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Steelhead Musings

Steelhead Musings

Well, it has been a bit too long between fishing reports. Sorry for the delay, I have been busy running the shop single-handed while John is on the river. Steelhead season is in full swing, which means we are up before the sun every morning and the days are getting noticeably shorter. Light gets on the water a little bit later each day and the sunsets come sooner than expected.

 Lately, thanks to a lot of smoke in the air, we have been enjoying a false cloud cover all day long.  The smoke is high in the atmosphere so far – as the fires to the east, west, southeast, and southwest of us are far enough away that we don’t smell smoke (maybe the slightest whiff) and we reap the rewards of a muted sun.

 Both trout and steelhead benefit from the filtered sunlight for several reasons. One, the air temperatures are significantly lower without the sunshine, which also benefits the water temperatures in the Deschutes. The nights are not quite as cool as they would be without the blanket of smoke, but they feel a lot cooler than they did last week. The smoke creates a false cloud cover, which spurs some of the mayfly hatches that occur this time of year. We have seen some fairly robust spinnerfalls of BWOs which are hatching off at night and egg laying in the mornings. My house is not right on the river, it is about 1000 feet above the river on the edge of a cliff, but it is covered in blue wing olives none the less.

 So, early morning anglers will want to have some BWO patterns as well as some size 18 caddis patterns. This is your best opportunity for dry fly action, though the smoke covering the sun can make it last a whole lot longer. As the water gets cooler, the trout really get ravenous, knowing that their salad days are numbered before the cold dark winter is upon them. They will eagerly eat nymphs all day long and streamers in the deep slots can produce some bruisers.

Steelhead prefer to migrate and move in low light conditions. This is why the steelhead fishing is always better in the morning and evening and a bit tougher in the mid-day.  With the sun blotted out for much of the morning, the conditions for hooking steelhead on floating lines and small hairwings, or on skaters, are ideal. That is the beautiful thing about Deschutes steelhead, they are very willing and eager to grab a fly in the surface film. They will move ten feet or further if the fly is inspirational to them – and we all like to think that the fly pattern that we have selected to fish is VERY inspirational to the steelhead in the river!

Let’s talk about fly selection for steelhead fishing on the Deschutes. Does the fly matter? Yes, I do believe that the fly matters to some extent, but the most important thing is that the angler has 100% faith and confidence in the fly on the end of his/her line. I believe that smaller hairwings, say size 5 or size 7, tend to get more grabs than larger flies. I have little to no confidence in fishing a large intruder-style pattern on the Deschutes, though I do know that people catch steehead on large flies in this river as well as on large plugs and spoons. So, what do I base my beliefs upon? I base my preference for smaller flies on the many years that I spent standing on the bank watching every swing of my client’s fly.

When I started guiding in 1999, the river was recovering from the 100-year flood of ’96. Most of the riverside riparian had been scoured away and washed downstream. The larger trees that still stood had taken a thrashing and were dead or dying with little to no vegetation. Finding shade was a real chore back in those days, but the fly watching conditions were prime. All you needed was a white wing on the fly, maybe a few strands of flashabou over the wing, and that little 2.5 inch fly could be seen and tracked through the swing from the moment it touched down 80 feet off the bank to the hang down.

I created a purple fly with a white wing and a green butt, obviously modeled after the green-butt skunk, with a body of thin punch yarn in a purple/red hue. The punch yarn was a craft store find and was given to me by one of John’s longest-time clients, Bill Lum. I think it was Dec Hogan, living in our guest house at the time and guiding side-by-side with me and John, who was standing behind me while I massaged the purple guinea fowl feather into a tidy little collar. Dec and John had both been helping and coaching me on my fly tying, which took place in the evenings after 17 hours of guiding steelhead anglers. Dec, on his way to the freezer to get a little more ice into his tumbler, popped his head over my right shoulder and said “Lum Plum!”

Here's a picture of me and Bill Lum holding Burkheimer Spey Rods in 1999:

The fly was named that night and it was my confidence fly from that moment on. John and Dec had their clients fish it here and there – though they had a lot of love for muddlers and other patterns. Dec started calling the Lum Plum the “eat it or leave” fly. The steelhead really seemed to get sparked up by the flash over the white wing, or the green butt, or that special shade of purple. Whatever it was about the fly, I fell in love with it over those first years of guiding. It wasn’t the first fly I caught steelhead on, but it was the fly that I watched hundreds, maybe over one thousand, steelhead follow and eat during the heyday of my guiding career.  It was the fly we got six steelhead on before lunch on 9/11/2001 – a day that went from magical to horrifying when we pulled off the water for a mid-day break.

I realize now how lucky I was to have guided during the huge steelhead years of the early 2000’s and in 2009. Thanks to the enormous returns of those years, I got to gather a lot of data and knowledge from watching those flies swing and watching how steelhead reacted to them. If you have read Dec Hogan’s book, A Passion For Steelhead, then you have read about some of these experiences. We had nightly story-telling sessions in our living room – me, Dec, John, and often Brian Silvey would pop in before making the long drive home to Welches. We weren’t the only steelhead guides on the river in those days, but we were the only ones out there day in and day out. We shared our knowledge with one another, John already had over 20 years under his belt by that point, and I hung on every word and every piece of river wisdom that escaped John and Dec’s mouths between gulps of scotch.

Every morning when it was just getting light enough to see your hand in front of your face, John, Dec, and I were already on the water. Each of us with the boat parked, drinking coffee, and sitting in the run that we had chosen to fish at first light. Our headlamp-clad clients, standing like soldiers ready to go into battle, waiting patiently until we gave the go-ahead to fish. In the darkness we could hear drift boats rowing past, on their way to find another prime spot not yet occupied by anglers. Just as it became light enough to cast the Spey, we began methodically covering each square foot of the run with a small little white-winged fly.

Every run has a “bucket” or two, or three, or four – sometimes more. The “bucket” is, perhaps, nothing more than a slight depression on the river bottom, or maybe a boulder or a root wad or a small mound of gravel that creates just enough of a pillow to provide a temporary resting spot for a migrating steelhead. After several years of guiding, making my own observations and notes in my journal, trying new pieces of water that nobody showed me but that looked promising, and picking the fishy brains of John, Dec, and Brian in the evenings, I came to learn most of the buckets in each prime piece of water. I learned that there were preferred holding lies and secondary holding lies. The largest or most aggressive steelhead would usually hold in the best spot, and any other steelhead in the posse would hold in the second or third tier buckets in the same run. On those huge years when we had tens of thousands of steelhead in the river, every moment on the water was an opportunity to learn more and more about these mysterious fish.

Each Spey cast that unfolded over the beautiful water offered the angler holding the rod and me, watching from a lofty perch, a glimmer of hope that this would be the swing that would bring a steelhead charging towards the fly. My clients and I stepped down the runs in unison, me about 80 feet below the caster and parallel to the little white-winged Lum Plum cutting its way through the water. The fly travelled an inch below the surface and usually 3-5 feet above the boulders from which a steelhead would inevitably emerge.

Guiding two to three anglers each day, I spent hours watching their flies swing through the best runs on the river. When one angler was getting close to one of the buckets, I made sure to be standing on the high bank above their fly. I didn’t want to miss the show – that magical moment when a steelhead appears like a ghost from the bottom and with a kick of the tail has his lips brushing against that fly. Often, when the steelhead turned to grab that fly head first, the swirling boil on the surface looked like someone flushed a giant mid-river toilet. The shock and surprise often caused the angler to jerk that rod skyward, whiffing away the chance of the hook getting buried in the corner of that steelhead’s mouth. If the angler allowed the steelhead to turn on the fly, waited patiently with the rod tip down, and didn’t let the giant swirl around the fly startle him, it was game-on and the Hardy reel would start screaming. Thirty seconds of line and backing leaving the reel at a blistering pace was often followed by a jump 50 yards down river, then thirty more seconds of chaos followed by a cartwheeling steelhead upstream of the screaming angler, ”Look! There’s another steelhead!!”  Running up the bank clutching my giant wooden net, I am shouting, “That’s YOUR fish!!” Our voices echoing off the canyon walls and the frantic movements of both guide and angler causing the access road traffic across the river to screech to a halt. If everything went perfectly, we netted the fish, kept it wet for a photo or two, drank in the beauty and majesty of our quarry for just a moment before watching her disappear into the liquid darkness with a violent twitch of the tail. Wiping the water from our faces, we laughed, we cried, we high-fived, we hugged, and we sat in awe of that special moment in the canyon.

Sometimes, though, the grab was less aggressive and more hesitant or curious in nature. The steelhead might follow the fly from 70 feet off the bank all the way into the shallows with his lips touching the fly but not turning or pulling any line out. It was hard not to react to this display, but I had to stay somewhat calm in the moment in order to keep my angler from getting the yips.

If I saw a steelhead follow but not take the fly, or maybe softly grab the fly and let go before any line came tight, it was time to start playing the come back game. Step one, make sure that the client is carrying a large loop of line, maybe six feet, held so loosely against the cork that a wet leaf or piece of moss touching the fly would be enough to pull the line through one’s fingers. That loop allowed us to continue to play with a soft-grabber, non-aggressive steelhead by presenting that fly back to that fish again and again and again.

Sometimes the same steelhead would rise to the fly and softly pull out the loop five, six, seven times without feeling the sting of the hook. In a case like that we would work down through the bucket, back up, change to a smaller and duller fly like John’s steelhead coachman, and work back down into the bucket again.  Often the smaller fly elicited a more aggressive take and we had a fish on. Sometimes we exhausted the entire fly box changing things up again and again and finding nothing to the fish’s liking. More often than mot, we could find a fly to entice a strong grab, and that was almost always a smaller, duller, less flashy fly. So the Lum Plum became my main searching pattern with the white polar bear wing and Flashabou over the top (holographic silver at first, later replaced by pearl mirage Flashabou when it was introduced to the tying market). The rest of my fly box was filled with experimental white winged flies with various body and tail colors, some with flash, some without, and lots of “comeback” flies like the steelhead coachman and the undertaker.

One of my clients, Carl, started calling me his steelhead angel because every time I popped out on the bank and started intensely watching his fly, he would “miraculously” hook a steelhead. Angelic? I think not. The heavenly quality I did possess was the ability to catalog spots, to understand and memorize the substrate of the river, to learn over the years where those likely holding spots were and how those holding spots changed with the changing conditions of the day as well as the changing conditions of the river throughout the season. The sun was always a factor when fishing floating lines, and the game plan was always to stay in the shade as long as possible, and when not possible, to fish the stretches of river that has the sun shining behind the steelhead instead of in their eyes.  The angle of the sun changes day by day, and there are runs later in October that never see the sun at all due to their proximity to the high canyon walls found on the deep bends of the Deschutes canyon.

Everything about guiding strategy matters – from how you pull into the run, how quietly you park your boat and place your anchor, to where you begin to fish. A touch-and-go cast such as a snake roll or a single Spey is a lot less disturbing to the water than the smack of a snap-t and the ripping spray of water that that cast requires. Even the crunch of cleats and the tip tap of a metal wading staff can cause a steelhead holding close to the bank to mosey on out to a quieter lie. Sure, we still hook ‘em when we are scraping our way down the river, causing all kinds of disturbance with our gidgets and gadgets and our perry pokes and double Speys. But, you have to sometimes wonder how many more could we have hooked using a little stealth?

Some runs that are amazing in the early part of the season are not as productive once the salmon enter the river and start displacing steelhead. To know which runs to fish during every phase of the year is something that takes a guide years and years to learn and is not knowledge that can be procured from a book or a website or even a fishing report. There is no instant gratification in steelhead fishing, only hard-earned nuggets of knowledge picked up one-by-one starting every morning well before dawn and finishing every day well after darkness has engulfed the canyon. Pushing that driftboat through the darkness in the morning, watching and coaching and giving pep talks for 17 hours a day, then rowing to the take out in the darkness with the dread of driving the twenty miles of a horridly washboarded  road….just to turn around and do it again in six hours…..day after day…..it is not for the weak. Very few guides can hang in there and make it an entire career.

We have seen our share of guides come and go through our company. Some stayed for over a decade, while others tapped out after only a year or two of the grind. The youngest guides these days want to be insta-famous, they want credibility without understanding what that word means. Putting your head down, working hard, earning the respect of your fellow guides, toiling long hours, keeping a journal for years, comparing notes with guides who have been there longer and have forgotten more than you will ever know, knowing when to keep your mouth shut, when to listen, these are difficult things for the 20-somethings. When you are cranking up your boat in the howling wind at Mack’s Canyon, and your hands are cracked and bleeding, and you are exhausted after a string of 17 days of guiding, and your clients are sitting in the truck wondering why they didn’t hook a steelhead on their first day of fly fishing - there are no “atta boys!” “great job, today pal!” no trophies handed out for your participation in the sport. Guiding steelhead on the Deschutes is hard and sometimes thankless work. In the toughest conditions, with cold fronts rolling through and winds blowing 20-30, you work twice as hard to give your clients an opportunity. Keep their flies swinging because you know that weather lull will come, and it will only last a moment or two but that moment or two is when the steelhead will turn on, so you better make sure their flies are swinging through good water when the lull comes.

Guiding trout fishing is easier. Going to Alaska guiding meat fishermen swinging flies, or bouncing plastic beads, past millions of salmon is easier. Guiding out of a boat for gullible little John Day bass is easier. Guiding anglers Euro-nymphing for trout is easier. Everything is easier than becoming a good steelhead guide. So few are able to make the cut.

Steelhead fishing is hard and rewards are infrequent, though the rewards are great. If you want to take the easier route, there is no shame in targeting trout this time of year. Sure, the crusty diehard anglers may refer to you as a pedophile, out there targeting trout during steelhead season, but you’re having fun and catching fish. Steelhead fishing, after all, is called steelhead fishing and not steelhead catching for a reason. This year’s steelhead return is one of the lowest returns on record, and that means that there are not that many steelhead in the river. You are lucky to encounter one per day if you put in a solid day of fishing from dawn to dusk. I have spoken with many anglers wrapping up three-day floats to the mouth, multi-day jet boat trips below Macks, and anglers pounding their trucks up and down the access road. Most are fishless, a few hooked a fish or two in three days of guided fishing, many had grabs that they thought might have been steelhead, but overall it has been challenging, more challenging than most seasons.

That isn’t to say that it isn’t still glorious to stand waist-deep in the Deschutes, surrounded by the beauty of the canyon. To hear the descending pew pew pew of the Canyon Wren as the light kisses the tops of the canyon walls at dawn, to see the sentinel Chukar standing on a lookout rock with his chuk, chuk, chuks echoing throughout the canyon, to see a gaggle of turkeys under a riverside alder gobbling away and strutting around like the dinosaurs they used to be, to hear the crack of two jousting rams halfway up the slope of the canyon, and to be exhilarated by a perfect snake roll that sends your fly halfway across the river – these are the things that we steelheaders experience on the water in the half-darkness in our own little worlds. Everything about the FISHING is what makes the steelheading experience so rewarding, and the catching? Well, that is just a bonus and a small reward for the effort, hard work, and perseverance required of a steelheader.

If you sit around and wait for a good report about steelhead fishing, sorry, you missed it. You have to be the one to go out and MAKE the report. You have to tie the fly, make the drive, wake up at the crack, struggle with the wade, get frustrated with the wind, fall and get soaked down to your neoprene booties, get startled by Mr. Buzztail, break a hook point off on a rock behind you, endure a bout of poison ivy, live with raw and chapped hands, get a sunburn, stand in the cold rain, climb down gnarly hills, rip your waders crawling through blackberries, scare yourself shitless rowing a rapid in your drift boat, dirt nap with swarms of flies, and embrace it all for the love of steelhead.

23 comments

  • I t is now fall and with that comes the great memories of fishing for Steelhead and interacting with John and Amy on the Deschutes. It has become a major passion for me. It looks like I must wait another year to return which makes my mind sad. Great writing Amy! I , as always, focus on every word. Thanks for being who you are.

    James Kiker
  • Thank you for the beautiful description of the art and the passion of steelhead fishing! Great photo of you, Amy! When is your book coming out?

    Barb Morgen
  • The description of the hard work that it takes to guide; really excellent prose. Thanks for sharing your thoughts,
    and tips. As an angler, we all need this message, the job of guiding sounds great; but the reality is hard work.
    As a customer we can all appreciate the guide, but if you take a friend fishing who is new to it; I am humbled
    by what a guide does. Giving a new angler a chance to catch a SH is a gift they will not forget. Thanks Amy.

    Bob Beswick
  • Amazing reports/blogs as always Amy! At the ripe age of 19, it pains me to think that the “golden days” of steelhead fishing are long gone, but I have hope in our future steelhead count. To say the least, I want to pick up a spey rod now! Thanks Amy!

    Roberto Ponce
  • I could almost smell the sage brush and feel the breeze on my face as I read this. It’s always a privilege to be able spend time on the Deschutes. I have always appreciated the help and advice at the shop and to the fishing reports when they were available. As you shared, catching a steelhead is an added bonus when spending the day on the river. Thanks for all that you have done and continue to do in making the Deschutes an extremely rewarding experience for those willing to put the time, energy and effort into discovering its many hidden secrets and beauty.

    Chris Cornell

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