Steelhead have a nasty reputation for being hard to catch with a fly
rod. Some anglers spend many fishing days between
strikes. Why would anyone want to play a such a difficult
game? It's probably that steelhead live in beautiful places
and everyone likes to be surrounded by beautiful things. Maybe
it's the exercise, because it might take burning a lot of calories
to cover enough water to find the next biter. Or maybe it's
the macho-machoness of being able to achieve the difficult,
don't always get better when they get easier. Hard games do
make us stronger. Or maybe it's simply the search for the
treasure at the end of the rainbow....or may be it's....
Virtue of Hard Water
by Mark Bachmann
he last fading warmth of the
sun illuminated the top third of the shear cliff on the opposite shore. This same gigantic stone bulwark
would keep the Deschutes in the shade until noon tomorrow.
Now the shade from the lower canyon wall to the west made me rush
through the dry grass to the smooth ledge studded tailout above our camp. I had left Brad and Al in the camp riffle where they had
been moving Steelhead all afternoon. They didn't need my help or
My side of the river broke along a brush covered bank so steep that
the rail road was literally over head. Part way down the run a huge
red alder leaned out over the water, its lower limbs nearly touching
the surface. I had rowed by this place dozens of times and it was
always deserted. It looked like great holding water, but formidable
to fish with a fly. My confidence had never equaled my
curiosity...until this afternoon.
I stopped just down stream of the alder and surveyed the river from
a high vantage point on an old deer trail twenty feet above the
water. I decided that the water above the alder looked too tough for
the time I had left before dark. I would start just below the tree.
Just then there was a huge splash as a Steelhead rolled upstream of the
alder. I reasoned that a fish you have located is always the best option.
A short hike and climb down the steep grade brought me to the
edge of the water twenty feet upstream of the fish. A narrow submerged ledge gave
me footing three feet off the bank. I stripped ten feet of bright
floating fly line from the reel, then checked the leader and the hook
point on my size four Street Walker. Everything was in perfect
order. A brisk roll cast shot the fly forty-five degrees down stream
across the current. The line and leader landed straight. The fly
came under tension as it entered the water. I let the fly lead the
rod tip. It
had only moved two feet when there was a very positive pull that
increased until it was moving line from the reel. I raised my hand
and let the middle of the rod absorb the shock and drive the hook
deep into solid bone. The silver fish writhed to the surface and
exerted his power against the screaming drag until he had reached
mid-river in front of me. The fight was ferocious but over quickly
and the bright ten pound hatchery buck was tailed, revived and
released. The barbless hook had been stuck through the edge of the
upper pallet, like a nail in a hard wood plank, the point protruding
from above the middle of the maxillary. I re-surveyed the water in
front of me. I had been so focused on the placement of that fish and
the strike had come so quickly I hadn't taken the time to read the
water. The surface of the water was greasy slick but moving at a
good speed clear across the river. In places the underwater ledges
broke the surface with flat seamy boils. The nearest ledge was sixty
feet in front of me above the alder. The stream side brush nearly
touched my back and was higher than my head. Leaning out from my
purchase on the narrow ledge I could expect no more than five feet
of clearance for a back loop to form my roll cast.
Darkness was fast approaching and didn't give me much time to
deliberate. I started with the same cast that took the fish. Then
lengthened the line one three foot pull for the next cast. The fly
slid down current as it was hanging under the alder below me. The
strike came as I was lengthening the line for the forth cast. The
fish took just as I was starting to lift the line for my upstream
haul. It took the fly as it turned down stream and jerked the rod
tip a foot under water as it erupted through surface. The shock was
too much for the ten pound tippet and the Street Walker probably
decorated that eight pounder's jaw for most of the evening. The
encounter left me in the vacuum that follows a peak surge of
The whole tippet was gone. The leader had parted at the blood knot.
I fumbled for my tippet dispenser and unrolled two feet of hard
Maxima, figuring that a short stiff tippet would turn over better in
the failing light. The fish had taken my last Street Walker and I
replaced it with a size two low water Undertaker. The sleek dark
pattern had proven itself many times in fading light. The same
water was covered in the same manner as before but, as I extended
the cast to longer range I found out that I had to make repeated
small upstream mends to maintain the proper fly speed as it came
across on a slow arc. The next strike came fifteen feet straight out
beyond the alder. It was a gentle pluck and still pumped up from the
encounter with the fish that took my fly, I over-reacted and the
hook instantly came free.
Four casts later and the fly was nearly to the ledge. The line
tightened gently and I dropped the rod tip. There was a perceptible
pause and the line came tight with a thud. A beautiful six pound
wild hen was beached after a long intense battle that I thought
would leave all other residents of the area in total shock. The
twilight lingered. I could see Brad standing on the low grassy point
above camp. His left handed stroke barely discernible at the
"Should I go and bring him here to join the fun", I
wondered? He was too far away for the light remaining", I
reasoned. A Night Hawk zig zagged across the river between us.
" No, I would keep this little Steelhead Eden for myself
tonight and bring him here in the morning."
The soft evening air was laden with the pungent sweet aroma of the
sage covered desert. Again I surveyed my private piscatorial oasis.
Intermittent turbulence betrayed a possible jog in the side of the
ledge facing me; a perfect cove for a Steelhead to shelter in. It
was a long cast from my position and was situated almost straight
across from me with no chance to swing the fly through it. I would
have to cast to the top of the cove and then make a long reach mend
to hold the fly in the sweet spot for as long as possible. It took
several frustrating tries, but finally the fly settled into a seam
of calm water between two sets of turbulence. The strike was vicious
and a big Steelhead boiled the surface as he took the fly heading
The fight was long and dogged with the twelve pound buck coming to
my hand in the dark.
Brad flipped the switch on the self starting lantern as I approached
the cook tent.
Al peered over his finely sculptured meerschaum pipe and purred,
" How'd you do, boss?"
I beamed from ear to ear,
"boys, have I got a place to show you in the morning."
would like to read past "Insiders", click Archives
long & prosper,
Mark & Patty