From the archives: A Winter Steelhead Baptism

As promised, here’s a pre-currentseams oldie but goodie. The events took place in December 2009, my first real winter steelheading trip. It’s amusing now to read this over a decade later, recalling how raw I was and little I knew about hooking and landing steelhead. I’ve included a link to a video old fishing buddy Todd Kurht made where you can see the battle and the beast. I hope you enjoy this little slice of steelhead dreaming,

“That Boy is a P-I-G pig!” With apologies to Babs from Animal House (and the steelhead involved) he truly was.

We started out on a beautiful winter morning with moderate temperatures and plenty of sunshine in a pool I had never fished before. The water was low (>350cfs), cold (33 degrees), and crystal clear. I had high hopes for this trip, my first winter steelheading venture, and I thought the conditions would only help us out. I sparked up a churchill to start enjoying on the walk down to the river. An hour later, I was still puffing on it, fishless. Bob had moved to spots elsewhere, and Todd and I were beating the water thoroughly. I just didn’t know this spot well. I spent a half hour around a really sexy-looking stump tangle before wading over to discover that the water was much shallower than I thought. 

Then, I waded though a deeper channel that I didn’t know was there, and realized that that was where I should have been fishing (later confirmed by Trapper, one of the good guides, who shared the pool with us and his client). But, such is the learning curve on new waters. 

I had tied on an Opal Blue Estaz egg and was fishing a current seam along the far bank when the indicator paused. I set the hook like I had already done dozens of times today, only this time the rig didn’t come flying out of the water. It stuck. And then the water boiled up 50 feet away from me.

I could see it was a good sized fish, but I didn’t have the full picture until the first run. Criiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiink! The drag sang out in the warm December air. The fish rolled again, and I could see once more that it was a good fish. Todd was on the scene by now, and confirmed it was a sizeable steelhead. And that’s when the line went slack.

Well, I told myself, that’s why they’re called “steelhead.” At least I had hooked a big fish, and at least I had my adrenaline rush for the day. Can’t win them all.

So why is my fly line moving upstream at a very rapid pace?

You must understand that I have a minimal corpus of knowledge when it comes to steelhead. “Rookie” would be accurate. I had forgotten how quickly they can turn on a dime and shoot upstream. The last time this happened was the first steelhead I hooked over a year ago. I lost that fish. Frantically, I stripped and reeled line as the fish passed me. Yes! Still on. I reset the hook as hard as I dared, and the fish dashed downstream at a breakneck pace, peeling line off the reel like I’d never experienced. 

Again, understand that my experience base of fighting a fish like this on single digit test tippet is nil. The steelhead melted through the flyline in a matter of seconds. I was into the backing good. Of course, Todd is kibitzing the whole time, providing moral support, and telling me this is a great fish. I kept thinking, “Todd, you just put the whammy on me.” I decided nothing ventured, nothing gained. I was uncomfortable with well over a hundred feet of line out, so I started to reel in. Every time I felt weakness on the other end, I reeled in more. I regained the majority of the line before the fish blistered off on another long run. But all this oxygen-burning fury was taking its toll. And for the first time, cigar clenched in my teeth, puffing away, I felt good about landing this beast. 

Finally the end was in sight. I had the fish in the shallows. At this point I felt if it broke off, I had at least achieved a moral victory. Todd came up behind the fish, tailed it, and a prize that was measured in pounds, not inches, was ours.

Talk about good fortune: the egg fly was dangling from a paper thin section of tissue in the steelhead’s mouth. We took some pics then released it, watching it porpoise as it skulked back to its lie. Not a bad steelhead to be your first on a fly you tied. And here it is.

This caption was not part of the original piece, but the photo was. I believe this is still the largest steelhead I’ve landed, and I’d estimate it to be about 15 pounds. You can see the fly dangling by a thread of tissue — such is the case when planets align and good fortune is in the forecast.

I went and sat on the bank to savor the rest of the cigar. I was shaking. I think I giggled out loud for a half hour.

The battle preserved on video. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself, because I think I at least look like I know what I’m doing. The main even is from about 0:23 through 1:03.

Top 5 Steelhead Nymphs for Salmon River, Pulaski

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.

The Best Colors for the Crystal Meth Fly are…

The best colors for the Crystal Meth fly are the ones the steelhead want to eat…or the ones in which you have the most confidence.

Debates on the best color for Crystal Meths, egg patterns, and beads for steelhead and trout are never-ending. Everyone has their theories. Everyone has their favorite colors. Everyone can prove you wrong. So I stand by my opening statement. In case you don’t know what a Crystal Meth is (besides one of the best fly names ever, right?) it’s a sparkled-up version of a Sucker Spawn. You can tie them with or without a bead and a Krystal Flash tail. When the steelhead are feeding below salmon redds — and even when they’re not — the Crystal Meth can be a very productive fly. And since they’re firmly in the junk/guide fly category, you don’t fret when you lose one to the bottom gods.

Our Lady of Blessed Crystal Meth — chartreuse — accounted for my only fish on this painfully slow day.

So, what are my favorite colors for the Crystal Meth? Here’s a handy-dandy photo reference chart. I use them all, but if I had to choose a top three, I’d go chartreuse, fluorescent blue, and fluorescent fire orange. YMMV.

NY steelhead report March 16 & 17: Why I don’t go to casinos

It has nothing to do with the current public health crisis. It has nothing to do with planning (I go when I’m able to). It’s simply this: the days I go will be the wrong days. Period. Bad luck? We’re talking gargantuan, steaming piles of elephant dung luck. At least that’s the way it’s been the last few trips.

For ten minutes in early November, I was warm. (Yes, it was as cold as it looks.)

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To wit: last November. Good conditions. People are catching. I arrive the moment a major cold front comes through and witness the bite stop in its tracks. The next day, blank. And miserably cold. The next day, one steelhead. Even colder. Big picture: the cold front turns into a long-lasting pattern. It not only kills the bite but the entire migration. So when I go later in the month, I feel like king of the world when I manage one steelhead over two days.

Which brings us to my trip last week with Gordo.

What a shock! We started the trip as a high pressure cold front settled in. Ice in the guides until 1pm. We floated from Altmar to Pineville and saw five fish landed all day. (We had three of them.) I suppose that’s reason to smile. My steelhead came on an old Salmon River favorite, the Copperhead Stone.

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Day two: crik stompin’. The fish were there. They just didn’t want to eat. Not even egg sacks. Gordo and Jim each hooked and quickly dropped a few — that’s how subtle and non-committal the takes were. I managed one lonely domestic rainbow. Did I mention that it was cold and wet and miserable? (Sigh…) Big moment: this was Gordo’s first time in waders walking a stream. He did a tremendous job.

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Today we are thankful for right-of-ways.

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We finished up at a very mysterious deep hole with only room for one. So Gordo bounced his implements of destruction along the bottom of the maelstrom. Even though he’s using a spinning rod, the technique is very tight-line nymphing. Again, there were a few takes, but sadly no firm commitments.

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So, two cold days of terrible action. Or maybe this: I got to go steelheading with my son. I wasn’t working. I had my first cigars since Christmas. I landed a steelhead. We were outside and free and fishing.

Pretty lucky, Steve.

 

 

 

Salmon River Report 11/25-26: None. One. Are we still having fun?

For a guy who never plays at casinos, I manage to do an awful lot of gambling. Like planning my Salmon River, Pulaski, steelhead trips months in advance. As with Vegas, the odds always favor the house. Sometimes you win. More often, you lose — and lose big. My trip earlier in November brought me the double whammy of a sub-par steelhead run and an Arctic cold front. I felt lucky to escape with my dignity and fingertips intact, and the two steelhead I landed were a trip-saving bonus.

Two weeks later, here I was again. (See “Go, Weather or Not” in my Great Lakes Steelhead piece for Field & Stream.) Make that we, as this was the annual father-son November steelhead trip — facing moderate flows (350cfs, 500cfs at Pineville) but the same paucity of fish. (2019 was, according to my records, tied for the second worst year in the last ten in numbers of fish landed.)

There’s not much to tell you about Monday. We floated the middle river, as always with steelhead guide extraordinaire Row Jimmy, aka James Kirtland, but the vast majority of steelhead that had been there the previous few days had skedaddled. Not a single touch for me in over eight hours of carpet bombing the river bottom. Cam managed one brown, and Jimmy rolled a steelhead that was quickly off. Here, Cam reflects upon the errors or our ways while considering the merit of Stefano’s garlic knots.¬†

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The command decision was made to float the upper river on Tuesday. We enjoyed a gentlemen’s start at the civilized hour of 7:15am. Here’s Cam wrangling the Pavati at the Altmar boat launch. The anglers we spoke to at the bottom of the LFZ reported a slow beginning to the day.

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So, let’s change that up. Since we needed to let some boats ahead of us fish through, we parked the boat and Jim (did I mention he’s a guide extraordinaire?) pointed to some likely holding water. A bit of a treacherous wade, but manageable, and it wasn’t too long before I was rewarded with a dipping indicator and a thrumming sensation at the end of my line. The fishing quote of the year goes to Cam, who said, “Well, Dad, now you won’t be grouchy for the rest of the day!”

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I’d like to tell you that my fish was the start of something big, but ’twas not to be. We endured hours of the same non-existent action. So when Cam scored this handsome steelhead around noon, we decided that on this day (50 degrees and partly sunny to boot!) we’d beaten the house.

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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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