new to Washington and Steelhead

I moved to Seattle a year ago from New Mexico where I never fished a river that I couldn't jump across or ran much higher than my knees. I always listened in awe to stories of Steelhead and the near religious zeal with which fly anglers referred to the thrill of landing and releasing a big "head". Now that I'm in prime Steelhead country I'd like to start compiling my own list of stories. I've got my sink tip line and the flies almost the size of the browns I used to catch back home and I've put in a few mornings on the Sky and Wallace rivers near Sultan. I know patience is key, but I feel a bit overwhelmed on these big waters. I'd appreciate any advice on fly presentation and how to find where the steelhead lurk.


I’m sure there are others here who can offer more useful thoughts, but for my $0.02,the absolute BEST way to learn the basics of steelheading is to hire a knowledgeable guide who not only specializes in fly fishing for steelhead, but who also has a good reputation for teaching. (Dennis Dickson immediately comes to mind.) This will significantly shorten your learning curve, even by years, over trial and error. If I had it all to do over again, that is exactly what I would do. Its often said that one needs to spend 100 hours on-stream for every steelhead caught but you CAN push that ratio in your favor! Having said that, here are a few tips I‘ve learned over the years in my pursuit of steelhead - others may agree or disagree:

Fish where the fish are. Yeah, I know that sounds pretty elementary, but its amazing how many folks will continually flog unproductive water. So, what constitutes productive water? Well, first of all is the timing of the runs i.e. no run, no fish (generally speaking.) Some rivers get good Winter runs, some get good Summer runs, some get both, some get neither.

A generally accepted axiom is gravel bottom, depth between the knees and shoulders and flowing at the pace of a brisk walk. That’s great as far as it goes. You should also look for deep pools where the current seams are close by. A good tactic is to cast your fly so that it drifts along the seam and then swings through the pool. Also, don’t overlook the tail-outs, the heads of pools, mid-stream boulders or any deadfalls in the water. Steelhead aren’t generally fond of frog water (still water) or eddies. Keep in mind oxygenated water.

Adopt a “home river.” By this I mean find one river within easy driving distance of your home and fish it exclusively for a year or so. Fish it during peak water flows, fish it at low water flows. Fish it in the Winter, fish it in the Summer. Fish it in the rain, snow, sleet, hail and heat of Summer. Learn everything you can about that river. Pay attention to what it looks like at low water and pinpoint where the depressions are; these will be pools at high water leverls. Try to imagine what it would look like with several feet of water over it. Get to know that section of river intimately. Try to imagine where you would position yourself if you were a steelhead heading upstream.

When fishing, don't get overwhelmed by looking at the entire river. Instead, just look at the section of river you are in. Every section of the river has its own unique characteristics; the way the currents flow, the pools, the structure etc. Treat the section of river you are fishing as a river unto itself. Break it down into manageable pieces and fish those sections accordingly.

The Wet Fly Swing (quartering downstream cast) probably accounts for some 80% of the steelhead caught because that’s what most folks use. Its also an easy method to learn, perfrect and use, but there are a few caveats. Key is ensuring your line is properly mended to enable a drag-free float and that the fly actually passes through productive water. Also key is ensuring your fly is within a foot or so of the bottom. Steelhead are normally found hugging the bottom. You’ll know you’re deep enough if you can feel the fly “ticking” along the rock bottom and it periodically hangs up. Its a fact: you will lose flies if you're fishing where you should. Yes, there are those who will skate dry flies and cause a steelhead to rise for the take, but these are normally experienced fly fishers who also have pretty much mastered finding fish - not that you couldn’t go out tomorrow and hook one on a skated fly but that is somewhat technically more difficult to do. On the other hand, dead-drifting a #8 Stonefly Nymph, much as you would dead-drift a Nymph for trout, can also be extremely productive - Stoneflies have a 3-yr growth cycle and the various stages are always present in our waters.

Carry a hook hone (sharpener) and use it frequently.

Gearheads fishing from the bank usually stay stationary for hours on end sipping their brew while waiting for a Steelhead to swim up and take their Corkie and yarn (or eggs or whatever.) You’ll put your fly in front of more steelhead if you practice the wet fly swing (cast, drift, swing, retrieve, step then repeat ad infinitum et ad nauseum) in “productive” areas and then move on to another section of the river or stream. Naturally, there are some spots that just look too fishy to only cast to once and, when you find one of those, you’ll want to be sure to fire off several casts to it (especially if you’ve seen a fish roll on the surface.)

Approach each cast with the expectation and anticipation that you’ll have a hook-up. In other words, you just can’t cast, drift and retrieve while carrying on a running conversation with your buddy as you watch the eagle soar overhead. Concentrate!!! You must be totally prepared for a strike. Its often very difficult to distinguish between the fly “ticking” along the bottom and a steelhead taking the fly; when in doubt, raise your rod. Again, you must always be prepared to strike. If you cast and don’t get a take, assume there was no fish there, take a step downstream and try again. Rarely is it a matter of having the wrong fly. And don’t forget to fish your fly through the entire swing. Often just letting your fly sit downstream after a swing is provocative enough to encourage a strike.

Approach the water with stealth. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen folks reach the water’s edge and, without a break in their stride, charge out to the center of the stream and begin casting. Fish are always on the alert for predators and anything unnatural in their environment will trigger a defenseive reaction; one could call this “putting the fish down.” And you don’t need to make 100-foot casts, either. What’s an appropriate distance? Its one at which you are able to have total control over your line (e.g. mending, feeding etc.) and that’s usually between 30 and 50 feet. Sure, there are those special moments when you need to cast into the next county, but they are very few and far between.

Safety should always be paramount in your mind: wading staff and stream cleats (or Korkers etc.) should be a routine part of your outfit.

To the best of my knowledge, the jury is still out on why a steelhead strikes a fly. Some flies seem to work better than others probably because they are fished by more people more frequently (e.g. Skykomish Sunrise, Green Butt Skunk) and others may actually trigger a feeding response on a recently returning fish (e.g. Matuka or General Practitioner.) Others may be intimidating enough to elicit an “attack” (e.g. Boss)while others may be reasonable replications of a food item (e.g. Stonefly, Bunny Leach, General Practitioner.) Regardless of what fly you have on, you must have total confidence in it. You don’t need a hundred different flies to cover every possible situation. A couple of flies (in several sizes) that you have great confidence in and that you fish properly are all you really need. Fly fishing for steelhead can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it for yourself. For whatever its worth, these are the ten flies I have the most confidence in and which I fish exclusively for both Winter and Summer runs. Its not a very sexy list, but I do take my fair share of both hatchery and natives with them. They are listed in no particular order.

1. Olive Bunny Leech (#2, #4, #6, #8)
2. Alec Jackson’s Skunk (#4, #6, #8)
3. Boss (#4, #6, #8)
4. Silver Hilton (#4, #8)
5. Golden Stonefly Nymph (#6, #8)
6. Skykomish Sunrise (#2, #4, #6, #8)
7. Elk Hair Caddis (#8)
8. Shewey’s Purple Matuka (#2, #6)
9. Lady Caroline Spey (#6)
10. Syd Glasso’s Orange Heron Spey (#2, #6)

And, should you experience a day without even a bump, be thankful for the beauty of the nature around you, record your experience in a journal and return again another day. Looking back through your journal in the years to come will pay high dividends and contribute significantly to your lifetime of learning.

And remember, there’s no such thing as a bad day steelheading! Catching one only heightens the euphoria.

- Catch & Release All Wild Steelhead
Heya lostfly Welcome to wa.FIRST THING buy the bible.Steelhead flyfishing by Trey Combs.Its awesome and the best place to start.Also Flyfishing washington by Greg Thomas.Both are available in you're local flyshop or barnes/noble.The steelhead book has so much info. that you must know also covers history rivers etc.Also find a flyshop you can relate to.Some of our shops are so filled with yuppies andtheir larvae its hard to get anything done.Find someone youlike and stick with that shop,you'll get further faster.Pick a river and hire a guide the first trip or so.We are blessed here locally with good honest reasonably priced guides who love the sport.You'll find a river that fits you and as soon as you learn it you'll catch fish.I like the stilly system sand have spent alot of time learning it.E mail me if you like as I'm always willing to chat.