Steelhead soft hackle: the Salmon River Rajah

The Salmon River Rajah is based on an old steelhead pattern called the Rajah. I discovered the Rajah many years ago when I was researching patterns online. The accompanying text referenced the book Fly Patterns of Alaska, a slim but potent volume. Turns out it was previously listed in Trey Combs’ book Steelhead Fly Fishing and Flies. (Combs credits the pattern to one Arthur Solomon.)

I tied up a few Rajahs, but I wasn’t thrilled with the materials: bucktail, chenille (which I consider a lifeless material), polar bear, black thread. So I made some changes: bucktail to hackle fibers, chenille to Estaz, polar bear to Arctic fox, black thread to red. I even ramped up the tinsel factor from flat silver to holographic braid.

The result is the Salmon River Rajah, a flashier fly with far more seductive movement than the original. I named it for the river where I have seen ambivalent steelhead go out of their way to eat it.  I first published the pattern in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of American Angler, where I wrote: The coldest day I ever went steelheading began with the mercury just a few degrees above zero. By mid-afternoon, it had barely made it into double digits. I was fishing a Salmon River Rajah under an indicator. As the fly completed its drift along the bottom, it began to swing up and downstream. I saw the wake before I ever felt the strike. It was a steelhead that had been in the river a while, its chrome flanks long since transitioned to deep winter hues. Any fly that can urge a dark horse to chase it down in thirty-three degree water on a day that would keep many skiers at home has a permanent spot in my steelhead box.

More recently, I was fishing the Salmon River Rajah when it snagged on the bottom. After freeing the fly, I was stripping it in to check the hook point…WHACK! That’s pretty good stuff.

The Salmon River Rajah

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Hook: Atlantic Salmon size 6-8
Thread: Red 6/0
Tail: Hot pink hackle fibers
Body: Rear two-thirds Lagartun holographic silver mini-flatbraid, front one-third opal pink Estaz
Hackle: Hot pink
Wing: Sparse white Arctic fox
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Feel free to play around with color. I also like this fly in hot orange (tail, Estaz, hackle).
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The Salmon River Rajah Rogues’ Gallery:

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Salmon River steelhead report: a little boating, a little hiking, and (finally) some catching

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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