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.
Calling all steelhead fanatics and soft-hackle aficionados! “Soft Hackles for Winter Steelhead” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of American Angler. It features six of my favorite winter steelhead soft-hackles, including detailed photos, pattern recipes, and a little story about each fly. Also included is my winter steelhead indicator setup.
I wrote this piece several years ago, but I’m pleased to tell you that I still use all of these flies. With the brutal cold approaching, it seemed like a good time to post “Soft Hackles for Winter Steelhead.” To read it, click on the pdf link below.
This fine buck was taken in late fall 2017 on a Salmon River Rajah, one of the soft-hackled flies featured in the article.
Or, an angler can hope. Either way, fly boxes must be replenished, here with an eclectic selection of attractors, eggy fare, classic soft hackles and gaudy streamers. A few hungry customers is all I ask.
The best flies for Great Lakes steelhead are the ones that get eaten. Surely a delectable morsel lies within this diverse menu.
It’s cold in Pulaski, but even on the most miserable days there seems to be a midge hatch. I’ve decided that small flies in natural colors are underutilized on the Salmon River. And so, buoyed by last week’s success with the Snipe and Purple, I took to the tying bench.
Here are four classic soft hackles adapted for steelhead: Pheasant Tail, Leisenring’s Black Gnat, Starling and Herl, and a midge-like rendering of Leisenring’s Iron Blue Nymph. Three of them use the Orvis 1641, a 1x short, 2x strong wet fly hook. They’re a size 12, so they’ll effectively fish as a 14. The other hook is a size 12 Daiichi 1120, likewise 1x short/2x strong. Some of the original patterns called for tinsel; I substituted small diameter wire.
Now all we need is a hatch and some feeders.
Steelhead soft hackles, clockwise from upper left: Pheasant Tail, Black Gnat, Starling and Herl, Iron Blue Midge.
It’s been another one of those steelhead seasons. Call it what you will — slow? Or maybe just a down year. But those years are now coming in bunches. That’s why I’m going with the Great Steelhead Recession. We’re chasing a fish that, in the best of times, is hard-earned. But the last three years have raised the emotional stakes to levels that will test an angler’s resolve. You can see it in the beleaguered eyes of the skunked. Hear the bitter tinge in their words (“Three days. Nothin’.”). The parking lots from Altmar to Pineville bear mute testimony to the current state of the fishery. November 9. Afternoon. Prime time. Three cars in the Ellis Cove lot, one at Lower Sportsman’s, none at the Refrigerator.
But, when you’ve booked a trip, you go. Prepare for the worse. And hope for the best.
I didn’t get a good hook set on the first steelhead. Fresh chrome — that was evident even in the tea-stained waters. But steelheaders live by their drag, and some die by it, like me, who had it screwed down way too tight for that first run. Pop! Stonefly thus liberated from metallic mouth. Hot, burning ownership of blame consumed me. And now I had to live with the thought that that might be my only touch of the day.
Into the seventh hour of fishing. The sun was out now, and I noticed a few whispy midges freeing themselves from their watery prison. Since it was time to change flies, I rummaged around in my box for the smallest, midgeiest, most emergerly fly I could find. There it was. Snipe and Purple, soft hackle, size 10. I’d tied it up years ago, then stuck it into a corner of my fly box. And there it sat, forgotten, waiting patiently for this moment.
I turned to Jim, my guide, and announced, “I’ll bet none of your clients have ever caught a steelhead on a Snipe and Purple soft hackle.”
There comes a time during every drift when the angler decides it’s over. On this particular one, I began to lift the rod just at the moment when the fly would have started swinging up from the bottom. The steelhead had been holding there, perhaps feeding on nymphs, when he saw the bug coming at him suddenly dart toward the surface. He made a decision. I want that.
Jim saw the flash just as I felt the sharp tug. Even has he was saying, “What?!?” I was driving the point of the small wet fly hook home. This time I remembered to set my drag. Multiple runs, two dramatic aerials, then the net. And in the midst of hard times, we were celebrating our newfound wealth.
Sun reflecting off cold, hard cash, not too long from Lake Ontario.
Purple silk, gold rib, and a land bird hackle. That’s the actual fly at lower right. You can find the full article I wrote about these Yorkshire-inspired steelhead patterns here.
This modern take on the traditional template is one of my favorite steelhead patterns.
Here’s what I wrote about the North-Country Spider Egg in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of American Angler:
T.E. Pritt never chased chrome, but his renowned North-Country spiders make for fine steelhead soft-hackles. I’ve had even more success with the spider template by adding a tail and using bright colors and modern materials. Pritt may be rolling over in his grave at the liberties I’ve taken, but he could not argue with the results: steelhead love this fly.
Classic North-Country patterns like the Winter Brown and the Grey Partridge sport a head of wound peacock herl. In the Spider Egg, I’m simply using a few turns of Estaz Petite. The Estaz should be a contrasting color to the monochromatic body, wing, and tail. I like black/chartreuse; chartreuse/black; chartreuse/white; black/purple; and metallic copper/black. You can and should experiment with different color combinations.
The North-Country Spider Egg Rogues’ Gallery:
Fresh chrome, Salmon River, 11/2014
Saturday’s tying demo — Soft-Hackles and Fuzzy Nymphs for Steelhead — was a tremendous success. I’m always surprised by the number of people who are willing to come out and watch someone else tie; the fact that it was me who was tying made me smile even more. I think what I like most about these events is the open forum format. It’s an ideal way to talk fishing, fly tying, answer questions, and connect with people on a more personal level. I appreciate the audience that the internet provides, but nothing beats good old-fashioned face-to-face time.
Then there’s the venue. If you’ve never been the Compleat Angler (541 Post Road, Darien, CT) it has a tremendous selection of fly tying materials. I went on a little walkabout through the store after my session, and saw lots of covet-worthy stuff. The staff is great, and Scott, bless him, brought me a turkey sandwich. Man does not live on soft-hackles alone, or: A fed tyer is a happy tyer.
Tying Dave Hall’s Black Crawler. That’s Carol off to the right. She’s been to every one of my demos at CA. Thanks for coming out, everyone.
My next appearance will be this Wednesday, March 4, at the FVTU Chapter meeting, 7pm, at the Whinstone Tavern at the Stanley golf course in New Britain. “Wet Flies 101.” Hope to see you there.
Hope to see you at the Compleat Angler, 541 Post Road in Darien, Saturday, February 28 from 10am-2pm. Like the title says, steelhead soft-hackles and fuzzy nymphs will be the bill of fare. Many of these patterns cross over neatly into trout fishing, so don’t let the steelhead designation scare you off. This is a tying demo, not a class, so all you need to bring is yourself and some questions if you are so inclined to ask. I will certainly be tying some of the flies that were featured in my “Soft-Hackles for Winter Steelhead” piece in the last issue of American Angler. Till then, stay warm!
The Ginger Spider. Yup. It would be safe to say that I have a thing for the magical material humbly known as ginger Angora goat. Teal flank, too.
Where: We floated from Altmar to 2A
Duration of trip: About eight hours and thirty minutes
Number of spots we fished: Two
Water level and color when we started: 475cfs and clear
Water level below Orwell and Trout Brooks: 800cfs and rising, color somewhere between tea and chocolate milk with a splash of leaves
Weather: Cloudy and cool to sunny and in the 60s(!). Two brief showers. Windy.
Number of steelhead we hooked: 12, plus one foul we broke off (got the fly back)
Number of steelhead we landed: 9
Number of times I handed the fly rod off to Cam after hook set: 3
Number of steelhead Cam landed: 3, including one hyperactive jumper
Cam’s first steelhead landed on a fly rod. He’s a natural.
Number of steelhead Cam has played on a fly rod before this year: Zero
Cam’s batting average in his three-year steelhead career: 1.000 (Five for five. Proud papa.)
Kind of flies I caught them on upriver in the clear water: small stones and soft-hackled nymphs, size 10 and 12
Pattern I caught them on in the dirty swill water: size 8 Bead Head Lifter, Pink/Chartreuse and Blue/Chartreuse
Downriver, I figured I’d need a hi-vis pattern to get the fish’s attention. I hemmed and hawed, considered an Egg-Sucking Leech or other streamer, then tried an Estaz Egg/San Juan Worm pattern. No. Tied on the Bead Head Lifter, got the answer I was looking for, and kept it on for the rest of the afternoon.
Number of steelhead I thought we’d catch in the dirty swill water: Zero
Number of steelhead we caught: 6
Ugh. Miles of dirty water. Scores of beleaguered anglers lining the shores. At least they could have gotten into their trucks and driven upriver. But we were bound by the confines of the boat, gravity, and what nature had thrown at us. As the saying goes, you don’t know if you don’t go. Six steelhead landed is a damn good afternoon, any day. In swollen mucky runoff, it’s lottery lucky. Wow. We’ll take it.
Guide rating: Highest marks. Jim Kirtland has what you’d call deep domain knowledge of the Salmon. His netting skills are exceptional. Very recommended.
Number of steelhead we landed on our two previous floats with Jim: 3 (I guess we were due.)
Number of steelhead I landed in 2012: 1 (sometimes the bear eats you).
Number of steelhead I’ve landed in the last 13 months: 41 (sometimes you eat the bear).
On a scale of 1-10, energy I felt from being out on the river on a spring-like November day with my son catching steelhead: C’mon.