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The Grab - Part III:

Steelhead On The Surface

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Ronan's report


Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

One of the greatest thrills in all of the fishing that I’ve done is the feel of the grab from a steelhead on a swung fly. Each and every time it’s something special. Something that I know I should never take for granted. Some say the grab is everything, that “the tug is the drug”, but I don’t agree with that. Fishing for steelhead with flies is too multi faceted an experience to make such a claim. It is, however, the most exciting moment in many cases, and often comes as a great and welcome surprise.

This is now the third and final part in a series of FPs. My little homage to the grab. This time the words and feelings are not just my own. I am thrilled to have my long time fishing partner Niall helping out this week. This guy “never” writes stuff for me, but I consider him a great fishing mind, so when he volunteered to contribute I couldn’t say no. I hope you enjoy our combine perspective.

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Let’s leave the subsurface world of the river that we explore with wet flies and bring our flies up into the zone where the aquatic and terrestrial worlds meet. Steelhead on the surface – now we’re talking!

The biggest difference between this subject and the others in this series so far is that while swinging wet flies is distinctively about how the grab feels, fishing on the surface is all about how the grab looks. It is a visual experience.

There are several methods we employ to get steelhead to take a surface fly: dead drifting, riffle hitching wets, the traditional down and across swing with wakers and skaters, and more aggressive techniques that include twitching and popping surface flies. All of them work during the right conditions, and each technique can illicit a very different reaction from a steelhead. Every one is unbelievably exciting to behold.

For us, the most intriguing thing about taking steelhead on surface flies is how un-steelhead-like the fish seem to act. Unlike the grabs we experience on wet flies swung shallow or deep, which have very distinct and predictable feels, the grabs from surface-taking steelhead continually surprise us. The variety of behaviors exhibited by these fish seems nearly limitless.

Sometimes steelhead react to our fly the same way a small wild trout in a mountain stream does – they give a quick rise, often to the side, and all we see is a quick flash as the fly disappears. It seems like a small trout has taken the fly, until a stunning 8 pound steelhead starts ripping line off the reel! Sometimes the fly will simply disappear, with hardly any surface disturbance. Other times we just see a big upper jaw come up and over the fly like a big ol’ gator.

When fishing big, waking flies aggressively, often in heavier water, the steelhead usually respond by reacting more like a bass or an aggressive saltwater species. This is when we typically experience crazy, heart stopping takes that can involve a good portion, or all, of the fish’s body coming out of the water, and the line being jerked from our grip. It's hard to describe the instant rush and sense of surprise and fear when a steelhead cannonballs your fly and your loop just goes out before you even have a chance to mess it up. I wonder how many steelhead an angler needs to raise to the surface before he/she can stay calm in a moment like that. I'll bet we never find out!!

Our favorite type of surface take by steelhead occurs in smooth water. In those areas, we usually fish a sparse waking fly on a riffle hitch, using a traditional swing We fish relaxed and the water type allows us to be very attentive to how the fly is fishing across the water. Watching that little fly chug across the silvery surface of a glassy tailout is just a terrific experience. The takes we see are usually smooth and relaxed. The fly disappears into a boil that is proportional to the size of the steelhead. Often, we never even catch sight of the fish itself. There is nothing quite like seeing your sparse #6 disappear into steelhead sized rise rings.

Steelhead sometimes move on or play with a fly on the surface without actually taking it. It's freaky-exciting when you know a fish is there because it boiled on the fly without taking. Good luck staying calm now or switching flies with your hands shaking with adrenaline!!! We cast the same fly again and hope for the best, then switch over to a tiny damp or wet fly to hopefully seal the deal if they don’t come back to the surface fly.

Like many anglers, I fished for steelhead for years using only subsurface methods – floating line swing with small wet fly, sink tip swing and some nymphing. I gained such confidence in the first two methods that I never even bothered fishing the surface much. I occasionally dabbled with surface presentations and got some action, but didn’t hook, much less land, any fish. Then one October morning a number of years ago it happened on my home river – I hooked and landed my first steelhead on a waking fly. The hookup occurred in a slick tailout vee while fishing a Steelhead Caddis – a classic Bill McMillan pattern. Unbelievably, the taker turned out to be a bright, 16-pound, wild male that gave me a run for my money in the boulder field below. The image of the small push and trailing vee of my fly disappearing into that three-foot-wide boil is an image forever burned into my memory. The fact that the fish was the biggest steelhead I had ever caught up to that point really woke me up to the potential of fishing on top. I decided to give it a try later that day, and guess what? I landed my second ever steelhead on a surface fly. **

This brings us to another point that we have observed while fishing surface flies. We find that we don’t lose very many of the fish we hook in comparison to wet fly techniques. Why this is exactly, we can’t say. We suspect that the surface presentation “weeds out” many of the fish that won’t act aggressively to a fly – those fish that might give a weak grab resulting in a poor hookup on a subsurface presentation. These more lethargic fish may not even react to a surface presentation. We may not move as many fish on the surface, but those that we do move seem more likely to be aggressive takers.

The moment we are always hoping for comes when water temperature, river level, atmospheric stability, water clarity, and possibly some sort of divine intervention are all in the right range to create happy fish, when fishing surface flies for steelhead seems to be just as effective as, or even more effective that any other method. This is like finding the proverbial unicorn in the horse barn. On those rare days giggles and shouts abound. Long live Bill McMillan!

Take Care and Fish On,
Niall & Matt

** This impossibly awesome fish story is told in Niall’s own words and was a moment that I’ll never forget. I was fishing upstream at the time and had the privilege to tail that spectacular fish for him. Matt


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