One of the biggest challenges any outdoor writer faces is writing an article about a fishing trip when he couldn’t catch a fish. It’s scary, really, especially when you’re doing it on Halloween, which is precisely what I was doing last Friday. I’d already spent most of three days frantically flaying the waters of the Grande Ronde River without raising a single steelhead.
Then, it happened.
But first a little background.
Last year, I went on a mission to catch my first steelhead on a fly. I spent a day on the Grande Ronde with local guide Mac Huff of Eagle Cap Fishing Guides of Joseph, Oregon. We nymphed hard all day, and finally, one of those mysterious metalheads jerked my strike indicator down and I had a hook-up. After a brief tail dance, though, that steelie left me with a limp line and a chance to practice my French.
Later on last year’s Grande Ronde sojourn, I managed to catch two steelies on a wet fly, so I had that onus off my back. While fishing with Mac that day, he talked up how amazing–and challenging–it was to catch steelhead on dry flies–the ultimate in steelheading, it seems.
And, big surprise, I was easily seduced. Fishaholics don’t have a chance against a guy like Mac Huff, so we made a deal. When the steelhead start hitting dries, contact me, and I’ll leave in the middle of a sentence, which I did.
Veteran steelheaders might want to go clean your spey rod because you’ve already been fortunate enough to have this experience, but for anglers who haven’t caught Steelhead Fever yet or those who already have this terminal disease and want to move up to trying to bring one up on a dry, read on.
I routinely fish for trout on the Missouri north of Helena, but that experience is basically counterproductive to efforts to fly fish for steelhead. “Forget everything you know about trout fishing,” Mac said.
But Mac, it’s so hard. First off, I use flies about the size of a fleck of pepper, but Mac said buy size 4 and 6 flies, something I suspect many fly casters have never even seen. They have some memorable names, too, like moose turds, skunk butts and green-butted bombers. (I suppose this says something about steelheaders, but I’m not going there.)
When you fly fish for trout, you must carefully manage your line, striving for a perfectly natural drift, properly mended with no drag. For steelhead, Mac says, do exactly the opposite. They never hit a drifting fly, he insists. They want skating flies. This means using a huge fly, extensively doped with floatant, cast roughly at a 45 degree angle downstream and then skated back toward shore until directly downstream. Instead of trying to leave no wake, you want the largest wake possible, which is why they call it either waking or skating your fly.
“When you get a hit,” Mac explained, be prepared. “They don’t fool around; it’s real heart attack.”
Sort of like a big pike erupting on a popper, we agreed. “But don’t set the hook until you feel them pulling on your line,” he emphasized, “because you’ll jerk it right out of their mouth.”
Hearing that, I groaned loudly. “Fat chance of me reversing five decades of doing that,” I muttered.
On our first day, October 29, my fishing buddy Ron Solberg and I fished all day with Mac, skating those monster flies hundreds of times across the untamed waters of the Grande Ronde. Ron had one steelhead come up, but guess what? He immediately set the hook..and, well, no fish for Ron.
Our second day, more of the same. Hundreds of casts without raising a single fish.
On the third day, Halloween, I was getting scared. How can I write about catching my first steelhead on a dry fly without a single rise, let alone a hook up.
Then, almost on cue, about half a nanosecond after my fly hit the water, an explosion flinging water six feet in all directions. Did I wait to “feel it pulling on my line”? Are you kidding? I instinctively set the hook, but I was luckier than Ron.
Ten minutes later after several nice runs and five spectacular leaps (amazing how any fish can jump three feet into the air out of two feet of water) and I was bringing that beautiful, silvery 25-inch steelhead in for its photo op.
But, you guessed it. No photo. One last-second run, and it was gone, a “conservation release,” followed by lots of French, a little euphoria, and of course, another massive infection of Steelhead Fever.
It’s incurable. One fish in three days, and I can’t wait to go back for more of the same. I can’t explain it, but steelhead definitely deserve their reputation.