by Jeff Mishler
In the dinner tent of one of our Russian steelhead expeditions, Pete Soverel proclaimed to the weary clan of weather beaten anglers, “If you loose the fish because the terminal gear fails, that’s operator error”. Interpretation: You failed the process of landing the fish if the leader parted, because you didn’t check your knots regularly,
It’s a lesson I learned early in my steelheading life. Drift fishing with pencil lead and okies reveals the abrasive nature of a near-the-bottom presentation. Good mono is tougher than cheap mono. Hard mono lasts longer than soft. Good knots work better than bad knots. Beginning by age 8 I knew the drill; check your leader often. Check it again. Sharpen your hook even if you think you missed the rock. Change the hook before you even question the point.
“No sense in loosing a nice steelhead over a fifty-cent hook”, Ed Ward muttered while changing what appeared to be a perfect sharp trailer on his Intruder. One quality all good steelheaders share is that they are extremely particular and meticulous when it comes to their gear. There is very little room for error on the river because the size of our prey varies greatly from fish to fish. And while you might be expecting another 8 pounder after the line comes tight, the possibility that a 20 pound buck might break your knuckles on the first run is real. Steelhead are repeat spawners. You never know which age class of adult just decided to destroy your bunny strip. Using a 10lb tippet in heavy, colored water conditions is just asking for failure. Even 12 pound Maxima is questionable if you will be swinging your fly near the rocks for any period of time.
So I was not terribly upset when I crackered off a huge steelhead this past weekend, in the hours before George Cook’s pre-spey clave, clave. I gave myself about 90 minutes to fish one of my favorite runs, leaving enough time to bushwack to the truck and roll into the gathering wadered up, ready to jack a few new sticks…(The SAGE ONE 4 weight switch rod is amazing by the way)
Working up the riverbank towards the head of the run, it was obvious that high water events had pushed most of the structure around, leaving the big rocks from the middle of the run spaced evenly in the tail out. Each one surrounded by the in fill of smaller cobble. At the present water level, they would not hold fish. Because of the mass exodus, the upper parts of the run lacked much of the holding water I fished during past winters. Hopping around the bigger stones, I poked up the shoreline looking for a green bucket in the meatiest part of the 100 yard run. Rounding the bend in the river, I spotted another steelheader 400 yards or more above me. I could not get any closer to him without low holing him, so I decided, “We camp here” and walked out into the river, stripped off about 90 feet of line and jacked my first cast beyond the backbone of boulders midstream.
I should have made that first cast about 10 feet longer because my fly parked on the backside of the last boulder. I stumbled into the run, tossed a bunch of slack into the river and pulled the fly free. I inspected the fly: the hook: the leader: the knots. All felt solid. About ten casts later, 2/3rds of the way through the arc, as the fly left the greasy part of the tailout and began to swing up on to the shoulder, the line came tight. For an instant, I froze and waited for the line to belly a bit before coming tight. The line surged back. I swept the rod low to the bank and a giant yank pulled the rod tip back towards the middle of the river. At the end of the bright line a huge tail broke the surface. Then nothing. Upon inspection, I found that the leader parted at the double surgeon knot on the 20 pound butt section. Obviously I didn’t give the mono a full test. That butt section had battled 3 steelhead two days before. Why didn’t I change that butt section? One minute of maintenance and I might have gotten a good look at what was by far the biggest steelhead I’ve seen in a while. Not that I would have landed the fish, because beyond those controllable elements, ones attributed to basic rookie mistakes or blatant operator error, lie an infinite number of variables we cannot control. The odds are mostly in their favor even if our obsessions, habits or rituals of terminal tackle maintenance are followed, meticulously. That’s steelheading.
Both lines are on my reels and make the cut.