Benjamin Franklin is famous for declaring the absolute certainty of death and taxes. I’d like to offer me with crappy weather for steelheading. It seems that no matter which days I choose months in advance, the conditions will suck.
I submit to the group this Tuesday and Wednesday. There are decent numbers of fish in the upper Salmon river, and the fly zones are absolutely polluted with steelhead. The bite has been, at worst, average. So what did we do? Dialed up a cold front and snow and wind for our two days. Thus endeth the bite.
I just got back form two days of spring — uh, make that winter’s resurgence — steelheading on the world-famous Salmon River in Pulaski. The weather was dreadful and so was the bite. More on that tomorrow. But for now, I’ll give you an image that perfectly sums up our Tuesday. As for the striper report, I went Sunday night for 90 minutes to Ye Olde Top Secret Striper Spot and am excited to report…not…a…touch. So it goes…
This is the “Bead Head Stone, Rubber Legs” pattern from the first edition of Matt Supinski’s Steelhead Dreams. My spies in Pulaski tell me that this time of year, big stones with wiggly jiggly legs are all the rage, so I tied up a few (along with some long-legged Kaufmann Stone variants) to have in my box.
By all accounts, it’s been a challenging fall on the Salmon River. That was the main reason I skipped my usual early November trip. But now, later in the month, it was time for my annual father/middle son Cameron steelhead bash. Prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best, we headed northwest. Here’s how it went down.
Monday, November 23: Too many teardrops for one heart. I generally don’t count fish, but steelhead being what they are, I keep track of my landing-to-hookup ratio, and especially my total landings. For those of you keeping score at home, I was at 96 landed at the start of this trip. A combination of egregiously slow action and bad timing in the last 18 months had slammed the brakes on my progress. But with a clean slate of two days to fish, the magic number of 100 was certainly in reach. One good day — hell, a few good hours — could get me there.
As always, the Cam trip is done under the guidance of my friend James Kirtland, aka Row Jimmy. Given the dearth of consistent action in the upper and mid-river boat runs, we made the decision to wade the lower end of the Salmon. Jim’s clients had hooked 10 at this mark yesterday. But you know how that goes with steelhead — here today, gone tomorrow, and at 8am, Cam and I sans hookup, the last thing I wanted to hear Jim say was, “I don’t like this. We had a half dozen fish on by this time yesterday. “
But all it takes is one, so when I set the hook on a dropping indicator and felt the bottom shake its head, I was stoked. My set was fast and sharp (with a second one thrown in for good measure) so I was a little surprised when the fish came undone about a minute into the skirmish. That’s the thing about steelheading. You can do everything right and still drop the fish. Something uncontrollable, like the wrong angle of attack or a bony insertion point can spell doom, and there’s nothing you can do but wonder why.
My second hookup was a chromer that treated the lineup to several entertaining aerials. When that fish got off, I was beginning to question my capabilities. Have I lost it? I don’t think so. I wasn’t doing anything differently. Then I saw it. Scales impaled on the point of my chartreuse Steelhead Hammer. Clearly a fouled fish.
Well, that explains that.
My final touch of the day also ended bitterly. This time it was a snapped tippet. I can’t remember the last time I broke 6-pound Drennan. Surely this was due to an abrasion or other accident of war. Regardless, the result was disappointment, and I was left to cry, cry, cry, cry, 96 tears.
Tuesday, November 24: Down to our last strike. Tuesday’s options were run the mid-river or try creek stomping. The Sunday night/Monday early AM rains were just enough to make us think that some fresh fish might have wanted to make the run, so creeks it was. I settled into a favorite pool while Jim and Cam headed upstream. You’ve always got to be ready with that first light first cast — a take is a damn good way to start the day — but an hour later I still didn’t have a touch.
Then, the indicator slowed, and I set the hook. (Today was a strong case for learning the nuances of indicator nymphing. Of the three fish I hooked in this pool, none of them pulled the indicator under — it simply slowed or deviated from its downstream path. You’ve heard me say it before, and it’s probably the best advice I can give you for this style of fishing: look for a reason to set the hook on every drift.) A powerful head shake, then fish off. C’mon. Really? When I hauled in my rig for an inspection, my tippet was again sawed off. Good grief. But about 15 minutes later, a domestic rainbow decide to eat, was landed, and I was somewhat off the schneid.
Finally, this egg-laden hen pounced. She kept to the pool during our tussle, and once she was safely in the net, I couldn’t help but admire her glorious iridescent colors. She reminded me of the hen on page 10 of Matthew Supinski’s book Steelhead Dreams. I’d just admired that photo last night, and I wondered if somehow I channeled her into taking on that drift.
Whereas Monday was well above freezing, Tuesday was not. Iced-up guides were a constant challenge, as were cold hands. Funny how you forget all of the sensory negativity when you’re fighting a fish.
Then there was poor Cam. He didn’t have a touch(!) on Monday, plus a disaster leak in one boot foot compounded his misery. Tuesday’s shot at redemption was even more frustrating: he had several takes and no good hook sets to show for it. (We don’t think Cam was at fault, either. In the interest of finding fish, Jim had a line in the water too and missed three steelhead — and he’s a really, really good angler.) And now, it was early afternoon and just about at the end of our session. I could tell Cam was emotionally done, but I encouraged him to take a few last casts while I walked downstream to cross the river.
And that’s when it happened. Two outs, down to our last strike, bottom of the ninth, and we drill this walk-off steelhead. I think I’ll just shut up and let you appreciate the simultaneous fatigue, relief, and joy on this young man’s face.
Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Cam, but we appreciate you playing, Mr. Buck. We surely do. This was the second time we’ve had a last-cast, day-saving steelhead while fishing with Jim.
The October 2015 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide is out, and with it the latest article from the currentseams wordworks. I had a lot of fun with “Ten Things Every Beginning Steelheader Should Know,” and it mixes humor with practical advice. Worth seeking out if you can find it.
The Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide is distributed free at fly shops or available by subscription. It is an underrated gem.
Cam is still a beginning steelheader, but he does a lot of things right. For example…
Duration of trip: About eight hours and thirty minutes
Number of spots we fished: Two
Water level and color when we started: 475cfs and clear
Water level below Orwell and Trout Brooks: 800cfs and rising, color somewhere between tea and chocolate milk with a splash of leaves
Weather: Cloudy and cool to sunny and in the 60s(!). Two brief showers. Windy.
Number of steelhead we hooked: 12, plus one foul we broke off (got the fly back)
Number of steelhead we landed: 9
Number of times I handed the fly rod off to Cam after hook set: 3
Number of steelhead Cam landed: 3, including one hyperactive jumper
Cam’s first steelhead landed on a fly rod. He’s a natural.
Number of steelhead Cam has played on a fly rod before this year: Zero
Cam’s batting average in his three-year steelhead career: 1.000 (Five for five. Proud papa.)
Kind of flies I caught them on upriver in the clear water: small stones and soft-hackled nymphs, size 10 and 12
Pattern I caught them on in the dirty swill water: size 8 Bead Head Lifter, Pink/Chartreuse and Blue/Chartreuse
Downriver, I figured I’d need a hi-vis pattern to get the fish’s attention. I hemmed and hawed, considered an Egg-Sucking Leech or other streamer, then tried an Estaz Egg/San Juan Worm pattern. No. Tied on the Bead Head Lifter, got the answer I was looking for, and kept it on for the rest of the afternoon.
Number of steelhead I thought we’d catch in the dirty swill water: Zero
Number of steelhead we caught: 6
Ugh. Miles of dirty water. Scores of beleaguered anglers lining the shores. At least they could have gotten into their trucks and driven upriver. But we were bound by the confines of the boat, gravity, and what nature had thrown at us. As the saying goes, you don’t know if you don’t go. Six steelhead landed is a damn good afternoon, any day. In swollen mucky runoff, it’s lottery lucky. Wow. We’ll take it.
Guide rating: Highest marks. Jim Kirtland has what you’d call deep domain knowledge of the Salmon. His netting skills are exceptional. Very recommended.
Number of steelhead we landed on our two previous floats with Jim: 3 (I guess we were due.)
Number of steelhead I landed in 2012: 1 (sometimes the bear eats you).
Number of steelhead I’ve landed in the last 13 months: 41 (sometimes you eat the bear).
On a scale of 1-10, energy I felt from being out on the river on a spring-like November day with my son catching steelhead: C’mon.
Just got back from three days on the Salmon River. This fall’s steelhead fishing has been very spotty, so wasn’t I more than pleased to land this magnificent chrome hen a few hours into the trip. Full report to come.
“Do I look fat in this picture?” Yes, dear, you do, and bless every single one of your powerful pounds. She took me into into backing in just a few seconds.
P.S. Inquiring minds will want to know, “what fly?” Size 10 60-Second Copperhead.