During the last year I have talked with a number of steelhead fly fishing guides in the Pacific Northwest about what is the most important thing that they would like their clients to better understand. What I found during these discussions was that a majority of guides and outfitters wished that more of their client especially the clients new to steelhead fishing were more aware of the reality of steelhead fishing. The reality of steelhead fishing is that they even under ideal conditions they are difficult to catch. I have put together a little more information that can hopefully set the groundwork for the reality of being a steelheader. In no way is this information meant to deter anyone from booking a trip or expedition with a steelhead guide, if you're intrigued, I say go for it!
More often than not a successful steelhead anglers have a combination of the following attributes; very flexible schedules, close proximity to watersheds that steelhead may inhabit, and the drive to fish in in extreme conditions. Folks with these basic things going for them will more than not have a better chance in hooking and perhaps even landing a steelhead on any given day.
I want to lay out this road map and highlight the profile of the so called "steelhead bum" because the majority of us, including myself we don't nor want to check all these boxes and qualify for this infamous title. It could be other hobbies, priorities such as family and our careers that divert us away from this righteous pursuit. This bleak path down gravel roads and long cold days of "no love", is not for the faint at heart but we can all still take pride in the fact that there is still an opportunity we could call ourselves steelheaders.
Even with the future of of steelhead and salmon around the country facing the reality of a population crashes and an ever growling list of impending threats there are still plenty of opportunities where an angler can legitimately pursue wild steelhead year around. The key word in that last sentence is pursue, defined as; strive to gain, seek to attain, to practice. The pursuit does in no way guarantee success and that is an important thing for people that are new to or are interested in steelheading should keep in mind.
I have broke you down, now let me give you a hand and help you back up. Here is a list of priorities that you should seriously consider taking into account before embarking on your next steelhead fishing adventure.
1) If you can get into a pair waders without losing your breath and are able to both get yourself in and out of a boat and scramble down steep overgrown banks to the river's edge without having a heart attack you might have a chance of hooking a steelhead.
2) If you are standing in a known steelhead river, and have your line in the water attached to a strong and sharp hook (preferably barbless fly) you have made it halfway there to hooking a steelhead.
3) If the river water your standing in is clear enough to see your boot laces at knee deep, and the water temperatures are between 32 and 68 degrees fahrenheit your chances of hooking a steelhead are gaining.
4) If you are poised at the top of a "walking paced run" that has any kind of structure and substrate character beyond a sandy flat, your chances are looking up. If you waded into this position without falling in the water or making a significant racket you should be smiling in anticipation!
5) Now your in the "spot" take a deep breath, and most importantly start fishing the water basically under your rod with a short flip of the line from the rod, as you swing your fly in this water and cover it, gradually let out additional line from your reel. If you can cast your fly avoiding any and all snag behind you on the bank and swing the fly through the water on a traditional down and across presentation, you should consider your glass "half full".
6) If you can visualize the pace, speed, and depth that your fly is fishing throughout your entire swing your chances of hooking a steelhead are getting better.
7) If you can imagine where the steelhead is swimming/holding in the river and adjust your flies pace, depth and direction to best present the offing to that spot then you just might get lucky enough to trigger a steelhead to strike your fly.
8) If you are to feel sensation through your fly line that could be described in the range of a pluck or grab to the extreme of a tug or jolt, you might have a been honored with a steelhead hookup.
9) If you are still reading this and are lucky enough to have hooked a real live steelhead, keep your free hand away from the spool of the reel until after "the shit has hit the fan" and don't drop your rod in the river out of sheer terror. Now at this point if you were smart and planned to make the most of this steelheading experience you'll have a professional steelhead fly fishing guide behind you or at the least maybe a buddy nearby to help coach you through what is about to happen next and to also share in the glory of possibly landing this majestic creature that has taken your fly. Tail or net the fish in some slower shallow "soft" waters once you're able to reel it in, then if you choose quickly snap a humble #keepemwet photos and admire its beauty for a second or three. Because just as the steelheads many monikers imply (Ghost, Unicorn, Silver Dragon) they are rare and do not like to be captured therefore will shoot off back into the depths of the river where they came from to go back on their journey upstream to meet their destiny.
10) Now high five your buddies, take a slug of whiskey to calm your nerves. Sit on a rock, dry your hands off and if you have a chance to experience this all over again during the same day, tip your guide fat, and or buy you and your buddy a lottery ticket because it's your lucky day!
Our fleeting steelhead populations face a myriad of obstacles and threats throughout their lives and the true reality of being a steelheader is that if you even have the chance to hook and land one fish in an entire day on the river you are ahead of the game and should be extremely happy with the fruits of your labors.
Thanks for reading, let me know if you want more information how your can become a "realistic steelheader" and stay tuned for Emergent Expeditions to present a carefully curated set of steelheading expeditions for our clients to experience over the coming weeks and months.