November means steelhead. At least it does for me. This year, though, the steelhead adventures will have to wait a few weeks. In the meantime, here’s an oldie but goodie from the archives: Ten Things Every Beginning Steelheader Should Know. Even if you’re an experienced steelheader, you might find a useful nugget within. Enjoy the read — and enjoy the ride.
Those of you who fish for steelhead know how maddening the pursuit can be. When conditions and fish are cooperative, it’s hard to imagine having more fun while wearing rubber pants. When things don’t go well — well, you quickly reacquaint yourself with your cache of four-letter vocabulary words. This year’s November steelhead trip with #2 Son Cam offered a taste of both worlds. The first day I dropped three fish and Cam didn’t have a touch (along with suffering the indignity of leaky waders). The second day I scored a couple fish — it’s always a relief to get off the steelhead schneid — but Cam’s woes continued. He dropped a handful and as the sun began moving toward the western horizon things were looking grim. Then — on literally the last cast — Cam brought a sturdy buck to hand. What a finish! Or, as Alec Baldwin would say, “Coffee is for closers only.”
Give that young man a prize! You can read the full report here.
The best steelhead nymphs are the ones in which you have the most confidence. After all, “best” isn’t measurable. But if you buy into the old saw that the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it, I’d like to offer up five steelhead nymphs that have proven their worthiness on New York’s Salmon River.
So, what qualifies a steelhead fly as a nymph? For the purposes of this list, I’ve kept it to flies that are size 8 or smaller; flies that feature predominantly muted colors (hot spots, contrast points, and bead heads are allowed); and flies whose basic construct is at least 50% actual invertebrate driven. So, no bigger stoneflies here. No Steelhead Hammer types. And no black-light poster colors. Here we go, in no particular order. As a bonus, some of the patterns have links to my tying video.
Soft-Hackled Bead Head Pheasant Tail. I was pleased no end to discover that Salmon River steelhead would eat this rather muted pattern. I’ve done really well with this fly in winter.
60-Second Redhead. The beauty of this fly isn’t that if you lose one to the bottom gods, you’re not depressed because they’re so fast and easy to tie. It’s that this fly, which would never catch your eye in a retail bin, is like candy to steelhead when they’re eating bugs.
60-Second Copperhead. After pounding up so many steelhead on the redhead, I wondered if they’d like a version with a copper Ice Dub head. A wise old Salmon River veteran once told me, “It’s hard to go wrong on this river with black and copper.” He was mighty right.
Copperhead Stone. I landed my first steelhead on this fly, and years later, it still works. I remember one morning in the Lower Fly Zone when I was handing them out to everyone who wanted to know, “What fly are you using?”
Spider. Another ridiculously simple tie (notice a pattern here?): size 12 hook, black Krystal Flash tail, black Estaz body, copper (the original calls for olive or pearl) braid flashback. Designed by Clyde Murray for Erie fish, the Salmon River steelhead like it just fine.
My top five steelhead nymphs for the Salmon River in Pulaski, NY, are all very simple ties. Note that they all have some kind of contrast, flash, or hot spot. These are all high-confidence patterns for me, all proven producers, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of them when you suspect the steelhead are eating nymphs.
Mothers can’t help but worry, and so it was with mine when I told her I was going steelheading during the first real cold snap of the season. Turns out she was only partially right.
Nothing kills the steelhead bite with more indifferent cruelty than a cold front. The fishing had been pretty good the few days and hours before we arrived — lots of steelhead, particularly in the upper end of the river, and fair enough weather and flows. By the time we waded in, things were already going south. (The irony will not be lost on those who recognize the cold front as a wanderer originating from the north.)
This was my first non-solo steelhead trip (other than with my sons) in years, as I had the company of the illustrious Peter Jenkins, owner of the Saltwater Edge in Newport, RI. If Jenks looks cold, he probably is. I know I was. The thing about a boat in winter is that there’s a pernicious, unexpected kind of cold — you’re not able to walk around, and if it’s windy you’re exposed to the gusts as they whip off the water.
We hit the river with positive resolve at 2:30pm Monday, and although we gave it a good effort, no steelhead made it to the hoop. In fact, I didn’t have a single touch. Jenks had, at least, the excitement of a few takes. Timing is everything, though, and we clearly missed it (Sal from Legends on the Farmington was fishing across from us and reported many earlier fish to net from his group.)
Tuesday was float day with my friend James Kirtland of Row Jimmy Guide Service. There’s a technical description for the conditions we experienced — I think “shitty” is the term. We had snow and wind and cold, and let’s throw in a disaster bite for good measure. Jenks had a few touches, but no love on the hookups. My single take of the day produced a newly-minted coin of a skipper, and given the conditions, I took my 1-for-1 and ran with it.
So much depends upon a propane heater, glazed with snowflakes beside the white pizza box. (I love how often that poem lends itself to fishing situations.) Speaking of food, here’s a hot dining tip for those heading up to Pulaski: 11 North Bar & Grill. We visited on Taco Tuesday, and enjoyed three stuffed beefy tacos each for the grand total of $9. That’s not a misprint. Yummy wings, plus a good beer on tap list.
We performed seemingly never-ending eyelet triage as the mercury never made it out of the 20s for the entire trip. Stuff like Loon Outdoors Stanley’s Ice-Off Paste works…for part of an hour, then it’s back to ice patrol.
And then, there was Wednesday. On the river early: 17 degrees. Off the water at 3pm: 19 degrees. Hookups up and down the line were few and far between, with landings even scarcer. And it was just plain suck-the-warmth-out-of-you cold. So when my indicator dipped, I was happy that I got a good, hard, downstream hookset. That’s breath coming out of my mouth, not cigar smoke. Please also appreciate the lake effect snow shower, and Jenks’ fine photography.
I fouled one more, lost another to a tippet failure (had to have been nicked), and had a couple of bumps that never resulted in a tight line. But any day you can land a steelhead is a good day. And from the look on the angler’s face, regardless of the weather, that is the way to have fun, son.
“The Steel Deal — How to catch Great Lakes Steelhead in the Fall” first appeared in the Oct/Nov 2018 issue of Field & Stream. It’s a great introductory primer for Great Lakes steelhead fly fishing anglers, and even veteran chrome hounds will find some valuable nuggets. Written, of course, by yours truly, with insights from legendary Great Lakes steelhead guide Matt Supinski. In case you missed it, the link to the article is up top. And here’s a bonus link to the 60-Second Redhead, one of my favorite steelhead patterns.
Subfreezing temperatures? Stinging sleet? Frozen fingers? Suck it up, baby, and go steelheading! Here’s Number Two Son Cameron and my favorite Salmon River guide Jim Kirtland enjoying a little “Salmon River sunshine.” Is it all worth it? Just look at those smiles.
Every once is a while, the steelhead gods remind you that they really aren’t out to get you. Planets align, good karma rules, and all is right with the chrome world. This year’s birthday steelhead trip was such moment. Sure, one day of skunk, but bookended by a great day on the creeks and an even better one — my birthday — on the Salmon. Not a bad thing to wish for when you’re blowing out the candles.
Skunk’s off early on day one. Brilliant even in the pale light of a cloudy dawn.
The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades. Whoops! Then it rained, and the next day was a cold, wet blank. Not worry. Good times coming.
Every dog has his day. I’d rather be lucky than good. Whatever the bromide, it’s some kind of wonderful when you’re the guy in the pool who’s making everyone else wonder what he did to deserve hooking steelhead after steelhead. One of my best days ever on the Salmon, and thanks again to everyone who lent a landing net hand and so kindly shared water.
In a way, it’s ridiculous to try to assign a value to something as precious as time alone on the water with your sons. Suffice to say that I treasure the opportunity to go steelheading with them. We’ve got a nifty little system: Gordo gets the spring drop back shift, and Cam takes the late fall duties. Lucky dad! I get to do both. Memories are made, tales begin to be told, and it’s always an adventure.
This young man has become an excellent steelheader in just a few short years. (What a proud papa I’ve become!) As usual, Cam gets it done, whether rain, sleet, snow, or cold. Or all of the above.
Gordo and I have fished the Salmon River in April on sunny days and our shirt sleeves. No such luck in 2018: 34 degrees, freezing rain, classic ice storm. At least the fish cooperated — or they did for Gordo. Fresh chrome in April! Woo-hoo!
You’ve heard me tell that my mother used to say that life isn’t fair.
I hated hearing that, but over the years I’ve grudgingly accepted it. I know she had my best interests in mind. But if she really wanted to help me, she would have added, “And steelheading is even more unfair.”
Cam and I fished the Salmon River last week. We had cold, warm, ice, snow, and sunshine. We had 350cfs and 750cfs. We had fish on and fish off. And we had the cruel fickleness of the beast and the sport.
Day One. After a slow start, Cam gets into a slob of Lake Ontario’s finest. He went three for three. This is his first of the morning.
It was Jim’s birthday, and since we were both taking a break we insisted that he fish and catch a celebratory steelhead. This guy’s good. Here’s proof.
A different perspective on the grip-and-grin. We kept all the fish in the net in the water until it was time for a quick photo op.
By now, you’re asking, “But Steve — where’s your fish?” Ahem. I pounded the same water as Cam all morning on day one and not. A. Touch. Steelheading isn’t fair, remember? On the way downriver, I fouled one first cast in a deep hole. Farther down, I went one-for-two in another deep pool while Cam blanked. Are we seeing a pattern here? This is Cam’s last fish of day one. I dropped my first fair-hooked fish to an incredibly bad set. The second was camera shy, but was about the size of this one and polished metal bright. One steelhead to boat makes it good day.
Oh, the injustice of Day Two! This tank of a buck is the only fish we boated. Now, anyone who’s steelheaded for years can tell you that fish are often lost to operator error. They’ll also tell you that you can do everything right and still lose the fish. Friends, I’m here to testify (with Jim and Cam as my witnesses) that I had four indicators go under, and I was dead-balls-on every hookset. Fast, sweeping downstream, hard — sticky sharp hooks — and every fish came unbuttoned. Three right after set, and one that I managed to keep on for a couple runs. You can do what you can do, and beyond that it’s up to the steelhead gods. Repeat after me: Steelheading isn’t fair!
There’s something about steelheading that’s — I don’t know — sad. I’ve written about its emotional rollercoaster, and how when you’re down the track seems like an endless journey into melancholy. The highest percentage play on these tribs, a presentation along the bottom, makes me weary by tedious repetition. Let’s not even mention the weather, which can turn a suck day into shit faster than you can tighten the strings on the hood of your rain jacket.
But when the bite is on and weather is tolerable and the people are pleasant and — this is not insignificant — your luck is good, it’s about as much fun as you can have while wearing rubber pants.
A little crick stompin’ on day one. Up at 4:20am, spot secured by 5:10, waiting for first light. Any day I can land one steelhead is a good day. Skunk off early is even better. Bright, beautiful chrome that shone even in the rain.
We bounced around from pool to pool. I had to work my butt off for this steelhead. It was a very difficult presentation for a lefty, and in an hour maybe I got maybe a dozen quality drifts. One of them was good enough to fool this sparsely spotted fish.
Loved the last spot on day one. Best steelhead of the day, and one of the better ones of the trip. I got into some double-digit pounders, and the word was that there was a good mix of bigger fish this year. I hooked this one about a rod’s length away from me, and had to chase her downriver once she left the pool.
Why we keep coming back — and why we gird our loins for days like day two: not a freaking touch. Most miserable moment: last two hours, guy below me hooks four. Guy above me hooks three. I snagged the bottom. A lot. Little did I know, tomorrow was going to be great.
Day three: there’ll be no birthday skunk! A splendid buck, just beginning to color up. I shared the water with several other anglers who couldn’t have been nicer. Thank you, gentlemen. Not the world’s best picture, but you get a good sense of the size of the fish.
My father always said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” When you’ve got the hot steelhead hand, you recognize the manifest truth of his words.
If you ever figure out steelhead fly selection, please let me know. I fished this same spot — and some others nearby — last year with little copperhead black stones, and nothing. They were all over the bling. This year, if it was small and black and had a copper head, they wanted it with a sense of urgency. What a strange game we play.
To be read in your best baseball announcer impersonation voice: “Fouled off. Just got a piece of it.” Upon rig retrieval, it was easy to see why I dropped the fish at hookset. On this day I hooked nine and landed six, which doesn’t suck for a batting average. I lost one on a terrible initial hookset, and no idea what happened with the third.
The last fish of a memorable day. It was the 91st steelhead I’ve landed.
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.
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.
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.
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.