Sunday, 1 April 2018

Steelhead Flies

I just counted my boxes of flies. To my surprise, I have 20. Most are dedicated to a particular species, season, or both. Some house multiples of ones I use frequently, and thus break off/disintegrate more often, and I load them into specific boxes for use. If I make 50, it may take several years to go through them all, thus I don’t have to make them constantly.

Then there are those that are unusable. When I first started out, I decided to make a box of Muddler Minnows. When I found I could not spin deer hair, I decided the fly didn’t need the deer hair collar. I made 50 and called them Unmuddlers and thought that rather clever. On the other hand, because I found out they didn’t work, I still have a box of 49 that I will never use – and have never made so many ever again. I tie 3 and the fly has to prove itself before I tie several dozen. The trick is to resist using the third one if they prove wildly successful.

One box I use all the time, is labelled: Summer Steelhead. As you can see, there are flies of several types, not simply summer steelhead. I have caught summers in all 12 months of the year, in freshwater, so this box comes with me on most freshwater trips. I add to it from other boxes.

On the right side are summer steelhead patterns, including some skaters, floaters and backup winter steelhead flies. You will note that some have a guinea fowl feather as the last addition. The purpose is to change the profile of the fly, and thus give you another look when your first choice does not work or has been nipped by a steelhead that isn’t going to get fooled by that fly again.

On the coast, we can use generic patterns because anadromous fish, when they come into freshwater do not know what food looks like for some time, and thus, the fly doesn’t have to represent food, just be something that catches their attention. In moving water, the fly zips by the fish quickly, and if a decision has to be made quickly, the fish snaps after the fly and gobbles it up. In, winter, of course, there may be very little natural food in the water, though for some time, there are salmon eggs and salmon flesh.

Some flies work on both summer and winter steelhead, as well as cutthroat trout. An example would be a generic Popsicle-style fly, which I tie with marabou: red over orange over yellow, with medium sized bead chain eyes added last. Tied on a size 2 hook, these flies seldom hook small trout/smolts, but take larger cutthroat, ‘rainbows’ and steelhead.

The left-hand side of the box has multiple patterns for multiple circumstances. Starting at the top, the pink Muddlers are good on beaches for pink salmon. The epoxy minnow patterns are fished in spring when pink and chum fry are passing out of systems, as well as any system that has sockeye. An example of the latter is Woss Lake and down the Nimpkish, a long system so that minnow patterns work longer, sockeye being Juneish, before coho, chinook and steelhead smolts descend.

When passing through Campbell River, I always stop at the River Sportsman and pick up flies. They make the rather famished looking, snipped down Muddlers for pink salmon; however, blue is a good colour for Dolly Varden and they give discounts for buying in bulk. There are many north Van Isle rivers that have Dollies – look for them in saltwater estuaries before going up into the rivers.

The floaters in the second line of flies are the Goddard Caddis and Tom Thumb. The latter is a good bet for Dollies, and as generic a floater as they come. Keep some floatant in your vest for when you want a dry fly. A brown Muddler with a full collar can be made into a floater in a pinch.

The rest of the left side of the box is nymphs of different colours and sizes, size 4 to 10. On a day when you are fishing steelhead in a system with incoming cutthroat, too, these are very useful. You can change colour and size to match what the fish want. If you expect fish in certain spots of rivers you normally fish, but aren’t getting bites, change colour first, then size. The flies here are white, tan, light brown, brown, black, and all have segmentation and wriggly legs.

Most of the bottom line are stonefly nymphs and they are deadly. I think the reason is that they are big, easy to see and look like food. Note that you should always look at the bottom of the river you are fishing to check on the nymph population. Typically, they are gone by September, and last week, in March, I saw very few, the point being that nymphs cease to work for part of the year, when they are not natural food.

Caddis are the most common, through I have seen Mayflies in February. I am sold on white PMDs as visible a floater in size 10, and of course, it is a hoot when the fish whacks the fly. Dry fly fishing is all about watching that fly, keeping it floating rather than skating, and, on a subsequent float, if the fish hasn’t bitten, teasing it with a short skate or two.

The left-hand side of this second box, a winter steelhead one, is mostly bunny flies with bead chain eyes. Bunny is easy to work with, has lots of body and a wide range of colour – use size 2 salmon hooks, with their nice up-turned eye. To make the fly more visible, make tri-colour bunny flies. As ugly as it may be, red over chartreuse over black is the pattern that works best for me. Make sure before fishing them to take them in your fist, put it under water and squeeze the air out of them several times, then test that the fly will sink before casting it.

All of the colour patterns in the box work on winter steelhead. Think pink, purple and black. And note that in winter, after the rain and silt has scoured algae off the rocks, the water is surprisingly luminous. I think that’s why silver is better for eyes. Gold works better in summer. The two blue marabou flies await late November coho in the deepest part of the soft water.

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