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Winter Steelhead

swing    deep greased line    shooting heads    nymphing    the take

 (has applications for any situation where a sunk fly is the preferred presentation. Note that this material originally appeared in my article "Winter Steelhead Rivers" in the May 1999 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine, and is used here with permission)

    To interest a cold water steelhead you´ll need to get your fly on the bottom and keep it there throughout the drift.  Most anglers seem to assume that the sink tip line they are using will get their fly down to the fish, and all they need to do is cast quartering downstream and swing the fly, particularly on the broad drifts commonly associated with winter steelhead. Sometimes this ´sling-it-and-swing-it´ approach will cover the water well enough, but often the fly is swimming too high in the water column to elicit a strike. A better way is to make the initial cast then feed some additional line into the drift, allowing the line and fly to sink. You can feed a few loops of line into the cast by simply letting them slip through your fingers as the fly drifts downstream, but I prefer to use an upstream mend: after the cast, I make an initial mend to straighten out the sink tip, then follow the line with my rod tip as the fly sinks. As the fly moves downstream I´ll make another mend or two, feeding slack line into the drift each time, then continue to follow the drift with my rod tip. Once the fly is deep enough, I allow the line to tighten and the fly to swing around until it stops below me. Then I´ll wait several seconds, and perhaps twitch the fly a few times with either my line hand or the rod tip, before stepping downstream and casting again, because steelhead will sometimes follow a fly around and take it as it hangs suspended in front of them.    top

    Another effective technique is to make your initial presentation more upstream, at a 60-to-90 degree angle to the bank, followed by a mend or two designed to square the cast and allow the line to sink. Follow the line with your rod tip as it travels downstream, keeping just enough tension in the line to allow you to stay in touch with the fly, but not so much that it prevents the fly from getting deep. As the line moves below you and tension increases begin to slowly lead the fly towards your bank, mending if necessary in order to keep the fly broadside to the fish--basically the greased line presentation with a sink tip. As with the quartering downstream cast, wait for several seconds at the end of the swing before you make another cast. This deep greased line method is very effective, particularly in colder water, or in situations where steelhead arenÿýt responding to the deep wet fly swing.     top

    While a properly fished sink tip line will allow you to get a fly deep, nothing beats a full sinking shooting head for putting a fly on the stones, and some anglers are returning to these lines for winter steelhead. The problem with the shooting head, however, is that it is all but impossible to control the drift of the fly because the thin diameter running line will not allow you to move the head when you try to mend. Essentially what you get then is a long cast that you canÿýt effectively control. The best example of this problem occurs when an across stream cast results in a huge belly that causes the fly to fish too quickly once the belly begins to straighten out on the swing. To combat this, skilled anglers avoid casting their heads at an angle greater than 45 degrees. As with sink tips, additional line is fed into the drift to sink the fly, then the line is tightened and the fly allowed to swing.     top

    On smaller rivers, or those with clearly defined holding water, some anglers abandon their sinking lines in favor of dead drift nymphing with a floating line. This technique is incredibly effective in pocket water and near-shore seams, and employs a floating line, long leader, and either a weighted fly, weights on the leader, or both. Most anglers prefer a single-handed rod for this method, but some, like British Columbia angler Mario Govorchin, use the long reach of a Spey rod to deadly advantage. Cast quartering upstream and allow the fly to sink. As the fly drifts towards you, strip in line and/or raise your rod tip, mending as necessary to prevent unwanted drag, and maintaining just enough tension in the line to allow you to detect a taking fish. The fly will be at its deepest point as it passes in front of you. As it moves downstream you can feed additional line into the drift or allow the line to tighten and the fly to swing inshore. As with sink tips, wait for several seconds after the fly has stopped before making another cast. Many anglers employ a variation of this technique by using a strike indicator, which can be anything from the tip of the fly line to brightly colored yarn to a corky placed on the leader. I find that steelhead tend to hold onto a fly longer than resident fish, so the distance between your fly and the indicator isnÿýt as critical, but the old rule of placing the indicator at a distance equal to twice the water depth is a good place to start.     top

    The take of a winter steelhead is often very subtle, so the angler has to be prepared and aware. Sure, sometimes you get the big grab that spins your reel and pulls your rod tip into the river, but often the take will be nothing more than an almost imperceptible tap, a bump, or a subtle tightening of the line. When nymphing with a floating line, youÿýll need to set the hook quickly on the take. This also works with a swinging fly on a sink tip, but many anglers fishing tips delay their strike until they feel the weight of the fish begin to load the rod, then strike sideways with the rod parallel to the surface to ensure that the fly is seated in the hinge of the jaw.