Follow the rocks.
The last few seasons I've put some time in doing what we will call "alternative" tactics for catching steelhead. In case you don't know what that means, it means gear fishing for steelhead. Gear fishing?! Yes, gear. Gear fishing for steelhead teaches you a lot about fly fishing and vice versa. Where fish live, where they don't, where you think they don't... but they actually do, how they are willing to react to a spinner / spoon or plug, jig, etc. When I was guiding a lot on the Grande Ronde, I would watch gear guys fish water that no fly guy would ever touch and they caught fish. Sometimes a lot of them.
Now, I am definitely not an expert gear angler by any means, but I am an observant one. I've been observing where fly guys are not fishing and where gear guys are and wondering why more fly anglers are not fishing similar water. This kind of observation has lead to a few key points I wanted to make about fishing this first part of the year for steelhead. These notes really apply to months like July, August, September and the first half of October when the air / water temps are still very warm. One more disclaimer... this is nothing ground breaking, many good anglers (fly or gear) already understand these things about steelhead, I just want to reinforce them, or remind people not to overlook certain types of water and tactics.
- Fish the slots. Such a critical piece of water. The slot is the point in the river bottom that is the deepest, while being the easiest to navigate. I could probably write an article just on this one, but we will leave it at this point. The slot is usually easy to identify because it will look darker / deeper than the rest of the river. One could also call this the "bucket".
- Boulder gardens. Rocks are your friends because they are the steelheads friends. Shallow boulder gardens offer a myriad of places for steelhead to hangout. Boulders create current seams, break up their profile, create relief from currents, and really are just natural resting spots. Boulder gardens can be hard to pick at when swinging or nymphing. This is where shorter sink-tips like MOW's come into play for swinging, or very short nymphing rigs that consist just of a butt section and short piece of tippet. Boulder gardens may look too fast if you are not used to fishing them, but you would be very surprised on how many fish are hanging in the highly oxygenated water during the later summer and fall.
Slots between boulders provide slightly deeper refuge for traveling fish. Find the slot, find the fish.
- Shallow riffles. I've seen steelhead explode out of shallow riffles to pound a piece of metal. I'm talking 2' of water at the most. Don't over look the shallow stuff. In particular if no one has fished that stretch or the river is busy an people are fishing all the main pieces of water.
Shallow riffles that lead into the main pool or run can provide protection, especially during sunny conditions.
- Inside Corner Pockets. Sound familiar?? Look up our blog article and video about this for trout fishing on the website. Same thing applies for steelhead.
- Fish the fly fast. My buddy Larimer always said this to me and clients on our camp trips, don't slow the swing down, keep it moving fast. After watching steelies move for a fast paced piece of hardware, I never look at my swing pace the same in this early season. I initiate the swing as soon as the fly hits the water and keep it moving along at a fairly fast pace. The old swinging mantra was slow it down, slow it down... bogus. Speed that damn fly up.
- Steelhead are like trout. Not in the sense that they are sipping on bwo's like a trout. I mean in the way they react to flies. A lot of anglers that strictly swing for steelhead think that the only way to catch them is on this nice steady, down and across swing. Not true. Steelhead will react to flies in all sorts of ways... they will chase them downstream for example. Ever been streamer fishing while drifting a really clear river and watched a trout chase your streamer to the boat? Steelhead will do the same thing. They may be big, but they can act just like they did when they were smolt in the river.
- Don't let steelhead intimidate you. Just think of them as a big ol' trout moving up the river. Find the path of least resistance that they could swim through to get to the next resting spot or pool... and you will find the fish.