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        Guided Fly and Spey Fishing Trips for Steelhead and Brown Trout with    

Fish Lake Run Outfitters  



Putting Together an Early Fall Swing Box

Posted on September 1, 2021 at 2:10 PM Comments comments ()

Everyone wants to connect with screamer early run steelhead like this one

Well, I've been hearing reports of steelhead already pushing into the creeks for the last few weeks. Not numbers but a fish here or there. Please leave those fish be until the weather gets more appropriate for fishing. Catching one right now is likely a death sentance in all but the most unseasonably cool of temperatures. But it does get my thoughts turning to one of my favorite topics- early run steelhead fishing.

As the month of September marches onward and temperatures cool, the true beginning of fall steelhead fishing will occur. And I can barely wait. Each year I just get more and more amped for the start of fall steelhead. The last week of September and first couple weeks are my absolute favorite time to fish. For those who have been following this page for a while, you already know my reasons for it. But one thing I've been thinking of recently is the difference between my early boxes and even boxes that I will use mid-late October and onward. So I thought I'd write a piece on it.


One thing I enjoy doing a fair amount is to critically think through a question that may have a multi-factored answer. It's kinda a mental exercise, and I think it also helps develope a better understanding of the sport and the fish in general. So why would an early fall box be different? The obvious answer is that the conditions are different- most years those first weeks of the season are spent fishing to lower, clearer, and warmer water than even a few weeks later. And this affects the fish. But a large factor in my answer to the question is also one that I think a lot of anglers may overlook. The fish themselves are different.

In the context of west coast classifications of summer and winter steelhead, those first fish that enter the river in late September and early October would be considered summer run fish. These are fish that undergo a significant amount of maturation in the river itself, verses fish that towards the later fall and winter that usually enter either fully developed or very close to fully developed for spawning. One of the most telling things that a female steelhead is physically capable or closely capable of spawning is the external development of the egg depositor cone extending from the cloaca. Many female steelhead taken later in the season, November and December, have a pronounced egg depositor. Even late run steelhead that are perhaps only a day or two or less from the lake can have this physical development. I have yet to see an early October steelhead, not including fish that are obviously of domestic rainbow stock, with the same physical development. The lack of this in early run steelhead is significant because, again, it suggests that entry of the fish occurs prior to full maturization.

This mid-December fish from last year still had tail shine, meaning that at most she was 24-48 hours from the lake. Yet if you look closely you can see the clearly developed fleshy egg depositor cone above the anal fin extending outward. 

Since spawning is not as immediate a concern for these early run fish, they appear to be more inquisitive towards their surroundings and more susceptible towards a wider range of spey fishing techniques that require a fish to move farther, even vertically, to take an offering.

The other relevant factor that I believe plays into difference between early run fish and fish returning later in the fall is that I believe early run fish have a higher proportion of wild fish in the predominate river system I fish in the fall. Though I lack the ability to formally test this, and my conclusion is based largerly on circumstantial evidence, this theory does make sense to me. What I base my theory on is that very early in the season, usually the last weeks of September and first half to two-thirds of October the pods of fish I find mid-river have a very high, and sometimes complete, porportion of fish with perfect fins. Sometime around the last week of October this changes.

After about the end of October, we begin to pick up high amounts of fish with visible and obvious signs of fin wear or erosion. If hatchery fish made up the same proportion of early run fish as they demostrably do of later run fish, even only a few weeks later, based purely on visible signs of fin wear, then I would expect that the percentage of early run fish with visible fin wear or erosion to be the same or similar to the percentage we see later on, again starting only some couple weeks later. It simply is not. In late September and early October, we see very high proportions of fish with perfect fins that we catch mid-river.

There are some questions I have regarding my theory that wild fish make up a disproportionately larger percentage of early run fish. Perhaps it is the location that I take my samples- I am usually fishing higher up in the system and so it could be possible that both wild and hatchery fish enter the river in similar proportions throughout the season but wild fish simply move up the river quicker, etc. However the result at any rate is the same: early on I believe I am fishing to higher proportions of wild fish. And that conclusion makes sense to me as well. There may be an ecological benefit of wild fish returning early and/or running the river quickly, not the least of which would be first access to high quality spawning habitat.

Again, how this really matters to me is that wild fish are absolutely more aggressive and will move farther to take a fly. So as you are constructing your early fall box, don't forget to consider the reasons why that box might look different than one with your trusty November patterns in it.   


Okay, so maybe I've been misleading you. I do not have a single early fall box. I have several based on anticipated techniques that I enjoy employing early in the fall: baitfish box; floating line streamer box; and dry fly box. But to get the point across, I'm just going to pretend they're all in one large fly box and discuss why there is a useful purpose for each.


Baitfish patterns are all around producers of steelhead, early fall included. Though it is a good idea to have a few colorful attractor baitfish or streamers with you for the days when the water is higher or more colored, for the normal early fall conditions of lower and clearer, my baitfish patterns are reflective to those conditions. They're usually smaller, usually drabber. I make use of many earthy tones- olives, tans, quiet yellows. I also like mutued whites with accents of colors such as chartruese or pink. Here are a couple:




These are patterns that can be fished either on a light tip, such as a slow sinking poly, or simply sent out there on a floating line with a longer leader and using the small weighted eyes to get down. I don't classify them as "floating line streamers" because I'm still getting these down in the column even when I'm fishing them on a floating line which I tend to do a fair amount especially when the water is low and clear. Remember, even some of the deepest holding spots in low flows might only be in the ballpark of three or four feet at early fall flows. This means in the early fall when fishing these on a floating line, even if they're riding two feet or so under the surface they're definitely still in the danger zone. 

Floating Line Streamers

Okay so the difference I make between fishing baitfish on a floating line and "floating line streamers" is just how high up the column I anticipate fishing them. Floating line streamers in most cases are smaller streamers that the majority of the time I anticipate fishing in the upper half of the water column if not even in the upper foot or so. These are usually more traditional-type patterns tied on single salmon hooks or light wire hooks, and include things like my small bunny speys, muddlers, hairwings, etc. Here are a few of my favorites:




These are flies that I anticipate fishing very high up off the bottom, sometimes all the way up to the surface film or even surface proper for the muddler. I am asking the fish to move a distance for them. The reason they are useful is that unpressured fish this time of year are aggressive fish if you can avoid spooking them. These are smaller patterns that are more discrete on delivery and can get to a fish that might otherwise have been spooked by the aggressive delivery of a larger, more gaudy pattern on even a light sinking tip. The vast majority of my early run fish are taken with this method, and using the weight of the hook and line management alone to determine depth that I am fishing at.

Some final bits of advice- when we swing we are used to pinching the line against the cork on the rod. When I'm swinging these, it's usually on 3x. Do not pinch the line or you will break off your aggressive takes. Just let a fish slam it from the reel. It's an odd sensation not holding the line. But it's super cool when your reel just starts screaming at you out of the blue.

Dry Flies

Finally, the dry flies. Make sure you have at least a couple in your box. There are some days where the only fish we see is a fish that rolls on a dry. But most of the time these come into play with the following scenario: we're having a great day fishing to a good pod of aggressive early run fish. The fish are willingly taking traditionals or wets on the floating line well off the bottom all the way to the point that they are boiling the surface with the take. So we listen to them and after a while toss a bomber or foam waker on. Somewhere down the pool it just gets annhilated. Sure we could have stuck with the streamers way up off the bottom and probably caught fish. But it is days like this that pose legit shots at hooking a wild, early run steelhead on a waked or skated dry fly were we werent fishing to cornered fish in a tiny bucket of water. That's the real shit. These are the days we live for and that we remember forever. My last day like that was October 21, 2017.  

That's not to say that I don't spend a significant time when I'm out by myself fishing the dry blindly. I do. But my best days with it are usually days we found the fish first (or already knew where they were) and then switched over. Either way, throw a few dries in your early season box because- well fuck it you never know. It's steelheading. Good patterns are bombers, oversized caddis, and foam wakers. You would not be out of place to put muddlers with dries as well, particularly smaller ones you want to fish on a hitch. Tube flies can be good waking flies as well. Here are a couple of mine:




So hopefully this helps. It can be intimidating putting together a gameplan for early season. Often times the tried and true patterns that may catch the bulk of your fish later in the season just do not seem to produce as well early in the run, or only have limited applications such as first and last light or periods of higher water that carries color. That's normal. Make the adjustment, and maybe you can put a few extra fish on the board early on when the conditions might not be as "prime" for the spey game. Who knows. It might even become your favorite time of the year. It sure has for me.

Tight Lines and Here's to a Great Upcoming Season

  - D

Night Mousing

Posted on July 2, 2020 at 9:45 AM Comments comments ()

Kyle with a recent moused up brown 

Fishing your favorite trout stream at night is a totally different experience. It's dark. There are strange noises around. You get that eerie feeling where the hair on the back of your neck stands up like all the time. The bushes are awfully close. Frustration can run higher than normal when fishing in the daylight. But the trade off is that the biggest fish in the stream will feed under the cover of darkness most of the time. And if finding out what exactly your trout stream has as far as big fish in it is your goal, then fishing at night is the best way. And there is no way more exciting and straight up awesome as tossing a mouse around. Here are some tips to get you started.

Fish the small streams
While big rivers certainly hold big trout that feed at night, they tend to spread out over large distances under the cover of darkness. This means that you may fish an entire stretch of big water and shown your fly to exactly zero big, feeding trout. Small streams concentrate fish near adequate daytime cover. Find a good short stretch with a few deep pools and fish the water around them. Plus smaller streams with better canopy will have better water temps than the big drainages over the summer when night feeding occurs. Finally it is safer. Wading at night is challenging and big water can get you into trouble if you aren't intimately familiar with every stone on the bottom. So if your goal is to find big trout at night, target small water (10-30 feet wide) and you will be surprised to see the size of the trout that come out of it.

Tailor your fly to fish present
Browns eat differently than rainbows. Rainbows chase, nip, and turn on the fly making mouse flies with trailing stinger hooks very effective for hooking up. Browns broadside center mass of a mouse. It is a T-Bone attack. Mouse flies with a standard mid-body hook result in more hookups.

Wait to feel weight
Just like swinging for steelhead on a spey rod, you can't set too soon. There must be weight on the line. Many times a fish will miss on the first attack only to come back a second or two later. If you set on the first attack (and trust me you will hear it) you pull the fly from the fish (best case scenario) or sting him and put him down (worst case). Wait until the line is tight and set firmly upwards.

Use heavy leaders
I use twenty pound maxima. You want to be able to pull that fly out of the bushes when you send a shitty cast sailing into them. Plus you want it to hold up to a violent attack and then be able to muscle in a two foot trout that isn't too pleased about having a hook in its mouth. Twenty pound maxima.

Take no chances
Fishing at night is not the time to be stupid. There's never really a good time to be stupid on a river or creek, but of all the times night is the worst. Know the water you are fishing, your entry route, exit routes and any emergency pull offs if you do get into trouble. Browns like log jams and the water around them. You do not want to end up underneath one at night.

So if you're really looking for trophy trout, check out your local stream at night. Looking at the weather, the next few weeks isn't gonna be the time to do it. But when the heat passes and the creeks cool off again, the trout will be hungry. Get out there and fire some mouse patterns to the bank. This time of year, with the colder water they possess, the little streams throughout the region will give up some surprisingly big trout if you ask them the right way.

Tight Lines,

 - D 


Tying the Ry-Snack

Posted on April 6, 2020 at 10:30 AM Comments comments ()

We just love big, wild brown trout. Like this one.

Which is why we tie and fish things like this- the Ry-Snack.

There's simply no other way to say it. Big, wild brown trout are different. While it's fun to catch a bunch of those 8-14" fish, to truly see what your local wild trout stream or river holds, you need to be approaching the game with a different strategy. Enter the Ry-Snack. Named after fellow guide and pattern originator Matt Rysak, this pattern has moved more trout between 18 and 25+ inches than all other patterns I fish... combined. It is a super variable fly that can be tied as either a single or a double. It can be toned down to more subtle and smaller as conditions require. But any we fish it, it is a fish getter. So here's how to tie it.

Step 1: Tie your stinger hook with a yellow marabou feather and a brown marabou feather stacked. (If you're tying on a single hook, ignore this step and do it in step 3).

Step 2: Set up your streamer hook. Tie eyes on the top of the hook so it ride point up. I also heavily weigh the top side with about 8" of .020 or .030 wire layed back and forth on the top.

Step 3:  Tie the stinger hook to the streamer hook. I like to tie the hook points opposite. When I tie the stringer on to the streamer hook, I use 20 lb dacron braid, but any semi-stiff, heavy braid will work.

Step 4: Tie rubber legs, a yellow hackle feather, and brown chenille just above the bend.

Step 5: Wrap the chenille up to the eyes. Palmer the hackle feather through it. Tie in a second set of rubber legs.

Step 6: Tie a tuft of yellow marabou right behind the eyes.

Step 7: Tie a clump of brown Australian possom fur under the eyes and mold into a head.

Step 8: Tie a clump of black laser dubbing over top the eyes to finish the head. Then fish the hell out of it.

Looking for big, wild browns is always a challenge, but it is a fun one. The reason this pattern catches so many fish for me and the people I fish, is that it is the first pattern I tie on in the morning and I am almost always fishing at least one of my guys with this out of the boat at all times. Brown and yellow is a proven trout killer. So if you're looking to head out to your local wild trout fishery and see just what lurks in the depths out there, pound the banks, the logjams, hit the structure. One day, maybe today, you will see a legit monster. Whether that is an 18-20" fish out of a deep logjam pool where the brookies have noticably disappeared from over the last two or three years, a 22-24" fish out of the river nearby where the locals float tube down in the summer, or the 26-27" + fish out of the waters of the Allegheny or other true trophy trout waters, this pattern might introduce you to your best wild stream trout.

See what's out there! 


Destroyer Fly Tying Demo

Posted on March 22, 2020 at 9:10 AM Comments comments ()

Finished product

We simply call this pattern the Destroyer. And for good reason. It catches everything. It is my go-to lake run brown pattern, a great clear water steelhead pattern, catches the shit out of the lake run smallmouth, loved by stream trout here in the lower 48, and is an excellent AK trout pattern fished either on the swing during the smolt emigration or dead-drifted during the flesh hatch due to the tan and peachy color scheme. That's why we call it the Destroyer. It destroys.

Check out what's hanging out of this lake run brown's mouth. Yep, you guessed it. Same fly tied with a bit heavier eyes.

And this one.

Need I say more?

This pattern is tied out of a string leech template. However I've made some tweaks to the system that really shine. Most string leeches tied with rabbit strips tie the stinger hook directly to the end of the rabbit strip. This creates great movement in the water, but means that you can't change out the hook when it gets bent out or dull. The fly is done. How can this be overcome? You want the movement, but also the ability to trade the hook out. When I tie string leeches, I tie about 1/8" of tubing on the back of the bunny strip and pass the dacron loop through it. I can change out the stinger and still have the weight of the stinger hook adding movement to the bunny strip. Check out the fly tying instructions for the Destroyer below.

Step 1: Start with about a 3" strip of barred tan and olive or tan and brown bunny strip. Tie in a small piece of junction tubing all the way at the back.

Step 2: Set up your hook. Tie a dacron loop onto a cutter hook (one that you will cut just above the bend when the fly is done). Tie in your weighted eyes.

Step 3: Tie your bunny strip in just above the bend.

Step 4: Tie in a 4" strip of polar chenille and 4" strip of peach cactus chenille.

Step 5: Wrap the peach cactus chenille up to the weighted eyes, tie off and clip any extra. Palmer the polar chenille up to the weighted eyes, tie off and clip any extra.

Step 6: Fold the bunny strip forward over top of the chenille, tie off just behind the eyes and clip off any extra.

Step 7: Wrap a collar just behind the weighted eyes of bunny fur spun in a dubbing loop in the same color as the strip and tie off.

Step 8: Tie in a head of tan UV ice dubbing and tie the fly off.

Step 9: Pass the dacron loop through the tubing at the end and pass through the eye of the stinger hook, snug the eye of the stinger hook into place inside the tubing to hold it and clip the cutter hook off just above the bend.

Step 10: Catch all the fish anywhere.

Agent Orange Tying Demo

Posted on March 15, 2020 at 12:25 AM Comments comments ()

Finished Agent Orange

Realized it's been a minute since I did a tying demo. Figured with the prior post, I'd do a pattern for swinging in off colored water. This fly is a staple for swinging when the viz is low.

Step 1: Set up the hookshank- tie in your stinger loop and weighted eyes. Notice I double the intruder wire back and tie it down.

Step 2: Tie in about 3 1/2 inch yellow/barred fluoro orange rabbit strip reversed about a quarter-inch behind the eyes.

Step 3: Tie in fluoro orange polar chenille at the rear of hook.

Step 4: Tie in UV yellow cactus chenile and wrap it up to the bunny strip.

Step 5: Palmer the polar chenille through the UV cactus chenille and up in front of the bunny strip.

Step 6: Tie in chartreuse crinkle flash.

Step 7: Reverse tie in black craft fur and fold over the body of the fly.

Step 8: Tie in a pair of jungle cock cheeks.

Step 9: Tie in black laser dubbing behind the eyes, tie off, and brush out, glue off, catch steelhead. 

Swinging the cold and dirty

Posted on February 24, 2020 at 7:35 PM Comments comments ()

Jeff swings to highly stained water

Everybody has "those days." You walk to a river that glistens that perfect color, and flowing with ideal temperature. Your passes through the runs are rewarded, sometimes heavily. It seems that you can do no wrong, and you catch fish seemingly at will. Those are the days you talk about, the ones you tell your buddies about over beers or glasses of whiskey. If you haven't yet experienced a day like that swinging, you just haven't been at the game long enough. It will happen. But most of the time the fish gods aren't quite so generous, and just as often as not you walk down to a river with the simple goal of determining whether or not the color falls within your own range of fishability.

The steelhead in our rivers here are present through the seasons that also coincide with some of the worst weather of the year, and rain, sleet and snow can all spike and stain the flows. For the lucky few of us, a day or two of dirty water is just that- something to wait out and hit as it's dropping and clearing. But for most of us, time is a valuable resource, so the game becomes making the best of the time you have. So before you walk back up from a muddy river, dejected at the sight of chocolate stained and cold water, here are some things that can help you overcome the obstacles and maybe even put a fish on the board.

FIND YOUR OWN CUT OFF. My cut-off for fishability might be different from yours. Determining your bottomline should be the first thing you do, and it can even be done for specific rivers. What I like to do is try to remember what the approximate visibility for the fish I caught out of the system at the dirtiest flows and then subtract an inch or two. This usually leads me to making a cut-off of between 8 and 10 inches. Why I like to fish water dirtier than what I've ever caught a fish in? Two reasons. It keeps me learning, and I have the genuine belief that fish really do see much better, even in highly stained water, than we give them credit for.


Remember, steelhead will be near the bottom looking up through the water towards a light background. This means that our perspective of standing looking down into the river is obviously not the perspective the fish get. Water with 10-12 inches of visibility can fish surprisingly well when fish are present.

CONTRASTING COLORS. Everybody has their own thoughts on color schemes to match the day's conditions- bright colors for bright days, dark colors for dark water, natural colors for clear water, the list goes on. I don't know of a single rule in steelhead fishing that never fails, fly schemes included. But there are certainly some trends that have proven productive over the long term. In cold and heavily stained water, I like big profile with contrasting colors. For anyone who has ever pulled plugs for salmon, a fire-tiger in heavy sediment is a producer. Translate that to steelhead on the swung fly. Color schemes of black, chartreuse, and orange are some of my most productive flies in heavily stained water.


A good indication that a fly is a hunter is when you drop it in the water near your feet and it just glows. I don't know how else to put it other than that, but when you see it you'll know. Start messing around with heavily contrasting colors with brights and darks, keep the profiles big but the fly sparse enough that it sinks well. I like reverse tied craft fur with the under fibers stripped out. It cuts through the water but the reverse tie puffs it out and makes it pulsate in the water.

FISH WHERE THE FISH ARE. It's cool as hell to send bombs across the river and touch a fish way out there. As spey anglers, the casting is very much a large part of the process. But casts don't catch fish. Proper presentation matched to the right water does. K.I.S.S. Keep it simple stupid? Well kind of. Keep inside and short. Don't overthink it. If there's ten inches of visibility, then any depth more than that is adequate to cover and conceal a fish, plus shallower water offers better light penetration. Fish see better.


If there's one piece of information that I think is key, it is concentrate hard on the inside. When I fish dirty water like over the weekend, I find the casts I make are roughly half the distance as those I'd make if I were fishing the same water in clearer conditions, and we hook good numbers in water between 1.5 and 2.5 feet of depth.The inside of runs, the soft water shoulders, the casts that might only put you out the distance of the shooting head or less are the money spots. Fish them well.


Fish use these softer water places. In dirty water, they pull off to the side, plus these are the running lanes. If someone forced me to swim up a river, particularly in cold and dirty flows you can bet your boots I'm going to be swimming up it as close to shore as I possibly can. It saves energy. Fish do the same thing, and stained water is migrating water. If you're casting to those mid-river buckets that fish well in ideal conditions then you probably are casting, and fishing, beyond the fish.

DREDGE THE SHIT OUT OF IT. Steelhead hug near the bottom under most conditions, and in clearer high water fishing a light tip on the inside is effective. But in cold, dirty water, the fish might as well be in contact with it and you should be bumping it a little more frequently too. How do I know this? The grabs we get when swinging in those conditions. Over the past couple days, most of our takes came after we found somewhat regular contact with the bottom. And this is normal for high, dirty and cold flows. If you aren't hanging up on the bottom with more regularity than when you're fishing that inside seam in better clarity, you might not be fishing right.

Why does it matter if you know that your tip gets the fly to just above the rocks? It is not that the flies are necessarily fishing different depths. It's that they're fishing at vastly different speeds during the swing. Having your sink tip roll along the bottom during that second half of the swing in cold, dirty water gives you the slowest presentation through the best water. The ticks and taps on the bottom will grind your swing to almost a hault. Throw those big, inside mends and even pull it along with the rod tip if you have to to get it moving again, but just know that your dog's out there hunting. Control your swing. Find the bottom, then get it moving again. Lift the rod tip slowly after an inside mend. Fish it well.


So get out there. Don't be afraid to swing, even when you think the water's a bit dirty. Remember, the worst you can do is not catch a fish. And even that's not so bad, especially if you're spending the day with a good buddy or two. But keep these pointers in mind, and hopefully you can put a fish or two on the board on a tougher day.


Tight Lines,

 - D  

Starting to think about fall steelhead!

Posted on August 29, 2019 at 9:15 AM Comments comments ()

Won't be long until we start seeing some of these around!

It's quickly approaching my favorite time of year! You can just feel it in the cool air in the mornings, and the reasonably temperate days we've been seeing recently. Fall is definitely on the way. And with fall comes fall steelheading! With how things have been going over the past week (cooler with periodic spurts of rain) I wouldn't be surprised if a fish or two is hanging around the river mouths, perhaps even nosing their way in. But we are still likely some three or four weeks away from the first real push of the fall, again weather conditions dependent.

For those just getting into the sport of steelhead fishing, the early runners of fall are a totally different animal than spring run fish or even fish returning to the rivers later in the fall in colder water temperatures. To successfully target them over the course of first weeks of the run and not simply luck into a fish or two here and there, you must be willing to adjust your techniques, focus on different water conditions and river structures, and be willing to adapt and overcome the obstacles of fishing to a run that has just started presents. Having the ability to do so by recognizing trends and habits will make you a better steelheader in general, and will increase your early fall success rate. This post is really focused on the larger watersheds, as usually in early fall they have better numbers of fish running, and in the smaller watersheds you can likely spot and stalk steelhead which is a completely different game and success is usually determined by the stealth of the approach and not reading water, recognizing habits, and overall knowledge of the quarry.

First and foremost, as I've said numerous times in the past, if there is enough water (like there is most years on the Catt) early run fall fish can migrate up a river quickly. A key to finding success early in the fall may not be to necessarily fish low in the river. Most people assume that the lower river holds the most fish early on, and this can be true in times of lower and clearer water, where fish may be more hesitant to push upward. However even in lower conditions on rivers like the Catt or Conneaut, fish can and do push upward. The first arrivals of fall are generally smaller fish of one or two summers in the lake and run between 15 and 25 inches or so. These sized fish can easily run through shallow riffles, and frequently hold in water as shallow as a foot, at least temporarily, if certain conditions are met- mostly if there is a broken surface to distort their appearance to predators above and a current seam to make holding easier. If you come to the river early in the season with the expectation that the lower river holds the most fish, it may be true on any given day, but know that because everyone else thinks so you will be fishing to pressured fish. Targeting the portion that has passed this pressure and is now scattered throughout the middle of the river can be more rewarding, and offer an angler better success as unpressured steelhead are a joy to fish to and can be taken on any given method of fly fishing.

So now that you've taken my first piece of advice and find yourself wandering around the middle section of a river, you may think what next? My best answer is to find the shade. In September and the first part of October, days are generally still mild and sunny, and the water this time of year is usually lower and clearer. Finding the shade can mean finding the fish. In the lake, steelhead can and will occupy every zone of water from the surface to the substrate, however steelhead can prefer deeper water in bright sun. As these fish are pushing into the river, they are adjusting to a completely new environment where even the deepest pools have significant light penetration, and warmer river temperatures force a need for greater dissolved oxygen content. The oxygen is frequently found in a riffle. My go to location for finding early fall steelhead is a shallow riffle and run with a broken bottom and canopy that keeps shade on the water most of the day. This may not mean that there are any greater numbers of fish present in this type of run than any other section of good, riffly habitat, but in high sun shaded fish will feel more comfortable and therefore more likely to bite than those exposed diretly to the light. This can even hold true if decent deeper holding pools are located nearby. 

The final tip I'd offer is go small and stealthy when swinging. Over the past few years I've written a fair amount about fishing floating lines and dry flies, and fishing from the surface down. Those are very exciting ways to target fall steelhead, and in my opinion taking a decent early fall fish on a floating line and riffle hitched wet fly or true dry fly is about as good as it gets. But that requires quite a bit of confidence that can only come with a significant amount of trial and error. The more productive method is fishing lightly weighted small streamers on a long leader, things like beadhead woolly buggers, small zonkers with light dumbell or bead chain eyes, or traditional steelhead patterns with wire ribbing. All of those will get somewhere around a foot below the surface even in faster water, and if you're fishing the right water a foot below the surface is right in the strike zone. And the neat thing is that fishing this way is the transition from swinging streamers on a sink tip to skating or waking dry flies on the surface. You use the long leader and weighed small streamer approach to form confidence in fishing to certain types of water that eventually will show you how and where to fish those dries. Then when you make the transition to dries, if that is something you want to do, you can do so with a bit of earned confidence built up along the way.

So hopefully you all are getting as fired up as I am, and that this little bit helps in finding success with those early run fall fish. As always be mindful of water temperature so as not to increase the risk of harm. But good luck, and perhaps you will see me wandering around the middle of the river sometime this fall enjoying a day of fall steelheading.

Tight Lines,

 - D 

Swinging for Browns

Posted on November 29, 2018 at 9:40 AM Comments comments ()

Catching a brown such as this on the swing is a reward many anglers desire

Catching a brown trout over 30 inches. That is many fly anglers' answer to the question of "if they had one wish to be granted during their fly fishing career, what would it be?" Catching a brown trout over 30 inches. And to a select few of the anglers that answered that question that way, it may even be qualifed to "catching a brown trout over 30 inches on the swing." Swinging for browns approaching or easily exceeding the double-digit pound mark is truly an experience that leaves us weak in the knees. It is at times incredibly frustrating, outright overwhelming, and just every once in a while so god damn good that it both haunts your memories and completely and totally ensares you into lifelong obsession.

This year we've been spending a lot of time chasing lake run browns. The steelhead run has been less consistent as it has in years past. But fishing for lake runs has been very good. Though many consider lake runs caught on the swung fly as by-catches for anglers targeting steelhead- and indeed many are- lake run browns can be specifically targeted with spey rods and the swung fly by knowing a few habits of the fish and making small adjustments to technique. We are not talking about complete overhall of the system here. We are talking about tweeks. 

First thing to know is a bit about the brown cycle. For steelhead in general, and fall steelhead especially, spawning can be months away. The fish adjust to their river habitats. Many have not fully sexually matured to the point that spawning is an urgent matter, and in the tiime between arriving to natal rivers and actually spawning, steelhead maintain curiosity towards their surroundings, including things such as flies swimming around in the currents. For this reason, steelhead are the usual targets of anglers wielding two-handers looking to swing.

Browns on the other hand are fall spawners. Many fish are sexually mature enough to spawn the very day they enter the river, should they arrive at suitable habitat. For this reason, the predator instict in even fresh run browns is often diminished. As a result, most of my success for fresh arrivals has been with smaller, drabber flies such as olive, brown, or black woolly buggers or brown hairwings such as brown trout fry.

A fresh 27" hen taken on a brown trout fry hairwing  

To browns actively spawning, males especially can remain responsive to those same small flies, though the ethics of fishing to spawning fish must be determined by each individual angler. Locating spawning fish in the riffles, and fishing below in gravel drop-offs or in the first main pool downstream is usually the better option anyways. Both pre-spawn and newly finished post-spawn fish will usually hang out around the spawners in the first available holding water, and are better targets in terms of receptiveness and in the fight of the fish.

In these deeper pools and runs where pre or post-spawn browns congregate below spawning fish, concentrate specifically hard in the slowest water available. Browns generally hold in slower water than steelhead. When swinging for steelhead, even in colder temperatures, many fish are found "falling into the bucket"- meaning as you transition from the head of the run into what would be considered the gut. Brown trout are usually found "falling out of the bucket"- meaning as you transition from the slowest part of the gut of a run into the tailout. On small creeks, this might only be a matter of a few feet difference, but on larger rivers this can be a difference of fifty feet or more. Though it is obviously a good idea to swing the entire run, as trout are first and foremost unpredictable, pay specific attention to the point where the current slows dramatically in the gut before dispersing over the tailout.

Jeff fighting a good lake run brown taken on the swing from the slow gut of a run

As more fish finish the spawning process, and the numbers of spawned out browns grows, baitfish and attractor streamers become the most effective flies to swing. Spawned out browns are eating machines. Lying in the slower pools and runs, they await to ambush anything small enough to fish in their large mouths. When I'm swinging to high numbers of spawned out fish, again in the slower water, I like to fish a floating line, leader down to 8 or 10 pound fluoro and a weighted fly. The cast isn't usually as pretty as fishing a weighted fly on that lighter tippet doesn't turn over great, but the swing is nice. In the slow water, any sink tip will usually ground out. Fishing without a tip and using a weighted fly usually does not. And at times, even in very cold water, browns can just go on a tear and be willing to eat anywhere from just below the surface to substrate of the pool. Most times, however, browns will be caught fishing a streamer weighted heavily enough to keep it near the bottom.

Pump the rod. I'll say it again. Pump the rod the entire time during the swing. Use the kind of pump that most steelhead anglers do on the hangdown and pump it throughout the swing. This will cause a jigging action, and the fly to drop back towards the bottom before it starts to swing again. Browns absolutely love to eat a streamer on the drop. And the take will be noticeably different. It will happen after one pump and as you pump again. There will just be weight there. That is a brown eat. It is not a turn on the fly the way a steelhead normally does. It is a brown that followed the jigging streamer, caught up to it, and, as the streamer drops toward the river bottom from a pump, inhaled it without turning. That is the way that most browns eat during the swing. They swim up and inhale it without turning back. If you were not pumping the rod, the fish might still take it. But that is a fish that can easily be missed in the slow water because the swing is slow, therefore the bite transfer to the rod is slow. By the time you notice something has happened, that fish could have spit you already. So I will say it one more time. Pump the rod the entire time from the start of the swing until the hangdown. If you feel any resistance, set low and to the downstream bank.

Smaller lake run taken on a bait fish streamer pumped through the slow water

So if you guys and gals have your eyes set on a trophy lake run brown trout on the swing, using these tips can be the difference between a successful day and spending an afternoon flogging the water. Browns are a beautiful species to target with spey rods and the swung streamer. Many remain in the rivers and creeks all winter long, and swinging or stripping streamers in the slower "estuary" sections in the cattails can help fire up even the coldest winter day. Browns put up determined battles when hooked, full of headshaking fury and sometimes acrobatics that will cause you to question whether the fish mistakenly thinks it's a steelhead. In short, lake runs are a ton of fun. And they readily eat a swung fly.

Tight Lines,

 - D

Bead rigging

Posted on October 24, 2017 at 11:25 AM Comments comments ()

While we really like fishing the swung fly, and try to focus on spey techniques when possible, there are simply sometimes when conditions or the preferences of people fishing with us mean fishing an indicator rig. When we do fish an indy rig, more often than not at the end of the line you might see a little thing we refer to as "the item"- a colorful plastic bead pegged in place above a hook. I first started fishing a bead in Alaska in 2008 and quickly saw just how useful it would be back on my home streams. Over the years, I've tweaked my rig a bit so I can change things out (the hook or bead) without cutting my line. Here's my bead rig:

Step 1: What you need is your bead, tippet (already tied onto your leader), a hook ( for steelhead or lake run browns I prefer size 2 or 4 octopus hooks- bigger for beads 12mm or more, smaller for smaller beads, while if I'm fishing stream trout a 4 or 6) and a toothpick.

Step 2: Slide the bead onto your tippet, then tie a figure 8 loop in the end of your tippet. The loop will be what holds the hook on the end and should be about 1 1/2 - 2 inches. Why I like a loop is because I can then trade out hooks and even beads without cutting the line. Simply unloop the hook and pull the toothpick stopper from the bead and it will slide over the knot.Here is how to tie a figure 8 loop:

Make a loop in the tippet first:

Wrap the loop around both the tag end and main part of the tippet twice:

Pull the single loop through the double loop formed in the line:

Pull the knot tight:

Step 3: Use the toothpick to "peg" the bead. Push it in then snap off the sharp point. This will keep the bead from slipping down below the figure 8 knot. Later if you need to change the bead, poke the sharp end of a toothpick down the other side of the bead to push out the little piece of the toothpick that is broken off and it will pass over the figure 8 knot.

Peg the bead:

Snap off the toothpick:

There will be a piece stuck in the bead that holds it in place:

Slide the pegged bead down to the figure 8 knot to hold it in place:

Step 4: Pass the loop through the eye of a hook, wrap it over the shank, and secure it to the tippet:

Step 5: Bead up fish:

Notes: The rig above is tied with an ungodly large hook and 30 pound high viz big game leader. That is not my normal setup but was done so it would show up better in pics. I usually use 8-10 pound clear fluoro and a size 4 hook. Please do not fish a 3/0 saltwater hook with a bead.    

Though again, not our preferred way of fishing, but an incredibly effective method that has its uses as conditions or the preferences of others dictate.

Tight Lines,

 - D

Finding success with a floating line

Posted on October 16, 2017 at 1:05 PM Comments comments ()

Noel taking a break in productive floating line water

There is nothing more challenging in the sport of steelhead fly fishing than setting out to take a fish on the surface, even more so in the GL region. The reasons the challenges against success with this type of fly fishing mount so high I believe are twofold: 1) water temperatures; and 2) time between fish entry and spawning. On the west coast, a majority of fishing effort with floating line and surface techniques is aimed at summer run fish. The watersheds that support summer runs have cool enough temperatures year round for coldwater game fish, and summer run fish enter watersheds months before sexual maturity and therefore exhibit more curiosity towards their surroundings and even as they become accustomed to natal rivers may act more like large stream trout than true migratory salmonids.

Jumping ship to the Great Lakes fisheries, while we do have some very significant summer run fisheries, the vast majority of steelhead that run our rivers enter between October and April. And the vast majority of the vast majority across the region enter between November and March. This means a few things. Most importantly our timeframe to engage in fishing a floating line with a likelihood of fishing to conditions supportive of success is much more limited, and spring fishing with a floating line is almost entirely focused on dropback fish.

With these parameters understood, an angler eager to fish a floating line should focus his or her efforts in the most conducive timeframes for success. This happens to be the first tip to finding success on a floating line. Focus your efforts when the mercury reads 50° F or higher. The warmer the water, the more aggressive fish can be. My best success has come when the water temps are in the upper 50’s or low 60’s. Again be mindful of the other end of the spectrum, and call it quits if you see temps above 65° F.

When the second factor that complicates success, time between entry and spawning is taken into account, it almost always means that fall surface season lasts only a few short weeks in October, when the first good run of fresh fish push in and before the water temps start consistently staying below 50° F. These first run fish of the fall season for all intensive purposes act like summer runs out west. They are months away from spawning and sexually mature in the rivers verses spring run fish in April for example that fully mature or near fully mature in the lake and may only be in the river a couple weeks before finishing the spawn and dropping back out.

To a spring run fish urgency of spawning is very high and, though water temps might be near to or at 50° F or above, there will be very little interest in chasing surface disturbances as a result until spawning is completed. Once spawning is complete, steelhead will feed in the rivers and will rise to hatches if the river they are in has good spring hatches, or take streamers such as muddlers fished on top or just under the surface. But again we are limited in time to target them in this fashion to a few weeks between late April or early May. So anglers looking to target fish with floating lines with dries or wets fished on the surface or just under should focus their efforts accordingly.

The second tip is to be very, very picky in the water you fish. Early run fall steelhead run a river quick, and as a result they literally can be anywhere- knee deep riffles, pools over your head, whitewater chutes, nice smooth waist deep runs, or rocky pocket water. The fish have almost a mythical feeling about them. At the best of times steelhead are elusive, but with those early run fish they are even more predictably unpredictable. The reason being that during those first weeks of the fall season, the time to target fish with a floating line, there just aren’t as many in the river as there would be say the middle or end of November, and they usually spread out pretty quickly.

Because the fish that have entered spread out and feel like they can be anywhere in the river, along with the fact that the water is usually on the lower side this time of year, we usually want to cover all the water available to try and get the fly in front of as many fish as possible. But now is not the time to put your fly in front of every fish that has run the river. Now is the time to show your fly to the right fish, not the most fish. If my experience over the years that I have been fishing dries on a floating line has taught me anything, it is that I’m looking for a moving fish in a riffle or choppy run between 1 and 3 feet deep.

Typical water I look for to fish a floating line

Though I have had success in pools, most of this has been pools on smaller creeks where fish stack up. In this scenario the pools usually have very little surface current and you use the rod to actually drag the fly across the top. Though it is an effective way to fish, it’s not my favorite. I enjoy swinging a line and not crouching and crawling into position in a more of spot/stalk fishing. And that’s just my personal preference, which means I usually fish the larger rivers as a result.

So back on the larger rivers, I’m looking for those riffles and shallower runs. To be more specific, I’m looking for riffles and shallow runs with cobble or larger sized bottom. Boulders are a bonus. This type of water, though on the surface may look to shallow and uninviting to fish, has tons of things going for it. It has a high oxygen content, a broken surface for cover, and with larger substrate even a moderately sized rock or piece of broken slate can provide just enough current break for a moving fish to sit for a while. And that’s exactly the fish I want to find- a moving fish that has paused for a while in a choppy riffle or run. So in the fall, this is the type of water I focus on. And you’ll find that once you start fishing this type of water, you’ll notice the lack of other anglers that really pay any attention to it, especially if it is more on the shallow side.

Another shot of good water

The next tip would be not to worry too much about fly pattern. Worry more about presentation. Though this may seem like a regurgitated statement in fly fishing, it is especially true when fishing a floating line for steelhead. There are some fundamental truths that you need to be able to accept when fishing this way for steelhead. You will catch far fewer fish. Most days you will not have a fish rise to the surface. But most importantly if you keep at it you will find a fish willing to come up. Despite all the failure you have witnessed trying to rise a steelhead on a legit skated fly fished on the surface of a larger river where you aren’t sight fishing or dragging a fly over pooled up fish in the only pool large enough to hold fish, you need to believe deep down that it works. And even when you go out in the morning with the belief that it will work for you sometime, you need to be able to come home in the evening just as fired up over the day you just spent not rising a fish. That’s the starting point.

Rainbow Muddler- good fly to fish dry, riffled, or soaked

So once you start fishing with the notion that you probably wont have a fish come up, you don’t really need to worry about what you are throwing- within reason. So far this season I’ve had 6 fish come up- 5 to a riffle hitched wet fished on the surface and 1 to a size 10 yellow humpy. All the flies were store bought. The wet was a baby rainbow trout streamer pattern that likely would have been a pattern included in the very first fly fishing kit you ever bought but you haven’t fished it since. There was nothing particularly special about them other than the fact that I fished them. The longer I fish for steelhead, the more I believe that there is a fish out there somewhere that will literally eat any fly I could tie on the end of my line, again within reason. So fly choice should not cause anxiety. Pick a fishy looking fly and fish it.

The presentation should be more of the focus. Worry about getting good casts and swings through the water you have chosen to fish. Worry about keeping your dry on the surface even in the chop, and making sure a riffle hitch you tie results in the wet fly pointing in towards shore as it swings otherwise it will corkscrew in the water during the swing and twist the shit out of your line. These are the important things to think about.

Finally make multiple passes through the same piece of water but using different techniques. I usually employ 3 techniques for each piece of water. I skate a dry over it first, then fish a riffle hitched wet, then finally fish a floating line/wet fly subsurface last. If I’m really focusing on top, I’ll stick to the dry then riffle hitched wet, and make several passes with those techniques. I always start up top and work my way down for the simple reason that if there is a fish in a run that would take a dry off top then it would likely take a subsurface fly as well, but not every fish willing to take a wet subsurface will take a dry off top. This way I can put the dry out first with the hopes that the most aggressive fish would be willing to take it and work my way down from there.

White rabbit- swing it on a floating line below the surface

Pay attention while fishing this way. A fish that will boil on a dry or riffle hitched wet but doesn’t commit can usually be talked into taking the subsurface wet. Try to match the color and size of the dry with the wet you tie on next, or clip off the riffle hitch and fish the fly below the surface. And even if you haven’t had any fish come up, don’t be afraid to upsize the size of a wet or small, unweighted streamer that you fish below the surface. Catching a fish on a floating line and an unweighted streamer in the upper part of the water column is an accomplishment to be proud of too. Plus they just hit it so, so hard. Often the take on a streamer fished just under the surface is an explosion of head thrashing, water-spraying, unholy ferocity that will leave you speechless. So it really is pretty cool too. But you should save that for your last pass through.

Hopefully the end result!

So if you are really gonna give a floating line a try, keep in mind the tips above. Though you probably wont catch every fish in the river this way, or maybe even any at all, it is just too much fun. So find your spot, and try to stay away from the fishing pressure. A few days spent swinging a floating line before the cold starts to set in is a reward all to itself. But if you’re lucky you might just get surprised by an explosive surface take. 

Tight Lines and Good Luck!

 - D