Steelhead… Just Keep Swinging

Legendary Steelhead Rivers

The rain was pouring down as I drove through the Columbia Gorge in-route to the Washington Coast.   My destination was the Olympic Peninsula and its famous and storied steelhead rivers, The Hoh, Bogachiel, Calawah, Clearwater, Quinault, Queets, Sol Duc are the big hitters.  This was not my first trip nor my last to this remarkable coastal rainforest.  I have enough years behind me to see the results of bad fish management practices, the overharvest of wild fish and liberal tribal netting practices. Because of this, I know my target species will be few in numbers and seem to be declining each year.  Nevertheless, I drove with high hopes and expectations of connecting with one of the hottest steelhead on earth! A mature fresh spring run steelhead in one of the wildest river settings, a coastal rainforest flood plain.

The fish of a 1000 casts

One of my favorite all time species is steelhead.  Are they really a fish of 1,000 casts or as a friend said to me a few weeks ago, “10,000 casts?”  In my 30+ years of chasing steelhead I have learned one thing. Fly fishing with a spey rod for steelhead is a mind game.  We are searching for a fish that is not there to eat, may be few in numbers, is a moving target. It could also be anywhere in the river from 2 to 20 feet deep. Also add into the equation that not all steelhead are biters or “in the mood” when your fly swings by.  With this in mind I prepared myself mentally for a tough trip.

I go into this winter / spring trip with the goal of one steelhead to the fly per day.  So, let’s do some math. There are 10 hours of fishing in a day.  One cast or swing per 30 seconds is typical.  There are 36,000 second in 10 hours / divide that by 30 and that is 1,200 casts that can be made in a 10 hour day with no breaks.  Take out boat time and lunch and now we are into the 1,000 cast range. Do I have reasonable expectations?  Probably not, but I’m addicted to steelhead, and really good at justifying spending all day in a river hoping for 1 or 2 bites.

Day one found the river swollen from 2 inches of rain and running 3 times the normal flows, but it still had good color so I fished each run thoroughly paying attention to details like fish running lanes.  With the water up, I knew steelhead would be moving and so I focused my time on the heads and tails of runs.  I fished closer to the bank with lighter sink tips. I knew I could find fish in 3-5 feet of water and leave the deeper spots to the gear fishermen.  At about noon, I got a great tug from a fish and fought and landed a nice 5-pound bull trout. Not the target species so it had an asterisk, but definitely happy with the action.

Patience Pays Off

It was now 4 pm, and I had not felt any steel to my fly.  I came to a place I really like.  It is a heavy riffle below with a nice boulder tail out above.  The rapid below has a steep, deep bank on river left with good speed that attracts traveling and holding fish.  As these fish move up they come through this rapid and then slip into this tail-out and rest a bit.  I always fish this area and got a fish here a couple years ago.

I began fishing with an 8-foot sink tip to avoid snagging the boulders.  Once I moved down past where I felt it was good, I began snagging more and had the thought to move to another run.  Then the fish Gods spoke, “be patient, put on the 5-foot sink tip and cover the last 35 yards of this tail-out.”  minutes later, the black and blue articulated steelhead fly got slammed by a 15-pound chrome bright female sitting in 2.5 feet of water.

This was a true Egg Wagon Steelhead.  She immediately jumped as if to show off her size and lack of color. Then she ran at me made another jump, nearly in my lap, in case I missed her first one.  I felt good about the hook set, it was solid and had survived a couple violent jumps.  I was fishing 15-pound maxima leader in anticipation of a fish like this.

My Sage spey rod was in a lovely arc and I was now about a minute into a great fight with this fish, when the steelhead Gods spoke to her and said “leave this run and don’t look back”.  She was obedient and did just that.  I could not follow due to the steepness of the bank. And, with the boat 40 yards upstream I applied max pressure and tried to turn her. When the backing, fly line and fly returned, the strength of the fish was reflected in the Gamakatsu #2 Octopus hook.  She had opened up and escaped the barbless hook.  That fish and the fight are now burned into my memory.  Landing fish is the best, but having that beast of a steelhead kick my butt in that tail-out is why I continue to swing flies.

My trip turned out great! At least 2 hookups per day and I landed some nice ones. With that said, the one that was lost is the one that keeps me coming back.  The power, speed and athleticism of that fish is why I chase fish that may take 500 to 1,000 casts to find and hook. So, my advice to you deranged steelhead fly fishers, “just keep swinging, it will happen.”

by Kent Goodman