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.

Top 5 Steelhead Nymphs for Salmon River, Pulaski

The best steelhead nymphs are the ones in which you have the most confidence. After all, “best” isn’t measurable. But if you buy into the old saw that the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it, I’d like to offer up five steelhead nymphs that have proven their worthiness on New York’s Salmon River.

So, what qualifies a steelhead fly as a nymph? For the purposes of this list, I’ve kept it to flies that are size 8 or smaller; flies that feature predominantly muted colors (hot spots, contrast points, and bead heads are allowed); and flies whose basic construct is at least 50% actual invertebrate driven. So, no bigger stoneflies here. No Steelhead Hammer types. And no black-light poster colors. Here we go, in no particular order. As a bonus, some of the patterns have links to my tying video.

Soft-Hackled Bead Head Pheasant Tail. I was pleased no end to discover that Salmon River steelhead would eat this rather muted pattern. I’ve done really well with this fly in winter.

60-Second Redhead. The beauty of this fly isn’t that if you lose one to the bottom gods, you’re not depressed because they’re so fast and easy to tie. It’s that this fly, which would never catch your eye in a retail bin, is like candy to steelhead when they’re eating bugs.

60-Second Copperhead. After pounding up so many steelhead on the redhead, I wondered if they’d like a version with a copper Ice Dub head. A wise old Salmon River veteran once told me, “It’s hard to go wrong on this river with black and copper.” He was mighty right.

Copperhead Stone. I landed my first steelhead on this fly, and years later, it still works. I remember one morning in the Lower Fly Zone when I was handing them out to everyone who wanted to know, “What fly are you using?”

Spider. Another ridiculously simple tie (notice a pattern here?): size 12 hook, black Krystal Flash tail, black Estaz body, copper (the original calls for olive or pearl) braid flashback. Designed by Clyde Murray for Erie fish, the Salmon River steelhead like it just fine.

My top five steelhead nymphs for the Salmon River in Pulaski, NY, are all very simple ties. Note that they all have some kind of contrast, flash, or hot spot. These are all high-confidence patterns for me, all proven producers, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of them when you suspect the steelhead are eating nymphs.

Farmington River Mini Report 11/17/20: A hard day’s nymphing

To be fair, it was only a few hours — I fished from noon to 3pm — but the going was glacially slow. I hit four favorite nymphing marks below (450cfs) and within the TMA (390cfs), and I found a trout willing to jump on in only one of them. I used a combination of tight line and indicator nymphing methods, and I even switched out my point fly and dropper — none of it seemed to make any difference. The angler traffic continues, with nine other folks sharing the water with me during my travels. Mine was the only fish I saw hooked all day, which is not to brag, but rather to illustrate how slow the fishing was. I stopped at UpCountry on the way home to do some shopping, and Torrey Collins said that nymphing has been slow for him lately, too. So it goes.

The day wasn’t a total loss. I scored this beautiful, webby dark dun hen cape at UpCountry. Just what I need for my next batch of Dark Hendrickson winged wets.

Tip of the Week: Prevent runaway line when you’re changing flies

If you fish a two-handed rod, or if you use a modern shooting head integrated line (like Rio Outbound or Airflo 40+) with your single hand setup, you’ve undoubtedly encountered this scenario. You want to change your fly, or check the hook point, so you tuck your rod under your armpit and gather in the line. Problem: while you’re fiddling with the fly, the current grabs the line — those shooting heads have a lot of surface area — and downstream goes your head, taking your running line along with it. Now, you’ve got to re-strip 60, 70, 80 feet of line again — time you could be fishing.

Solution: wrap a couple loops of the running line around your off-hand wrist. I like to gather in the running line till the shooting head is just outside the rod tip. The orange running line below my wrist remains inside my shooting basket. This way I’m ready to cast as soon as I change flies. That’s more time spent fishing, and that means more potential time catching.

Tip of the Week: Save your welded loop with a heavy mono butt section

Many, if not most, modern fly lines come with a factory welded loop for an easy leader connection. The problem is that if you’re using a straight shot of leader material that’s under 40lb. test, the diameter of that leader can cut into the the welded loop while fighting a big fish, trying to free a snag, or inducing any other stress that puts extreme pressure on the connection.

Solution: create a short mono butt section to act as a buffer between your welded loop and leader. I’ve been using a foot-long length of 50lb. or 60 lb. mono. Just tie a perfection loop (here’s a great tutorial from Animated Knots) at both ends, and you’re good to go! I’ve been using this system with my two-handed shooting head for over a year.

Yes, I Guide/Teach for Striped Bass

Do I guide for striped bass? The short answer is yes. But, these sessions are non-traditional in the sense of a typical guide trip/lesson. The focus is rarely on catching stripers in the moment; rather, it is to prepare you to catch stripers in the future. Depending on time/tide/conditions/season/luck, we may indeed catch some bass. But there is also a high probability that we won’t see a fish.

There are several reason for this. For starters, I do not guide at night. No exceptions. That leaves us with daylight hours, which in the abstract usually means fewer hookups. We’re also in the midst of striper downturn — there are far less fish than there were, say, 15 years ago. I can’t take you to Block Island or Cape Cod, which typically have an in-season abundance of stripers — you’d have to pay for my time and travel, and that would be cost-prohibitive. I’m shore wading only, so we can’t quickly zip off in a boat a few miles away to find the next blitz. Finally, my lessons are usually two hour sessions. Tides and time being ever-changing, that means we may not hit a strong bite window (if we do, good on us!). So, if you’re OK with trading immediate gratification for success down the road, read on.

What do I teach? A lot of good stuff you won’t find anywhere else. Most of you know me as a guide who fishes for stripers in a traditional and (in modern popular practice) unconventional manner. I primarily use floating lines. You should have one, too. My focus is on rigging, presentation, fly selection, and more presentation. You might want to spend a couple hours with me if you’re interested in learning traditional trout and salmon presentations like the greased line swing; how to tie and fish dropper rigs; fishing with multiple flies at or near the surface; reading water; fishing with your two-hand setup (sorry, I can’t supply you with a rod); and plenty of little things that sometimes make the difference between fishing and catching stripers.

I hope this clarifies what I do. My rate will vary depending on location. If you’re interested in setting up a trip, or need more information, please call me at 860-918-0228 or email swculton@yahoo.com.

Not all Gurgler-type flies are meant to be stripped. I caught this handsome Block bass on a dead drift — the Gurgling Sand Eel was point fly on a team of three — and showing you how to do the same is just one of the things I teach.

The Countermeasure Fly Tying Video

You’re now at Countermeasure Central on currentseams! Here you can watch the tying video (below); see the original post/recipe; and read the Guide Flies feature piece from On The Water magazine. In case you’re new to this pattern, the Countermeasure is a riff on several proven streamer designs (like the Zoo Cougar and Zonker). It’s loaded with bite triggers, and it’s one of my favorite smallmouth bass bugs. Oh! Big trout love it, too.

Striper Report: First Cast Fever, or: it’s all about adjustments

I decided to fish the mouth of the Hous for a couple hours simply because I could…and because it seemed like that time of year. I had the place to myself for about 30 minutes, but no love taps were forthcoming. The terminal rig was a Soft-Hackled Flatwing in R.L.S. Easterly colors on an 8-foot leader. It didn’t compute that there were no fish around, so I decided to make an adjustment.

This is the kind of little thing — I know you’ve heard that phrase somewhere before! — that can have huge impact on your fishing. If you know or suspect the fish are there and you’re not catching, do something different. So I swapped out my leader for a 6-foot section of T-11 and a three foot leader. Still nothing. Then, I added a 3/0 shot to the leader just above the fly. Next cast, bang! Then another two casts later. This made me happy.

Sometimes it’s the little adjustments that make the biggest difference. This single shot, clamped on with pliers, resulted in an immediate hookup.

You might think that this is how the story (happily) ends. But no. After those two fish, I went a good half hour without a tap. I have to confess that this kind of fishing holds little interest for me, even less so when the bite is off. But since we’re talking about adjustments, how’s this: go from dredging the bottom to skating on top.

Many years ago old friend Ed Simpson exclaimed, as we fished a spot not too far from where I was wading, “Make ’em come up!” Off came the full sink tip and shotted fly, on went the longer leader and a Gartside Gurgler. First cast, splash, boil, whack! Then another. And another. These fish were sporting the colors of bass not fresh from the sea, but rather those of winter residency. Not very big, but I love any striper that displays that marauding spirit. Many anglers think of fishing surface bugs as an active presentation, with the fly in constant motion, but every one of my hits came on the pause (see this post for more on varying your strip cadence).

My last adjustment came as the action and tide waned. I noticed a far sexier rip, abutted by a slick, 150 feet downriver. So I waded down, made some casts, and caught some more. And that, dear reader, brings us to our happy ending.

Striper Report and props for CT’s ASMFC reps

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s scathing menhaden management commentary comes a shout out to the Connecticut members of the ASMFC. This is from a post made by Charles Witek on Facebook: “The New England states are worried about lobster bait. Virginia is worried about Omega. Everyone is worried about cutting fishermen’s income. It’s probably no coincidence that–with the exception of Connecticut and Rhode Island–the states seeking a larger cut in menhaden landings were southern–North Carolina, Georgia and Florida–which have neither a lobster fishery nor a big menhaden fishery. Connecticut made a noteworthy effort to convince the Management Board to do the right thing, and Rhode Island has long been a leader for better menhaden management. Folks in those states–particularly in Connecticut–ought to thank their fisheries managers if they get the chance.” Huzzah! If you want to send them a thank you email, you can find their contact info here. Please comment here if you send an email!

On to striper fishing. I’ve spent a significant amount of time this fall learning a new mark. The going’s been slow, but on Tuesday night I finally had some action — about a dozen hits, and the water was so calm I could also see several follow-the-fly wakes. Nothing big, but the big fish potential remains. Then there was last night. Specifically, the fog. It came in on big galumphing herds of elephant feet. We’re talking horror-movie density fog. I hate fishing in fog. With a few notable exceptions, it’s always been a bite killer. And so it was last night. Still, I got to stand in the ocean and fish and smoke a cigar and you know, that ain’t all so bad…

If there is a defining line between heavy fog and actually rainfall, I think we reached that threshold.

800 Followers Contest is closed. Winners announced soon!

I will draw winners this week and notify you by email. Thank you to everyone who entered, and for your continued support and readership!

Cheers, fellow currentseamers. Actually, I’d better not — I’m writing right now.