It’s that time of year! Yes, it’s time to pull out the steelhead flies, check the box, and tie a few more. You can never have enough flies! Yes, that statement comes from a fly tyer.
Steelhead Fly Box
Steelhead are moving up the Columbia River and into the Deschutes River. That’s where I’m headed in a week for an annual trip with the boys. I usually try and get there the evening before we head up to North Junction and fish around Maupin at last light and first light.
Deschutes River Sunrise
Whenever I think about fly fishing for steelhead, I think about the Green Butt Skunk.
It’s one of the first flies I tie on. I was friends with Dan Callahan who developed the Green Butt Skunk. Met him in Salem at the YMCA where both of us worked out during the lunch hour. Dan was a good guy and passionate about fly fishing…or more passionate about the rivers through a photographer’s eye. He loved the North Umpqua. And captured beautiful pictures of the Zen he found on the river. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I enjoy swinging the Green Butt Skunk. Every time I tie one on, I think of him and hope he smiles from above…hoping he adds a little mojo to my/his fly.
Steelhead don’t usually eat when they enter fresh water from the ocean. They only have one thing on their mind – get to the spawning grounds. So why to they strike flies? Some say it’s because the fly enters their field of vision and ticks them off. Others say they are curious. Whatever the reason, steelhead actively strike flies and can move long distances to do so. As a fisherman, that’s all I need to know!
Then what fly to use? Big flies, little flies? Bright or dull flies? I’ve heard experts say dull flies on bright days and clear water; brighter flies on overcast days or low visibility water. Or change to a smaller fly if you get a “tap” from a steelhead during the swing.
But other experts I know tell me to fish whatever looks good to you. That’s right. The successful steelhead fishermen I know will say they catch steelhead 75 percent of the time on a specific fly. Why? Because they fish that fly 75 percent of the time! They like the way it looks…like the way it moves in the water…they have confidence in the fly. So fish with a fly you like.
John Shewey is one of those fishermen. I like to use Sheweys Spawning Purple. Just like the color combo and it looks fishy. He fishes it 75 percent of the time and you guessed it, catches 75 percent of his fish on that fly. John is the editor for Northwest Fly Fishing and a prolific author in his own right. I met him while living in Salem as well and took some fly tying classes from him at Rich Younger’s Creekside Fly Shop (sadly, it’s closed). John is into the history of fly fishing, which I appreciate and respect. Among the number of books he has written include a favorite – Steelhead Flies. Check it out for some good tips and patterns.
I’m old school. I enjoy my single-hand rod. I’ve fished single-hand rods for many years.
One of the rods I fish is from Stealhead Joe (Joe Randolph). He sold me his 9′ 6″ Sage Z-Axis 7 wt. several years ago when he started to spey cast. I still use it.
Stealhead Joe Fly Rod
I never steelhead fished with Joe, but he was a legend on the Deschutes! Here are a couple of articles about Stealhead Joe and his mystic:
- Field & Stream magazine article – Life, Death, and Steelhead
- Outside magazine article – The Last Days of Stealhead Joe
I avoided spey casting until last year. Why? I just didn’t steelhead fish that much any more. I’m into Zen fly fishing these days and heard stories about combat fishing…not my thing. Been there, done that. I try to get out a few times because I do enjoy swinging a fly and seeing the toilet bowl flush when a steelhead hits the fly just below the surface. There’s a saying among steelhead fishermen – steelhead are the fish of 1,000 casts. Yup, cast…cast…cast…then WHAM…and the fight is on. The tug is the drug. There’s nothing like it!
But I did try spey casting last year and was lucky enough to hook and play a steelhead and get it within a rod length before it popped off. I was casting a spey rod from an old fishing buddy, Jerry. One of his passions was steelhead fishing. I talk to him on the river too, hoping he would appreciate I was swinging with his spey rod. I could hear him saying “hey buddy, catch one for me”.
So I’ll tie a few more flies to fill the box. And be out on the river soon for a few days of swinging flies for those elusive steelhead. When I tie on a Green Butt Skunk, and I will, I hope Dan will be smiling and help me out. And Steelhead Joe. And Jerry.