Two. For Two.

I don’t know about the rest of you dads, but it annoys the hell out of me when I try to give my boys a life lesson and life teaches them the exact opposite.

That’s what happened last year when I took Cameron steelheading for the first time. I grimly outlined the 40 hours it took me to land my first steelhead; explained that you can do everything right playing the fish and still lose him; how the lake effect weather is dicey at best. So what happens? We get 50 degrees in late November, bluebird skies, and the kid hooks and lands a 10-pound chromer in the first 30 minutes of the trip.

But not this year. I told him that on this trip, we’d find out if he was cut out to be a steelheader. A cold front was blowing in as we drove up. We awoke to a couple inches of fresh powder and the mercury in the teens. This was going to be a baptism in ice.

What’s more, these sudden temperature changes – especially downward – are usually bad for business. Sure enough, what had been a consistent bite over the previous week was almost nonexistent. Five hours after floating under the Altmar Bridge, we still hadn’t had a single take. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Or giving the fish a choice. I had been carpet-bombing the bottom with everything from egg flies to nymphs. Cam was throwing an egg sack under a float. The steelhead weren’t having any of it.

But, I kept telling Cam that he had to be ready, because the next cast could be the one that you get a strike. And you’ll hate yourself if you miss it.

I was getting enough false positives to keep me focused, but even those became adventures in bad luck. As we floated between holes, my indicator disappeared. I set the hook on the bottom, pulled, and then watched as my rig sailed over my head – into the only tree for 200 feet. It got worse. Drift boats are like trains; they take a while to stop. As Jim furiously back rowed, my line stretched tight, and the top section of my rod came loose. Now it was sliding along the no man’s land between the rest of my rod and the tree. If the leader or line snapped, it would be gone. Fortunately, I am over six feet tall. By standing on one of the boat’s benches, I was able to just reach the leader with an outstretched arm and a hunting knife. Tip was reunited with rod, much to its owner’s relief.

Meantime, Cam was patiently earning his winter steelhead stripes. Five hours is a long time to go without a strike for a grown man, let alone a ten year-old. If he was discouraged, he wasn’t showing it. Jim (Kirtland, our guide, of Row Jimmy Guide Service fame. This was the third time I’ve floated with Jim. Highly recommended. Nice guy, knowledgeable, and if you have a child you want to introduce to steelheading, he’s terrific with kids) made the observation that Cam was now a member-in-good-standing of the Frozen Chosen.

The indicator went under, and this time the bottom thrummed with energy. Fish on. I could tell it was a good one by the fact that the steelhead did not surface. His first run was deep and upstream. I have a love-hate relationship with upstream runs. They’re good because they force the fish to burn a tremendous amount of oxygen. Bad because those big steelhead turn on a dime and shoot back downstream faster than you think any fish has a right to. Meanwhile, you’re flailing away at your reel or the slack, trying to regain line and keep that precious hook set. But this was a most obliging creature. Once he turned, he came back slowly and wallowed deep, even with the boat. I didn’t want to give him the opportunity to breathe, so I pressed him. Now I could see him a few feet below the surface. Fresh chrome. Double-digit pounds.

At the midpoint of the fight, steelhead can loll you into a false sense of security. You just need to remind yourself that the fish has probably got a few more good runs in him. And off he went, bulling his way downstream. While I admired his power, something didn’t feel quite right. Simultaneously, I realized the fish must be fouled. As he rolled near the far shore, I called out to another angler to confirm my suspicions. He did. Reluctantly, I pointed the rod at the fish and snapped the tippet.

My adventure seemed to energize Cam, who had been warming himself by the heater. (Wonderful thing, propane heaters in drift boats. Best invention in steelheading since 5mm neoprene integrated boot foot waders.) Five minutes later, he was on. This was another good fish, one that doggedly refused to come to net. Every time Cam got him close, the steelhead found a reserve of energy and bolted. I finally picked Cam up by the waist and moved him to the center of the boat so Jim could get a better angle from the bow. Steelhead netted. A long, lean dark horse of a buck.

What a miserably cold ten year-old looks like after sitting in a boat for seven hours without a strike. All it takes is one fish. Well done, Cam. Your father couldn’t be prouder.

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Cam was now two-for-two in his steelheading career. We took some photos of him brandishing his prize, grinning, as Ridley says in The Right Stuff, “like a possum eating a sweet potato.” Any father-son steelheading trip where the son hooks and lands is, by any definition, a good one. Smiles populated the boat.

But the sun was getting perilously close to the treetops, and we hadn’t even made Ellis Cove. So in the interest of time and fishing, we decided to fish western style, until we reached Pineville. I was surprised how empty the riverbanks were; we only saw three other people. The fishing mirrored the scarcity of anglers; whatever was swimming under the boat wasn’t eating.

On top of that, I had been shivering in my waders for a few hours now. Desperate for a tactile advantage on any potential hookset, I had made the decision to spend large chunks of the day gloveless, an unheard of practice for me in cold weather. Any useful feeling I had in my fingertips had long since vanished. When I lost my rig at the tailout of the Hemlocks, I declared my day over.

Seconds later, I thought the better of it. What if the next run held that hungry fish? With shaking fingertips, I clumsily lashed some tippet material to the swivel and forced on a pink Steelhead Hammer. If I was going down, I was going to go down fishing.

As we drifted through the Refrigerator, I made a cast downstream toward the head of the pool. The indicator disappeared. The bottom was moving. Upstream. It was another chrome fish, not as big as the one Cam hooked, but this beggar was not going to unconditionally declare for choosing. A few cartwheels and frantic bursts later, the fish was ready to come to net. I gave my salvation a faux peck on the snout and released it into the snow-capped shallows.

This is my “Look, I pulled a steelhead out of my butt in the last five minutes of the trip” face. 

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“Dad,” Cameron said on the ride home, “you were really happy after you caught that fish.”

I was, too.

The 60 Second Redhead

It’s easy to tie. It’s a fast tie. It catches steelhead. ‘Nuff said.

I found this fly a while back on Randy Jones’ Yankee Angler site and was intrigued by its simplicity. The fly got its name (Randy calls it “Tom’s 60 Second Red Head,” Tom being Tom Wilson) because you can supposedly crank them out at the rate of 60 per hour. I’m no speed tyer, but I can get pretty close to a minute on this one if I hustle. Part stone fly/nymph/larva buggy bug, part egg, the pattern certainly lends itself to all kinds of color variations.

The 60 Second Redhead

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Hook: 2x strong scud/shrimp, sz 10-12
Thread: Red
Body: Black Krystal Dub
Head: Red Ice Dub

I tied up a bunch of these, and they sat in my box until one fine Saturday afternoon. On my very first cast with the 60 Second Redhead, I hooked a steelhead. That was years ago, and this fly is now a core pattern in my steelhead box.

Tying notes: The original recipe calls for medium red copper wire as the tying “thread.” This adds a tad more weight to the fly. I find the medium diameter difficult to work with, so I use small red copper wire when I’m not using thread. High-tack wax like Loon’s Swax ensures the dubbing sticks to the wire. The original also calls for a complex mixture of furs and flash: for the body, a mix of beaver, angora goat, and black flash. Since speed is in its name, I figured why not just be done with it and use black Krystal dub? Ditto the head, where the original calls for beaver, angora goat, and red flash. Buy a pack of red Ice Dub and you’re cooking with gas. Last year, I met Randy on the Salmon River at the Pineville Boat launch. We had a detailed conversation about the Red Head. I thanked him for introducing me to this fly, and told him it was now an old standby. Randy said to make sure not to tie it with a thick profile, but added if you’re catching fish on it, you’re doing something right. Wise words. What you see here is my standard issue tie.

Also, play around with other colors and materials. Here is the 60 Second Copperhead:

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Hook: 2x strong scud/shrimp, sz 10-12
Thread: Red
Body: Black angora goat
Head: Metallic copper Ice Dub

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60-Second Copperhead Rogues’ Gallery:

Chrome hen, Salmon River, 11/9/14

Big Steel 11:14

The Hot Chocolate Stone steelhead nymph

You’re up before the sun. As you hike to the river, there’s a distinct chill in the air that tells you in another month the trail will be covered in snow. Once you get to your spot and wade in, you can feel the gripping cold of the water against your legs. Should have worn the neoprenes. Maybe not, though. It’s supposed to get up to the high 50s today. It’ll be warm enough later. But for now, damn, you’re just about shivering. You’ve already had your coffee, but you want something else. Something warm. And sweet. A cup of hot chocolate would do nicely. The kind your mom used to make after you came in from outside on a snow day. Hmm. Maybe the steelhead would like some, too. A little chocolate brown stone, just like the ones you saw hatching yesterday morning. A hot orange bead to get their attention. Soft hackles that say, “I’m alive.” And a buggy body because that’s what fish like. Once you get that first steelhead on, you’ll be downright toasty.

The Hot Chocolate Stone

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Hook: 2x strong, 1x short emerger, size 8-12
Thread: Hot Orange
Tail: Brown Coq de Leon
Body: Fiery brown angora goat, dubbed roughly
Hackle: Grouse
Bead: Hot Orange

Tying notes: This is a pretty straightforward tie. If you want to add a little more weight to the fly, you can seat the bead with about 8 wraps of undersized wire. Coq de Leon and grouse are beautifully barred materials that naturally create the illusion of segmentation. Angora goat is one of my favorite body materials; it’s spikey and rough, and you can get it in all kinds of colors from muted naturals to fluorescents. Use a dubbing loop to get than uber-buggy look. Play around with different bead colors at your discretion; the fish will always tell you if they have a preference.

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The Hot Chocolate Stone Rogues’ Gallery:

Salmon River (NY) November 2012

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