Salmon River Report 4/13-4/14: Reaching the steelhead century mark — and beyond

I’m not in the habit of counting fish. But steelhead, being what they are — well, they’re just different. Trying to catch them is also different. I’ve been through all this with you before: you can do everything right and drop the fish. You can do (most) everything wrong and land the fish. Life isn’t fair, and neither is steelheading. The conditions you’re fishing in can be demanding, if not downright brutal. So when you get a decent flow and warm sunshine and bluebird skies and, most of all, a little luck, you thank the steelhead gods very much and you certainly don’t question any of it. I’d been stuck on steelhead #97 since November — my March trip was a blank — so here I was a month later, hoping something good would happen.

Tuesday April 13. I got to the river around 3pm. My float trip was scheduled for the next day, but I figured I should take advantage of the opportunity to fish. I hit a popular mark on the lower end of the river, one I was familiar with. As I was walking down the path, I saw an angler playing a steelhead, so this gave me hope. That was short-lived. For the next two-and-one-half hours, a total of eight anglers on the run hooked zero fish. I had a touch at one point, but my hookset didn’t even produce a head shake. I decided to save my chips for the next day, so I left disappointed, but clinging to the hope that sooner or later my lousy luck had to change.

If you need something spell-checked, you’re on your own.

Wednesday April 14. At first I thought it was the bottom, but it didn’t quite figure. No head shake, and I came away with air, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it had to be a steelhead. A dozen casts later, indicator down, hook set, fish on. It was a nice-looking drop-back, holding in some faster water, and now ripping line off the reel. True to form, the fish stopped at the bottom of the pool. I regained line, then another run and some aerials, too. Line regained, process repeated, and now this fish is whipped. Reel cranking, cork upstream, rod bent, steelhead just about 20 feet from the boat, Jim with the net ready. Here comes number 98. Doink! There goes number 98. This is the type of loss that vexes me no end. I had a good hookset, and I played this fish no differently that the last 50 I’ve landed. A few four-letter words provided only a moderate salve to this grievous wound. Is this how today is going to be?

An hour or so later, we bagged number 98. This relieved some of the pressure, even more so after 99, pictured here, went into the hoop. Now I felt like this was really going to happen. And if it didn’t, at least I’d made a significant dent — two steelhead was twice the number I’d landed in my last four days. The conditions were pretty darned good: water temps in the upper 40s, a little color to the water, flow 350cfs, and, best of all, a warm sunny day to help me forget that day in March when I was flicking ice out my guides for eight hours.
Then, suddenly, it was over. I landed my 100th steelhead. Cue Howie Rose saying, “Put it in the books!” Not the prettiest specimen, but beautiful and perfect in his own way. What an eventful journey. I’d like to thank everyone who encouraged me, shared water, helped wrangle and land or net a steelhead, and especially my guide James Kirtland who has provided me with so many pro tips over the years. I’ve learned so much from him.
Jim’s ClackaCraft was a great choice for low water. Jim’s a skilled oarsman, not to mention a pro with a landing net. This also seems like the appropriate time to give a shout out to Ken Abrames. Ken’s Salmo Saxatillis rod, taking a break after doing yeoman’s work, is a truly exceptional steelhead rod.
The final tally for the day was five-for-nine. We also landed four steelhead smolt and a brown trout. We saved the best steelhead for last, this pug-nosed double-digit-pounds hen we nymphed up fishing western style. To revisit the “steelheading isn’t fair” theme: I had a lousy hookset, I mishandled my line, the run was laden with submerged logs and I still landed her. I’ll take all the luck I can get! And so, dear reader, if you’re counting along, this is number 102. Only 98 more to get to 200.

Last Currentseams Tuesday Night Zoom of the spring, 3/30/21, 8pm: “Traditional Striper Flies”

I’ve got stripers on the brain, and so we’ll be talking about the traditional-style striper flies I like to tie and fish: sparse bucktails, soft-hackles, and flatwings. The discussion will include materials and hooks I use, and I’ll throw in a tying demo of something tbd. If you haven’t been getting the Zoom links — I send them out Tuesday late afternoon — please check your spam box. If you’re sending a request to get on the list, please don’t wait until 7:45 p.m. Tuesday night…I won’t be checking my email that late. Thanks!

Thank You Ottawa Flyfishers, Ken Abrames Audio, and time change for Saturday’s Nymph Tying Class

Thanks to the Ottawa Flyfishers, I am now officially an internationally-known fly fishing speaker. We had a most excellent time last night via Zoom. I talked for an hour about “The Little Things,” my original presentation in the series, that can make a big difference in your fishing success. We did Q&A — I love Q&A — for a few more minutes, then wrapped it up with social pleasantries. A wonderful group of dedicated, enthusiastic anglers. Thank you very much!

Kenney’s in the house! Ken Abrames is doing a series of talks on YouTube: “Kenney Abrames begins a video talk series with this short audio where he discusses his connection with nature.” I know as much about it as you do at this point. I have not yet listened to the first but I’m sure it will be loaded with keen observations. You can find the first talk here.

Finally, I had to switch the time for this Saturday’s “Favorite Nymphs” Zoom tying class to 3:30 p.m. There’s still room if you want to attend. Once again, the day is the same, Saturday, February 20, and the new start time is 3:30pm. The cost is $10 and you register by sending me the fee through PayPal. This also seems like a good time to thank those already enriolled in the class for being so gracious when I had to change the time. I’m lucky to have so many good people who are part of this website!

I did not get to fish Leisenring’s favorite nymphs last year as much as I would have liked. There’s always 2021…

The Big Eelie featured in On The Water’s “Guide Flies”

This is my third (I think) year participating in On The Water magazine‘s “Guide Flies” column, written by Tony Lolli. You’re familiar with he concept of a guide fly — a pattern that is typically simple to tie and can be relied upon to produce day in and day out. (Or night after night, as it were.) The Big Eelie delivers the goods. Developed by Ken Abrames, this pattern imitates larger sand eels. Part flatwing, part soft hackle, the Big Eelie is understated elegance at its finest. I think what I like most about the Big Eelie is that its template — four pencil-thin saddles and a marabou collar — lends itself to as many color combination as your inner artist can conjure up. My Rat a Tat Big Eelie, based on Ken’s larger flatwing, is just one example. Have at it and hold on tight!

Here’s a link to a PDF of this page:

Last night’s Zoom books list, fly tying, and other nuggets

A good virtual crowd last night for my Tuesday Night Zoom, “Good Reads.” In case you missed it, I shared a dozen books that have had a major influence on my fly fishing approach/philosophy/success. I had several requests for the list, so here it is: Trout Fishing by Joe Brooks. Trout by Ray Bergman. The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles by Sylvester Nemes. Wet Flies by Dave Hughes. Two Centuries of Soft-Hackled Flies by Sylvester Nemes. Trout Lessons by Ed Engle. Striper Moon and A Perfect Fish by Ken Abrames. Steelhead Fly Fishing by Trey Combs. Steelhead Dreams by Matt Supinski. Nymph Fishing by George Daniel. Tactical Fly Fishing by Devin Olsen.

Some of the language in Trout is a little moldy, but Bergman still nails certain truths that have withstood the test of time.

It occurs to me that each of these books deserves its own review. I’ve already formally reviewed some of the newer ones on these pages, but I’ll be starting a series featuring the others very soon. Last night’s Zoom was so well received that I’m going to do another on Good Reads (Son of Good Reads? Good Reads II? Attack of the Good Reads?). The well of influential material is deep!

There’s still room in Saturday’s (January 30) class, Tying Wingless and Winged Wet Flies. We start at 1pm, and you can literally sign up for it any time before then. Here are the details.

And now, I’m off to write something for Dennis Zambrotta’s followup to Surfcasting Around The Block. Stripers on the brain…

If you want to catch more stripers, learn presentations other than cast-and-strip

One of my goals with currentseams is to help you become a better angler — and hopefully catch more fish. So if I could somehow distill a “Top Ten Tips” out of my brain’s fly fishing storehouse, one of them would certainly be: Learn presentations other than cast and strip. Especially if you want to catch more stripers.

When I see questions like, “How fast do you retrieve the fly?” or “Do you strip with one or two hands?” — and I see these questions a lot — I despair. Rarely does anyone ask the question, “Does it have to be a retrieve?” The answer would open many doors to greater fish-catching glory.

Even if you were going to fish for stripers using only retrieves — and there are many outings over the course of a season where I do just that — there are an abundance of retrieve options that are rarely used or discussed. For example, for sand eels, I like a hyper short (1-2″) rapid pulsing strip. For a large squid fly like the Mutable Squid, I like a slow hand-twist retrieve. Last week I fished a large deer-hair head fly with a fast strip-strip-strip-strip….pause….wait for it….then strip action. And there’s always the surface popper trick of landing the fly with a splat….then doing nothing. Once the landing rings dissipate, give that bug a twitch. You could present in randomly timed, spaced, and distanced strips, creating the drunken action of wounded prey. The list goes on. And the stripers will always tell you when you get it right.

Ultimately, you’ll need to learn presentations other than cast-and-strip for those outings where the stripers will not chase. One of my recent trips included a puzzle where school bass were cruising and feeding, but would not move to a stripped fly. The answer was found within traditional salmon presentation tactics. Those willing to invest in the floating line — I’m not talking money, but rather in taking the time to learn how to harness its power and master a few basic presentations — will see their catch rates soar. And while you’re at it, pick up a used copy of “Greased Line Fishing for Salmon [and Steelhead] by Jock Scott.

Fly fishing is all about line control. So take charge. Presentation is not difficult to learn. Remember that a fly rod and line is only, as Ken Abrames once observed, “a stick and a string.”

Learn presentation and start bringing your fly to the fish — not vice versa.

Another striper puzzle solved, and Striper Moon film coming to Amazon Prime!

I love fishing for stripers at night around docks, bridges, waterfront restaurants — anywhere there is light and shade. The reason is simple: the light attracts baitfish, and the baitfish attract stripers. I’m especially stoked about fishing areas where there is a stark demarcation of light and shadow. Those are magical places.

Late Sunday/early Monday found me at such a place. It’s a mark that offers what I call “the aquarium effect.” The overhead lights enable you to see clearly what’s in the water, whatever its place on the food chain. On this particular night, I could see bass cruising along the bottom, solo or in small hunting packs, rousting baitfish (spotted: silversides, peanut bunker, mullet), then smashing them on the surface. Some of this took place in the well-lit areas, but most of it was going down at or just past the shadow line.

Rigged with a three-fly dropper team, I had at it. No love. I tried dead drifts; greased line swings; short, pulsing strips; rapid, long strips; and what could hardly be called a strip at all, more like an almost imperceptible gathering of line. Frustrated, I vowed to come back after the tide turned, and headed to another mark a short drive away.

This was a flat in near total darkness. I could see worried bait in the faint ambient light. An hour and four bass later, I left with a smile on my face.

Funny thing about droppers: the fish will always tell you what they want. On this night, at the second mark, they wanted the top dropper, an Orange Ruthless clam worm (lower right), even though there were no clam worms to be found anywhere near I was fishing.

And then back to the original mark. The tide had shifted but the bass and bait were still there, and the former remained unimpressed by my offerings. As with any such puzzle, you’ve got to try different pieces until you find one that fits. In this case it was as simple as switching to a Gurgling Sand Eel on point to make it a suspension rig. A couple mended swings into the shadows, and whack! Then, on the dangle, ker-pow! That called for a celebration cigar. So I did.

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Great news for Ken Abrames fans! Ken recently posted on Facebook that the Striper Moon — A Legacy film will be available soon on Amazon Prime. I don’t know if this means a DVD or if it’s something that’s in a streaming format. Either way, you now know as much as I do. I’ll post details as I get them.

The nice thing about the Eagle Claw 253 is…

…you can sharpen it fairly easily to extend the life of your fly. This RLS Rat-a-Tat had an unfortunate encounter with a rock, dulling its point. Not to worry! Out came the mill file, and a few strokes later we’re ship-shape and sticky sharp. This fly is now a year-and-a-half old and no worse for the wear. News flash: the biggest striper I ever caught came on a big flatwing that was four years old and had undergone numerous sharpening.

Tying the Gurgling Sand Eel

By popular demand, I present the recipe for the Gurgling Sand Eel — a kind of love child of Ken Abrames, Jack Gartside, and Kelly Galloup.

Here’s the backstory. A couple years ago, the guys at Block Island Fishworks (either Hank or Eliot, I can’t remember, but I think it was Eliot) showed me a prototype of an articulated sand eel Gurgler at the Edison Fly Fishing Show. I was given one, fished it that summer, and I resolved to tie a few of my own.

Here’s the prototype from Fishworks. Their shank is a little shorter, and the stinger hook smaller. I used a longer shank and a bigger stinger hoping that they would discourage dink hookups; I’m pleased to say that that was the result during this summer’s field testing. They use a strategically placed double layer of foam; I went for the simplicity of one (although Jack Gartside’s Sand Eel Gurgler uses the double layer). I deemed the eyes unnecessary. And since I like the action of saddle hackles — think Abrames’ Big Eelie — I incorporated them into my variant.

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The Gurgling Sand Eel

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Thread: 6/0, tyer’s choice of color
Stinger hook: Eagle Claw 253 1/0 or Gamakatsu SC15 2/0
Tail: 30 hairs bucktail; next, a 4″ pencil-thin saddle; next, 4 strands Flashabou; next, two 4″ pencil-thin saddles; next, 6 strands Krystal Flash. Tyer’s choice of colors.
Body: Pearl braid
Front shank: Fish Skull 35mm articulated shank
Underbody: Medium Polar Chenille
Shell: 3mm fly foam trimmed 1/4″-5/8″ wide, tyer’s choice of color

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Tying notes: Tie the stinger assembly first. If you want to reinforce the thread wraps on the articulated shank, you can add cement. Start the shell just behind the eye, and bind down well. Attach the Polar Chenille near the butt end, and wind forward. Pull the foam over the top of the shank and secure with three wraps of thread just behind the eye.  Bring the thread underneath the lip and whip finish. Trim lip.

Yup. It works. I think the articulation adds another layer of action when you fish this with short, jerky strips. Bonus: it also works on the dead drift or on long pauses between strip sequences.

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