(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.