Sunday, 21 January 2018

Winter Steelheading – Part 2

To start, a bit more on weather and water conditions. As mentioned, the murkier, or more blown, the river, the greater the importance of hitting a steelhead on the nose with the lure as the visibility for them can be less than a foot. This means covering good water several more times before moving on. And it makes good sense, when the wading is difficult because of deeper water, to take a float- or drift-boat, to cover more water. And cover water that those on foot cannot reach. You will find untouched fish in these spots because shore anglers cannot reach this water, in other words, you get ‘first water’ where fish have not bitten or been disturbed, much more frequently, and longer in the day.

As for weather, the longer it has been between rain storms, the staler the fish. Water grows clearer the longer it drops and the fish bite far less than on rising or dropping water; they become far more wary, ‘pooled up’ as steelheaders put it, particularly for summer steelhead as the summer wears on. The other part of pooled up is where steelhead come to rest in a deep pool and wait for rain to stimulate them toward spawning. Unbity, to coin a term, they sit and wait out the months until spawning, typically in April for winter steelhead.

The other weather condition is: cold. When it is below freezing and ice is forming in your line guides, steelhead sink to the bottom and will not move to your lure/fly. It really does have to bonk them on the nose. We tend to forget that rivers can be colder than the ocean, which, while cold for humans, is the natural temperature range for salmonids. Rivers can be colder because they have far less water to be cooled off by the cold air in winter than the ocean.

One cold clear day in February, I stood on a tributary of the Gold at a spot that a guide, who was taking me fishing in return for my writing an article on the fishing, said was good. He said there was a fish there and that I would catch it. I just had to keep fishing, in this case gear. A pink worm at sinker level. 

Well, I ran that worm down the run a dozen times, making little adjustments to the downriver ‘slice’, six inches closer to me, or successively further away. I thought there was no chance of catching a fish. About my 40th cast, a nice male winter whacked the worm and the fight was on. Since then I have been a believer about giving the best water more casts before moving on in cold weather. Don’t waste this time on low percentage water though.

On the other hand, anyone who steelheads knows that you don’t stand and cast. You cast, take a step, cast and take a step. Steelhead are plenty aggressive and there is no point wasting your time staying in one spot – they will move to your fly or lure. You have the day planned in advance, of the spots you will try, hitting the highest percentage water first, and then head elsewhere. The point is to get first water, and the more difficult it is to reach a piece of water, the greater the likelihood it will not have been tried by anyone else.

In addition, do remember where you see footprints in the sand. These are places where others know the spot, too. It is important to pay your dues and find other good water spots, and ones where you find no footprints. Also, get to know whether the footprints are new or old. New prints have crisp edges while old ones have softer ones – commonly wind will soften tracks over time. In addition, it is common for the surface to have a different water content than just below it. For example, if the sand/gravel is dry, but you can see a footprint that is in wet sand, that means you are looking at a very recent print, that has gone through the surface into the deeper substrate, but has not yet dried. Similarly, if the sand/gravel is wet, but you find a track with dry material below the surface, then someone is also just in front of you.

Other track features come to mind. If it is raining and the track you are following has no pool of water in it, it is recent. On the other end, if it is no longer raining and the track has water in it, it is likely from yesterday, if it also is a crisp-edged print.

As for trails, anytime you are following a well-worn trail, that means you are moving to a high percentage spot that a lot of anglers know about. The trails on the Cowichan and Stamp come to mind. On the Stamp, for instance, downstream of Money’s Pool, there is more than one track. You go down, as close to the water as possible. The river breaks into boulders, and rock is fishy steelhead water. On the other hand, boulder water is hard on the feet, and awkward wading.

A bit less than a mile down, at Black Rock, the river bears to the left. You fish down a ways, then find the second path back up. It cuts the corner off, and runs through the trees up a side slope back to Money’s. As mentioned, it takes years to find all the paths on rivers you intend to know well and fish often.

Another trail issue is one you use often, but don’t want others to know of it. One essential vest tool is a pair of pruning snippers that fit in a side pocket. You leave the first 50 feet of the trail unclipped, then start clipping growth, which grows back every year, hence the need for clippers. The unclipped portion conceals that there is a good, useful path beyond, and makes it look like no one has used the spot, hence it can’t be good.

I have a few that are as long as three miles. I am left handed, so I carry the clippers in this hand and cut the left-side branches on the way out. On the way back, clippers still in my left hand, I clip off the growth on the other side of the trail; that may add up to as many as 300 in a day, and so it doesn’t take using the path more than a few times and you have taken a thousand twigs out of your face.

Another useful thing to remember, is that you continue walking at all times. Don’t stop to cut off a branch, just take them in stride. If you miss them one day, you will catch them another, and still have gotten to the water you intend to fish before anyone else gets there, and with time in the bank for reaching those second and third bet waters in the same day.

Yet another tip is that you should, over time, investigate all seasonal streams that you pass while walking on a trail. That means on the way back – don’t waste time on the way out – you walk down the stream to where it enters the river you have been fishing. Thus, you know a shortcut to a certain stretch for when the water is too high to wade down the river and can get to high percentage water, that very few other anglers ever get to. 

One final thing: pick up one of those hats that have LED lights in the front brim, make sure the batteries are charged, and wear it on days you will start or end in dark. This commonly happens in the fall, as the days get shorter. The lights keep you from tripping over something and falling, something that can be a bad thing, particularly if there is a broken off branch below you that is hidden in the fern but pointing up at you. You can be impaled in a split second.

Okay, one more final thing: get to know your river, as sometimes, it does not pay to fish a stretch early, particularly in summer. When water is dead calm or before the caddis and mayflies start hatching, which is based on temperature, they will bite less frequently than when a wind has set up to ruffle the water, or the higher temperature has brought fish out in search of food.

Okay, yet another tip: you fly guys should get to know the cycle of insects in your river. Mosquitos and no-see-ums are munching on your arms and face in March, the moment you get out of the car (carry bug spray for this time of year). In your river, caddis-, may-, damsel- and stone-fly hatch at different times. I’ve seen mayflies in January, though that is uncommon. When you see flying insects, your chances with dry flies are higher. But through-out the season, take a look at the nymphs on the gravel and rocks. They tell you what to match. 

And remember that those stonefly nymphs can be deadly because they are the largest nymph you will carry, and in a current, the easier a nymph is to see in the split second it goes by at fish, the greater the likelihood it will get a bite. Note that typically by early September that all the nymphs may be gone and thus there is no point fishing with them. Time to switch to bright, generic flies like marabou Popsicles or fish for salmon.

More next time.

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