By Ryan Hung
There are many articles floating around on the internet and hidden away in books, expounding subjective matter on how to catch more fish – namely steelhead. While some are tailored to sell certain products, others are written in order to captivate an audience to expand reader base; it seems as if today, the authenticity of writing is predicated on sales. Today we'll be covering approach and guide-approved tactics—applicable to all steelhead bank anglers—tailored to assist you along your steelhead journey.
To be successful in the long run, take excellent care of your gear. Hang your waders up, wipe down your rods and reels, organize your tackle and apply water repellent to your rain gear. As my captain in Alaska—ironically a filthy man—recited to me daily "young man, cleanliness is next to Godliness.". So clean that egg-goop off of your rods, and don additional self respect not only for you, but your fellow anglers; you are the representative for all steelhead anglers, each time you return riverside. With each passing season, I come closer to understanding why many fly fishermen abhor gear anglers, and not only due to the fact we take more fish. In contrast, I've observed how fly fishermen keep their appearance and standard of ethics in check, ego varying by individual. Only have I seen line clippings carefully placed into a special container to preserve the enviroment, alongside areas unadultured and maintained in such a manner where gear fishing is prohibited. If you're interested in learning the excellence of environmental stewardship, take a few outings with an experienced feather-flicker and observe their actions on the water.
A long debated topic that has the inexperienced wondering why yarn companies manufacture 10 shades of pink, while each one seems to catch without "rhyme or reason." Universally there are three undebated primary colors steelhead enjoy: steelhead orange, baby pink and black. River system and run timing dependent, fish will always prefer one to the other, black reserved for the special occasions of gin clear summer waters, as well as high and muddy conditions. Rather than devoting energy to finding that "perfect shade" of pink through color cycling, one will bank larger numbers of fish properly identifying holding slots and perfecting speed and depth of presentation. During the winter season when temperatures drop and water remains gin-clear, utilize white and blue; they captivate fish during such lethargic periods due to the immense amount of light they reflect. When the water churns and visibility recedes to but a few inches, throw black; it casts the largest silhouette, despite what every angler "thinks." Chartreuse, cerise and bright oranges can only reflect such colors—simply wavelengths of light—when light is present, black absorbing all wavelengths of light, 24/7. When in doubt, turn to grade school knowledge and not-so-common "common sense."
Years staring at the river surface and watching fish shake hooks has taught me to leave that extra $20 at the tackle store, rather than the river empty-handed. There are many hook manufacturers out there; I've used them all (Gamakatsu, Vision, Owner, Beau Mac) in all colors, sizes and shapes. After switching to Owner Cutting Point hooks one season, my hook to land ratio returned to a respectable number. If you're going to "cheap out" on one item, you'll do far better saving on waders and apparel. Never compromise any gear between the tip of your rod to the tip of the hook. After all, you only have one connection with your opponent —make it count.
Steelhead possess immaculate vision; you needn't worry if they can "see" your offering. Oftentimes they simply choose to reject it, especially when convinced there is "nothing there." If I had a dime for every time I had "nothing-there" syndrome, I suppose I'd have an overabundance! Picture this: you're sitting on your couch at home watching the tube. A dime-sized cherry tomato rolls onto the floor, 20 feet away — do you see it? In a different scenario, imagine a pancake sitting atop your kitchen table by it's lonesome — is it that hard to see? Add a fog machine to the at-home scenarios and imagine how linear the correlation becomes between object size and clarity. Steelhead are no different than you and I, save for a set of fins and vision genetically adapted and practiced to a level required for daily survival. When the water is cloudy, double or triple your size; though it looks absurd, oftentimes you will be surprised to find only your rod bent, in a line of 40 waving graphite sticks. When the water is tainted steelhead green, think quarter or nickel-sized, and dime-sized in low and clear water. If there are extremely aggressive fish refusing your smaller offerings during standard conditions, a larger offering will be your ticket to enticing them to bite.
Every river and season is different. You'll do best selecting egg cures over a period of time by first taking initiative to build relation with fellow bank anglers. Next, compile 10 or so anecdotes and finally, create a tally of the most effective egg-cures for the river you're fishing. Make sure to properly bleed your fish and lay your eggs in paper towels immediately after harvesting them, always wearing nitrile gloves. After butterflying the skeins and saturating them in cure at home, drain off the excess juice prior to plasmolysis—the reabsorption phase of curing—some 6 hours after turning them on the counter. These two simple techniques paired with high quality skeins have provided me a clean and consistent supply of bait, never hesitant to bring along a "friend" to the bank. Keep it clean and simple for the best results.
As if it wasn't difficult enough waking up at 03:00, flogging the water, properly presenting offerings and skirmishing your opponent to shore, it follows to continue such acuity down the line, especially when it comes to the most important variable affecting the quality of your fish: field preparation. Once a fish to be harvested is banked, it should quickly receive the Four Step Process. 1). Two to three blows to the top of the skull between the eyes with a hard object. 2). With a non-serrated blade, one clean 1" insertion of the blade beneath the operculum to the heart. 3). One additional 1" horizontal slice from the base of the gills forward to the tongue to open the jugular vein. 4). Bringing the fish back to the water and carefully tendering it during the bleeding process, one hand grasped above the tail out of the water, the other cradling the head in the water. Simply cutting a fish's gills and tossing it up on the bank results in immediate coagulation and the pooling of deoxygenated blood inside of the flesh. I don't particularly enjoy the acrid flavor of poorly prepared fish, but to each their own.
In the world of steelhead angling, fluorocarbon is completely unnecessary, save for bottom-bouncing and those special occasions when angling highly pressured waters. Seeing how fluorocarbon is built with a stronger exterior sheath than monofilament, it should be reserved for particular occasions that batter gear. If you're the one wondering if your line is "invisible enough," you're asking the wrong question. You should be asking "am I presenting at the proper speed and depth, with a color pattern properly catered to weather conditions, water clarity and the time of the run?" Thinner diameter lines reach the strike zone promptly and spend the most time in it; over time, this results in a larger quantity of hook-ups. Save your money on fluorocarbon until you troll the emerald green waters of the pelagic for Marlin or Mahi-mahi, who have no problem seeing #40 monofilament, already bearing semblance of rope.
Keeping a journal is one of the most effective tools a steelhead angler can possess, as it further explains what worked, when and why. If you're the type of angler who frequents the same haunts season after season, you'll begin to ascertain the patterns and formulate your own winning "angling equation." Make sure to include air temperature, water clarity and river gage height, alongside specific location(s) and weather patterns, in addition to presentation style, offering weight and color pattern(s). Catch more fish consistently by exerting effort over the organization of your personal angling data. For those interested in expediting the process, politely ask your close friends if they'd be open to sharing their data with you, in return for yours. Working collectively will increase your process efficiency, in opposition to the lone wolf.
By the way, Northwest Fishing Reports is the perfect online tool to organize your reports and have them available for years to come. Plus, the reports are searchable by date, location, and species. And easy to pull up on your phone when you're out on the river and need to check an old report to refresh your memory.
There are three primary styles of angling within the world of gear fishing for steelhead: float, drift and hardware. To my experienced students who have weathered the majority of my curriculum—those with true grit--I "tie one hand behind their back" and allow them one style of fishing per outing. For those who enjoy the itinerancy and excitement only grabs from spinners and wrenches on spoons (hardware) can provoke, I expect them to become proficient in all conditions with the recombinant technique. For those accustomed to the feather-light takes and gentle taps along the bottom, I segregate them from the other styles and encourage them to stay the course to master the natural drift. Finally, to those who want to produce numbers, I give them the road for all float related inquiries; they're permitted to suspend offerings to their heart's content, so long as they remain affixed beneath a float. An angler will do much better perfecting one style of presentation per year, in opposition to all three haphazardly conglomerated in one dismal outing on the water, in attempt to compensate for the lack of skill in all three. Keep it simple by attaining true proficiency in one style (acquiring skill, consistently executing and teaching another) before moving on.
I cannot stress the great importance of mentorship in life and steelhead angling alike. If ever you meet a consistent angler who produces day in and out, it is highly likely the individual has already shared their strongest skill with another. During the process of teaching and walking alongside an amateur angler, the opportunity for self improvement arises, as one is able to see both strengths and inefficiencies embodied in the student. From there, one can correct their skill. Picture your student as a blank white board earnestly waiting to receive knowledge, while serving as a filter for yours.
Though I dislike the thought, the reality is this: it is highly unlikely the next few generations will have the privilege of enjoying this sport. Rewind the clock on steelhead fisheries 30 years; what do you see? If you fast forward 30 years from today, do you foresee abundance or closed waters? However downtrodden the future for the hatchery steelhead fisheries of the Pacific Northwest appears, it is no excuse for lining the banks and parking lots with trash and treating fellow man with flagrant attitude and strong opposition. I get it, the rivers are crowded and many anglers get "skunked" because they lack not in fishing skill, but intrinsically. These two combined with pollution harbor the perfect environment for fear and hatred. Pick up trash that isn't yours, treat your fellow angler with kindness and move along — not because they're ethically the "right" things to do, but because you'll become a better human being and angler as a result of participation. Be selfish and choose kindness and environmental stewardship as your closest advisors — they will repay you in overabundance in skill and efficacy in steelheading.
My personal journey through steelhead angling has allowed me the honor of interactively absorbing a highly-prized collection of life-lessons that have made me a better man. Some days tested my perseverance while others taught me how to enjoy silence and simply marvel at the beauty of God and nature. Once you get past the "catching phase," I hope you will continue to cultivate your angling skill in honor and excellence, on your unique path to whatever end it may flow. There are many known variables in this art that allow anglers to hone their skill, but sometimes the fish don't bite. At any end, remember what truly matters — walking back to the car, more complete in character than yesterday.
Thank you for reading!