Spring Steelies: Creeks, Streams, Brooks
Typically, the other "best time" to fish for steelhead is just around the corner. March can be "prime time" for steelhead as there is not only leftover winter steelhead, but also fresh runs of springtime fish. Winter thaws and early spring rains generate runs of steelhead providing many fish. The water temperature will rise along with their metabolic rate, so they will be much more apt to move for a fly or bait. Normally, the whole river, creeks and streams are alive because you're fishing transitional areas and holding-resting points.
When the Salmon River is running high due to run-off, its prime time to walk the many miles of streams and creeks in the area. Ever try to land a 10-pound Steelie in a small creek? It's not easy, but lots of fun! Once ice-out has happened in the smaller tributaries that run into Lake Ontario north and south of the Salmon River, it's a great time to explore! These tribs will all have fresh chromers moving in.
Imagine walking up a small stream 20 feet wide, light colored bottom, crystal clear water, through the forest and seeing 10-20 Steelhead, 8-12 pound average in one to four feet of water and not seeing a single other person all day. Sound like Alaska? Nope, believe it or not there are several areas not far from here where this is possible. Many of the creeks and streams feeding into Lake Ontario have steelies in them, but only a few that I've found are hidden away in a beautiful pristine environment without any or many other anglers. Normally the Salmon River will flood at least once during the spring. Knowing the optional creeks and streams in the surrounding area to fish during this flooding can sometimes save your trip.
Please keep in mind that they're maybe a 30% (approx.) survival rate among steelhead that spawn. These will return as our 15-20 lb. fish next year. Also, they're maybe a 30% (approx.) natural reproduction of steelhead that provides us with a wild strain. By putting some, if not all of your catch back, you will be helping yourself, other anglers and your children to continue to enjoy this incredible fishery for years to come.
When I go fishing, I take all this and more into consideration. In my opinion, steelhead fishing is one of the most challenging and rewarding types of fly/spin fishing you will ever experience. But to achieve proficiency you need to have a clear understanding of the species and habitat in which they live. Then you'll soon be realizing the best part of fishing - FISH ON!
Fly Presentation Technique, Detecting the Take and Proper Weighting
There are numerous ways to present a fly with a fly rod for steelies. This is one of the more popular methods used in the Great Lakes region. Many well know fly fishing authors have written about it. Deep nymphing, dead drifting, drift fishing, high sticking, chuck and duck. These are all terms, used to describe the same method. Anytime you can make it easier for any species of fish to feed anywhere in the world you will increase the odds of hooking up. That's why this presentation technique is so popular, especially during the winter months. It works in every condition you will ever find on a river. (High-low water, cold-warm water, any species, clear- off color water, fast-slow moving water, close in far out, no room for a back cast, crowded conditions, etc÷) You only want to lightly tap your weight on top of the rocks, (3 light ticks is sufficient) giving your rod tip a slight bounce or 3-6 in. twitch when feeling a slight pause, stop or hesitation. If you slightly twitch the tip of the rod on the pause, then you are pre-setting correctly. If it's a rock, you have just gotten over it, and kept your fly on the bottom. If you fully set, then a lot of the time you have moved you weight and fly so far of the bottom, that your drift is over. If its a fish (rock?) then your line will not move and stop which means you should immediately set the hook. I pre-set the hook with a twitch, then set, if line remains still. The first lesson I was ever taught when fishing for steelhead or salmon using this technique is if you pre- set on the pause or hesitation, and pull up a leaf, then you are detecting the slight pause or hesitation correctly. If you wait every time for your line to stop before you set, then you are missing fish. When in doubt, pre-set the hook, and if the line doesn't move, set it! Not a day goes by when you can watch other anglers fishing and see there line pause with no reaction by them. Or watch the line stop dead for 3-4 seconds with no reaction. The reaction to the take has to be immediate or fly is spit out.
Here are several ways to help you detect subtle takes. (Pauses and hesitations)
- Watching the line in the water as it moves down stream on the drift. You will normally always see it, before you feel it.
- Feeling with your rod hand on cork.
- Lightly touching your rod hand index finger to line.
- Holding the line in your other hand. The line should be held in your fingertips for greatest sensitivity.
- There are some seasoned Steelhead angler's who don't watch their line in the water on the drift. Instead they look at their rod tip through the entire drift. Letting the slight movement of the tip tell them what is going on underneath the surface. Another take, that not everyone is aware of is 2 or 3 quick taps in a row. I always tell my clients that if they feel 2-3 quick taps, to set on it. If you stop to think about what you just felt, then it's to late. You've just missed one of the easiest ways to determine a take.
I sometimes change my weight 2-3 times without moving from the same spot. I work the water close, then farther out. Weighting is critical to helping you detect the takes. The key is to lightly tap the bottom, not dredge the bottom. Too much weight and detecting subtle takes is impossible.
This technique also works in your local streams and river's for trout during high water conditions. Also in the deeper, faster sections were traditional fly lines will not allow you to get down to the bigger fish. Basically, telling the difference between tapping a rock and a subtle take is one of the most difficult skills to acquire, when fishing in this manner. Most anglers are all waiting for the big BANG. Thereby missing 50% of actual takes. If you think about it, doesn't a pause or hesitation always precede a complete stop? When a fish takes and spits your fly, it can happen in a split second. By concentrating on your line movement, correct weighting, depth of drift, contact with the bottom, pauses and the hesitations. You will be on your way too becoming a part of the 10% that catch's 90% of the fish.
Besides all the other pieces of the puzzle we have covered and will cover, hopefully these tips will help you all to be more in tune with your drift fishing.
Drift Fishing Correctly with Fly Rod: (Providing your rigging is correct)
Correct speed of drift:
Imitating an egg-nymph dead drifting along the bottom at the same rate of speed as the water column is imperative to successfully hooking up. This is achieved by looking where you're mono butt section enters the water. It should be moving slightly slower than the surface current. This matches the bottom current speed close enough. Making your offering look real enough to even the Smartest fish. Jim Rusher once told me that in the wintertime it is sometimes advantageous to slow your drift down even further. This allows the lethargic fish time to move slightly for what it thinks is an easy meal.
Correct depth of drift:
When I first cast into a new piece of water my first question is how deep. This determination is achieved by raising or lowering rod tip until light ticking of weight on bottom rocks is felt. The next step for me is to look at the distance between the surface of the water and end of fly line. (I prefer to run an 8-11ft. -butt section of 8lb. test straight mono for steelhead, so fly line never touches the water on the drift.) By this distance between fly line and water I know exactly where it should be on each successive cast. Allowing me to set up immediately for each additional cast to achieve the perfect drift. The next question I ask myself is am I weighted correctly?
Visual and non-visual characteristics of line:
When drift fishing correctly the line between tip of rod and weight should be a straight line. If you try to dead drift with a bow in your line, you not only create additional drag which speeds up your drift making your fly look unnatural but also makes for a lot of unnecessary snags on bottom. With out a straight line (slack) your weight is simply slogging along the bottom looking for the quickest and easiest rock to call home for good. A lot of the time if you have slack in your line you will not feel the ticking sensation due to the vibrations not being transferred up through the line. Remember; with line straight from tip of rod to weight you will be lightly tapping the tops of the rocks. Cutting down on drag, giving it a more natural drift and getting hung-up on bottom less.
Angle of rod tip to line:
To achieve a maximum dead drift and cut down on snags the rod tip should be directly over the line. If rod tip is in front of line then you will be prematurely initializing the swing. Also, if weight runs into structure, you will be pulling it into it and creating a worse snag than of rod tip was over line and twitched directly up and over obstruction.
Pre-setting and setting of hook:
This has been covered in previous posts. One thing I would like to add is whenever you set and find nothing there. Don't return your rod to its original position unless you draw up the slack. If rod is replaced to its original angle you'll end up fishing with a bow (slack) in your line because when you set you brought your weight closer to you. Getting hung-up will normally follow.
If you ever catch yourself bouncing you rod tip constantly on the drift, (more than 3-6 inches) 4 things could be happening.
1. To much weight. Solution- Lighten-up or you'll be getting hung-up all day. I keep 8 different sized bags of split shot with me to achieve the perfect drift, no matter where I'm fishing.
2. Slack (bow) line from tip of rod to weight. When bouncing the rod excessively you are simply picking the weight up and off a rock, dropping your tip back to its original position and letting the weight return to the snag filled bottom below only to get caught up again. Solution- Return and re-read, Correct depth of drift, Characteristics of line from tip to weight, Pre-setting and setting of hook.
3. You are setting the hook on the subtle pauses and hesitations, instead of pre-setting with 3-6 inch twitch of the rod tip. Remember; if you do set the hook and come up empty then remove the slack by pulling additional line in.
4. You are obviously fishing in snag heaven, loaded with big rocks and boulders. Solution- keep fishing because these areas hold unpressured fish. In November the steelies love to hold in 3-5 feet of rippled, pocket water. Fast moving water with big boulders is steelhead heaven. Normally these areas are not fished heavily by seasoned anglers because you will spend a fair potion of the day retying. Most guides avoid these areas like the plague. But sometimes the fishing can be "Outstanding".
Besides all the other pieces of the puzzle we have covered and will cover, hopefully these tips will help you all to be more in tune with your drift fishing. Putting all of this together consistently will put you into the 10% that catch 90%of the fish!
Here are several ways to help you detect subtle takes. (Pauses and Fish Fighting Techniques:
I guarantee you'll learn some new stuff, and may be afraid to try!
This time of the Yr. I'm using light tippets. So before I even wet my line, I loosen my drag just light enough that when I pull on the line quickly I don't end up with a bird's nest. A large # of fish are lost in the first 10 seconds due to, too tight of a drag. Initially upon hook-up there is nothing you can do to control the immediate reaction of the fish. In this way, when Mr. Steelhead makes that made dash for freedom, I still hopefully have him on. Then I'll tighten my drag a wee bit. Now it's time for you to take control.
My personal # 1 rule is to immediately get even or below the fish. (Obviously, there are exceptions to this) Not all fish react the same when being hooked, so there's a slight tactical delay before this decision is made. 75% of the time a fish will run in the opposite direction it feels pressure. A run upstream where it has to fight the current and drag is optimal. 80% of the angler's I see on the river stand still and let the fish take control, which usually ends up with angler and fish parting ways. Or the angler's reaction is to slow incoming that the fish is already charging down stream. We all know this is not the easiest river to negotiate, let alone with a ROCKET SHIP at the end of your line. If you give it an inch it'll take 10 ft., putting rock's, rapids, snag's, holes, between you and your Quarry.
My # 1 rule (that I repeat 2-3 times in the A.M.) is to- not hold the line (you can't hold'em), don't palm the reel (remember the drag was initially set so any additional pressure can and most probably will break it off?) and to not hold the reel handle. I mention this with a grin, as rarely does a day go by where 1 to 4 fish aren't lost due to the adrenaline rush that follows most hook-ups and the accompanied forgetfulness.
Once even or below, I lower, bend my rod downstream. Sometimes touching tip to water. This is called the down and dirty, and is the easiest way to tire a fish. By staying at least even with the fish and rod angled with a downstream bend you are exerting the maximum amount of pressure, forcing the fish to use additional energy to stay upright and not be pulled backwards. (If fish is further than 50 ft. away, I will keep my tip up as the more line in the water will create an unwanted stress on the lighter tippets and may break. Also if the area is loaded with snags or rocks.) If it starts to move downstream then you need to move with it, immediately.
A lot of the time I see angler's standing above the fish with tip up. All you are achieving with this is to hold the fish in the current with no additional pressure, not tiring it in the least. This allows it to rest and take you further downstream. Worse than this, is to try to pull a fish up against the current. When light lining this is a big no-no and is usually followed by - Fish Off.
When the fish starts to tire the next step is to immediately point the butt of the rod towards the tree's on the bank. This acts as a slingshot, which moves the fish closer to shore. It will not come to shore with rod tip held high with no angle. (unless it's dead) Side pressure is the key to effectively and efficiently tiring and bringing in this world class fish.
If you're afraid to experiment and try something new, then please, do not read on.
80% of the time these additional fish fighting techniques and tactics will help. So don't blame me if you hit the 20%!
We all love to see the summersaults, jumps; tail walks and torpedo runs they make. But, 50% of the time the show ends with no curtain call or encore performance. I prefer, after hooking-up, if it decides to show its colors to throw it slack. (Pull line off the reel A.S.A.P.) If hook set is good, it won't throw it and they normally quite down. The action it takes is due to the pressure it feel's. So by releasing the pressure it no longer feel's threatened and will tend to stop on a dime. This allows you to regroup and take control. Throwing it slack is also a great way to stop it's screaming run downstream into snags, deep water, (where you can't go) or at least slow it down so you can catch up.
When reeling in the fish with the tip up:
There are 2 things wrong with the previous sentence.
#1. I will sometimes hold my rod upside down with tip in water when bringing in a steelhead. Fish don't breath air and with tip up it feel's as if (which you are) trying to pull it's head out of the water. This creates a havoc, wrecking ball of nerves that sometimes ends with fish off. I breathe air, so if you put my head under the water you can be assured I would not be happy. (Same with the fish) By holding your rod upside down with rod tip in the water the fish normally will slowly and quietly come in without much fuss. This is only used when fish is tired and ready to be brought in.
#2 Whenever targeting large species of fish the rod becomes a flexible lever. We never reel the fish in; we PULL the fish in. The reel is only used to recover slack line. Pull-up, reel-down. Now combine #1 with #2 and by George, you've got it!
Walking the dog:
Here's another technique that has worked for me. If I'm working a piece of fast, deep water that is not easily waded. Upon hooking-up, I immediately lighten up and only bend the tip of the rod slightly. Remember what I said earlier about pressure? With only a slight bend in the rod the fish feels little to no pressure and maintains its position in the river. I then slowly move to a safer area and believe it or not normally it will follow. Once I'm in a safe position, I give it to'em. It's miller time!
This article is courtesy of, Salmon River Guide Randy Jones at The Yankee Angler:
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