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!

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Best of 2019: a fun little fly fishing recap

With today’s guide trip cancelled, I turn my attention to reflecting upon the fishing year that was 2019. Here we go, in chronological order:

Fly Fishing Shows in Marlborough and Edison. The Marlborough Show was particularly memorable for the weekend ice storm that paralyzed the region. Let’s just say that — ahem — attendance was light on Sunday. Nonetheless, I had three(!) intrepid anglers at my presentation, “Lost Secrets of Legendary Anglers.” I spent the rest of the morning chortling that I had the day’s biggest crowd, which was accurate until Ed Engle beat me by two. “Lost Secrets of Legendary Anglers” will return in 2020 at 10am, Saturday January 20 in the DT Room C, along with other Seminars and classes. What makes these shows memorable — and appreciated — is the chance to see old friends, connect with peers, and meet you, my valued reader. Please come say hello at the shows in January!

Old friend Tim Flagler is one of the nicest people you’re going to meet at the Fly Fishing Show.

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Speaking of Speaking: every fly fishing/tying club gig I did. This may sound like a shameless attempt to curry favor, but I assure you it’s on the level. Teaching and talking about fly fishing is by far my favorite part of this job, and it would not be possible without your support and enthusiasm. So, thank you CFFA Expo, Cape Cod Flyrodders, Legends on the Farmington (I’m doing another class in February 2020 so stay tuned), Russell Library, Hammonasset TU, Thames Valley TU, Capital District Fly Fishers, Farmington Valley TU, and Nutmeg TU for your patronage.

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Housy and Farmington River features in Eastern Fly Fishing magazine. Wow. I actually get paid to write about two of my favorite rivers? What a country! And thanks to editor John Shewey for thinking of me.

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My new two-handed cannon. Once I figured out the right head configuration, I became a dangerous casting machine. Many thanks to old mate Mike Oliver for his wonderful design and exacting craftsmanship. I now sneer at the wind at the mouth of the Hous. And the west side of Block. So there.

In addition to being a fine rod builder, Mike also brews a delicious cuppa on the beach. Milk is included. Very civilized.

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Trophy Smallmouth on the Little Salmon River. We got kicked in the nuts by Mother Nature for spring steelhead, so a-smallmouthing we did go. They sure grow ’em big up north.

Gordo and Row Jimmy with a bronze slob. 

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Epic June wet fly bites. My goodness, how I love the Farmington River’s Light Cahill/Sulphur/Caddis/Iso bite window of late spring/early summer. Both clients and I enjoyed the thrill of double-digit days.

Figure 1 (of many). Greg’s rod might have permanent bend.

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A hot Housy White Fly bite. If you go enough, sooner of later you’re going to hit the summer blizzard just right. I think I missed it last year; this year on more than one occasion I was snow-blinded in August.  There’s a certain rush you get from drifting a size 10 White Wulff that you can no longer see, then feeling a sudden crushing blow that resonates down to your fingertips. Wow, wow, wow.

Be sure to keep your mouth shut. White flies do not taste good.

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Catching a Scottish trout on a traditional Scottish wet fly. The conditions were disgusting — driving rain and windy — but Cam and I soldiered on and were rewarded with several hefty trout to net. The highlight for me was catching one on a Kate McLaren I’d tied several years before, never dreaming that I would one day be fishing it bob-style on a loch.

Cam with his first fish and guide Graeme Ferguson (wonderful to make a new friend); a kiss for a fellow lover of Kate McLaren.

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Fun at the Striper Moon film premier. It was in many ways a Who’s Who of southern New England striper fly fishing. What a treat to watch Lori Shankar’s film with Ken in the audience.

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(Finally) establishing a presence on Instagram. If you’re not already following me, please do. I post content on stevecultonflyfishing that you won’t find here.

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Big Fall Housy Browns. After last fall and this year’s winter high water, the resident browns had ample opportunity to feed and grow with very little angling pressure. A lot of the Housy faithful I spoke to declared this the best fall fishing in years. Can’t argue with them!

Over 20″ of holdover butter.

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A silver lining to a poor Salmon River steelhead run cloud. I only need one steelhead to make me happy, so landing this big buck on a morning where the temperature never got out of the teens had me in a grinning mood.

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So, you’ve made it this far. Please tell us about your 2019 highlights.

 

Long time no post: steelhead recovery and “Wet Flies 101” next week

Forgive me, faithful readers, but I’ve been away fishing for steelhead. Maybe that should be “survival fishing for steelhead.” Very early rising (I’m used to getting home then, not waking up) and bitter cold took it out of me. So, I ask for your indulgence while I recover, and we’ll have a fun to read (I hope) report next week.

Speaking of next week, I’m going to be presenting Wet Flies 101, Tuesday, November 19, Nutmeg TU, 7pm, Port 5, Bridgeport, CT. If you’re interested in this highly effective and underutilized subsurface method, Wet Flies 101 provides an overview and gateway into this ancient and traditional art. Hope to see you there!  You can find the Nutmeg TU Facebook page here and their website here.

That’s my breath, not cigar smoke. 17 degrees on your Fahrenheit dial.

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Salmon River Report 11/19 &20: Steelheading isn’t fair

You’ve heard me tell that my mother used to say that life isn’t fair.

I hated hearing that, but over the years I’ve grudgingly accepted it. I know she had my best interests in mind. But if she really wanted to help me, she would have added, “And steelheading is even more unfair.”

Cam and I fished the Salmon River last week. We had cold, warm, ice, snow, and sunshine. We had 350cfs and 750cfs. We had fish on and fish off. And we had the cruel fickleness of the beast and the sport.

Day One. After a slow start, Cam gets into a slob of Lake Ontario’s finest. He went three for three. This is his first of the morning.

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It was Jim’s birthday, and since we were both taking a break we insisted that he fish and catch a celebratory steelhead. This guy’s good. Here’s proof.

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A different perspective on the grip-and-grin. We kept all the fish in the net in the water until it was time for a quick photo op.

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By now, you’re asking, “But Steve — where’s your fish?” Ahem. I pounded the same water as Cam all morning on day one and not. A. Touch. Steelheading isn’t fair, remember? On the way downriver, I fouled one first cast in a deep hole. Farther down, I went one-for-two in another deep pool while Cam blanked. Are we seeing a pattern here? This is Cam’s last fish of day one. I dropped my first fair-hooked fish to an incredibly bad set. The second was camera shy, but was about the size of this one and polished metal bright. One steelhead to boat makes it good day.

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Oh, the injustice of Day Two! This tank of a buck is the only fish we boated. Now, anyone who’s steelheaded for years can tell you that fish are often lost to operator error. They’ll also tell you that you can do everything right and still lose the fish. Friends, I’m here to testify (with Jim and Cam as my witnesses) that I had four indicators go under, and I was dead-balls-on every hookset. Fast, sweeping downstream, hard — sticky sharp hooks — and every fish came unbuttoned. Three right after set, and one that I managed to keep on for a couple runs. You can do what you can do, and beyond that it’s up to the steelhead gods. Repeat after me: Steelheading isn’t fair!

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Salmon River steelhead report: Cruel to be kind

I do my best to understand, dear, but you still mystify — and I don’t think I’ll ever know why.

Why does a cold front always seem to come through on the day I booked months ago?

Why won’t the steelhead take the fly — any fly — on this particular day?

Why do steelhead glom onto only small black stones or only fluorescent orange eggs or…?

Why do I subject myself to this?

These are the questions I ponder at night over a glass of single malt. Finding the answers isn’t necessarily the goal — or even a realistic outcome. It’s just part of the Kabuki known as steelhead madness.

Monday: I call it “Salmon River Sunshine.” It refers to the snow, rain, sleet, and the more esoteric forms of lake-effect precipitation. Today it was white pellets and snow. It started around 7am — we’d launched at 6 — and it went full throttle pretty much all morning. The stuff stuck to the boat, our gear, hoods, gloves —  no horizontal surface was spared. Now, I’ve had plenty of good days fishing in crap weather, but this wasn’t one of them. Not a single touch the entire day. We were surely fishing over steelhead, because Cam hooked five, landing three. Okay, so he was using egg sacks. But shouldn’t I have gotten at least a courtesy tap?

I tend to view these situations as a half full/half empty dichotomy: I’m fishing well, my drifts are good, I’m alert and ready to set the hook, and I know there are steelhead below. But as much as I will it to be so, they just won’t take the fly. That’s more than a little frustrating when you’ve driven hours so you can shiver in your boots for the skunk while standing in five inches of slush in the bottom of a boat.

Of course, the salve for this day was how well Cam fished. (He hooked and landed more steelhead than any other angler we saw or spoke to.) Being a proud papa can do wonders for your spirits, so I went all in on that. And I reminded myself that in any multi-day trip, the fighting is in rounds.

When I sent this photo to my wife, her comment was, “Even the fish looks cold.” That’s our guide, James Kirtland of Row Jimmy Guide Service.  I’ve become a much better steelhead angler because of him. Highly recommended.

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Tuesday: Having blanked on two of my four steelhead days this fall, I was ready to negotiate an agreement using my fly fishing soul as collateral. I’m talking, of course, about trout beads. Yes, they are proven steelhead catchers. No, they are not flies. But it’s my trip and I can do whatever the hell I want. Purists among you will be pleased to know that I blanked for the two hours I used them. (I have to confess that I wasn’t all that upset about it, either.)

I’d had some success the previous week on a pattern called a Breaking Skein Glitter Fly. It’s basically a Crystal Meth with a pearl Krystal Flash tail and some white Estaz ribbed between the fluorescent orange braid loops. Wasn’t I the happiest angler on the river when my indicator went under and the line thrummed with energy?

After 11 consecutive hours of skunk, that’ll put a smile on your face. I had to earn this one. It was a fresh, energetic fish, and after a couple line burning runs it decided that the boat was a cut bank and parked underneath it. Picture me leaning over the bow, rod tip in the water, trying to coax it out. Seconds became years, but we finally had our grip and grin.

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This year’s fishing was different for me in that all my steelhead came on bright, flashy patterns. I spent many hours presenting small black stones (Redheads, Copperheads, etc.) and any number of natural-toned soft-hackles to no avail. They wanted the bling. (I did hook and drop a fish on a 60-Second Copperhead). By the time ice in the rod tips was no longer a factor, Cam had boated three, and I’d taken my second on the Breaking Skein Glitter Fly.

It’s a very, very, very good sign.

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It was now early afternoon and time was a thief. I’d gotten a bump on a hot orange Salmon River Rajah fished under an indicator, so I rolled the dice, ditched the yarn, and embarked on a little swinging adventure. I gave it the better part of an hour, but in the end I went back to the Breaking Skein well. My last steelhead ate the fly with fierce conviction, but I whiffed on the set. We got a good look at it when it boiled, and we ruefully concurred that it was the biggest fish of the day. Oh, the cruelty! I kept pounding the slot the fish had been holding in, and ten minutes later the steelhead gods showed their kindness as the fish struck and I buried the hook in the corner of its mouth. Like my first fish, this buck cartwheeled down the pool, then made a beeline for the security of under the boat. At double digit pounds, this steelhead needed some firm pressure to get him to relinquish his position. In the end, the hoop of the net encircled him, and smiles decorated every face.

On Tuesday, November 21st, 2017, the steelhead loved this fly. On Monday, November 20th, 2017, they ignored it. Don’t ask me why.

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Cam was high hook both days and for the trip, with seven total steelhead, three of them in some nasty, difficult conditions. Dad was three-for-five. But as I tell Cam, if I can land just one steelhead, that’s a good day.

Lee Wulff was right. As was Nick Lowe. (In the right measure.) 

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