A few years ago I was presented with a question from an enthusiastic, relative newcomer to steelhead fly fishing. I’ve been internally consumed by that question ever since.
His question was, “What separates the top steelheaders from the average angler like me?”
As a 30-year veteran of the pursuit, and a long-time guide and instructor, this simple question has made me better at all three. I know what it takes for sure: The ability to cast and wade; water reading skills including hydraulic dynamics; steelhead behavior; confidence of fly selection applicable to the present river conditions; knowing where to be and when; proper presentation, perseverance; dedication and certainly gobs of faith. I don’t believe anyone would argue that these things are the meat of the foundation for a viable shot at connecting with a steelhead on a swung fly.
So why have I been consumed with the question? Because to me the answer is deeper than that, and I am still mystified by steelhead. All things being equal, the very best steelhead anglers are extremely efficient with no, or very little, time wasted. This wasted time is often referred to as downtime.
Downtime doesn’t mean stepping out of the river to have lunch, take a break, or combing the gravel bar looking for cool rocks to add to the collection. Downtime rears its ugly head once we’ve sized-up our water, stepped in, and commenced the hunt.
I believe that once we step into the river and make our first cast an intricate process has begun. The steelhead is out there in her aquatic world holding herself righted in the current. She is acutely sensitive to her surroundings far more than we can comprehend. She’s got to be. She’s both a predator and a prey animal with the instincts to be very successful at both. Her survival depends on it. I contend that she is aware of our swinging fly long before she accepts, rejects, or displays disinterest in it. Predatory animals are extremely in tune with the patterns of their prey’s predictability. They look for it and rely on it. As our fly is swinging across the run at the same distance each time, at the same relative speed and depth, it’s getting closer to the fish at regular intervals of time and space. It is indeed predictable to the alert steelhead. Downtime during the process disrupts the predictable nature of the swinging fly. Large amounts of downtime can, and often does, adversely affect the desired outcome. Even relatively small of amounts of downtime are bothersome to me whether I’m doing the fishing or I’m watching someone else. The bothersome part is that it throws a wrench in my own instinctive flow. I know from experience how important clean, uninterrupted rhythm is.
So how does one reduce downtime? Awareness and time on the water. There’s no way around it. The more you do it the better you get. Here’s a short list of a few areas where downtime can accumulate and we can work to improve upon:
Casting. Uh, yeah. No cast, no fish. Practice when you’re not fishing. Be versatile – learn to cast comfortably from both sides of the river and off both shoulders. Stay relaxed. Get good at it. Good doesn’t mean casting 120 feet. It means being able to cast as far as you need to and where you need to, executing each cast with ease and lack of much thought about casting. Physical obstacles behind and around you should be fished through, not around. Picture the methodical process and you’ll understand why.
Wading. It’s essential and part of the game. We all have our limitations and may need to avoid wading runs that are beyond acceptable levels of safety and comfort. Stumbling through a run while tense and unstable is not fun and equates to downtime. Casting usually goes south when we are overly concerned with staying upright and dry. Wading is an act where skill level increases with time on the water.
Flies and knots. These usually take a backseat to casting and wading but I’ve been witness many times to serious downtime derived from knots and flies. Learn your knots! Learn them to the point of being able to tie them fast and with your eyes closed. If you need reading glasses to tie your knots have them accessible and secured to you somehow. They are no good to you if they drop into the river. As silly as it sounds, use them. I’ve watched anglers take up to five minutes making futile attempts at getting a fly attached only to then dig through their pockets to locate their magnifiers. Stubborn? Lazy? I don’t know. What I do know is that’s way too long to do a 20-second fly change in the middle of a run! Speaking of flies, we really shouldn’t be doing too many fly changes during the run. Sometimes we need to swap for a comeback fly. Other times we may lose confidence in the fly we’ve chosen, and our trusted instincts tell us to change. That should not happen too often. Pick a fly that feels good, believe in it, and fish it through the entire process.
Tackle choice. How can tackle choice equate to downtime? Easy. Mismatched equipment slows us down as we compensate and struggle to make it work. The primary culprit here has to do with our fly lines being the wrong grain weight for our rod. An underloaded road requires lots of extra work with often dismal results. I have also watched people struggling only to discover that they’ve put their line on backwards. Really you say? Yes, many times. Those tapers were not designed to be cast backwards. Learn about your equipment. There’s plenty of resources available. Right on this website in fact. I’ve said this before, but I can’t stress enough how important a medium-action full-flexing rod is to my own fishing. For the purpose of this article I will only touch on how it reduces downtime. It loads easy, deep and fast allowing me to really relax and focus on my presentation. If my back is against the wall it allows me to efficiently load the rod with a very shallow D-loop. This way I can keep covering the water without much thought if there are obstacles behind me. That alone is justification enough for me.
When Nature calls. A personal subject but a real process-breaking downtime instigator. Reeling up, wading back to shore, doing your business, heading back out and restarting takes a lot more time than we think. Downtime with major flow disruption – yep pun intended! Personally I hold it and keep fishing. The choice is yours…
A few key downtime promoters. Anything that disrupts the rhythm and flow is downtime. Your fly hangs up and is hopelessly snagged. DO NOT take the time to retrieve it. Break it off and swiftly tie on a new one. If you chase it down you’ve seriously disrupted the process and could very well ruin all that you’ve worked for. It breaks up the predictability of the fly in a big way. You lose your precise positioning when you return to where you left off. That is, if you return. I’m horrified when I see someone walk down 40 feet to retrieve their fly only to resume fishing right there. There is also the chance of spooking the steelhead you were just about to hook. The angles and distance with which we cast are also big contributors to downtime. If the breadth of the productive water is 20 feet wide, it makes no sense to be casting much beyond that. However casting is fun! Launch that puppy 90-100 feet because you can. Wahoo! Now wait 15-30 seconds (downtime, downtime, downtime…) until the fly enters the productive zone. Then once it’s there, I’ve observed many anglers displaying boredom and thus not fishing the sweet-spot well at all. Wow. Think about that. It happens all the time. Don’t let it happen to you. Let’s do some quick math. If the run you are fishing takes 50 casts to cover and you are wasting 20 seconds per cast in unproductive water, that equates to 1000 seconds or 16.6 minutes. If you do this in six runs throughout your fishing day that equates to over 1 1/2 hours of wasted time. Enough said.
Casting at poor angles for the given hydrology of the run equates to poor presentation which in turn is also downtime. Learning perfect casting/presentation angles is another facet that simply takes time and astute observation. Don’t worry, though. Good steelhead swing-water is pretty forgiving in that regard. It’s good fly water for a reason. Good water does most of the work as long as you cast down and across. In time, through experimentation and awareness, you can really hone your water reading and presentation skills.
There are a lot of little things that make up the sum of this whole, and many can’t be taught. We just have to get out there and experience it for ourselves being mindful of our new downtime awareness and how it affects the hunt for steelhead.
I’m aware that much of what I’m saying may prompt many questions and has potential for lengthy discussions. It’s not my intention to open a can of worms (or box of flies if you prefer) here leaving you with many questions. At the very least it’s something to think about, and perhaps open a new sense of awareness for you. Please keep in mind that my aim is just that, to make you aware. Some of just don’t have the time, or even desire, to take it to the next level. It does take time. But, and I mean but, with a few simple adjustments you CAN increase your chances of hooking more heart-stopping steelhead. Good luck!
See ya on the river!