A Beginner’s Journey Into Steelheading: After Action Report and Lessons Learned

24 October 2014
Comments: 6
24 October 2014, Comments: 6

I Went Steelhead Fishing

I should have taken the advice before I went.  Or not.  I can’t decide yet.  Either way; I went steelheading.  I can say I went steehead fishing on the Rogue River in Oregon.

Rogue-River.jpg

The Rogue River is quite literally drenched in steelhead fly fishing history.  A history that can almost be felt while tripping and stumbling along it’s slick bedrock river bottom.  Dating back to the 1920’s, Zane Grey popularized the pursuit with his published writings of adventures on the Rogue.  This history put into context exactly I was getting myself into.  I am a newcomer to a fish that has been besting fly anglers for generations (including Zane Grey at times).  It felt big, and I felt humbled…I was humbled.

If you were to ask me “How was the fishing in Oregon?”; my answer would be “I don’t know.”

Why don’t I know?  Well I have no real contextual grasp on what I should be comparing my experience too…that, and I still consider myself a total noob.  Was the fishing good?  I don’t know.  I don’t know what good steelhead fishing is.  Was it bad?  I don’t know what bad steelhead fishing is either.  My little understanding of steelhead or a steelhead river was a cathartic letting go of the polarizing preconceptions of what I should expect.  I allowed myself to just be on the river, casting.

Now before we get all “Zenkara-cane-pole, A River Why Runs Through John Gierach” let’s pump the breaks and back up.  Did I connect with nature and my creator?  Yes.  Did I gather a deeper understanding of the infinites of the universe and my small role to play in the greater picture?  Kinda.  Am I a steelhead junkie now?  Well…no…

…but one thing I learned from the D.A.R.E. program in junior high is that most junkies don’t know they are addicted…

After Action Report

Well like I said, I had no preconceptions of what steelhead fishing should be, so I really had no expectations.  I had hopes, but not expectations.  I spent some part of roughly 5 days doing my best to find steelhead.  Again, with no preconceptions, I had no idea where to start or how to start.  People kept telling me it was a low water year and there was a drought.  The river still felt huge to me.  My first day on the water, I just started.  Here are some of the daily highlights:

Day 1 – The Beginning

Rogue-River-First-Day.jpg

I got out and went fishing for steelhead and fished all morning on a gorgeous piece of water.  Unbeknownst to me, this water was not very good water for steelhead (it looked great for Colorado trout).  No matter, it still turned out to be one of the most beautiful sections of river I have ever been on.  I swung flies (wets and dries) with a spey rod.  I tried nymphing with stonefly nymphs (oh the horror spey puritans!).  I stripped streamers and I skated and popped a really cool fly called a Ska-opper.

Nothing.

Rogue-Pikeminnow.jpg

Turns out pikeminnows love the muddler.

Well not fully nothing, I did catch a handful of pikeminnows.  A few on a skated October caddis even.  No steelhead though.  Oh, and I could tell my spey cast was improving slightly by the end of the session.

A quick sidenote for many not in the know: there are a lot of steelheaders out there who are personally against the idea of fishing with anything but a swung fly on a two handed rod.  To this group of anglers, fishing with a nymph rig for steelhead is almost blasphemous to their religion.  It’s all about the tug.  This has to do with a lot of history and tradition and stuff about it not being about numbers and…well I could go on but I won’t.  In trout context, it is similar to the fly fisherman who only uses dry flies compared to the guy who will use any fly fishing technique to catch fish.  I don’t think I could call it elitism.  Maybe legalism.

I can’t knock it though, I personally quite enjoy spey casting and swinging flies.  I am not good at it, but I like it.  Actually, I really love it.  A lot.   However, on most rivers it is almost law that a nymph fisherman will catch more steelhead in the long run than a spey fisherman swinging flies.  At this point in my chrome journey; I don’t think I can state an opinion on any of this.  I just wanted to fish, plain and simple.

Day 2 – Briar Steelhead

The apostle Paul states: “For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?”  While steelheading isn’t a matter of Torah law, some treat as such.  For about a week before my trip, I was a spey Pharisee.  I wanted to join the elite group of philosophical poet fisherman who only swing for steel.  Two hours into the first day; I began to question my devotion.  By day two, I abandoned the faith.  Why should my liberty to nymph fish be determined by someone else’s conscience to spey-n-swing.  I just wanted one on the line at this point.  Complete the mission by any means necessary…well not ANY means, I am still not gonna pick up a gear rod and some bait.  Dead drifting nymphs, swinging wets, dredging heavy flies, stripping streamers, jigging a meat whistle.  Anything to get a fish.

My second day of steelheading was spent mainly with family (it was a family trip after all) however, I took the evening to explore a good looking riffle and run downstream from my previous day’s adventure.

Again, nothing.

Well, not fully nothing.  The banks of the Rogue are absolutely overgrown with thorn bushes.  Not just a few, but vast thickets of thorns. This was unbeknownst to me before heading out for the evening session.  Briar Rogue.  Had I known, my plan would have been different.  I decided to bushwack down a steep hill and across a big meadow to the river.  Of course the hill was just loose gravel and my first step I slid 10 feet down into knee deep thorn thickets.  Nature’s booby trap.  I couldn’t get back up the steep hill so my best option was to try and walk on top of the thicket for about 30 feet to the meadow.  That 30 feet took about 15 fairly agonizing minutes to cross.  First blood was drawn and it wasn’t me with the victory.

So yeah, I guess that is something.  No fish though.

Day 3 – What is success anyway?

With, the third day upon me, family commitments necessitating time away from the river, and my severe inexperience: I start to wonder if I will ever find a fish.  I began to really recognize that steelhead fishing is not trout fishing.  I heard that somewhere…  Lesson learned: I know what steelhead fishing isn’t.  So then what IS steelhead fishing?  For that matter, what is SUCCESSFUL steelhead fishing?  At least I am getting somewhere and asking better questions…I think.

Slightly disheartened, I gave a call over to the Ashland Fly Shop in Ashland, OR and talked to Jon.  I highly recommend stopping in this shop if you are in the area; great guys and extremely helpful.  Jon confirmed what I was suspecting: I was doing the right things in the wrong places.  He pointed me to a few sections of water to check out, but the most important advice I got from the call was the type of water I needed to look for.  The water should be:

  1. Moving at about the speed of a good walking pace
  2. 3-5 feet deep.

Radical!  Now I have some idea of what to look for and what to avoid… and it seemed there was a lot of water that should be avoided for a steelhead fly angler.  Coastal rivers in the Pacific Northwest are a far cry from our freestone rivers here in Colorado and were something I was not used to.  Finding likely trout water is easy in Durango; finding likely steelhead water can take days or even weeks (especially without a guide…more on that later).

Steelhead-Water.jpg

Some good looking steelhead water right there.

They name everything on coastal rivers.  Every riffle, run, pool, rapid, island, gravel bar, or bend seems to have a name on the Rogue River.  Rivers with great history get lots of names.  One of these names was Carpenter’s Island.

Carpenter’s Island, strangely enough, sat at about 1 whole mile away from where we were staying.  With my limited time to fish for the day, this may not have been the best option; but it was the most convenient.  Over the course of the day I spent a handful of hours at Carpenter’s Island.  At this point, I was done carrying around more than one rod.  “I don’t need multiple set-ups to not catch fish with”, was the reason for this.  I settled on just using the Dually Switch 5 weight.  I figured if I caught anything, it would probably be a half pounder steelhead, people keep telling me there were a lot in the Rogue…somewhere.  A switch 5 weight is about perfect.  Plus the Dually is an easy rod to cast all day and is very versatile.

Again lots of casts were made with little love…except for the excitable pikeminnows who want to kill the Green Butt Skunk.  About midday, I was privy to a cool group of gear fishin’ dudes in a drift boat who floated right over my line and indicator (yeah I know…indicators…).  “Bleh, time to head home”, I admitted to myself.

mckenzie-boat-rogue-river.jpg

Rogue River McKenzie boats are pretty large actually.

Right as the cool bros floated past me…two things happened:

The first thing was home-dude gear chucker hooked into what looked like a giant snag.  No wait, not a snag; rocks don’t jerk and bend a rod like that.  Brosif had a fish on; a solid fish.  It was bending what looked like a pretty stout gear rod double.

“Dang, must be a salmon” I thought.

As I thought this, the second thing happened: something ate my swinging stonefly nymph, and ate it a lot harder than a stupid pikeminnow.  I would like to say the struggle was grand and epic and incredible…but it wasn’t.  It was really fast and quickly over.

I had caught a solid 9 inch half-pounder steelhead.  I can’t really describe how victorious I felt at this.  I literally caught a dinker steelhead in the shadow of a gear-chucking dudebro who only moment’s before had hooked into what looked like a…

“wait he still has that fish on.  Holy crap it is jumping and dancing like mad, that fish is going bananas” was my realization.

I lost focus and began casting like a candy thrower at a Halloween parade.  I was on the fish!  Of course, after a few drifts and swings; nothing.  My adrenaline subsided.  I figured I would just watch the gear homies land their fish (that was still going bezerk).  It looked like their game was to row into an eddy farther downstream and net it.  I made another cast, mended the line, and of course watched the epic fish battle instead of my indicator.

With my momentary lapse of attention to what I was doing, my line swung through the current rather than drifting  Swung and stopped dead.  This stop brought me back to my senses and I lifted the rod.

That’s when it happened.

The water in front of me boiled and exploded with violence.  My reel made a terrifying noise.  My rod was almost ripped from my hand.  Head shakes so severe, I still feel them.  With a quick porpoising to show a broadside of bright chrome and a final headshake, my line went dead.

F-word after f-word were shouted.  Not for anger at a lost fish; but for realizing the world was a lot bigger than I knew.  Reality hit: I am not in control, ever.  Expletives to punctuate my surprise and roller coaster of emotions over the past 5 minutes.  The dude bros had landed their fish and were looking at me inquisitively.  I almost cried.

I know not the size of that fish; but I do know that it was certainly the most powerful fish I have ever had on my line.  The chrome broadside was gigantic…or at least it was in my mind.

It was time to head home.

It should be noted that I did come back that evening for a dusk session, and was successful in hooking another half-pounder.  While the fish spit the hook after about 20 seconds and was not nearly the beast of earlier that day; it was a solid 14 inch fish who was a blast to hook into.

The third day concluded with one 9 inch steelhead landed, one half pounder hooked and lost, and one terrifying chrome-something hooked and lost.

Could I consider this day a successful day of steelheading?

Day 4 – The Coast

Day 4 was a family day to the coast of Oregon.  While I didn’t do any steelheading, I did get to check out a few famous steelhead rivers in Southern Oregon and Northern California.  Namely the Smith, Klamath, and Chetco Rivers.  The Smith River may be one of the most beautiful rivers I have ever seen.  Especially since it flows through the redwood forest.  Here, check out some photos from the day:

Oregon-Coast.jpg

Not a steelhead, but still pretty incredible.

 

Coastal-Fog.jpg

Fog moves in quick.

 

Redwoods.jpg

Its hard to believe the Smith River flows through this Redwood forest.

Smith-River.jpg

An amazing hole on the Smith River

It was like Endor.  I need to develop a baby Ewok fly pattern.

Day 5 – Revenge of the Island

My final day.  I was pumped.  I had it all figured out and I would spend the entire day working every last cranny of Carpenter’s Island for steel.  I even managed to work my way to the far side of the river to fish the far bank.  I don’t recommended doing this as I swam on the way there and on the way back.  I wish I had a boat.

Long story very short.  I caught nothing.  All day; no fish.

Towards the end of the day, I decided I was done with the nymphing garbage.  I was sick of the sight of my indicator.  I would work back to the car ending my day and trip on a final note of swinging wet flies.

Green-Butt-Skunk.jpg

A Mean Butt Skunk

This proved to be an incredible decision.  This was my zen moment.  A moment that I gave it all up and just cast.  I just took in my surroundings.  I was on a beautiful section of river in a beautiful part of the world with no one around.  Nature and I connected…or something.

To keep it short, it was good.

Oh and on one of my final swings, I got another grab that made my heart explode.  Only a grab.  Not a hook up, not a reel screaming run; just a grab.  A grab to remind me to return.

Lessons Learned

It pays in success to know a steelhead river.  I spent the better part of 5 days exploring about 6 miles of the Rogue, and really discovering and fishing a quarter mile section of river.  I could say that I don’t even fully understand the nuances of how that quarter mile section of river works.  I have a rough picture, but I am no master.

Rogue-Steelhead-Flies-and-Rod.jpg

My main squeeze for the week and assortment of steelhead flies I brought along.

Compare that to the roughly 215 miles of river that are available to fish (did I mention the Rogue has the high water mark law which is super awesome).  I didn’t even make it to the Upper Rogue and the fabled “Holy Waters“.  With so much water, I am personally surprised that I was even able to hook into a fish having zero steelhead experience.  So why didn’t I just hire a guide?

The short answer is I spent all my money getting there.

However, I more than fully recommend getting a guide for any steelhead venture.  Heck, we here at Duranglers always recommend a guide for anglers new to our area, and for good reason.  Guides make difficult concepts much easier to grasp and can put you on fish.  My learning curve would have been shortened a whole lot.

My lesson learned: get a guide for at least a day.

Another lesson is wading on a steelhead river is extremely sketchy.  Make sure to have studs in your boots.  Or even better, have a boat to access the best spots so you don’t have to swim like I did.  Heck, just get a guide who has a boat and knows the best spots.

Yeah, guides.

Another thing I learned came from reading old stories of classic steelhead runs: they were incredible.  Hearing of fisherman in times past hooking into 40 plus steelhead a day put something into perspective: steelhead runs of today suck in comparison.  Steelhead numbers have declined, a lot.  I really have no doubt in my mind that my story could have been quite different placed 50 years ago.

Oh well, hindsight is 20/20 and we only have today’s problems to deal with.  I was given a new perspective on a past-time I hold dear and I hope that someday I can share steelhead fishing with my two sons.  Wild Steelhead Coalition is doing some great work in dealing with the problems that steelhead face.  The new movie Wild Reverence is also a great primer on the issues and solutions for steelhead.

Wild Reverence”The Plight of the American Wild Steelhead” Film Trailer from North Fork Studios on Vimeo.

The full movie can be view here.

Conclusion

For some, my trip may sound like a lousy steelhead trip.  No large fish landed.  No hero shots.  No legendary battles with Nijinsky.

For me, it was successful.  My trip reinforced that steelhead fishing is not about numbers, it is not trout fishing; it is about moments.  Time on the river contrasted with time spent with family.  Few things could be better and the moments will be with me always.

There is also next time.  Of course there will be a next time.  We tend to plan our lives around the next cast.

Previous A Beginner’s Journey Into Steelheading installments:

Andy McKinley
Andy manages Duranglers Flies and Supplies online store and web content. When he is not plugging away in the basement of Duranglers, he can be found in the shop talking weird flies, throwing spey casts for few fish, eating pizza, drinking coffee, painting, and raising a family in Southwest Colorado.

His fly fishing writings have been published on blogs such as the Daily Drake and Simms Wading Room.

6 responses on “A Beginner’s Journey Into Steelheading: After Action Report and Lessons Learned

  1. DJ says:

    Bro… Great article. I love the struggle… and the Tug… Now I am going to be dreaming about that tug! So awesome. Thanks for letting me live vicariously through you!

  2. Jim says:

    Great story ! Really well written. First time out, on your own, you did really well. You’ll do better next time and the next time and the time after that. That tug, oh the tug, like no other trout out there. I swear you don’t hook steelhead, they hook you. You’ve been hooked.

  3. Brandon says:

    Thanks, Andy. I am charting out my first steelhead trip after fishing the Driftless in NE Iowa and SE Minnesota for the past few years. All four installments were very helpful! Loved the bit about the dudebros…Never had a good name for those types until I read this post!

    • products says:

      Haha, thanks for reading Brandon. The dudebros are in a league all their own. The best advice I can give you is to not go. Because should you have the good fortune of hooking a steelhead, you life might be ruined. If you don’t take my advice…well then go in full force. You will have a whole lot of fun, and may discover a new meaning to the word “hooked”.

      I grew up in Waterloo, Iowa and the Driftless area is where I learned to fly fish. That is really cool you fish that area. It sounds like it is getting better and better out there.

      Thanks for reading,

      -Andy

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