MYSTERIES OF STEELHEAD BEHAVIOR
STEELHEAD FLY FISHING MYSTERIES rewrite
There are few things
more inspiring to the Northwest angler than a box of well worn steelhead
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
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?
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
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
Nymph, is very simply constructed from ringneck pheasant
tail fibers bleached or dyed various shades of buggy-looking colors.
"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
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.