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

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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
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Feel free to play around with color. I also like this fly in hot orange (tail, Estaz, hackle).
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The Salmon River Rajah Rogues’ Gallery:

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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.

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Further implements of steelhead destruction

Or, an angler can hope. Either way, fly boxes must be replenished, here with an eclectic selection of attractors, eggy fare, classic soft hackles and gaudy streamers. A few hungry customers is all I ask.

The best flies for Great Lakes steelhead are the ones that get eaten. Surely a delectable morsel lies within this diverse menu.

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Pennsylvania, meet Pulaski (by way of Yorkshire)

It’s cold in Pulaski, but even on the most miserable days there seems to be a midge hatch. I’ve decided that small flies in natural colors are underutilized on the Salmon River. And so, buoyed by last week’s success with the Snipe and Purple, I took to the tying bench.

Here are four classic soft hackles adapted for steelhead: Pheasant Tail, Leisenring’s Black Gnat, Starling and Herl, and a midge-like rendering of Leisenring’s Iron Blue Nymph. Three of them use the Orvis 1641, a 1x short, 2x strong wet fly hook. They’re a size 12, so they’ll effectively fish as a 14. The other hook is a size 12 Daiichi 1120, likewise 1x short/2x strong. Some of the original patterns called for tinsel; I substituted small diameter wire.

Now all we need is a hatch and some feeders.

Steelhead soft hackles, clockwise from upper left: Pheasant Tail, Black Gnat, Starling and Herl, Iron Blue Midge. 

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Pheasant Tail
Hook: Daiichi 1120 size 12
Thread: Brown 8/0
Tail/Abdomen: Pheasant tail fibers
Rib: Small copper wire
Thorax: Peacock herl
Hackle: Brown hen
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Black Gnat
Hook: Orvis 1641 size 12
Thread: Pearsall’s Gossamer Silk, claret
Body: 3 fibers from a jackdaw secondary wing
Rib: Small red wire
Hackle: Iridescent purple from a starling shoulder
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Starling and Herl
Hook: Orvis 1641 size 12
Thread: Pearsall’s Gossamer Silk, claret
Body: Peacock herl
Rib: Small gold wire
Hackle: Starling
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Iron Blue Midge
Hook: Orvis 1641 size 12
Thread: Pearsall’s Gossamer Silk, claret
Body: Mole fur spun on silk
Rib: Small silver wire
Hackle: Light blue dun hen

Reacquainting Yorkshire with Pulaski

It’s been another one of those steelhead seasons. Call it what you will — slow? Or maybe just a down year. But those years are now coming in bunches. That’s why I’m going with the Great Steelhead Recession. We’re chasing a fish that, in the best of times, is hard-earned. But the last three years have raised the emotional stakes to levels that will test an angler’s resolve. You can see it in the beleaguered eyes of the skunked. Hear the bitter tinge in their words (“Three days. Nothin’.”). The parking lots from Altmar to Pineville bear mute testimony to the current state of the fishery. November 9. Afternoon. Prime time. Three cars in the Ellis Cove lot, one at Lower Sportsman’s, none at the Refrigerator.

But, when you’ve booked a trip, you go. Prepare for the worse. And hope for the best.

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I didn’t get a good hook set on the first steelhead. Fresh chrome — that was evident even in the tea-stained waters. But steelheaders live by their drag, and some die by it, like me, who had it screwed down way too tight for that first run. Pop! Stonefly thus liberated from metallic mouth. Hot, burning ownership of blame consumed me. And now I had to live with the thought that that might be my only touch of the day.

Into the seventh hour of fishing. The sun was out now, and I noticed a few whispy midges freeing themselves from their watery prison. Since it was time to change flies, I rummaged around in my box for the smallest, midgeiest, most emergerly fly I could find. There it was. Snipe and Purple, soft hackle, size 10. I’d tied it up years ago, then stuck it into a corner of my fly box. And there it sat, forgotten, waiting patiently for this moment.

I turned to Jim, my guide, and announced, “I’ll bet none of your clients have ever caught a steelhead on a Snipe and Purple soft hackle.”

There comes a time during every drift when the angler decides it’s over. On this particular one, I began to lift the rod just at the moment when the fly would have started swinging up from the bottom. The steelhead had been holding there, perhaps feeding on nymphs, when he saw the bug coming at him suddenly dart toward the surface. He made a decision. I want that.

Jim saw the flash just as I felt the sharp tug. Even has he was saying, “What?!?” I was driving the point of the small wet fly hook home. This time I remembered to set my drag.  Multiple runs, two dramatic aerials, then the net. And in the midst of hard times, we were celebrating our newfound wealth.

Sun reflecting off cold, hard cash, not too long from Lake Ontario.

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Purple silk, gold rib, and a land bird hackle. That’s the actual fly at lower right. You can find the full article I wrote about these Yorkshire-inspired steelhead patterns here.

Steelhead Spiders

Steelhead Hammer variant

It’s a nymph! It’s an egg! It’s an egg-sucking nymph! Whatever it is, steelhead like the Steelhead Hammer. And that’s half the battle, isn’t it?

There are two versions of the Steelhead Hammer that I’m aware of. The first is commonly referred to as “the Orvis version.” It features a woven body and an Estaz thorax that extends east-to-west from under a case back, much like Rusher’s Steelhead Nymph. The version I’m featuring here is a much simpler tie. (I’m all for simple when there’s a good chance my fly will be sacrificed to the river bottom gods.) Canadian tyer Darren MacEachern did an online SBS on this fly several years ago, and that’s where I first learned of it. I’ve been fishing it ever since.

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Hook: Orvis 62KC size 8-10
Thread: UNI Fire Orange 6/0
Tail: Soft hen hackle fibers
Body: Two strands of black floss
Rib: Small silver holographic tinsel
Thorax: Estaz Opal Petite (color to match tail)
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 My favorite colors are purple, chartreuse, light blue, and pink. You, of course, should play around with your favorites. Anyone for peach, orange, red, white, black…?
A purple Steelhead Hammer sits for a formal portrait.

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The Steelhead Hammer Rogues’ Gallery:
Pink size 8, Salmon River, Pulaski, NY
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