepare you for what lies ahead.
Stop. Turn back now before it’s too late. Steelheading is an addiction. And once you’re hooked, dealers in the form of social media fishing reports, grip-and-grins, river conditions, dam release schedules (not to mention endless discussions about rods, reels, flies and gear) will have you at their command. “Obsession” is not too strong a word. Work, social, home life – will all suffer for the pursuit of fresh chrome. You think I’m writing this tongue-in-cheek. I am not.
Expect harsh weather. Great Lakes steelheading is largely a fall, winter, and early spring game. Be prepared for some of the most unforgiving conditions you’ve ever experienced: single digit (or lower) temperatures; lake effect snow; more lake effect snow; really, any and all forms of frozen precipitation. Truthfully, plain cold isn’t that bad. It’s the thirty-four-degrees-and-raining days that cut to the bone. Dressing like you’re going on an expedition to Everest is rarely a bad idea. Fleece is your friend. Think multiple, breathable layers. And those hand and toe warmers they sell in convenience stores? Buy many, many packs.
Prepare yourself for the demanding conditions of a big river. A skunking can be the least of your worries, as this sign along the banks of New York’s Salmon River warns.
Find a tippet you can trust. The most obvious dichotomy in steelheading is that you’re using a light tippet to land a very big fish. So your tippet material must be small enough to remain unnoticed by the steelhead, and strong enough to withstand a heated battle. Here are two such materials: Drennan six-pound fluorocarbon and Maxima Chameleon six-pound nylon. Be ruthless about the condition of your tippets. Check them frequently for abrasions or wind knots. If you find problems, replace the tippet. You’ll be happy you did when you’re fighting that fifteen-pound hen fresh from the lake.
The flies are a little strange. You can catch steelhead with a tuft of Day-Glo yarn tied to a hook, or a few turns of Estaz wrapped around the shank. You may hesitate to call these things flies. Nonetheless, they work. Don’t be afraid to experiment with more traditional patterns and color palettes. Small, simple black stoneflies (like the 60-Second Redhead) and bead-head Pheasant Tail-types account for a significant number of my Great Lakes steelhead every season.
Fluorescent colors dominate a typical steelhead fly box. While egg patterns, gaudy bead heads and brightly accented stoneflies like these certainly catch fish, so do flies in muted, natural colors.
Life is not fair. Neither is steelheading. You can do everything right, from presentation to hook set to managing leaps to applying pressure, and still lose the fish. You can do all those things wrong and then land the fish. You can stand in a lineup while every angler above and below you hooks multiple fish and you blank. The spot where you caught a dozen one day is a barren steelhead wasteland the next. I gave up trying to figure it all out years ago.
Sometimes steelheading makes no sense. On this warm late November day, the river was high from snowmelt, the color of chocolate milk, with visibility of less than a foot – and we still had a tremendous day of fishing.
Be prepared to put in your time. It took me forty hours of fishing to land my first steelhead. (It took my nine year-old son only thirty minutes. That was three years ago, and I’m still bitter about it. See “Life isn’t fair” above.) Experience will be your greatest teacher. Pay attention to factors like water temperature and water levels. For example, if the river is low, I know to head for what I call the hot water – snotty whitewater riffles and pockets. Learn where steelhead hang out in the cold winter months. Watch how other people fish. Note the methods of successful anglers. Most of all, get out and fish. You can’t catch steelhead from behind a desk.
Go find the fish. Don’t get lulled into thinking that because steelhead are migratory, they could show up at your feet any minute now. I’ve spent far too many hours – if not days – waiting for something to happen that never did. If you’ve blanketed a run with presentations and have come up empty, move. The fish that want to eat are somewhere else. And it is often true that where there is one hungry steelhead, there are many others.
Tom’s 60 Second Redhead, so named because it only takes a minute to tie. In this version, the abdomen is black Krystal Dub; the head red Ice Dub. This simple pattern excels in rivers with little black stonefly populations.
Hook set is everything. I suspect that more steelhead are lost to poor hook sets and dull hook points than any other factors. Most of the steelhead I lose come unhinged in the first few seconds of the fight. Get in the habit of checking your hook points early and often. If they aren’t sticky sharp, replace them. If you’re presenting under an indicator, watch it like a hawk. Look for a reason to set the hook on every drift. Set hard with a downstream sweep. Get tight to that fish fast, and set the hook again. Then, hang on. This is where the fun begins.
Don’t let them breathe. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of a steelhead being in charge of any fight (though it’s true to some extent). Still, don’t let the fish intimidate you. Once your steelhead realizes that it’s hooked, it will want to run. Let it. It may want to leap and cartwheel. Enjoy the spectacle. But when it stops its histrionics, point the cork of your rod handle upstream, and crank that reel fast and hard. The fish stopped running because it’s exhausted. Don’t let it catch its breath. With a good hook set and a reliable tippet, you can put far more pressure on a fish than you think. Let the fish run again if it wants. Same drill: don’t let him breathe. Find that perfect equilibrium on your drag that makes the steelhead work hard for every foot of line without popping the tippet. Your goal is to land the fish as expeditiously as possible. The longer you play a steelhead, the more things can happen – and most of them are bad.
5mm neoprene insulated boot foot waders. In my opinion, this is the single greatest development in fly fishing for winter steelhead in the last 50 years.
Why we steelhead. Brilliant chrome from Lake Ontario, taken in two feet of whitewater during low flows on a black and purple North Country Spider Egg.