MYSTERIES OF STEELHEAD BEHAVIOR

 BY 

MARK BACHMANN

 STEELHEAD FLY FISHING MYSTERIES   rewrite

                 There are few things more inspiring to the Northwest angler than a box of well worn steelhead flies.  Especially interesting are flies with ragged hackles, tattered bodies or broken ribs, often with hook points of bare metal honed to surgical sharpness.  You know the owner of such a fly box doesn’t pack it around just to show off his tying skills.  Such a fly box is a legacy of days spend searching the water and of fish hooked and conquered.

            Houston Fuller and I viewed such a box several years ago on a trip to the  North Umpqua River. We had spent an unsuccessful morning on the water around the mouth of Steamboat Creek.  Finally deciding to break for lunch, we climbed the trail to the Forest Service parking lot.  When we had arrived earlier, ours had been the only car.  Now there were several, including a large station wagon where three elderly gentlemen were sitting on the tailgate eating lunch.  Behind them on the floor of the car laid their fishing paraphernalia and along side it  lay a very bright ten pound steelhead.  After introducing ourselves the conversation immediately turned to the mornings fishing and the fish in the car.  They cordially advised us that fishing had been slow for the past week and this was the only steelhead they had touched that morning.  More conversation disclosed that they had shared the Umpqua for the past twenty five years and had caught a lot of steelhead together.  Finally, I asked the inevitable question, “What are the best fly patterns for this river?”  One old gentleman reached around behind him and after fumbling in his vest, produced a beat up old #90 Perrine fly box.  I undid the large rubber band that held it together.  It held four dozen size four long shank very, very sparsely dressed Muddler Minnows.  That was all.  The old man told us it was the only fly that any of the three of them ever used.  “When they won’t take a Muddler, they won’t take nothin’.”  Some folks believe that one fly will catch steelhead under all conditions.  Would the sport be as much fun if this were true?

            The Deschutes River occupies most of my summers.  From August until late November I work there as a professional steelhead guide.  The Deschutes is a big desert river in a deep basalt canyon.  Here the air is dry and only a narrow strip bordering the water contains much green vegetation.  Head-high canary grass, horsetails, and short scrubby alders can make a wall that is nearly impenetrable.  The Deschutes is big and strong.  It’s waters are always richly laden with algae giving the fish lots of cover.  With water temperatures in the fifties much of the time, it is probably one of the best floating line fisheries for steelhead in the world.

            Don Wysham, Dave Bretton and myself had launched my seventeen foot aluminum drift boat on the Deschutes River at day light.  The morning’s fishing had been active.  Don had landed a couple of nice steelhead on standard Deschutes patterns, one on a Skunk Fly, the other on a Mack’s Canyon.  Dave, an experienced Atlantic Salmon angler had landed one steelhead and lost another on a Conrad, a fly he had used successfully in Maine.  The sun was high.  It was time for lunch.

            I anchored the boat along a small sand bar that was shaded by overhanging alders and set up my folding table and gas barbecue.  The first gusts of afternoon breeze showered the water with small, yellowish-green alder leaves.  Dave, who would rather fish than eat, asked about the water nearby?  I suggested that he walk upstream one hundred yards and fish through the riffle above the boat.  It had produced many steelhead over the years.  Dave searched through his fly box and selected a yellow and green Cosseboom, saying it was one of the best patterns for Atlantic Salmon.

            Dave left for the riffle;  Don tried the water next to the boat and I proceeded with lunch.  In a short time there was a yell from upstream.  Dave was into a steelhead.  I turned off the grill, grabbed the net, and Don and I walked upstream to join Dave.  After landing the fish, a seven pound buck, Dave said that he had watched the steelhead come to the fly from a long distance.

            Don and I were fishing a cast of two flies.  We each tied on a Cosseboom; mine on the dropper, Don’s on the point.  The three of us took seven more fish that afternoon, all on the Cosseboom.  I have since fished the Cossboom on the Deschutes many times and have caught fish, but never as on this day.  Was it the shower of alder leaves that turned the steelhead onto the green and yellow fly?  We will never know for sure.

            On the west side of the Cascade Mountains, the Cosseboom is a top producer of fresh early summer steelhead when presented with a sink tip fly line.  These fish also like a green and blue fly called a Shamrock in large sizes, from #1 to #4/0.  It is possible that these two flies look like the squid that are off the Oregon coast much of the year.

            Many of the creatures that steelhead eat during their stay in the Ocean are brightly colored.  Some are fluorescent and many are phosfluorescent.  Nearly all of the bobber type lures used by drift fisherman are brightly colored.  Fluorescent yarns and chenilles have been popular with steelhead fly tiers for over twenty years.  Fly  patterns tied in shades of  fluorescent red, orange and pink are especially effective for early winter steelhead in nearly every river in the Pacific Northwest.  Since our rivers are most fluctual at this time of year, these "hot" colors are proven in a wide range of  water conditions. Could these flies mimic an Ocean food?

            Folks at Oregon’s Marine Science Center, believe that steelhead may retain the “search image” of nourishing marine organisms even after they have returned to fresh water.  According to Dr. W.G. Pearcy, steelhead range far out to sea, dining mostly on squid, amphipods and euphausiids.  Squid make up 90% of their high seas diet, but many food organisms are pink or orangish in nature.

            Ghost Shrimp or Sand Shrimp are very popular bait with the monofiliment crowd.  If you don’t believe it, just count the empty bait cartons along your favorite stretch of water.  Early run summer steelhead are especially susceptible to these critters.  Several years ago, Rod Robinson, who was then working for Paulson Flies in Portland, Oregon, developed a very respectable imitation of the sand shrimp using chenille covered with a shellback of polyethylene.  Further refinements were added by the then teen age Dean Finnerty.  What evolved is a fly pattern that is so life-like that it is easily recognized by fish and angler alike; the Finnerty Shrimp.

            Summer steelhead enter fresh water sexually immature.  Unlike their winter run cousins who move up the rivers more quickly to spawn, summer runs tend to dawdle.  They may not spawn for several months after leaving the ocean and may school at various points along their journey.  One of the places they congregate is in the estuaries just before leaving the ocean.  This is prime habitat for ghost shrimp.  Steelhead like all trout, are ever the opportunist.  They will feed on what is easily available.  One of the foods most exposed to them just prior to leaving the salt is ghost shrimp.  Winter fish pass through the sand shrimp zone more quickly, having less time to key on them.

            Each river spawns it’s own race of steelhead, which may spread to different parts of the ocean.  If one examines the ocean and compares it to a giant lake or river, it stands to reason that not all food organisms will be found at all locations in the same population densities.  As changing currents, temperatures, and depths create different environments, the species living within each location will vary with their own living requirements.  Each steelhead probably eats from a slightly different menu.  This could explain why fly patterns vary from river to river and why such a profusion of successful patterns exist.  The angler who could match what the steelhead were feeding on in the ocean could probably catch more steelhead.  The problem is how to observe the steelhead while out to sea.

            Both summer and winter steelhead will feed, to a certain extent, while in fresh water.  This does not mean that all fish will feed actively, but that most will capitalize on situations where food is easy to obtain.  All steelhead are fortified with enough accumulated fat to sustain them for their entire fresh water exodus.  Some strains can live for months without digesting anything.  Yet, I have caught both summer and winter steelhead that have been dining on what was available to them.  About twenty percent of the fish killed over the last twenty years contained the remains of some fresh water organism.  One male winter steelhead had just consumed fifty-four eyed salmon eggs, no doubt washed from the riverbed during high flows.  Other fish have contained small nymphs, Sculpins, leeches, and terrestrial insects.  One summer fish beached after a strong rain contained six black and yellow millipedes.

            On the waters that I fish there are definitely periods when flies that resemble fresh water insects will out-produce flies that are fashioned after marine organisms.  This often happens during periods of low flows when the fish are pooled up.  At these times, small dull-colored flies sunk down to the fish’s holding level can be very productive.

            Jim Teeny of Gresham, Oregon, has spent years developing methods and tackle that are the best I’ve seen for taking pooled fish.  His fly, the Teeny Nymph, is very simply constructed from ringneck pheasant tail fibers bleached or dyed various shades of buggy-looking colors.  The "T-Series Teeny Taper” shooting head fly lines are the best vehicle available to the fly angler for getting any fly deep.  Jim uses his specially constructed polarized glasses and casts only to fish that he can see.  In this way, he can place the fly very close to the fish.  Teeny Nymphs are not an exact imitation of any specific insect, but can look like stonefly or mayfly nymphs or caddis larva.

            Steelhead will eat the roe of any fish that are spawning in their area, including the eggs of their own kind.  When Chinook, Coho or steelhead are spawning, many eggs can be lost to the whims of the currents.  During these periods, they can be the most available food source in what may otherwise be a nearly barren stream.  At these times, an egg fly or Glo Bug can be the best producer.  Glo Bugs are small spherical-shaped tufts of special yearn attached to very short shank hooks.  When drifted along the bottom. they absorb water and become translucent like a natural egg.

            There is no doubt that drifting the bottom is a productive way to catch summer steelhead,..but they will take flies on or near the surface more often than even some of the most experienced anglers believe.

            Water level may be as important to triggering surface activity as water temperature.  during the first two weeks in June, 1984, on the Salmon River, an upper Sandy River tributary, I hooked nineteen steelhead on large, dark Greased Liners fished on the surface with a riffle hitch.  The water ran an almost constant 47º.  The water was medium-high, but clear and the fish were spread out through the riffles,  As the water dropped, the fish congregated in the deeper pools for cover.  These pools are hit so hard by angling pressure that the fish become jaded very quickly.  When the water rose with each summer rain, the steelhead would move about in the river and again would take up positions in the riffles.  At these times, there was some surface activity.  When the fall rains came, the fish again sought the riffles, and surface activity was consistent for a month even though water temperature ran 41º to 42º.  When the water rose with the torrential rains of winter, all surface activity stopped.

            I am convinced that not all steelhead strike a fly from a feeding response.  Steelhead can be very territorial.

            There is a long riffle on the Salmon River where the flow deepens at the outlet of a large spring.  During periods of warm weather, steelhead congregate in its depths amid a jumble of current-breaking boulders and cool water.  The surface of this riffle is misleading as many of these boulders are visible from the shallow side of the river.  The water over the top of these rocks makes the whole area appear to be only three feet deep.  The spaces between these boulders range down to six feet deep, and the conflicting currents ruffle the surface enough to give any fish plenty of concealment from the casual observer.  On the deep side of the river, there is a large, rotten stump on a high, steep bank which makes a perfect blind from which to observe the whole riffle.  This stump is surrounded by thick bush and berry vines.  Few people will take the time or trouble to walk this side of the river.  The fish are relatively hidden from prying eyes.

            A doctor from Portland had hired me to teach he and his wife how to catch steelhead with a fly.  It was, in fact, my very first paid guide trip.  The doctor had demonstrated that he could control his fly line well from the shallow side of the river.  I had crossed the river so that I could peek over the top of the stump with my polarized glasses.  About six average-size steelhead were clearly visible scattered around the deeper water in the middle of the riffle.  It seemed that some of the most desirable holding water was a slightly deeper area near the main current flow.  The steelhead were constantly changing positions and were bumping any fish that held in this area.  I watched in fascination as these fish continued to vie for this treasured spot while ignoring the doctor’s fly which was also visible in the clear water.

            The doctor followed my suggestions as to where to place the fly so it covered each fish in turn.  They were so caught up on a territorial competition that only one fish briefly acknowledged the presence of the fly with a slap of its tail.

            So engrossing was this display, that  I almost didn’t see a really large fish right below my feet.  It was holding in a narrow deep slot no more than six feet from the bank.  A tall, slim boulder stuck up on the center of the slot like a vertical pillar.  The big fish, obviously a buck with red cheeks, was holding about eighteen inches off the bottom with his caudal fin resting against the upstream side of the pillar.  In this manner, he could hold so still that the gray of his back blended perfectly with the rocks of the bottom.  The main force of the current ran straight down the slot and through the fish’s gills with a minimum of effort.  This same current riffled the surface of the water, adding to the security of the place.  It was only as a slick passed over the fish that I was able to glimpse the white flash of the inside of his mouth as he took a breath.  The spot was so obviously in plain sight yet so perfectly camouflaged that only luck had broken his cover.  In the whole several hundred square yards of holing water, this was the premium spot.  The fish holding there was at least twice as large as the others in the riffle.  He was clearly the master of his territory.  No other fish came to challenge him.

            I yelled across the river to the doctor and described what I was seeing and how to present the fly.  He followed my instructions and the fly fell through the surface of the water upstream from the fish and entered the slot on a collision course with the steelhead’s nose.  Suddenly, as the fly came to within three feet, the fish stiffened and its fins swung out and became rigid.  With a short, savage rush, he took the fly in his mouth and crushed it.  He then ejected the fly with force just before the doctor struck.  The fly sped from the victorious fish with obvious fright.

            I was stunned.  It took several seconds to completely comprehend what had happened.  The fish had taken the fly in his mouth!  The take had been extremely forceful, but with the slack drifting line, the angler had been able to feel nothing.  The action had been so brief that I hadn’t been able to communicate with my client until it was over.  No amount of casts could persuade this fish to strike again.  He had successfully cowed the invader once and established his dominance.  A chance at the largest fish of the season had been lost.

            Such are the mysteries when one angles for steelhead with a fly rod.


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