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.
“Ten Things Every Beginning Steelheader Should Know” first appeared in the October 2015 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide. I had a lot of fun with this piece, as it mixes humor with practical advice. Even if you’re an old hand, you might find something useful here. Many thanks to MAFFG for allowing me to share it on currentseams.
So, you’ve decided that you’re going to take up fly fishing for steelhead. I don’t know whether to congratulate you or console you. No other form of fly fishing produces such soaring emotional highs or soul-crushing lows. But, the least I can do – as someone who was once in your bright-eyed position – is prepare you for what lies ahead.
Stop. Turn back now before it’s too late. Steelheading is an addiction. And once you’re hooked, dealers in the form of social media fishing reports, grip-and-grins, river conditions, dam release schedules (not to mention endless discussions about rods, reels, flies and gear) will have you at their command. “Obsession” is not too strong a word. Work, social, home life – will all suffer for the pursuit of fresh chrome. You think I’m writing this tongue-in-cheek. I am not.
Expect harsh weather. Great Lakes steelheading is largely a fall, winter, and early spring game. Be prepared for some of the most unforgiving conditions you’ve ever experienced: single digit (or lower) temperatures; lake effect snow; more lake effect snow; really, any and all forms of frozen precipitation. Truthfully, plain cold isn’t that bad. It’s the thirty-four-degrees-and-raining days that cut to the bone. Dressing like you’re going on an expedition to Everest is rarely a bad idea. Fleece is your friend. Think multiple, breathable layers. And those hand and toe warmers they sell in convenience stores? Buy many, many packs.
Prepare yourself for the demanding conditions of a big river. A skunking can be the least of your worries, as this sign along the banks of New York’s Salmon River warns.
Find a tippet you can trust. The most obvious dichotomy in steelheading is that you’re using a light tippet to land a very big fish. So your tippet material must be small enough to remain unnoticed by the steelhead, and strong enough to withstand a heated battle. Here are two such materials: Drennan six-pound fluorocarbon and Maxima Chameleon six-pound nylon. Be ruthless about the condition of your tippets. Check them frequently for abrasions or wind knots. If you find problems, replace the tippet. You’ll be happy you did when you’re fighting that fifteen-pound hen fresh from the lake.
The flies are a little strange. You can catch steelhead with a tuft of Day-Glo yarn tied to a hook, or a few turns of Estaz wrapped around the shank. You may hesitate to call these things flies. Nonetheless, they work. Don’t be afraid to experiment with more traditional patterns and color palettes. Small, simple black stoneflies (like the 60-Second Redhead) and bead-head Pheasant Tail-types account for a significant number of my Great Lakes steelhead every season.
Fluorescent colors dominate a typical steelhead fly box. While egg patterns, gaudy bead heads and brightly accented stoneflies like these certainly catch fish, so do flies in muted, natural colors.
Life is not fair. Neither is steelheading. You can do everything right, from presentation to hook set to managing leaps to applying pressure, and still lose the fish. You can do all those things wrong and then land the fish. You can stand in a lineup while every angler above and below you hooks multiple fish and you blank. The spot where you caught a dozen one day is a barren steelhead wasteland the next. I gave up trying to figure it all out years ago.
Sometimes steelheading makes no sense. On this warm late November day, the river was high from snowmelt, the color of chocolate milk, with visibility of less than a foot – and we still had a tremendous day of fishing.
Be prepared to put in your time. It took me forty hours of fishing to land my first steelhead. (It took my nine year-old son only thirty minutes. That was three years ago, and I’m still bitter about it. See “Life isn’t fair” above.) Experience will be your greatest teacher. Pay attention to factors like water temperature and water levels. For example, if the river is low, I know to head for what I call the hot water – snotty whitewater riffles and pockets. Learn where steelhead hang out in the cold winter months. Watch how other people fish. Note the methods of successful anglers. Most of all, get out and fish. You can’t catch steelhead from behind a desk.
Go find the fish. Don’t get lulled into thinking that because steelhead are migratory, they could show up at your feet any minute now. I’ve spent far too many hours – if not days – waiting for something to happen that never did. If you’ve blanketed a run with presentations and have come up empty, move. The fish that want to eat are somewhere else. And it is often true that where there is one hungry steelhead, there are many others.
Tom’s 60 Second Redhead, so named because it only takes a minute to tie. In this version, the abdomen is black Krystal Dub; the head red Ice Dub. This simple pattern excels in rivers with little black stonefly populations.
Hook set is everything. I suspect that more steelhead are lost to poor hook sets and dull hook points than any other factors. Most of the steelhead I lose come unhinged in the first few seconds of the fight. Get in the habit of checking your hook points early and often. If they aren’t sticky sharp, replace them. If you’re presenting under an indicator, watch it like a hawk. Look for a reason to set the hook on every drift. Set hard with a downstream sweep. Get tight to that fish fast, and set the hook again. Then, hang on. This is where the fun begins.
Don’t let them breathe. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of a steelhead being in charge of any fight (though it’s true to some extent). Still, don’t let the fish intimidate you. Once your steelhead realizes that it’s hooked, it will want to run. Let it. It may want to leap and cartwheel. Enjoy the spectacle. But when it stops its histrionics, point the cork of your rod handle upstream, and crank that reel fast and hard. The fish stopped running because it’s exhausted. Don’t let it catch its breath. With a good hook set and a reliable tippet, you can put far more pressure on a fish than you think. Let the fish run again if it wants. Same drill: don’t let him breathe. Find that perfect equilibrium on your drag that makes the steelhead work hard for every foot of line without popping the tippet. Your goal is to land the fish as expeditiously as possible. The longer you play a steelhead, the more things can happen – and most of them are bad.
5mm neoprene insulated boot foot waders. In my opinion, this is the single greatest development in fly fishing for winter steelhead in the last 50 years.
Why we steelhead. Brilliant chrome from Lake Ontario, taken in two feet of whitewater during low flows on a black and purple North Country Spider Egg.
Yeah, I know. It’s early March. Maybe I was subconsciously trying to forget the worst November since I started this madness. To tell the story in numbers: 5 days, 3 fish. And I felt like I was doing well. Day 1: one touch, one fish landed. Day 2: one touch, one fish landed. Day 3: 0-for-3, including a foul that I broke off. Back up for more abuse two weeks later. Day 4: 0-for-2, including another foul I disengaged. Day 5: one touch, one landed. Here are a few photos to keep you entertained.
I go on a tying binge the few weeks before a trip. Here’s my stash for the second one. You’ll recognize the usual suspects, but I added a few new (for me) patterns into the rotation, including a Montana Stone variant and Barber’s Chartreuse Head Stone.
Semi-chrome from day two, my favorite fish from both trips. After blanking the entire morning, I hiked out to find some solitude, and hopefully some action. I came upon several steelhead holding in smaller water, but they had no interest in what I was selling. Not too far away was a location that I’d had success in before, albeit in much higher water. I channeled my inner ninja and crept up on the hole. Third cast. 60 Second Redhead. Life was good.
A variant of Jimmy Hunnicutt’s Blood on the Waters. This may seem like far too noble a fly to fish under an indicator, but I loved its energy, and I needed a little magic. I’d like to tell you that the fly produced on this occasion, but alas, it is resting comfortably somewhere on the bottom of the Wire Hole as you read this.
Can you tell who was catching the most fish? Cam was my fishing buddy for the last two days. We both blanked on the first one, but that night, Cam announced that he had a good feeling about tomorrow. What prescience! He landed four fish that second day. And now he’s a real steelheader, having lost his first steelhead (after going 5-for-5 over his previous three trips).
The host of Yankee Fisherman, John Kovach, was kind enough to feature me tying one of my favorite steelhead flies, the 60 Second Redhead, on the 12.10.15 show. The segment was recorded at the Arts of the Angler show back in October. You can see it here; I come in around the 17:40 mark. And of course there’s also the official currentseams tying video elsewhere on this site. Thanks again to John and Yankee Fisherman for their continued support.
Yes. The 60 Second Redhead catches steelhead. From November 2015.
1) Drink wine
2) Save the cork
3) Tie flies for the next steelhead trip
4) Stick flies in cork as they roll off the production line
5) Catch steelhead
All kinds of eggs, egg masses, stoneflies, soft-hackles, leeches and a few odds and ends that defy description. Dinner, anyone?
God, I hope #5 happens.
It’s easy to tie. It’s a fast tie. It catches steelhead. ‘Nuff said.
I found this fly a while back on Randy Jones’ Yankee Angler site and was intrigued by its simplicity. The fly got its name (Randy calls it “Tom’s 60 Second Red Head,” Tom being Tom Wilson) because you can supposedly crank them out at the rate of 60 per hour. I’m no speed tyer, but I can get pretty close to a minute on this one if I hustle. Part stone fly/nymph/larva buggy bug, part egg, the pattern certainly lends itself to all kinds of color variations.
The 60 Second Redhead
Hook: 2x strong scud/shrimp, sz 10-12
Body: Black Krystal Dub
Head: Red Ice Dub
I tied up a bunch of these, and they sat in my box until one fine Saturday afternoon. On my very first cast with the 60 Second Redhead, I hooked a steelhead. That was years ago, and this fly is now a core pattern in my steelhead box.
Tying notes: The original recipe calls for medium red copper wire as the tying “thread.” This adds a tad more weight to the fly. I find the medium diameter difficult to work with, so I use small red copper wire when I’m not using thread. High-tack wax like Loon’s Swax ensures the dubbing sticks to the wire. The original also calls for a complex mixture of furs and flash: for the body, a mix of beaver, angora goat, and black flash. Since speed is in its name, I figured why not just be done with it and use black Krystal dub? Ditto the head, where the original calls for beaver, angora goat, and red flash. Buy a pack of red Ice Dub and you’re cooking with gas. Last year, I met Randy on the Salmon River at the Pineville Boat launch. We had a detailed conversation about the Red Head. I thanked him for introducing me to this fly, and told him it was now an old standby. Randy said to make sure not to tie it with a thick profile, but added if you’re catching fish on it, you’re doing something right. Wise words. What you see here is my standard issue tie.
Also, play around with other colors and materials. Here is the 60 Second Copperhead:
Hook: 2x strong scud/shrimp, sz 10-12
Body: Black angora goat
Head: Metallic copper Ice Dub
60-Second Copperhead Rogues’ Gallery:
Chrome hen, Salmon River, 11/9/14
You’re up before the sun. As you hike to the river, there’s a distinct chill in the air that tells you in another month the trail will be covered in snow. Once you get to your spot and wade in, you can feel the gripping cold of the water against your legs. Should have worn the neoprenes. Maybe not, though. It’s supposed to get up to the high 50s today. It’ll be warm enough later. But for now, damn, you’re just about shivering. You’ve already had your coffee, but you want something else. Something warm. And sweet. A cup of hot chocolate would do nicely. The kind your mom used to make after you came in from outside on a snow day. Hmm. Maybe the steelhead would like some, too. A little chocolate brown stone, just like the ones you saw hatching yesterday morning. A hot orange bead to get their attention. Soft hackles that say, “I’m alive.” And a buggy body because that’s what fish like. Once you get that first steelhead on, you’ll be downright toasty.
The Hot Chocolate Stone
Hook: 2x strong, 1x short emerger, size 8-12
Thread: Hot Orange
Tail: Brown Coq de Leon
Body: Fiery brown angora goat, dubbed roughly
Bead: Hot Orange
Tying notes: This is a pretty straightforward tie. If you want to add a little more weight to the fly, you can seat the bead with about 8 wraps of undersized wire. Coq de Leon and grouse are beautifully barred materials that naturally create the illusion of segmentation. Angora goat is one of my favorite body materials; it’s spikey and rough, and you can get it in all kinds of colors from muted naturals to fluorescents. Use a dubbing loop to get than uber-buggy look. Play around with different bead colors at your discretion; the fish will always tell you if they have a preference.
The Hot Chocolate Stone Rogues’ Gallery:
Salmon River (NY) November 2012