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.

Steelhead (semi) success and happy Thanksgiving!

I just got back from a two-day steelhead trip with middle son Cam. You’ll understand that I’m a little wiped, and with the holiday tomorrow, a little busy. So the full story will have to wait. I can tell you that the conditions were challenging and we had to work hard for every fish. Until then, here’s a little salmonid taste to tide you over on turkey day. Be safe, be well, and please know that I am truly thankful for your readership and following.

Skunk’s off. Also something to be thankful for.

The Magnificent Potential of a Filled Steelhead Box

Another November ritual completed: the refilling of the steelhead box. (One of them, at least. This is my main box.) It’s emptiness or fullness before I begin is usually a good indicator of the previous season. Did I go on a lot of trips? (An average number.) Did I lose a lot of flies to the bottom gods or to the unyielding material of a steelhead’s jaw? (Not so much. Slow year.) I will restock the box with old favorites, and perhaps a few new experiments. The order of its contents remains a comfort. Nymphs, soft hackles, stoneflies to the left; eggs, attractors, and junk flies to the right. Such a contrast between dull blacks and browns and the riot of fluorescence. Which patterns will be the hot item this year? Only one way to find out.

The Best Colors for the Crystal Meth Fly are…

The best colors for the Crystal Meth fly are the ones the steelhead want to eat…or the ones in which you have the most confidence.

Debates on the best color for Crystal Meths, egg patterns, and beads for steelhead and trout are never-ending. Everyone has their theories. Everyone has their favorite colors. Everyone can prove you wrong. So I stand by my opening statement. In case you don’t know what a Crystal Meth is (besides one of the best fly names ever, right?) it’s a sparkled-up version of a Sucker Spawn. You can tie them with or without a bead and a Krystal Flash tail. When the steelhead are feeding below salmon redds — and even when they’re not — the Crystal Meth can be a very productive fly. And since they’re firmly in the junk/guide fly category, you don’t fret when you lose one to the bottom gods.

Our Lady of Blessed Crystal Meth — chartreuse — accounted for my only fish on this painfully slow day.

So, what are my favorite colors for the Crystal Meth? Here’s a handy-dandy photo reference chart. I use them all, but if I had to choose a top three, I’d go chartreuse, fluorescent blue, and fluorescent fire orange. YMMV.

Tuesday Night Zoom! “Pro Tips and Q&A” May 12, 8pm

It’s another Currentseams Tuesday Night Zoom. My “Pro Tips” part will be brief (and, I hope, highly informative) but the real focus will be you: I’ll be answering your questions on all things fly fishing. So get those topics ready. Note that if you’re already on the Zoom list, you don’t need to re-up. See you Tuesday!

ProTips_Poster