Dry Line Fishing for Steelhead
- Written by John Shewey
Nothing compares to the muscular surge of a burly steelhead snatching a fly on a line already drawn tight by the current. This is the essence of summer steelheading, an energizing change from long winters and springs devoted to skimming a fly across the bottom as slowly as possible. On Northwest waters, the floating-line pursuit centers on our runs of summer steelhead—sea-fresh fish that depart the Pacific between May and September, ascend their natal rivers and then wait out the fall and most of the winter before finally spawning. Eastern and Midwestern anglers can now also find these fish in Great Lakes tributaries, although it’s a well-kept secret in many areas.
Summer steelhead often occupy the rivers for months on end, offering a window of angling opportunity that in some cases may stretch from June or July through October. Summer fish seem genetically more inclined to chase flies than their winter-run brethren, whose purposeful, determined migration is aimed single-mindedly at reaching the spawning grounds. Summer fish, more leisurely in their migrations, benefit from water temperatures in 50’s or 60’s and they become increasingly active and aggressive. "Biters” as we call those fish that give chase, sometimes follow the fly all the way across the river.
Not all of them are biters and steelhead behave individually. Sometimes they bite and sometimes they don’t, but when a steelhead reacts to the floating line offering, giving chase to an artificial fly, the angler has engaged in an unique act: Dry-line fishing with the fly swinging on or near the surface ranks as the only method of steelhead angling—fly or otherwise—in which we are asking the fish to come to us rather than delivering our offering down to the fish.
Assembling Your Tackle
On most rivers steelhead demand seven- eight- or nine-weight rods. I like 10-footers for their inherent distance casting capabilities and superior line-control abilities. The reel must have capacity for at least 150 yards of backing and a drag system. Next comes the floating line and not all of them are created equally: The new Orvis Wonderline Advantage, with its super-slick finish, excels at effortless distance casting. In other words, the Wonderline Advantage “shoots” easily. Likewise, the Wonderline Advantage plucks easily from the water’s surface, expediting the casting stroke and allowing for effortless mending.
Big, steep, slippery Northwest rivers demand wading gear equal to the task. Cleated boots, such as the Orvis studded Henry’s Fork Wading Boots, should be considered mandatory. Felt soles alone don’t make the grade. Many steelheaders likewise rely on a wading staff for extra security.
A basic selection of standard flies tops off the list of essentials. Most anglers stick to wet flies, but skated dry flies (e.g. Bomber) rank as the ultimate form of pursuing steelhead: Just imagine a 10-pound, sea-bright fish smashing a dry fly.
Significantly, when swinging flies for steelhead, pattern choice has precious little affect on your chances, for steelhead seem prone to chase and grab just about anything when in a mood to do so. Just pick a few patterns in which to invest your confidence and then forget about pattern choice and stick to the important things: reading and then properly covering as much productive water as possible. For what it’s worth, the lengthy list of popular Northwest wet flies includes the following: Skunk, Green-butt Skunk, Purple Peril, Silver Hilton, Golden Demon, Brad’s Brat, Max Canyon, Surgeon General, Skykomish Sunrise amongst many others.
Fishing the Swing
The basic technique employed by Pacific Coast steelhead anglers is titled “the wet-fly swing,” or simply “swinging flies.” Borrowed from British Atlantic salmon traditions, swinging flies ranks amongst the simplest forms of angling. In reality it is little more than induced drag: Cast down and across stream and then allow the fly to drag back to your side of the river. Take a step or two downstream and repeat. Continue the step-cast-step-cast pattern until the pool or run is covered from head to tail.
This simple, easy-to-learn technique excels on large western rivers because it allows you to cover the water thoroughly and with all due speed, giving every fish within casting range at least one chance to see the fly. Northwest steelheading is all about covering lots of water in the quest for active, fly-chasing fish. In most waters you won’t see the fish so you simply fish the water. Steelheading thus rewards those who enjoy the fishing as much or more than the catching.
Despite its inherent simplicity the wet-fly swing allows ample room for practiced skill to prevail over a common flogging of the water. The critical skills include casting, line control (or “fly control”), and reading water. This latter category usually proves critical. I could devote an entire article to reading a steelhead river, so I’ll summarize as follows: First, on well-known waters, follow the pragmatic course of watching where other anglers fish because steelhead are creatures of habit and will hold in the same places year in and year out. Second, look for “fly water,” defined by flows of moderate pace and moderate depth. Steelhead (we’re talking migrating fish here and not those nearing their spawning season) prefer water flowing at about the pace you can walk and ranging in depth from two to six feet.
Third, understand river hydrology as it relates to the movements of steelhead. They like to be comfortable when they stop to rest or hold, but they won’t wander far from the main current structure of the river. You can forget about the rapids and shallow riffles. Instead seek the pools and runs between rapids and riffles.
Through all my years working in fly shops, guiding and teaching I’ve noticed that the ability to cast for distance is the single most prevalent and curable oversight adversely affecting most fly anglers, especially on steelhead waters. Even experienced anglers often benefit markedly from a few basic pointers and in steelhead angling (not to mention saltwater fishing and many other venues), distance-casting comes in terribly handy.
Casting for distance is synonymous to casting with efficiency: The better your casting stroke, the easier you generate distance. The key is to learn to form tight, wedge-shaped loops, typically using a double-haul and this is accomplished only by perfecting your stroke. Nothing beats hands-on instruction, so if you need lessons, by all means go get them—find a qualified casting instructor and learn the basics of casting strokes, loop formation, the double haul and shooting line. Then practice and practice often.
Loop Formation and Shooting Line
The “loop” is a term used to describe the shape and dimensions of your fly line as it unfurls toward it’s target on the front stroke or as it begins to straighten behind you on the back stroke. The size and shape of your casting loop determines the distance and direction the line will travel and is itself determined by the characteristics of your “casting stroke,” or the precise manner in which you cast the fly rod. Essentially the smaller and tighter the loop, the more efficient the cast and the more efficient the cast the more effortlessly you achieve distance and precision.
The ideal loop is wedge-shaped rather than round at its leading edge and the upper and lower portions of the line are close together and close to parallel. Obviously the loop is highly dynamic, but an observer standing off to the side easily studies its characteristics. One common fault made by otherwise good casters is to alter the plane in which the backstroke or fore-stroke travels. Each stroke must travel along a single plane for maximum efficiency. If the rod curves to the left or right during the fore- or backstroke, the cast loses impetus, reducing your ability to throw a tight loop.
Another important step in casting for distance is learning to “shoot” the fly line and this is where the Orvis Wonderline Advantage earns its deservedly high repute. Shooting line simply means that you release most of the line from your free hand after making the forward cast rather than try to hold lots of line in the air during the cast. In other words, you hold back most of the fly line, building impetus by casting only the forward taper of the line and then releasing the withheld portion to gain distance.
Weight-forward lines are designed to take advantage of this idea and the Wonderline Advantage, with its super-slick finish and perfectly designed taper, excels in performing this essential cast. Shooting line requires some understanding of what we call “overhang,” referring to the amount of the thin-diameter portion of the line extending outside the tip-top guide during the cast. Each line/rod/caster combination has an ideal amount of overhang, which might range from two or three feet to 15 or more feet. In either case, the hangdown is “measured” from the rear-end taper on the fly line to the rod’s tip-top guide.
The Rod Stroke
One last tip for distance casting becomes highly applicable after you have gained proficiency at forming small, tight loops and learned to shoot line: Learn to lengthen your rod stroke. The typical fly-casting tutorial teaches you to maintain a rather short “rod stroke,” as defined the distance the rod tip travels from front to back during the cast. A short stroke is ideally suited to shorter casts, but a longer stroke helps with distance casts. The “distance stroke” requires that your casting arm drift rearward during the back cast and that your rod tip dip lower on the back stroke, all the while maintaining the smooth acceleration that defines a good cast.
The Water Haul
The water haul is a technique that allows you to “load” the rod without false casting. It works especially well with the high-floating, easy-casting Wonderline Advantage. Strip in line until you are left with an easily “castable” length, your intention being to shoot line on the fore-stroke to make a long cast. Now pick up that shortened length of line with a single smooth back-stroke and then with the ensuing fore-stroke lay it back on the water in a straight line. Immediately pluck the line off the water and make the fishing cast. The tension from the water provides the impetus normally created by false-casting, loading the rod for the ensuing fore-stroke. Naturally the water-haul requires practice, but its mastery markedly improves your efficiency at casting and thus fishing.
Dry-line steelheading places you in the most intimate quarters with the river, for you spend your hours casting and wading. Mostly you fish; every once in a while you catch. Along the way, as the seasons mount and the wading and casting miles accrue, as those ever-cherished hookups become more frequent, as lifelong angling friendships are forged and as new rivers become old stomping grounds, the steelheader learns that he persists in his addiction simply because he loves to fish and to cast and to wade—and because these noble gamefish and the rivers in which they live deserve a special reverence, a devotion, a dedication to a time-honored game of fair chase.
Residing in Oregon, John Shewey is a life-long devotee to fly fishing, wing-shooting and other outdoor pursuits. His annual travels take him all around the west and to his favorite haunts from Alaska to Mexico. Having fished for just about everything the west has to offer—from surfperch at sea level to golden trout at 12,000 feet—John still gravitates towards his favorite summer steelhead streams, where he pursues these noble fish with his elegant flies, which have earned national prominence. John has penned numerous articles and published many photographs in various magazines and to date has authored twelve books about fly fishing and wingshooting. Included in his titles are Spey Flies & Dee Flies, Their History and Construction, Northwest Flyfishing, Trout & Beyond; Flyfishing Northwest Waters; Mastering The Spring Creeks; Oregon Blue Ribbon Fly Fishing; Washington Blue Ribbon Fly Fishing and Fly Fishing For Summer Steelhead (co-authored with Forrest Maxwell). John appears frequently as a speaker at club meetings, conclaves and sports shows around the country—begrudgingly so during winter when he prefers to spend his time hunting chukars over his Weimaraner, Jake. John is currently working on The Orvis Pocket Guide to Northwest Steelheading, which will be available in December 2003.