Striper report: all about adjustments

I fished for 90 minutes today at a very popular late fall spot. Lots of bass around — the spin guys were cleaning up — but I wasn’t getting my fly where it needed to be, which was down deep. Dagnabbit, I left my bag of 3/0 shot in the car. Two sections of T-11 (totaling 10 feet) and a leader shortened to 3 feet solved the problem, along with some upstream casts and active mending. When my fly was ticking bottom, the bottom often fought back. All shorts, but some of them put up a good fight in the current. Wow, the wind! Gusts over 20mph made me glad I was casting with/across it. The dredging is still going on, but any commotion caused by tugs and barges didn’t seem to bother the fish. A glorious day to wet a line and catch a few stripers (and a bonus shad).

No photos, because you all know what a schoolie looks like. You’ll have to settle for a blast from the past on a warm summer night a few years ago…

ElectricSmoke

Salmon River steelhead report: Cruel to be kind

I do my best to understand, dear, but you still mystify — and I don’t think I’ll ever know why.

Why does a cold front always seem to come through on the day I booked months ago?

Why won’t the steelhead take the fly — any fly — on this particular day?

Why do steelhead glom onto only small black stones or only fluorescent orange eggs or…?

Why do I subject myself to this?

These are the questions I ponder at night over a glass of single malt. Finding the answers isn’t necessarily the goal — or even a realistic outcome. It’s just part of the Kabuki known as steelhead madness.

Monday: I call it “Salmon River Sunshine.” It refers to the snow, rain, sleet, and the more esoteric forms of lake-effect precipitation. Today it was white pellets and snow. It started around 7am — we’d launched at 6 — and it went full throttle pretty much all morning. The stuff stuck to the boat, our gear, hoods, gloves —  no horizontal surface was spared. Now, I’ve had plenty of good days fishing in crap weather, but this wasn’t one of them. Not a single touch the entire day. We were surely fishing over steelhead, because Cam hooked five, landing three. Okay, so he was using egg sacks. But shouldn’t I have gotten at least a courtesy tap?

I tend to view these situations as a half full/half empty dichotomy: I’m fishing well, my drifts are good, I’m alert and ready to set the hook, and I know there are steelhead below. But as much as I will it to be so, they just won’t take the fly. That’s more than a little frustrating when you’ve driven hours so you can shiver in your boots for the skunk while standing in five inches of slush in the bottom of a boat.

Of course, the salve for this day was how well Cam fished. (He hooked and landed more steelhead than any other angler we saw or spoke to.) Being a proud papa can do wonders for your spirits, so I went all in on that. And I reminded myself that in any multi-day trip, the fighting is in rounds.

When I sent this photo to my wife, her comment was, “Even the fish looks cold.” That’s our guide, James Kirtland of Row Jimmy Guide Service.  I’ve become a much better steelhead angler because of him. Highly recommended.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

Tuesday: Having blanked on two of my four steelhead days this fall, I was ready to negotiate an agreement using my fly fishing soul as collateral. I’m talking, of course, about trout beads. Yes, they are proven steelhead catchers. No, they are not flies. But it’s my trip and I can do whatever the hell I want. Purists among you will be pleased to know that I blanked for the two hours I used them. (I have to confess that I wasn’t all that upset about it, either.)

I’d had some success the previous week on a pattern called a Breaking Skein Glitter Fly. It’s basically a Crystal Meth with a pearl Krystal Flash tail and some white Estaz ribbed between the fluorescent orange braid loops. Wasn’t I the happiest angler on the river when my indicator went under and the line thrummed with energy?

After 11 consecutive hours of skunk, that’ll put a smile on your face. I had to earn this one. It was a fresh, energetic fish, and after a couple line burning runs it decided that the boat was a cut bank and parked underneath it. Picture me leaning over the bow, rod tip in the water, trying to coax it out. Seconds became years, but we finally had our grip and grin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

This year’s fishing was different for me in that all my steelhead came on bright, flashy patterns. I spent many hours presenting small black stones (Redheads, Copperheads, etc.) and any number of natural-toned soft-hackles to no avail. They wanted the bling. (I did hook and drop a fish on a 60-Second Copperhead). By the time ice in the rod tips was no longer a factor, Cam had boated three, and I’d taken my second on the Breaking Skein Glitter Fly.

It’s a very, very, very good sign.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

It was now early afternoon and time was a thief. I’d gotten a bump on a hot orange Salmon River Rajah fished under an indicator, so I rolled the dice, ditched the yarn, and embarked on a little swinging adventure. I gave it the better part of an hour, but in the end I went back to the Breaking Skein well. My last steelhead ate the fly with fierce conviction, but I whiffed on the set. We got a good look at it when it boiled, and we ruefully concurred that it was the biggest fish of the day. Oh, the cruelty! I kept pounding the slot the fish had been holding in, and ten minutes later the steelhead gods showed their kindness as the fish struck and I buried the hook in the corner of its mouth. Like my first fish, this buck cartwheeled down the pool, then made a beeline for the security of under the boat. At double digit pounds, this steelhead needed some firm pressure to get him to relinquish his position. In the end, the hoop of the net encircled him, and smiles decorated every face.

On Tuesday, November 21st, 2017, the steelhead loved this fly. On Monday, November 20th, 2017, they ignored it. Don’t ask me why.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

Cam was high hook both days and for the trip, with seven total steelhead, three of them in some nasty, difficult conditions. Dad was three-for-five. But as I tell Cam, if I can land just one steelhead, that’s a good day.

Lee Wulff was right. As was Nick Lowe. (In the right measure.) 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

Steelhead soft hackle: the Salmon River Rajah

The Salmon River Rajah is based on an old steelhead pattern called the Rajah. I discovered the Rajah many years ago when I was researching patterns online. The accompanying text referenced the book Fly Patterns of Alaska, a slim but potent volume. Turns out it was previously listed in Trey Combs’ book Steelhead Fly Fishing and Flies. (Combs credits the pattern to one Arthur Solomon.)

I tied up a few Rajahs, but I wasn’t thrilled with the materials: bucktail, chenille (which I consider a lifeless material), polar bear, black thread. So I made some changes: bucktail to hackle fibers, chenille to Estaz, polar bear to Arctic fox, black thread to red. I even ramped up the tinsel factor from flat silver to holographic braid.

The result is the Salmon River Rajah, a flashier fly with far more seductive movement than the original. I named it for the river where I have seen ambivalent steelhead go out of their way to eat it.  I first published the pattern in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of American Angler, where I wrote: The coldest day I ever went steelheading began with the mercury just a few degrees above zero. By mid-afternoon, it had barely made it into double digits. I was fishing a Salmon River Rajah under an indicator. As the fly completed its drift along the bottom, it began to swing up and downstream. I saw the wake before I ever felt the strike. It was a steelhead that had been in the river a while, its chrome flanks long since transitioned to deep winter hues. Any fly that can urge a dark horse to chase it down in thirty-three degree water on a day that would keep many skiers at home has a permanent spot in my steelhead box.

More recently, I was fishing the Salmon River Rajah when it snagged on the bottom. After freeing the fly, I was stripping it in to check the hook point…WHACK! That’s pretty good stuff.

The Salmon River Rajah

Culton_Rajah 1

Hook: Atlantic Salmon size 6-8
Thread: Red 6/0
Tail: Hot pink hackle fibers
Body: Rear two-thirds Lagartun holographic silver mini-flatbraid, front one-third opal pink Estaz
Hackle: Hot pink
Wing: Sparse white Arctic fox
~
Feel free to play around with color. I also like this fly in hot orange (tail, Estaz, hackle).
~
The Salmon River Rajah Rogues’ Gallery:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

“Running The Coast” film benefit event (bonus: it’s at Stony Creek Brewery) November 29 & 30

As the proud father of a veteran (my oldest son Bill, USMC, two tours in Iraq) I’m delighted to share this with you. I’ll be speaking before the film on night two, November 30th. Hope to see you at the Stony Creek Brewery.

You can get all the details here.

https---cdn.evbuc.com-images-37660932-231910846285-1-original

Salmon River steelhead report: a little boating, a little hiking, and (finally) some catching

Tuesday: The Salmon can be tough on the fly at 1,650cfs. Then again, I’ve had some of my best days in four-digit flows. With all that water, the fish would have been on the move, then doing their best sardine impression once they reached their wintering destinations in the pools above Pineville. What’s more, a drift boat would give me access to places no fly rod could reach.

You can maintain a positive outlook, plan for the best — or if you’re superstitious, make burnt offerings to the steelhead gods. But in the end, they are in control. And today their answer was no. We saw five steelhead hooked all day from Altmar to Pineville. Four of them came in a 15 minute window, and three of them on plugs. My day’s excitement came when I fouled one below Ellis Cove. I don’t think that fish stopped until it reached Port Ontario.

I fished hard and I fished well, which is all any angler can do. But the best thing I can say about the day was that I got to sleep in. Getting up at 4am for the skunk would have been mortally depressing.

~

Wednesday: A-creeking I did go. I was on the water by 7am, my optimism unswayed by two discouraged anglers heading to their truck. They had been there since first light without a touch. I blanked as well, and then for good measure hiked a quarter mile downstream to blank again. I drove to Creek B and never got close to the water. A guide was making his way across a field with two weary clients in tow. The walk of shame is highly distinguishable from the march of victory, and I knew what their answer was before I asked the question. In fact, the guide reported, there were pinners using egg sacks who blanked. With a sigh I headed back to the Salmon.

This was supposed to be a picture of a steelhead. But since there were no willing subjects, I had to settle for an early morning still life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I gave two runs in the middle river an hour. It was still morning, so I headed for the LFZ lot in Altmar. I had enough wanderlust left in me to make the ridiculous decision to walk to the UFZ. It’s a proper haul by itself, never mind in 5mm boot foots. I hadn’t fished the top end of the UFZ in years, and while it was pleasant enough getting reacquainted, it was far too much work for the consolation prize of a single YOY steelhead.

I made it back to the truck by 4pm. I’d always avoided the LFZ — crowds are generally not my thing — but with the specter of another lousy trip ominously stalking me, I headed in. And that simple choice made all the difference.

Starting the transition from chrome to dark horse.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

Thursday: There are two things I’ll get up early for, and steelhead is one of them. I was awake without the alarm at 4:44am, first vehicle in the lot, and on the water before false dawn. I met up with UpCountry Sportfishing’s Torrey Collins and some of his friends, and everyone got into steelhead. Great bunch of guys to fish with. The sharing energy extended beyond hookups, from rotating the line to netting fish to passing out victory cigars.

My last fish of the day was a memorable one. I was telling Torrey about the fly I was using, the Salmon River Rajah, when I got snagged on the bottom. (I’d found the inspiration for it, The Rajah, in a book called Fly Patterns of Alaska. I didn’t like a lot of the materials the pattern called for, so I switched them out for ones that I thought moved and breathed and gave the fly an entirely different energy.) Two roll casts failed to free the fly, so I waded upstream and pulled until it came loose. As I was stripping the fly in to check the hook point, whack! Steelhead on. And soon, landed.

Grinning like a ‘possum eating a sweet potato. I caught my first steelhead in 2009, and while I don’t generally count fish, steelhead are different. I’ve been keeping track over the years, feast or famine, and this is the 75th steelhead I’ve landed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

Steelhead can’t think, but if they could, that buck might have decided, “I want that!” Change bucktail to soft hackle fibers, tinsel to holographic braid, chenille to Estaz, and polar bear to Arctic fox, and you’ve got a Salmon River Rajah. More than once I’ve seen a steelhead go out of its way to eat this fly.

Culton_Rajah 1

 

 

The best flies for steelhead are…

…the ones you have the most confidence in.

Here’s a batch of such steelhead flies, along with a few new ones to place into the rotation. I love the ritual of fly box replenishment. So much potential glory stuck into wine corks.

All that’s needed now are some waiting and willing mouths.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

An enthusiastic thumbs up from — and for — Joan Wulff

Many thanks to the CFFCM for the speaking opportunity. As always, gatherings like Arts of the Angler are a wonderful way for those of us in the fly fishing community to reconnect — and make new acquaintances. I got to meet several currentseams.com members face-to-face — hello! Thanks also to everyone who came out to see me present. I appreciate you coming, and for asking so many good questions.

And now it’s bonus time. It’s not often that you get the opportunity to present to a legend. But there she was — Joan Wulff, sitting in on my “The Little Things” seminar. At the end, when I announce that it’s time for Q&A, she stands up and compliments me at length on my presentation.

That was so cool.

Steve C. That’s me.

2017AoA