Friday, January 29, 2021

Hunters and Hopers

Always so crowded...

I was fortunate enough to spend a few days this November swinging flies for Great Lakes steelhead on the Salmon River in New York. I've grown quite fond of the river over the years and the opportunities it affords two handed casters along with the sheer quality of the migratory rainbows the river can produce. Each year, I learn the river and the behavior of its fish a little more. That can be attributed to time and experience but it also comes from watching, listening, and learning from some of the river's resident Spey Jedi. Guys like Patrick Ross, Chad Gaston, and Isak Kulalic have often left me slack jawed over the past decade with their casts, presentations, or ability to pick my pocket, with a dry line. I'll never forget a day on the river where I witnessed Patrick and Travis Johnson absolutely murder a run with a group of clients while I left the river skunked. Despite some success, there are definitely levels to the game. The aforementioned individuals have helped me raise the bar when it comes to my expectations stepping down a run, even when the river, and its fish, are seemingly not in the mood. To borrow Travis's phrase, I've transitioned from a "hoper," to a "hunter". Below are a few tips to help you have some more success when swinging flies on my favorite Great Lakes steelhead river. 

Take a Walk

Ninety percent of the anglers that fish the Salmon River stay in the same spots. Many fly fishermen will literally stand next to other anglers in a 10ft. space for an entire day in the lower and upper fly zones. I'd rather watch paint dry than do that even if it involves ten steelhead landed. On top of that, most anglers will fish within a hundred yards of a parking lot. Instead, go for a walk in the woods and you may just find some un-pressured fish in holes, runs, and pools you didn't know were there. Contrary to popular belief, you can find solitude on the Salmon River. The three largest steelhead I've ever landed were by myself with no one in sight. 

Cover Water

As swingers, you need to find the players that are willing to move up in the column and chase down your fly. This involves covering a lot of water and moving up or down river via vehicle. It is not uncommon for me to fish three separate areas of the river (morning, lunch, afternoon) and swing multiple runs within each section. I will even hike out of a section and make runs to specific locations to fish some holding water the size of a bathtub, only to hike out to drive to another part of the river. 

Learn From Drift Boats

Rather than scoff at that drift boat gliding through the run you are fishing, take mental notes of where they are fishing. The guides know the water better than anyone and know exactly where the fish are. When you see a drift boat literally float through an entire run without casting out their bobbers, there is a good chance they did that on purpose. If you see all the rods suddenly cast into a seam, that is where the steelhead will be holding in that particular run. Drift boats that are back trolling plugs can be an annoyance to a swing angler but you can learn small holding areas by taking mental notes when you see those boats hook up. It can be pretty cool to come back to the river a year later and swing up a steelhead in the same spot you witnessed one hit a plug in prior years. 

Don't Dredge

The Salmon River is relatively shallow. Most runs are between two and four feet deep. Typically, steelhead suspend off the bottom and have their eyes gazing upward and forward. Most of the successful spey anglers are fishing mono leaders (dry line) or light polyleaders (Int. to Type VI) depending on the flow rate and depth of water. Mostly, your flies should be unweighted. If you need to get deeper, you should change the sink rate of your tip to keep the fly in the zone and off the bottom. In rare instances, I will use heavier tips or a weighted fly to fish water that is deeper, features heavy turbulence, or if I'm in a tight spot that needs to get the fly to get down immediately. Overall, you'll most likely find me using polyleaders between type II-IV with an unweighted fly because I know exactly what is happening and can change variables to fish any situation. For the resident Spey Jedi, they would describe that approach as "dredging". 
Make Every Cast Count

Swinging flies for Salmon River steelhead is difficult. One landed fish will make your day. Anything more than that and you're killing it. The more consistent you are with casting and your presentations, the more likely you will have success, even on the slowest of days. Each cast should unfurl completely with no slack in the line. By raising the rod hand/rod you should immediately engage the fly after your cast and work it through the duration of the swing by slowly lowering the rod back down to your side. FEEL THE PULL. By maintaining contact with your fly you won't miss those subtle takes that occur while you're waiting for the fly to start fishing (swinging). If you make a shitty cast, check your line for wind knots. If you make a shitty presentation, cast again. Make them count! 

Mix It Up

I almost never make the same presentation multiple times in a row. On one cast, I may mend or hold my rod upstream to slow my presentation down. This keeps the fly in the zone for an extended period of time and can give lethargic fish more time to eat your fly. On my next, I may mend or move my rod hand downstream to present the fly broadside. This will elicit a chase response and is good for those grabby players. Sometimes, I will mend in order to create slack (sink time) before re-engaging my fly in a specific spot (boulders, seams, pockets). Location, conditions, flow, and water temperature will play a large role in dictating what specific presentation the steelhead are looking for. By mixing it up, you will find out what they like on that particular day. In my experiences, the steelhead on the Salmon River like to eat flies that are presented broadside with the right amount of speed. 

Talk, Listen, and Adjust to Other Anglers

If you have to follow other swingers through a run, it pays to watch how they're fishing. If multiple spey anglers have not pulled a fish out of a run, it is unlikely that you will have action by repeating their presentations. This fall, I walked into a popular run and talked to multiple anglers that were heading out. They didn't catch anything and said that the run was full of anglers. When I arrived, I talked to a few other people and watched the people in the run. It was obvious that the older gentleman I was about to follow down the run was an accomplished caster but I wasn't paying attention to his loops. I was watching his presentation of the fly in a spot that I knew would hold a fish. When I worked my way to that area, I did the exact opposite and hooked into a chromer on my first few casts. The old man was flabbergasted. 

Fish the Transition Water

To tie this back to my first tip, covering water, it behooves you to swing the transitional water between the popular runs and pools of the SR. These are often the most overlooked pieces of water and will likely have some steelhead in them that haven't been hounded all day long. In these sections, channel your inner trout hunter and look for areas that would hold a trout. These are slightly deeper depressions, seams, and pockets where a steelhead has some cover and can catch a break. On very slow days, focusing on these sections will often result in a hook up. 

Watch This Video Before Every Session (haha, seriously)


38 inches of kick ass...

Shoulder to shoulder...

When you know a bucket well and get out the switch rod, skagit, sink tip, and fly to fish it. 

Don't mind if I do...

The definition of "mixing things up"

Try to avoid "fly anxiety"

Cranked on one a little too hard...

Do you have any steelhead on your steelhead tour?

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