September: Muddler’s Month
For a steelhead fly fisherman, September is the dry month – when a surface skated fly is more likely to attract strikes. Later in the fall, when water temperatures drop into the 40s, the chances of a fish looking up begin to diminish. The key to success, aside from checking your thermometer, is simple to say, harder to follow: Keep the faith. You can’t catch a steelhead on a dry fly if you give up on it after a few dozen casts. I think the easiest way to resist the temptation of wet fly fishing in September is to leave your fly boxes in the car, taking only a small selection of dry ones to the river, along with a small wet (more on that bit of sacrilege later).
Cut hair bombers and foam backed Skaters move up and certainly produce, but my favorite pattern is that old standard Muddler Minnow. Why a troublemaker? Because it’s so versatile. Greased and swung down and across the current, the wide, curled deer hair tip causes the fly to cut a V-shaped seam in the surface layer that steelheads find irresistible. Then, also, after you have tied on the fly to the eye of the hook, you can put a half hook on the plug behind the head of the fly. This causes the fly to swim perpendicular to the current, which on some days and for some fish makes all the difference.
As for the color, any color is good as long as it is purple. Put under oath, I would admit that my preference matters more to me than to the fish. This time of the season, they’re fueled by arousal, not hue.
The zenith of the sport is reached when you find what, in steel language, is called “the player”. A player is a fish that will strike your fly smart – only to think better of it at the last second, leaving a hole the size of a bathtub in the river. As long as you can control your heart and resist the impulse to strike until you feel the weight of the fish, it is not unusual for a player to return to the fly three or four times on the same cast, or after several casts. many, for that matter.
I’m thinking of a trail on British Columbia’s Bulkley River that you have to walk on the rail to find. Bulkley is known for surface oriented steelhead, but I’ve never had any luck in the past. That changed when a steelhead boiled after my Muddler, then pulled hard once as I finished the swing. I let the fly hang: No cigar. I did the same cast: Doing nothing. I went up about 20 feet and came down with the aforementioned wet fly – a last tactic that had worked in similar circumstances on other rivers. Not this time. So I continued fishing and an hour later I was back on the tail for one last try.
The purple muddler still looked good and, starting from above, I made my way to the bucket where I had first encountered the fish. This time there was no doubt. The water simply exploded and the steelhead, firmly fixed, bounced again and again on the hard side, toppling like dominoes—if those dominoes weighed 15 pounds and had a purple tin sheen.
Perhaps there is more exciting fishing, but I have circled the globe with a fly rod and have yet to find it.
October: The noise of the freight train
If legend is to be believed, fly ace Randall Kauffman was fishing the Deschutes River when he hooked a steelhead just as a freight train was rumbling down the canyon. The nameless fly he removed from the tip of the big trout was baptized on the spot.
The freight train is one of several traditional steelhead wet flies with a railroad theme. Others include the signal light, coal car and flat car. All have in common a dark grille, sometimes banded over a white wing, with a band of bright color on the rump—chartreuse, hot orange, or both. I’ve fished for steelhead too long to believe that pattern has much to do with success, but fly size, silhouette and color are all related, and a black or purple fly with a splash of color is my first choice when temperatures drop. water start to fall in October.
I’ve fished the Deschutes for years and caught steelhead on the freight train there, but the most memorable encounter the fly rewarded me with was on another big river followed by a rail—Idaho’s Clearwater. I was fishing on Cable Run when I felt a tug. Now, a drag could mean your hook is caught on a leaf, or it could mean a minnow or small trout has caught it. But it can also mean you’ve piqued the curiosity of a steelhead, and in Clearwater, steelhead can reach 30 pounds.
I went right back to the fish – if indeed it was a fish. Nada. I traded the freight train for a shorter flight. There are no dice. Then I broke one of the commandments of steelhead fishing: Never leave the steelhead to find the steelhead. I got up and spent the next two days on the Grande Ronde, a more intimate river with better camping, although the fish are smaller.
Sin aside, it turned out to be a good move. I caught several steelhead, all on the same freight train no. 4, and in the evening I turned on my transistor radio and managed to catch a few innings of the World Series – Boston vs. St. Louis. However, I couldn’t forget the attraction. I fished my last day in Ronde, slept in my gear and got up early with an hour and a half drive ahead of me.
Dawn found me back at the top of the Cable Run with the freight train looking a little bare, attached to a 12-pound top. Cast, cast, cast, cast… As my fly moved closer to the sweet spot where I had felt the pull three days earlier, my hopes rose. I found that my hands had a tremor. This time, there was no pull – just a tearing rip and seconds later, the steelhead was being tossed upstream with the rod tip still pointed down. Time stands still when you hook a steelhead, and once you let it go, the world looks different. This one had almost a yard of pink tape, and I drove seven hours and got home in time to see the Red Sox win their first World Series since 1918. Players would have to wait months for engraved their rings. I already had my price for the season. I put the fly on the cork board above my desk, where it reminds me that all things are possible.
November: Intervention Day
The Intruder is the culmination of an effort by Northwest anglers to create the perfect winter steelhead fly—one with a pulsing action that suggests mass while remaining lightweight and relatively easy to cast. Intruder patterns achieve this by incorporating marabou, fox fur and/or ostrich, which breathe in the water and, just as importantly, displace the water, sending out vibrations that will attract steelhead.
For Intruder anglers, the first month of consequence is November, when the last of the summer fish are going dark and the winter fish, bright as polished silver, are getting their first taste of fresh water. Biologically, winter fish differ from summer fish in that they are sexually mature when they enter the river system and rarely swim more than a few dozen miles before spawning; Summer runs can travel more than 500 miles and mature over several months.
For the angler, what is important to note is that winter fish, held deep in cold water, are reluctant to move for a fly and rarely look up. Fresh from feeding on baitfish and shrimp, they prefer large, bright flies fished deep in the water column and colors associated with either ocean feeding or spawning—pink, orange, red, chartreuse, even electric blue too. My preference is pink with a lavender or purple overlay, although you can’t go wrong with all pink.
That doesn’t mean you can’t catch winter fish on small, pale flies or summer fish on hot orange lures. Nothing in steel is absolute. But if your mantra is Withdrawal is the drugand experiencing a jolting movement is part of what gets you on the river, little compares to a 20-pound chrom with sea lice on its wings snapping a 4-inch fly.
On Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, in a valley covered by giant cedars and choked with ferns that grow as high as your waist, flows a river of legends. Giant steelhead put it on the map. Good looking vampires did too – at least, they did in the movies. I do not remember my cast, and my hand would never touch him, but he was near enough several times that I could see that far-seeing eye that had guided him at the helm of his voyage across the dark Pacific and the twin pits. of the nostrils which, three years later, had unerringly returned him to the river of his birth. When the hook finally pulled, I sat down on a log and just breathed. I knew even then, despite the arrogance of youth, that I would never come close to catching a steelhead to rival him, either in heart or size.
The Intruder’s rear shock was partially routed. I slipped it into the piece of sheepskin in my hat, then, thinking I might return some day, scraped some moss from a hemlock tree and buried the hook in it, as deep as I could work it. It’s long gone now, of course—the rains of the Olympic Peninsula make short work of high-carbon steel—and actually, I never went back to that river.
It flows, like so many now, only in my dreams.
This story originally appeared in the fall issue of Field & Stream. Read more F&S+ stories.