I’ve been getting some requests to post a piece a wrote some time ago about steelhead flies. Seems fitting. I’m shooting and editing Skagit Master volume 3 and it’s all about steelhead flies, so here goes:
by Jeff Mishler
These days, if an accomplished steelheader is also an accomplished fly tier, undoubtedly, their fly box is an expression of their personality and, more so, their philosophies about this passion. But in my circle of un-formulaic steelheader addicts, you’d be hard pressed to find a single textbook pattern, or the same pattern, tied the same way, twice. We’re an experimental lot so the fly box, or wherever one stores flies, is the most mysterious of places. It doesn’t matter if we’re sitting around the campfire pounding pounders or white-knuckling it down a logging road thirty minutes before dark, if I haven’t seen one of my buddies for a while, I want to see what he’s been working on. I want to peek into that Ziplock sandwich bag loaded with a tangled wad of colorful something, sliding around the dash, bouncing over the defrost vents. “What’s that big purple thing with the flash? Or is it blue? I can’t tell. Do you mind if I take a look?” And more often than not, I learn something.
Sure, one can go to the nearest fly shop and load up with rough commercial copies of the most effective steelhead flies designed in the last decade by some of the world’s best steelheaders and then go catch fish. Thanks to Scott Howell, Ed Ward, Tom Larimer, and a bucket load of other well known steelheader/guide/fly tier types, the transition from what we took to be true fifteen years ago—due in part to a half dozen books written by a few legendary types—to what is true today, was jump-started by these modern innovators who questioned the norm, the rule of thumb, the hypothesis, the supposition, whatever, that steelhead, particularly winter steelhead, wouldn’t eat flies the size of a dead rat. But they do. So if a dead rat is a maximum in the fly size parameter/scale/measurement thing, and the minimum, is well, too small for me, then my palette, repertoire, or realm of creative possibilities is infinite.
Once Ed and his gang found that winter steelhead would in fact eat a six inch long, fully dressed fly, with aggression I might add, one reality was hard to swallow: How do you cast this thing? Finding a fly line with enough mass in the belly section to efficiently lift a lead-eyed clipped wing chicken postponed the big fly revolution for a number of years. Secretly, some of the innovators designed and made custom-cut fly lines to accomplish this awesome task, but the rest of the world had to wait for the fly line industry to realize that this big fly thing wasn’t a fad and that they better get on the bandwagon. Today, most major fly line manufacturers produce a Skagit style line. Without one, chucking these monstrous modern fly designs more than a few feet is a very difficult, if not dangerous, task for the caster.
Thankfully, now that we have the tool to get the job done, the frontier of steelhead fly design is one wide open space for the innovative fly tier, taking me back to my point that every accomplished steelheader I know carries fly boxes, or Ziplock baggies, full of custom flies constructed using unorthodox tying techniques, utilizing materials sometimes found in craft stores rather than fly shops, incorporating innovative and effective trailing hook rigs designed to put the hook where the cold water fish bites the fly and enough weight in the form of a brass tube, weighted shank, or barbell eyes to sink the Titanic, or not.
Again, the why part of this column—why should the steelheader pay attention to these trends in fly design if, as I’ve said in other articles, “A steelhead will eat a dog turd on rope if it’s in the mood”? Because they work that’s why.
Water temperature does funny things to cold-blooded creatures. That’s true, right? Cold water slows them down and warm water speeds them up. Usually. Not always. Sometimes. Okay, I confess, I have no idea what goes on down there. Why did the winter steelhead in 34 degree water chase my fly for some twenty feet, pluck the fly 3 times before hammering it on the hang down? That fish should have been glued to the river bottom waiting for a freshet to warm things a bit so it could get on with the whole let’s migrate upriver to spawn thing. And conversely, why did the steelhead lightly pluck the fly at the end of the swing, never to return, in 54-degree water? That fish should have inhaled the fly, turned on a dime and headed to the ocean. What’s up with that?
It’s just my observation, supported by input from a half dozen of my closest, similarly obsessed, steelheader cronies, that larger flies, sporting lots of action from hackles, feathers, wings, rubber legs, eye balls, pokey parts and wiggling things elicit more response from a winter run than that dog turd on a rope I mentioned, or a waking stick…sometimes.
We also agree that confidence plays a large part in the fly we choose to fish. Sometimes I have more confidence in the unproven, untried, un-fished, sparkling clean, still smelling like mothballs and head cement, brand spankin’ new squid pattern fresh from the vice than the black and blue marabou tube fly drying on the hook keeper inside the reel seat of my 8136-4 after it produced three grabs in one day. And I guess if that never happened, I’d probably never need to tie another fly for oh, say ten years or so, because, like my cronies, we carry way too many flies to ever fairly test their effectiveness against the half dozen patterns that regularly make the cut. For us, confidence is equally rooted in our desire to come up with a pattern that fishes cleanly without the hook wrapping around the leader or shank during the violent part of a Snap-T or the soft anchor of a single spey. We also seek a fly that balances in the water column, meaning that the shank of the pattern sinks horizontal to the bottom when tension is taken off the fly. But most importantly, we feel good about a fly if, when we hunch over and place our shadow on the water and hold the leader so the fly swims in the current a few inches below the surface, it looks like fish food. That simple test lands more experimental ties in my box than a dozen laps in the bathtub after the head cement has dried.
In 1994 I was lucky to be part of the first expedition to western Kamchatka, Russia to help Russian Scientists study previously unstudied wild steelhead populations; no doubt the coolest trip I’ve ever taken. Pete Soverel, founder of the Wild Salmon Center came up with the brilliant idea that catch and release fly fishing methods could guarantee scientists the tissue samples and other data needed to conduct population, life history and genetic analysis without killing the specimen. Count me in. We lived in red, thimble shaped, three walled Russian arctic army tents, each decked out with three sets of rusty iron bed springs, a wooden slat floor and a cast iron wood stove that smoked you out of the tent in thirty seconds if you didn’t build the fire just so. The kindling had to be placed deep in the rear corner of the stove directly under the opening to the stack. We discovered that placing a small amount of kerosene in the whacked off end of a beer can, centered in the stove, kept things going once it became super heated. It was all about managing heat. Start small and slow and you were in business. Get in a hurry or forget the kerosene catalyst and the cold stack choked off the flow of warming air, forcing acrid smoke out the loosely fitted iron door into your living space. It was too damn cold outside to play that game more than once.
The expansive, wide-open tundra around camp was sliced in two by a peaty, meandering slough called the Kavachina River; thirty feet wide, three feet deep and flowing like molasses. This was like no steelhead river I’d seen. On the first morning of the trip, our party of six anglers, six Russian camp staff and two scientists basked in the morning light on the grassy bank high above the river and wondered what was happening in the placid river below. We were watching wakes. Lots of wakes. One would pass. Then another would appear down river at the end of the straight away, roll along the opposite shoreline, cut across the current to the near shoreline, turn the corner and disappear upriver.
“Steelhead don’t migrate just below the surface, do they? ”
“Steelhead follow the contours of the bottom right?”
“Those can’t be steelhead!”
We were convinced they were Coho.
Then Pete strung up a rod walked down the grassy bank, took his position up river from another wake, and proceeded to hook and land a fifteen-pound ocean fresh Kamchatkan steelhead on the third cast. And guess what? They look just like our steelhead.
I ate my first piece of steelhead fly humble pie on this trip. At that time, I’d spent years perfecting the traditional flies lining my boxes. I was an over-eager 32 year old who spent too much time reading those aforementioned half dozen books on steelhead flies in part because they were considered “Bibles” on the subject. As the week progressed and our tallies shared, it became obvious Pete was collecting a lot more data for the scientists than the rest of the group. No doubt, he was the better angler, but with so many steelhead around, the rest of us should have been staying closer to his numbers. In the end, minus his tenacity and skill as an angler, one of the elements in the equation separating him from the group was the fly he fished, or style of fly I should say. In the light flows of the Kavachina, a fly with horizontal stability sank naturally under light tension. Many of the takes came as the fly swung away from the bank just after in landed. My flies, tied traditionally, on standard hooks, sank bend first, or butt down when tension was light. Most of the other anglers fished patterns we’d fished in places like the Deschutess, Grande Rhonde, Skykomish; rivers with heavy currents. Those flies utilized the keel effect of the heavy hook and stabilization of a hair wing or feather shellback on top of the fly to swim upright. But in Kamchatka, where the flow was so soft, those traditional flies looked unnaturally rigid and artificial. Pete’s fly, a General Practitioner, tied with long, wispy polar bear or bucktail feelers, balanced the fly in the current. As Pete says, “It’s like the tail of a kite in the sky; the fly is always trying to stay in front of the tail”. He experienced subtle takes during the slowest swings and when he set the hook, he found more chrome than the rest of us put together. Most of the flies in my box were useless and I found myself begging Pete to let me tie some purple GP’s with his materials so that I might experience some of the outrageous fishing he was having.
Then in 2000 a guy named Ed Ward came to my Kamchatka camp to work as a guide and busted out some monstrous Intruders intended to elicit a response from any steelhead up to 3 miles away. By the end of the season Ed and his maxi flies easily out fished me, and my box of nearly perfect General Practioners, 2 to 1.
So this takes me back to the whole why one should think outside the box when tying steelhead flies. A steelhead fresh from the ocean is an aggressive predator, but I believe it looses that behavior quickly. Whether a steelhead eats squid, krill or other fish, I don’t really care. I just want my flies to look alive and elicit a predatory response. The flies I fish today can’t be bought in stores. They are an amalgamation of concepts tried and tested until the qualifier called “the grab” earns them a place in the Ziplock bag I keep in the front pocket of my waders. I thank Tom for the Ziplock idea.
I also carry a few experiments needing a test drive, and it’s these experimental ties that keep the evolution moving. I caught two winter steelhead last December on a fly that looked like an oversized bright red wooly bugger with an enormous marabou tail, tied on a heavy brass tube. It didn’t swim for beans. It kept rolling over and over in the current like a plug cut herring. I took mental notes of how I would change the fly, but then a fish ate it. Then another. Funny thing about that fly, I never developed confidence in the design but I incorporated the things I liked about it into other patterns and those flies caught fish too, so there my confidence lies.
A steelhead biologist once gave me a fly. A simple tie; black chenille body, a blue marabou collar and a black marabou collar, green tungsten eyes and a chenille head. It looked like a black twig in current, except for the rapid oscillation of the tiny marabou tips. Nothing exceptional. One evening I hesitantly tied it on and proceeded to hook three winter steelhead and land two, in one run, on two passes. I fished that fly for two weeks and hooked another seven steelhead until I lost it. I trusted my memory to duplicate that fly at the vice but none of my versions produced grabs the way that one fly did. Was it the green eyes? Slender profile? The size? I’ll never know for sure. Recently I Google searched “Squid” and not so surprising, the biologist’s fly resembled the profile of a fast swimming, squid. Go figure. The next time a steelhead biologist gives me a fly to try I’m going to store it in a special place until I can deconstruct the thing and tie a dozen identical copies. Only then will I bust it out because once a fly makes the cut, I will fish it till I loose it or it falls apart. One steelheader’s confidence is one steelhead fly’s death.
Thinking out of the box, consolidating concepts and marrying materials will produce unique and effective patterns. Some patterns might even make it into the mainstream. But for creative inspiration that actually triggers a predatory response I’m going to pay attention to the fly fishing steelhead biologists, if they are willing to share. Their fly boxes are mysterious to me and I’d really like to take a peak because a steelhead biologist knows exactly what a steelhead eats. Oh yes, and I’ll always sneak a peak at Ed’s box when he’s not looking, and Tom’s too. Haven’t seen Scott’s in a while but I know where to find him. Oh, and what about that Monte Ward guy? And the Reverend? He’s been deep in the basement, off the grid, out of cell phone range, incognito…Don’t know. But I’m sure he’s been working on something interesting because that’s what a day-dream-turned-fly-concept does to a fly tying steelheader. It becomes the first thing you think of in the morning and the last thing you think about before you fall asleep. You are obsessed with the process and possibilities of the new Super Sparkle crafty fur doll hair materials you found at the Fabric Plus close out sale, consumed with curiosity, and easily distracted from anything resembling real work until the creation falls from the vice. You run a bone comb through it to round out its shape. You blow on it a few times to check the action and think, “That’s what I’m talking about”.