The Currentseams Best of 2021: #1

(cue drum roll) In the end, this was an easy choice. I’d been trying for over a decade to reach 100 steelhead landed. What with trips few and far between, some truly bad luck/bad timing, and dwindling runs, the last few years had slowed my progress to a glacial pace. A fish here…none there…one…repeat. I was stalled at 97, and when I dropped my first hookup on April’s trip, it seemed like I had another appointment with disappointment. And then, the mojo shifted. Fish were on. And landed. And then I held #100 in my hands. I capped the day with a monster hen and a celebratory cigar. You can read the full, original report here.

Number 100, trusty yarn indicator in the background. I’m truly lucky to be able to pursue my passion for fly fishing, write about it, teach it, and have an audience. Thank you, everyone. And to those steelhead who suddenly came off for no reason even though I had a good, sharp hook set and played you flawlessly…well, never mind. I’m trying to be nice here.

Salmon River Report 11/22-23: Definitely NOT the Everglades

The pre-Thanksgiving Salmon River steelhead float trip is traditionally for myself and my middle son, Cam. But Cam was away at school. Gordo had school and hockey. Yup. Solo road trip! Coming off my Everglades experience, I was mentally prepared (but still dreading) the inclement weather I was sure to encounter. So, armed with my trusty Ken Abrames Salmo Sax #3, neoprene waders, and a pile of hand warmers, I headed northwest.

I have a knack — no, really, it’s a talent of mine — for picking days months in advance that are (ahem) un-ideal for fishing. This year I chose high water (1,500cfs out of the gate) and the coldest two days in the 10-day forecast. I can deal with both, but jeez Louise…again? The first day was the warmest, although it was mostly cloudy and we had long, frequent spells of “Salmon River Sunshine,” aka lake-effect snow. We did the Altmar-to-Pineville run both days, with the bulk of the fishing in the Altmar area. I would call the angler traffic moderately low, as higher water tends to keep the shore anglers away. Early on, we found an open hole that was deep, dark, and mysterious. My leader butt was 10 feet long, and I had four 3/0 shot on, but I still wasn’t getting down — I could tell by the lack of indicator chugging and dipping. So I asked my guide, Jim Kirtland, to build me a butt section of about four feet or so. That little adjustment was everything, as three casts later the indicator dipped, I set, and steelhead on hijinks ensued. It was a chrome skipper in the 16″18″ class, and I was thrilled to be on the board. My 1-for-1 was short-lived, though, as I dropped my next four touches. To be fair, I had no chance for a hook set on two of them as they occurred as I was lifting the rig at the end of very long drifts; one was totally operator error; and, maddeningly, one was a clean tippet break mid-battle. Not the best luck, but surely that can change.
Persistence pays off. I tried not to let the previous misses get me down. We’d moved to a long, swift-flowing glide where I had the comfort of knowing that at 1.5K, any take would be amplified by the indicator. I’d been on my hook sets pretty good, and I tried to remain vigilant. I stuck this guy firmly, which was a good thing given his size, freshness, and propensity for hystrionics. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet was the unique problem we’d created by lengthening the leader. The position of the indicator on the leader system meant that I could only reel up so much line — not enough to lift the fish’s head to the net in a normal fashion. (I was using plastic Thingamabobber-type indicators because of the amount of weight, and those can be notoriously difficult to adjust, let alone in the middle of a battle with a steelhead.) To have a chance at landing the fish, I would need to navigate my way to the stern of the boat, reel the indicator to the rod tip, then lift the rod, arms completely extended over my head while trying to steer the fish to the front of the boat, where Jim would be waiting with the net. Easy enough with a skipper, but a challenge with a chrome buck like this. As you can see, we were successful! The first fish came on a Copperhead Stone. The second came on a small nymph called the Spider. Photo by James Kirtland.
I wish I was signaling that I’m currently engaged with my fifth steelhead of the day, but it’s just a simple “Hi, Mom!” Tuesday was substantially colder than Monday — temperatures never got above freezing — and wind and iced-up guides were a constant scourge. Because of the cold front, the fishing was noticeable slower, and the only touch I had all morning was a certainly foul-hooked fish that began to roar upstream with unbridled speed before suddenly coming off. I also re-discovered that it’s a really good idea to crimp those shot down tight on the leader, as once they start wandering along its length, casting becomes a chuck-and-duck nightmare. On the positive side, I’d like you to notice the angle of attack of the rod. I’ve got the tip low to the water and the fish is being fought off the reel and the butt section. To be hyper-critical, I should probably have the cork of the rod pointed more upstream. Don’t let them breathe, put the screws to them, and you’ll get ’em in fast. Speaking of hyper-critical, we witnessed a steelhead being played to death. The battle lasted well over 15 minutes (not an exaggeration) and may have pushed past 20. You bet that it featured plenty of high sticking and long stretches of the steelhead holding in the current without reel handle being cranked. Inexcusable. Video still by James Kirtland.
Victory is mine. After my success the day before with black and copper nymphs, and little to show for it today, I tied on a fluorescent chartreuse Crystal Meth, and boom! Sometimes you get lucky. I was right on this fish with my hook set, but I dropped one a few minutes later when I was slow on the draw. So, 1-for-3 on the day, which isn’t great, but all I need is one steelhead to make me happy. Photo by James Kirtland.

From the archives: “Soft Hackles for Winter Steelhead”

As you may know, I am currently occupied with getting ready for my oldest son’s wedding. In lieu of new material, I’m recycling some of my favorite posts from years past. Let’s continue on the steelhead kick (man, I really want to tie into some fresh chrome!). Six years after its publish date, Soft Hackles for Winter Steelhead remains relevant; I still use these flies, and whether swung or dead drifted along the bottom, they still catch fish.

Ever notice how 36-degree water doesn’t feel as cold when you’re releasing a steelhead?

From the archives: “Ten Things Every Beginning Steelheader Should Know”

November means steelhead. At least it does for me. This year, though, the steelhead adventures will have to wait a few weeks. In the meantime, here’s an oldie but goodie from the archives: Ten Things Every Beginning Steelheader Should Know. Even if you’re an experienced steelheader, you might find a useful nugget within. Enjoy the read — and enjoy the ride.

A man, a steelhead, and a cigar. Gotta love November!

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.

Reaching the century mark: Steelhead #100

Finally, after so many disappointing outings, I hooked and landed my 100th steelhead. Not the prettiest fish given the time of year, but beautiful and perfect in his own way. It was an eventful day — full report to come next week. In the meantime, here’s a picture worth a hundred words.

Steelhead report: Wreck of the Old 97

Number Three Son Gordo and I fished the Salmon River for two days last week and it was a slow bite. Conditions were about a s good as you could expect for this time of year: 875cfs at the Pineville gauge and clear water. Monday was in the teens to start and it never got above freezing. Tuesday was another frosty launch, but we were in the mid thirties by noon. This was a float trip with my guide friend James Kirtland, aka Row Jimmy. We did the mid-river run (Pineville to 2A) both days. I was happy with this as every boat we spoke to coming down from Altmar described crowded shore and drift conditions with a nearly non-existent bite. So if the fishing’s going to be slow, I’d rather be mostly alone.

Monday. The plan was to cherry-picked marks that had recently produced. The first was a blank. The second provided a classic “Life isn’t fair. Neither is steelheading.” moment. I had drifted through a patch a half dozen times in the previous hour and the indicator had gone under every time due to a shallow. On the seventh time it was a fish, and I nonchalanted the hook set. Fish on, briefly, then off. Operator error.

In the afternoon, we spent some time picking pockets and seams and Gordo was rewarded with a standard-issue dark horse buck. Skunk’s off for the boat, and that always feels good. Sadly, nothing for me, although I do have to say that my precision casting game was on.
Holy chrome hen, Batman! I missed my shot as I was rigging up while the guys were covering water. Jim hooked it, Gordo landed it, and we were all blinded by light. About a half hour after this, my indicator dipped, and I set the hook. The line screamed upstream at a breakneck pace, then went limp. Clearly, that was a fouled fish. It was also our last touch of the day.

Tuesday. We expected this to be a better day, since the temperature would be rising and we now knew where there were pods of fish. As it so often happens, just when you think you’ve figured it out, nature smacks you upside the head. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Move the boat. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Finally, I hook into a good-sized dark horse buck, somewhere in between the size of the two fish pictured above. He realizes he’s hooked, runs, and leaps. I regain line. He runs again, and leaps two more times. But I can feel that that was his last big run. I’m not letting him breathe, cranking that reel handle. This will be steelhead number 98. And then, he’s gone. I look at Jim. Jim looks at me. We both opine that this was simply a case of bad luck: fast hookset, hard hookset, well-played. What else can you do? And that, ladies and gents, was our only touch of the day. It really is a cruel sport sometimes.

Where baby stoneflies come from. These early black stones, size 16-18, were all over the place. It may have been a function of lack of steelhead, but I didn’t have any takes on stonefly/natural color/soft-hackled patterns. We also saw midges (very tiny).
I got to visit an old friend on Tuesday. This little slice of heaven didn’t produce any action, and it was a hard hoof through the snow, but it was worth the few minutes we got to spend together. And so, dear reader, I remain stuck at 97 steelhead landed. Better times are surely coming. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Last Night’s Fly Fishing “Good Reads Part 2” Books List

Many thanks to the dedicated virtual crowd who joined me last night for my Tuesday Night Zoom, “Good Reads Part 2.” In case you missed it, I talked about nine more books that have had a major influence on my fly fishing approach/philosophy/success. Noteworthy inclusions are two books about striped bass that aren’t fly fishing books at all. Nonetheless, they both contain a wealth of information for keen students of all things stripers. I’ve marked those two with an asterisk. Here’s the list: The Art of Tying the Wet Fly & Fishing the Flymph by James Leisenring and Vernon S. Hidy; Fly Patterns of Alaska by the Alaska Flyfishers; Tying Small Flies by Ed Engle; The Hunt for Giant Trout by Landon Mayer; Steelhead Guide by John Nagy; Greased Line Fishing for Salmon [and Steelhead] by Jock Scott; Stripers and Streamers by Ray Bondorew; Night Tides* by Michael G. Cinquemani; Surfcasting Around The Block* by Dennis Zambrotta.

Striper fly anglers can learn a lot from striper plug anglers — and vice versa.

Best of 2020 #5: Two-outs-last-strike-bottom-of-the-ninth steelhead.

Those of you who fish for steelhead know how maddening the pursuit can be. When conditions and fish are cooperative, it’s hard to imagine having more fun while wearing rubber pants. When things don’t go well — well, you quickly reacquaint yourself with your cache of four-letter vocabulary words. This year’s November steelhead trip with #2 Son Cam offered a taste of both worlds. The first day I dropped three fish and Cam didn’t have a touch (along with suffering the indignity of leaky waders). The second day I scored a couple fish — it’s always a relief to get off the steelhead schneid — but Cam’s woes continued. He dropped a handful and as the sun began moving toward the western horizon things were looking grim. Then — on literally the last cast — Cam brought a sturdy buck to hand. What a finish! Or, as Alec Baldwin would say, “Coffee is for closers only.”

Give that young man a prize! You can read the full report here.

Salmon River/Creeks Steelhead Report: Comedy is hard. So is steelheading.

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.