Sinktips for steelhead, the swing is the thingMike & I have had the opportunity to teach literally thousands of anglers the art of steelhead sinktip fly fishing. Twenty seven years on the water will do that.
I certainly do not profess to know the only way to sinktip, but I am pretty comfortable in my approach, so if you are not catching steelhead on the swing, and want to...... read on.
My premise: Steelhead are interested in taking the fly on the bottom or at the surface. Today we will explore fishing the river's bottom. (Flylines catch fish) goes into more depth. Sorry, Poor pun.
You might as well fish where the steelhead are: The steelhead swing presentation really begins in the wade. Many guides fishing bobbers & such, fish from a boat. I have swung flies from a boat, but mostly, it's done from wading. Some rivers wade easy, and others wade so poorly , you are taking your life in your hands each time you walk into the water.
I could probably write an entire article on where and how to find steelhead in the river.....which is the goal of wading but that lead us into the topic of reading water, and that is coming up.
Suffice it to say, traveling steelhead orientate their upstream migration by following current seams as they work their way up the river. For the sake of argument, lets discuss a popular scenario, the pool along a gravel bar. As steelhead migrate up these current edges, how close they travel near shore can depend on water and lighting conditions. If the water runs dirty, like glacial til filled waters of the Queets, steelhead will often hold in really shallow waters with soft currents. Water clarity, day lighting, fishing pressure, substrate (rocks logs and ledges) will all effect where steelhead hold & where they migrate.
When I wade into a pool, I always ask myself the question, "So where will the steelhead be under these conditions"?
I prefer to wade out just deep enough into the river, to be standing in water I can say,” There are no resting steelhead between me and my shore. When the water is high and dirty or first/last light, that can be pretty shallow (providing the substrate is there to hold them) But if the day is bright, especially when the water is clear, and or guys have already fished the pool, I am expecting the steelhead, particularly the large ones, to be holding farther out in the deeper faster river.
My objective is simple. I want to be standing in the river as shallow as conditions permit that will hold a resting steelhead, and still be able to cast into the river, as far and deep as I suspect the steelhead will hold comfortably in the river flows.
A rule of thumb:" Steelhead tend to lay in water, I can't quite see in." In example, at first light, there is very little light penetration. Steelhead should be lying in close to shore. By contrast, If the water visibility is say 5 feet at full daylight, I will assume the steelhead will be laying in or around 6 feet of depth, particularly if the best bottom substrate is in this same region.
I am trying to accomplish several things in my initial approach so this is how I start. After wading into position lets say, at the head of the run. [ A steelhead is always facing upstream so he can breathe, so the fly must pass in front of him.] A big mistake I often observe, is anglers casting as far as they can as soon as they can. Joe angler wades out "into position" and starting peeling all the line off his reel. He cranks up his rod and sends his fly somewhere well out in the currents. Oops.
Presentation is all about covering the water: I call it "working the grid". It is important to realize that a steelhead is pointing upstream. His only goal in life now, is to swim upstream and spawn. In low light (or dirty water conditions) this may find him holding in the riffley soft water at the very head of the pool. Wading Joe often starts too far down the run (especially for summer steelhead looking for well oxygenated water) and casts too far to start his fishing. I may be wrong here, but the best fly in the world isn't going to attract a steelhead that swings in a path twenty feet below the holding steelhead. As I often see clients makes this big cast, I will wade out and ask, "Now you just casted 70' feet away. Are you comfortable that there are no resting steelhead between your rod tip and 70' away? Let’s try it this way."
Rule number one: Fish to the fish. One of the reasons bobber fishing can be more effective, is simply because the angler knows exactly where his fly is all the time. It's under the bobber. Swinging
sink-tips...not so much.
A better approach in swing fishing, is to wade out into position, start your presentation by casting a very short line, let the fly swing in the currents down below you, pull out three more feet of line and do it again. Repeat the process of cast swing, cast swing each time lengthening the fly line, until you are fishing a fly line all the way out to your comfortable distance of cast. Only then do we start stepping downstream. If we can mentally visualize painting the bottom in a series of sweeps, its this "graphing the pool or working the grid", that which allows the fly to methodically cover all the holding water.
Watch your hands:
I am going to break tradition here, but I will explain to you why. It seems the dude thing to do when swinging tips for steelhead, is to hold a loop of line under your finger, while swimming the fly. I would never advocate this and here is why.
We have gone to great lengths talking about improving our fishing by methodically working the grid. When you are holding a bunch of extra line in your hands while swinging the fly, its hard to remember just how much fly line you are actually fishing. One cast you may not make a great cast, so you gather up the extra line, and swing with what you have on the water. The next cast you really find the sweet spot in the cast, and sail the whole line to the other side of the river. Where it might feel good to really crank one out there, what about the grid? The first cast was fishing the fly, in pretty short, but the next cast was way out there. Your graph is left with a pretty big gap in it. Lets look at it another way. The only fly Mr. steelhead is really interested in, is the one that swings out in front of his face. Maybe your short cast wasn't exactly on him yet, but at least it was out in front. Your next cast traveled a lot farther, but likely well downstream of the holding steelhead. Not good. Our goal is to systematically cover all the water in a series of sweeps thus allowing any holding steelhead a chance at the fly.
Working the grid: The better approach is to work your line out, 3 feet at a time, and then keep that distance as you step your way down the pool. I don’t care how far you throw, just do it consistently. You are now working the grid.
Reason # 2
I know there is something romantic about feeling the take of a steelhead, dumping the line into the grab, and coming back into the fish. Unfortunately, what often happens is this: Joe Angler isn't used to the take of a steelhead on a swung fly. He is probably used to trout fishing, and having to "catch him at it". Hence a hair trigger as he sets the hook. Steelhead grabs the fly on a tight line, feels the hook and bolts for the other side of the river. Bites come in all forms from the trout nibble to the body slam, but one thing is in common, when he feels the hook, he will bolt, they always do.
This is where this dumpage is suppose to happen, and I will admit some guys get really good at. Excuse me , but I am not talking to you. I am talking to the guy that is new or relatively new. Mr. new guy feels the jolt of the steelhead, and clamps down on the rod, pinning the flyline to the cork. Line doesn't move, reel doesn't turn, and just like that, the leader snaps and off goes the steelhead.
Here is a much better approach to hook-set for Joe. First, you need a quality reel with a decent drag set. Screw the drag setting down to where the line pulls off the reel smoothly, but a little reluctantly. (The drag set must be less than the tinsel strength of the tippet.) Some guys try to get around this fish breakage thing by telling themselves steelhead are not tippet shy and fish short fat leaders. The heavier the leader strength, the fewer steelhead get broken off. Unfortunately, these fatter leaders also Funny, these are the same guys that swear steelhead won't bite when the light is on the water, How convenient?
Anyway, if Joe angler sets his drag, keeps his hands off the line, he will not only graph a better presentation, but fight a lot more steelhead, because the steelhead will naturally hook himself, as he turns to run away. Try it, it really works.
Ok, so now, you have waded into position, reel drag is set and you are extending your cast. The next item is "establishing your depth."
There isn't a magic potion for this next part. I wrote an entire article on fishing the right fly line for the water condition. [Fly lines catch fish]
Establishing Depth: is a marriage of choosing the right fly, and sinking line for the pool in front of you. If you were to make a golf analogy, it would be picking up the right club to make the right shot.
First lets analyze what it is we are trying to accomplish. Steelhead are generally migrate along the river bottom. Logic would tell us that the closer we can bring our offering (the fly) to the steelhead, the more likely he is to whack at it. Many small fish and bugs in the river environment live around the bottom. Some migrate to the surface, but we for now we will focus on the bottom.
What you need to know is this. Just as there are not many critters that spend life on mid water ranges in lakes, neither do they in rivers. Steelhead know this. Establishing bottom for bobber fishing is a matter of weight and leader length. Establishing bottom in sinktip fishing comes down to the sinking line, leader length, and fly density. Where do most river anglers swim their fly? Mid-water. Not good.
If I were sinktip fishing in low light conditions, in a shallow but cobbly run, I would suspect a steelhead to be holding in pretty soft water. I would probably start out with light sinktip and an unweighted fly. In this particular circumstance, I am litteraly trying to coast my streamer by the steelhead without hanging up my fly on every cast.
On the other hand, if its mid day on the Skagit Mixer and the water is clear, I suspect the fish have moved out into the heavier water, to avoid the onslot of anglers parading throught this popular pool.If I were to fish this pool at all, I would choose a heavy line, heavy fly, because holding steelhead would be found in the deeper, heavier flows. I need to get the fly down.
A question I get all the time is, "So what line should I choose for fishing XYZ river?
This is what I recommend. I would choose a multi head system. I would want a light, a medium and a heavy sinking tip, all around 15' length.
Flies: I think guys get way to hung up on flies but here is my thoughts on that
(Flies for steelhead)
I want some unweighted, some lightly weighted and a few heavily weighted flies for sinktiping. Bugs & fish found along the bottom all wiggle, so I want my bottom searching flies to have wiggle, but won't foul.
Back to presentation:
Anytime I am sinktipping shallow, I generally cast well downstream on a tight line. This will accomplish two things.
1) I keep my fly off the bottom because the tight line well downstream does not allow for any extra sink-time.
2) Quartering my cast well downstream will also pass the fly slowly in front of the resting steelhead. These are not trout. It has been my experience the longer the fly stays in Mr. Steelhead's space, the more likely he will be inclined to move it out of there.
So lets change the scenario. Skagit clear water, big pressure day.
Now, I choose my heaviest line and heavy fly. I change my angle of cast across-stream until I am casting nearly perpendicular to the other shore. Why not just cast farther upstream? Its vitally important the fly is the first thing the steelhead sees. if I cast the sinking line upstream, once this line has entered the water, I can't mend it out. I dont care if you practically bonk the steelhead with your fly in the process, of the first think he sees is that big thick rope (flyline)coming downstream at him, he is going to get out of the way. The second thing he is going to do is not bite. Its just the way it is.
So now that you have casted out and across, but you realize after a couple casts your fly still isn't reaching the bottom. What do you do?
In bobber fishing you would do things like, add more weight, angle farther upstream, maybe even reach or tuck cast. In sinktipping the answer is the mend. Physics say, if a weighted object in a river flow is released from tention it will sink. Mending on a slack line, is creating an organized slack on the water to allow your fly to sink to the bottom. The longer the fly is allowed to slack line, the farther and faster it will sink.
Back to the fish: We want the fly to come near the bottom holding steelhead, but not crashing into the rocks. A terminology I often use is, "tink but don't clank". The ability to fish your fly near the stones but not lose all your flies is what I call, "Watermanship". I am convinced the reason more anglers don't fish tips for steelhead is because they have never taken the time to learn how. In the early days of my youth, guys spent most trout days fishing wetflies, and dries because they were a bit intiminated by this nymph fishing stuff. Today the forgotten art of wetfly fishing is just making a comeback. Sad because its really a fun way to fish.
Ok, we can make a cast and put the fly down to the stones, how do we know if somewhat is too much? Easy, you will hang up a few flies. I can always tell when and if an angler is getting his fly down. I will ask, So are you touching bottom? If he says," I think so", I know that he is not. If he answers, Yeah, I have had to resharpen already." I know he is getting down.
Low & slow:
You will hear lots of talk about an aggessive steelhead plowing after a fly, but for every kamakazi steelhead who happens to be out there, there is a hundred who would bite just fine, if you could just bring it in slowly close to him. The last time I checked, we were still trying to just get this big fish to put it in his mouth.
So now you have made the cast, made the mend, here is a trick to slow the fly down even more.
The Walk Down: After you have cast and mended, the dude thing to do is to simply rotate your rod out on fromt of you and let the line catch up. A much better approach is to finish your mend(s) and leave your rod tip high above your head pointing across stream at the sky. Leave it there. Allow the flyline to slightly pull down with the currents, then quietly lower the rod in a downward arch, almost like you are lowering the fly into the swing. This move allows the fly to travel in the swing as slowly on the origin, as it does as it tails out below.
I recommend lowering the rod tip until it is almost at water level as it tracts the line downstream. Should a steelhead grab, the rod is pointed down the line and the drag of the reel hooks up. [Cold water takes]
Remember, You are the pivotal point so how far you are standing out in the stream will determine how close to shore the fly will tract. Caution: Steelhead love to follow so be sure to allow the fly line to coast to a stop before lifting the flyline off the water for another cast. We call this the "hang Down". Up to 90% of my dirty water steelhead will be hooked in or near the hangdown position.
*Flat to fast
Steelhead holding water: Much has been discussed about steelhead and where they lay under varying water conditions.
Hotels & Living rooms: The first thing you have to wrap your head around is steelhead are not living there. Where a Big Hole river Brown might spend his whole life around that sunken log, a migrating steelhead is doing just that, migrating through. Every pool is just a hotel along the way. Your job is to distinquish between the Four Seasons Hotel and the vagabon Inn.
Holding water is only relative: Every river has their own character. Some rivers such as the lower Stilly has a limited amount of rocks. Large woody debris makes up much of the holding substrate.By contrast, the canyon section of the Olympic Peninsula's Sol Duc is one big friggin boulder garden. It has so much rock to it, you better know where the crim-de-crim is or you are going to waste you time fishing water with no fish, Same with the Grande Ronde river in eastern Washington. The point: "Holding water is only relative to the water around it. Never spend your time time fishing water here, when the water over there has better; rocks, depth and flow. Steelhead find these spots like magnets.
Just when you found all the answers, they change all the questions: Rivers change. Its a course of life. Some rivers change little. [ I fish some of the same pools on the Ronde that I have fished for some twenty five years.] Some rivers change a lot. If you spend your time on the Sauk river, and happen to stumble upon a sweet spot,you better fish the heck out of it because the next rain could wash it out, and that is that.
Reading water: In my estimation, gravel bars read the easiest.
Flat to fast: I look for gravel bar pools where the water at shore is flat with little to no current. as the river breaks over the bar it naturally courses along side creating a current seam where the moving water moves along side the slack water. Hense, flat to fast. My next observation is is to look at the shoreline itself. If its all sand, I will assume the pool is too, I don't care how classic it looks. However, Ocassionally, these sandy pools will have a log buried in them or a rock ledge, or errant rock. These become steelhead stoppers if there is no better waters in the vacinity. I like to check them out when the water is low and clear. Lousy fishing but great for scouting.
Sneeky Me: I used to manufacture my own pools by deep sixing bigger rocks from my raft, floated in from upstream. Deadly.
Holding water in rivers that refuse to change is another breed of cat: The upside is; if you find a sweet spot, it will probably be a fish holder, until it finally changes. The down side is unless you know these spots intemently well, they would be easy to pass up. Some of my favorite lies on the Ronde are no bigger than a card table. It probably took me 5 years to feel comfortable, I could put Grande Ronde clients consistently into fish.
[Cold water takes]
Watch your step:
Working the grid: Now you are casting, mending, tracting the fly to the hangdown. The only thing left is methodically working your way down the pool. Some guys fish with a wading staff [me] , while others like my son like studds. The only thing will say on that is whatever you use, wade quietly. Sound carries 8 times better under water and I want the steelhead to be focused on my fly not some noise rumbling down their pool.Fishing strategies
I seldom fish the whole pool. The better I know the holding water the more likely I am to concentrate on the sections we have consistently taken fish. Early season on the Ronde, I might fish most everything. By late season, I will be skipping all the places that simply have not held fish that year, and focus on the sweet spots we have.
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