Steelhead fishing with a swung fly is a strange beast. I’ve yet to be able to put steelhead fishing into words that do it justice, especially to the uninitiated. When you talk about a good week in steelheading, oftentimes it can just be an encounter with a single fish. A good day can mean a single pull. You can be a hero and hook three fish in a single run, but you can just as easily go a half-dozen days without a bite. If you can pull off the seemingly impossible task of landing one and actually hold one of these incredible fish, it’s only a fleeting glimpse that seems more surreal than anything else. It’s almost a dreamlike state that often takes hours to seem like an actual experience rather than some part of your imagination that your rain-soaked brain concocted. When I’ve tried to talk to other fly anglers that haven’t been steelhead fishing I’m oftentimes greeted with blank stares and dull expressions, and I’m fairly confident they’re trying to judge the level of sanity that would drive me to stand in the rain and wade in freezing rivers for days without a fish. That being said, there’s no other type of fishing that I’ve done that captivates my mind on a near daily basis and drives me to the lengths that steelhead fishing with a swung fly does. The reward far outweighs the monotony and misery that can oftentimes be steelhead fishing, and the opportunity to spend a moment with one of these silver ghosts is an incredible one to say the least.
We’ve been fishing for summer steelhead on the Clearwater River in Idaho for the past five years or so, and it’s been a hell of a good time. We have been there enough times and caught a few fish to show for it, and we have a decent idea of runs that have treated us well and how to go about fishing them. The Idaho fish are fantastic and it’s a great time of year to be over there, but steelhead fishing has a way of always making you want more. Hans and I had been throwing the idea around of going winter steelheading for a couple years, and we finally talked ourselves into actually going rather than just talking about it in early January of this year. We flew into Portland during an extremely unusual cold and dry spell, which generally equates to not very good conditions for steelhead fly fishing. Our guide, Barrett, had called me a couple days beforehand and suggested that we should cancel our plans to stay near Portland and fish with him on the Clackamas River and meet him on the coast instead where conditions wouldn’t be ideal, but would be significantly more conducive to actually encountering a fish. We canceled our reservations, loaded up the rental car, and headed west over a little mountain pass towards the coast. As is typically the case with the first days of a steelhead trip, spirits and optimism were high.
We drove into the neat little coastal town of Manzanita, checked into our hotel room right on the beach, and roughly assembled our gear for the following morning. Barrett met us outside at 6:30 the next day, and after a quick stop for coffee we drove along the estuary in the dark and headed up a moss-covered canyon following the Nehalem River. After a few miles, we pulled over at a wide graveled spot on the shoulder and hopped out. It took me a few moments to realize that the 75 foot long, fifty-degree angled icy slide down to the river was Oregon’s definition of a boat launch – I remember Barrett saying something along the lines of, “make sure you stay a little off to the side in case the boat starts sliding”. After some interesting work with a variety of straps, he slid/dropped the boat into the green water and we rigged up our spey rods. The general consensus with wintertime steelhead is to use a short, compact Skagit head that’s made to be able to throw large flies and long, heavy sink tips with ease. Hans and I both used RIO Skagit Max heads connected to Powerflex Max Shooting Lines and were very happy with the results. The short length allows you to make the often necessary long casts even when your back is up against the bank, which is important in the winter on swollen, bank-full coastal rivers. A sink tip of various weight and length is looped onto the end of the head, topped off with a few feet of Maxima and a fly. We both fished 7 weight spey rods for the entire trip – I fished my Winston BIIITH 13’3″ 7 weight, and Hans switched back and forth from a 12’6″ Sage Method and an Echo Glass 13′ 7 weight. Flies can be terribly subjective in steelhead fishing since the fish aren’t there to eat anyways, but most of what we used were small, 2-3″ marabou patterns tied on tubes or shanks with a hook trailing at the back. I tied and fished a lot of HohBo Speys and Larimer Reverse Marabou style flies, which are both easy to tie and look fantastic in the water. The materials are inexpensive as well, and you can tie up a whole box full of them in pretty short order. We started off down the river in his raft, and after a series of short rapids we parked the boat across from a small tributary stream in a big tailout above another good set of rapids.
Winter steelhead fishing with a swung fly is largely dependent on having faith that there’s a fish out there that’s going to eat your fly. Barrett explained to us that since we were only a few miles above tidewater, these steelhead – especially the females – would oftentimes move into the river, spawn, and head back out to the ocean in only a matter of days. Because of this, there’s times where there’s simply no fish in the river, especially early in the season. One day there can be fish in the run you’re fishing, and the next there simply might not be any fish around. It’s an exercise in faith to say the least.
After not spey casting since the previous October in Idaho, it took me a bit to get back in the swing of things and get used to the shorter Skagit head. Barrett’s instruction was fantastic, and was very helpful in getting us back into the groove. In a nutshell, the basic idea of swinging for steelhead is to cast across and slightly downstream, make a mend so your sink tip has some time to sink your fly, and then let the current slowly pull your fly across and to the close bank. Take two or three steps down and repeat. That way, you’re covering all of the water from the time you come tight to your fly until it comes to the close bank in 2-3 foot increments as you work your way down the run. In theory, you will get your flies in front of any fish that might be in the water your fishing – it’s incredibly simple on paper. Cast, step, swing. Cast, step, swing.
The first day was brutally cold, and after the first run my feet felt like cinderblocks that were hooked to my legs. Our guides kept freezing, and after a dozen casts or so we’d have to pop the ice out of the long rods so we could cast again. The dull feeling of the line through cold fingers was hard to read at times. We had a couple pulls between the two of us throughout the day, but nothing solid enough to hook up on. When steelhead fishing with a swung fly, the bites can range from a ferocious yank that leaves your reel spinning before you can even register what happened, to a slight tension in the line that gradually builds until you can feel the whole weight of the fish, which seems to be much more prevalent in my limited experience. The gradual pulls are difficult to learn how to set the hook on, especially for someone that’s used to trout fishing. In theory, you wait until the fish is more or less pulling line off your reel before lifting the rod. I’ve set the hook too soon on an embarrassing number of steelhead, and I’ve had fish that were screaming line off the reel not be there when I lifted up. It’s an inexact science to say the least, but patience seems to be the key to hooking a higher percentage of steelhead.
Not landing fish for a measly day is nothing in steelhead fishing, and more or less to be expected, so we set out the next few days on our own undeterred. Barrett was generous with information and with pointing spots that we could access from roads and trails since we were boat-less, which made our trip much more enjoyable and also made us spend way less time searching out good water on our own. The weather gradually improved for the most part, with highs in the high thirties and low forties. We had plenty of rain and a little snow, which raised the water levels and in theory brought fish into the river. Even with improving conditions we were unable to land a fish for the next several days, even though we had a few solid pulls and a couple hooked fish that wrangled their way off. It’s a bit of a heartbreak when you finally hook a fish after several days of fruitless casting, only to have it come off before you can at least get a good look at it. Dropping to your knees in the water, throwing thousand dollar spey rods, yelling profanities, and throwing an overall tantrum isn’t uncommon after losing one. It’s slightly embarrassing after the fact, but at the moment it seems like the only reasonable thing to do. Even with that being the case, you have to keep the faith. I’ve concluded that steelhead fishing is about 90% a mental game. If you don’t think you’re going to catch one, you’re not going to. Fishing confidently is a difficult thing to do after not having a bite or landing a fish for what seems like forever, but it’s what it takes to catch a steelhead. Swinging flies is arguably the most difficult way to catch them as well, so the odds are stacked against you to catch a fish that isn’t even feeding anyways. As long as you’re making clean casts that are turning over, you’re confident in your fly selection, and you’re getting a slow, relatively deep swing across the current, your odds are as good as any.
After several fishless days, we woke up to snow on the beach in front of the small hotel we were staying at. We crept our way up the slick road following the river, crossed a bridge, and putted along the gravel road going back downstream. Pulling off the road near a run where we had some good pulls and lost a couple fish over the previous few days, we scrambled to get our rain jackets on without getting in the inside more wet than the outside. After slip-sliding down the wet ledge rock down to the river, I started fishing the run with a shorter T-10 tip and a pink and orange tube fly that I’d had some yanks on previously. I methodically worked my way through the run, throwing a mend into the line immediately after the cast landed and gently leading the fly across the current with the rod tip. The fly was slowly coming across the current with each cast and the line was lightly pulling on my index finger, and I knew that I was going to get one. By the time I got to the end of the run, I hadn’t had a pull. This particular spot wasn’t a really long run, so I was going to walk back up to the top, change flies and put a heavier tip on, and swing through one more time before we wandered to another place. Hans was about halfway down, and I stopped to see if he’d had any pulls in the upper half of the run. He said he hadn’t, and we started to go over a rough plan of what we wanted to do for the rest of the day. I turned and headed up to the top, and didn’t get more than a couple steps at best before Hans let out a yell that was somewhere between a ‘yee-haw’ and ‘yes!’. I turned around to see the glass spey rod bent to the handle and hear the Hardy reel singing the song of a steelhead headed back to the salt. It’s funny how quickly you can forget how many days you’ve went without catching one.
Steelhead fight incredibly hard anywhere, but fish this close to the ocean are especially spunky. Immediately after Hans hooked this fish, it screamed off downstream at a speed that seemed impossible and it looked like we were going to have to scramble our way around the bend and a small riffle and try and land it in the next run. The fish had a change of heart once it ran into some of the shallower water at the back of the run, and it came back upstream back towards us. The line bellied out in the current trying to keep up with the fish, and it left Hans in a tug-of-war with the fish for several minutes. Eventually we got it close to the flooded grass on the bank, and after a few failed attempts to tail it on my part we finally got ahold of the most chrome steelhead I’ve seen. The female steelhead was around ten pounds, and was the most perfect example of one I’ve ever seen. The fins were translucent, the chrome flanks didn’t have a scar on them, and the adipose fin indicated it was a fish with a wild lineage. Hans grabbed the wrist of the tail, being sure to keep the fish in the water and carefully handle it. Wild steelhead are becoming a rare occurrence across much of their range, so encountering one is a rare experience not to be taken lightly. I snapped a few pictures of the fish and Hans holding it, and then he righted the fish in the current and it powerfully kicked out of his hands. As quickly as they come, they’re gone. Days and hours and often weeks go by without catching one, only to spend a few moments with them before they’re headed back upstream in the emerald green water. A few whoops and high fives later we were headed downstream to another run, spirits renewed and hopes high.
The rest of the day it rained. And rained. Then rained some more. Any small opening in my rain jacket was seeping water in, and my hands were starting to look like they’d been underwater too long. We had half of the next day to fish before we headed back to Portland, and the clock was ticking. I’ve been on steelhead trips before where I didn’t land a fish, and I was starting to resign myself to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen. Not catching fish in steelhead fishing isn’t uncommon, and is honestly to be expected under a lot of circumstances. I was alright with it, but there’s always a nagging feeling that makes you want to catch one even worse than when you started. We live a heck of a long ways from steelhead country, so it takes a bit of planning and traveling to get to them and it makes the desire to tangle with one even higher. We ended up back at the run where Hans had landed his fish earlier that day, and I tied my trusty pink and orange tube back on and waded into the flooded grass. After several days of not catching fish, the fishing becomes a bit robotic and mindless, especially in runs that you’ve fished a few times. I worked the line out in three foot increments, and once I got to full length I started working my way downstream two steps at a time. I set up a double spey, swept the Winston around and let the load of the rod slingshot the head out to the edge of the fast current. The angle seemed right so that the fly would swing slow, so I lifted the rod high and sent a little mend into the line so the tip had time to sink. The fly hadn’t swung ten feet after it came under tension when there was a slight heaviness in the line that quickly started building. It felt like ten seconds, but it probably wasn’t two before the line was making the rod buck towards the middle of the river and I swung hard towards the close bank. There was a moment where I thought I’d set too soon, but the fish abruptly came cartwheeling out of the water in the middle of the river and I was quick to start whooping and hollering. It’s a surreal feeling once you’re finally connected to a fish that you’ve been trying so hard to catch. The fish pulled hard against the rod, and made the old Hardy reel scream a few times before we finally got ahold of the fish. It wasn’t the biggest steelhead I’ve ever caught, but it was definitely one of the most memorable. The silver-sided buck had the slightest blush of pink on the flanks, complete with see-through fins and a steel-gray top. It had probably come out of the ocean the day before. After a few quick pictures I slid the fish back into the current, and it’s ghostlike shape quickly disappeared. I sat on the bank and let my rain-saturated brain take everything in, laughing to myself. It’s almost like a dream when you finally encounter one of these incredible fish. It’s hard to explain why it’s worth all of the effort and time just to catch a single fish, but I can tell you without hesitation it’s worth every minute of riding the emotional highs and lows of the steelhead roller coaster.
The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful. I had a good pull the following morning that didn’t stick for whatever reason, and we headed back towards Portland midday. We had to drive the long way around to avoid a snow covered pass, and we ended up being in Portland during a rare snowstorm that dumped a foot or more of snow in a place that typically doesn’t see more than a few inches a year. After sitting on the plane forever, we ended up getting out of Portland and barely getting on our connecting flight in Salt Lake back to Rapid City. When we got off the plane, it as a whopping 2 degrees. Welcome home!
Winter Steelhead fishing isn’t for the faint of heart. If you have to catch five fish a day to be successful, it’s not for you. There’s a certain level of commitment that goes along with steelheading, especially with a swung fly. You have to expect to not catch fish, but you have to know you’re going to catch one. You have to resign yourself to the fact that it may be days between bites. You’re going to get your heart broken by fish that come off, and you’re going to get bites that should have stuck but didn’t. There’s a lot of time to think about why you’re not catching fish, but you have to keep confidence and believe that you’re going to catch that fish. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when your fly stops out in the current and the tension builds until there’s line spinning off your reel, and you lift the rod and you’re connected to a wild steelhead that’s going ballistic. You forget about the hours or days or weeks that you put into it, and all of a sudden it’s all worth it.