Fly fishing for Bulkley steelhead

Fishing instructor, fly fishing tuition and fishing trips based in Scotland. Salmon and trout fishing advice, flies and articles.

Swinging a fly for steelhead

Casting a swinging fly for steelhead
Casting a swinging fly for steelhead

On reflection, years ago my first attempts at steelhead fishing were awful, I fished clumsily through lots of water that didn’t hold steelhead, somehow I compared steelhead to Atlantic salmon and in gleeful ignorance I “salmon fished” and thereby missed most of the best steelhead spots. True I caught one or two of them but that was probably more by accident than by design.  Now I think that I know a little better and I fish for steelhead like I might do for trout, albeit big trout. Steelhead lie in “trouty water” especially where there is structure, around boulders seems to be a favourite habitat and they often lie on the edge of current surprisingly close to the near bank. Because they lie in such places swinging with floating lines with sinking tips are by far the best solution because presentation depth can be adjusted by the choice of tip and fly weight and perhaps more importantly sinking can be limited to allow the fly to swim through soft water without constantly snagging bottom. It’s difficult to know how deep a fly fishes anywhere in current on a sinking line or a sink tip and I’m not sure whether the depth that fly fishes or its swing speed is the most important factor. It seems likely that each has some bearing on success and for that reason it is important to try to control both to achieve the “perfect presentation” that we imagine. Steelhead fishers often cast and mend sufficiently to get the sinking tip down to a desired depth before allowing it to swing inwards at a much slower pace than a salmon fisher would want. Steelhead will often take the fly during the last 10% of the swing what a salmon fisher might call “on the dangle” and what a steelhead angler calls “on the hang down”. An experienced steelheader emphasised the importance of this telling me that if I got hung up on the hang down I was fishing too deep. Good advice, I think there is nothing worse than missing the most effective part of the cast, getting stuck and loosing lots of flies. Deep wading is seldom necessary and minimal wading to avoid disturbance and achieve a better fly swing and “hang down” is good advice.  

In my limited experience steelhead in a taking mood seem to be more persistently aggressive than salmon and they will sometimes grab at the fly more than once, indeed they sometimes have several attempts before they either lose interest or get hooked. What amazes me is how occasionally events transpire against us. Imagine this, after fishing hard for several hours my fly is swinging nicely across the stream, I feel a good pull from a fish then nothing, a little further round the swing and I get another similar familiarly fishy pull then finally a few moments later a sharp and vicious tug. No firm connection and wondering why I check the fly and unusually the stinger hook had tangled with the dressing. Frustrated I wonder for how long I might have been fishing with that tangle or whether the fish knocked the hook out of place? In any case it seems ironic that after a lot of effort a fish happened to take on one of very few casts when the fly was disabled. Later in a different pool my fly swung on the dangle close to a submerged boulder and was grabbed aggressively by a fish that broke surface and escaped with a jerk as I lifted the rod. Cursing under my breath I repeated the cast and the whole performance was repeated except this time a fish was firmly hooked and landed. I wonder how that could have happened, was it a silly fish or a different fish? So many unpredictable and curious occurrences in this game which is why I enjoy fly fishing so much.

Steelhead in the snow
Ally with a steelhead caught during a snowstorm

Summer gives way quickly to Fall and Winter in northern BC, equinox on September 23rd heralds an acceleration towards winter and there is no certainty when the first icy blasts of cold weather and snow will occur in the Rockies. During the first week of my stay we enjoyed dry sunny weather and didn’t mind the necessity of P20 sunblock each day and we welcomed the occasional cloud to mitigate the fierceness of the sun’s rays on the water, cloudy intervals tended to encourage more activity from the steelhead. During the second week the weather changed, it suddenly became colder, morning mists turned to snow and instead of sunblock we applied extra layers of clothing, reputedly there is no such thing as bad weather if you have the right gear to wear. Peering out at a miserable wet and snowy morning at breakfast time is not however the best incentive to leave a warm cabin, but if you are a steelheader the weather must be taken in stride regardless and the pursuit continued without relent.  Visibility was down to a few hundred yards due to mist and snow as I lengthened my line yard by yard at the top of the pool gradually covering more and more water before commencing that ponderously slow cast and yard progress so familiar to steelheaders and salmon anglers alike. Thankfully the mist lifted and the snowflakes lessened and increased in size eventually resembling potato crisp sized pieces of cotton wool erratically floating gently earthwards in the windless air. Perhaps stimulated by the change of weather or maybe appreciative of the soft light a nice male steelhead with bright crimson gill plates took at the end of the swing as I let the fly dangle in the soft water below me. This one safely returned it wasn’t long before another fish took but this one grabbed the fly with gusto within a few feet of it landing well out in the current and immediately set off for the glassy tail of the pool some distance below. It certainly went downstream quickly but then undetected by me it doubled back and announced its presence with an energetic leap nearly opposite me whilst the drowned fly line cut the water surface some 20 yards downstream. Then came several more spectacular jumps, amazingly the barbless hook retained grip and eventually I managed to reel into direct contact and having expended a lot of effort the fish quickly came to hand, a nice hen. I didn’t feel the cold that morning! Bulkley steelhead fishing page 3.

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Copyright 2007 Alastair Gowans AAPGAI and FFF Master and THCI, APGAI. All rights reserved.