As previously published in Fly Fusion Magazine.
My first guiding job was hardly glamorous.
A sturgeon and Pacific salmon guide on the Fraser river, I spent my summer mornings motoring through swirling back-eddies, and gaffing floating, rotten salmon.
I cringed at the soft, furry flesh that tore under the dulling prong, the light meat plump and glistening with water-bloat and bacterial rot. Sticky roe balls wrapped in women’s nylons were almost appetizing when compared to such “salmon stink-bait collections,” as we called them.
Throwing carcasses into the bow of my boat, I let their pungency thrive and flourish in the heat of the sun before baiting bits of them onto a hook and assuring my clients that the smell would, “grow on them — not literally, though it might feel like that by the end of the day.”
Promises of winter steelhead trips kept me in the game, after several seasons of Fraser river guiding under someone else’s license (which is the professional way of saying “thumb”), as many guides do, I left to begin my own company as an independent outfitter.
My dream was to sell the experience of B.C. steelhead to tourists and local aspiring anglers. I wanted to give them more than just the chance of hooking a fish. I wanted to share with them all the elements of the experience — scenery, techniques, casting, flies, shoreside lunches, bald eagles. In short I wanted to show them fly fishing’s beauty and its lessons beyond the fish.
Winter steelheading is not the easiest pursuit, and I soon learned that a nine hour day could still be well spent if guests were taught how to be more efficient on the water. Step by step I waded with them through runs, demonstrating and explaining fish biology, water flows, fly presentation and casting.
For this post I thought it might be beneficial to look at 15 common errors that I see regularly on both winter and summer-run steelhead trips. Of course some of these are not always errors — some are occasionally sound techniques — but nonetheless here are some personal observations that I hope will be worthwhile.
1) Fishing too heavy
Depending on water levels, clarity, and temperature, steelhead occasionally hold close to shore. Many anglers make the mistake of believing that fishing deeper water inevitably increases their chances of hooking fish. When a client asserts this belief, my response it to remind them that steelhead are almost always looking up.
Furthermore, when a fish is sitting close to shore, heavy sink tips often snag the river bottom before the fly has had time to swing into the fish’s view. When this happens, the angler engages in a wrestling match with his tungsten opponent; thrashing water and noisy boots alarm the fish and encourage it to move elsewhere.
Casting on a slightly downstream angle can sometimes eliminate this problem, but so too can fishing with a less dense line.
2) Assuming the water is too murky for a top water pattern
Steelhead are able to spot an angler’s waked dry fly in surprisingly cloudy conditions. I used to refuse to fish dry flies on the Dean River unless the water was perfectly clear. But my brother-in-law and head guide, Steve Morrow, had read in a Trey Comb’s book that steelhead can see surface patterns with just 12 to 18 inches of visibility. We put that theory to the test and were astounded at how many fish smashed our surface flies. Since then we’ve both been confident to encourage anglers to fish dry flies in water that is less than gin clear.
3) Single nail knots
There are few worse feelings than that of a light rod that has just lost both its line and the fish attached to it. I am appalled at the amount of anglers who show up for their trip of a lifetime with a single ratty nail knot connecting their backing to their running line. What’s worse is when I find out that the culprit is their local fly shop! There are better knots to attach running line to backing. Even a double nail knot will do the trick.
4) Wading out too deep
Unless you know exactly where a fish is holding, it’s best to avoid charging into the current before first casting close to shore. I encourage anglers to start by casting just their leader, then their sink tip, and then their fly line. Then I have them increase distance incrementally until they are casting either as far as they can or as far as they need to.
If nothing else, this makes for a safer day.
5) Not fishing thoroughly
It’s amazing how many people walk past or through a tailout because they feel it’s too fast, shallow or choppy. But often these tailouts hold fish that are large or aggressive.
Just as often ignored are the upper sections of the head of a run. Usually this area has some sort of change in gradient and the water forms a gentle trough along either side of the faster flow. It’s logical that fish rest here before making their next spurt upstream. If the anglers can get their flies in front of one of these fish, they have a shot at getting a bite.
6) Casting too far
This is just as frequent an error as wading too far. I admit that I can also be guilty of this. Long casts just feel satisfying. However, heavy currents move the fly from its desired location, thus lessening the goal of efficiency.
Often the “seam” (as you’ll hear guides call it), runs along both sides of a swift current. By casting across the current and trying to reach the opposite seam, the fly usually gets caught up in the heavy flow and is pushed out of the target zone. Of course it depends on the situation, but anglers are usually better off casting their flies directly into the zone and then concentrating on fishing the area properly.
7) Not thinking outside the box
Point #6 brings me to this one. The folks who always “cast, swing, take a step and repeat” are the cookie cutters of the steelhead world. I can’t count the days when I’ve watched anglers make the same cast, mindlessly swing the fly the same way, and then stand stiff in the same position in hopes that a fish might interrupt the monotony.
The best anglers know that they need to work every run a little differently, applying subtle or not-so-subtle variations to every cast, every step, and every presentation.
I think of it as piecing together a puzzle. Every cast and the way the angler fishes it out should be executed with some strategy — or if not strategy, then at least some thought. Each cast should be the most suitable one for the situation.
There are many variables to consider: water speed, obstructions, hydraulics, gradient, pressure, time of year… the list is endless. I learned much of my steelheading methodology by fishing gear when I was younger. There were times when I high-sticked my rod, times when I walked my float downstream, and times when I dumped line into the water to gain some depth. I still apply many of these techniques to my fishing, regardless of what sort of rod I am using.
8) Mending too much
It’s always been a mystery to me how so many anglers ignore point #7, yet partake in excessive mending. To mend means to fix, and if it’s not broken then why disrupt, slacken or jolt the fly in mid-presentation? Mending is an important part of fishing, but we need to know why we are doing it. It appears that many anglers mend out of sheer habit — and a sloppy habit at that.
Proper mending requires skill, practise, knowledge and precision. Simply ripping the line mindlessly in one direction or the other is not efficiency.
When attempting to mend any sort of shooting head, it is important to lift the rod tip up until their running line has cleared the water. From here, a mend might make sense provided it is the shooting head that is being adjusted rather than just the running line (I sometimes even use a haul to transmit the mend further down the line). But please, for the sake of your guide, don’t try to mend the light running line if all the mend does is leave your shooting head where it was before, and your rod tip whipping convulsively through the air.
9) Over before it starts
It’s quite commonplace for anglers to hear that steelhead usually take “mid swing”. I can’t deny that I have seen this to be true, but I have also seen fish take on virtually every other part of the presentation: when the fly first lands, in mid swing, on the dangle and on the retrieve. Fish love to surprise us.
Fish sometimes take the fly within seconds of it hitting the water. While it doesn’t happen often, it happens enough that an angler should be ready for it. Common errors are making a huge sloppy mend that introduces unnecessary slack, fidgeting with gear, attire or body parts, applying chap stick, and dropping the rod tip to the water immediately upon casting (thus introducing slack between the line and fly). The latter is easily avoided by simply slowly lowering the rod tip after making a cast, while maintaining some tension on the line.
10) Bad casts, good fish
Although it may be contradictory to point #9, bad casts can sometimes be just the cast a fish is looking for. I have seen more bad casts catch fish than good ones, and there are times when I swear the dead drift is the reason for it. This is too situational to elaborate on however, and while bad casts may hurt the ego, they likely won’t hurt your efficiency on the water (depending on just how bad your casting is).
11) Have some faith
Too often I see fish lost because of distraction — specifically when an angler is taking line off their reel in preparation for the next cast. Here, the angler neglects to give their current presentation enough faith or enough time. The line has slack introduced, the fish takes the fly, the line isn’t managed properly, and the fish uses that to its advantage as it spits the hook.
The lesson is that it’s important to complete one swing before starting the next.
12) Eager receiver
In the Spey world we call the “hang-down”, the “dangle”. This is when the fly has swung through the current and has reached a position parallel with the shore. Fish often lie here, especially when the water is high and dirty. Anglers too anxious to re-cast retrieve their fly before it reaches a true dangle position. I often see anglers cut their “swing time” in half. Imagine how many more fish could be hooked if the fly was in the water for twice as much time.
13) Omitting the strip
Stripping flies is one of the most fundamental of fly-fishing methods, so why would we not use it while steelhead fishing? Just like the dangle, stripping the fly not only allows the angler to leave the fly in the water longer, it provides one last opportunity to persuade a nearby fish to bite. If you have to strip line in to recast, why not take the extra few seconds to make some small strips or twitches, just in case there’s a fish following the fly?
14) A bloody disaster with a capital “L”
The “bloody L” is one of the most common casting errors I witness in the Spey world, yet surprisingly few clients have ever heard of it.
The “bloody L” could occupy a feature article in this publication, but I’ll summarize quickly here and encourage you to research it further.
It occurs when the D-Loop fails to align the anchor parallel to the forward cast. The name comes from the way the line lays in an “L” shape on the water. The result is a forward cast that lacks the energy to roll over properly. This is typically caused by setting the anchor in an improper position prior to the sweep, or by an incomplete or shortened sweep which fails to carry enough energy into the D-Loop.
15) Quick landings
It is important to land these fish as quickly and safely as possible. Rather than applying slight pressure to the fish with the rod straight up in the air, I encourage anglers to fight with their rod pointed low (as one would when fighting a tarpon) and downstream. This tends to tire the fish out in the current, rather than enabling and revitalizing them.
Also please remember that when in B.C., your hooks must be single and barbless. It might even be worthwhile to get in the habit of doing this in all rivers that are home to wild steelhead.
When releasing a fish (all wild steelhead must be released in B.C.), it is important to hold the fish gently in the water until it has recovered enough to swim away. Facing it upstream allows the fish to regulate itself in the current, and when it has gained enough strength, it will propel itself away from the angler and back into the wild.
Thanks for reading! See you on the water!
I remember my first experience behind a fly-tying vise.
Excited, I pushed an old VHS tape into the VCR — squirming as it wound and whirred until the faded image of a smiling white-haired man appeared. He sat behind a desk with various odds and ends in front of him.
I sat back anxiously waiting to determine whether or not I had the necessary tools to proceed to tie my first trout fly with him.
Vise? Check. Bobbin? Check. Scissors? Check. Thread? Ummm…
I looked around. Nope.
Pressing the pause button, I ran downstairs to dig through my mom’s sewing station until I found a spool of black thread.
I watched the man carefully, my finger hovering on the rewind button while he explained the basics of fly-tying. I spent the morning pausing the tape, running around the house digging up old fur coats, toys and anything else that might suffice as reasonable substitutes for the materials he was using.
It was the start of what would soon become a complete obsession with fly-tying; its history, materials and possibilities.
A few years later, I was twenty years old and spending my winter nights around the tying table with other dedicated fly-fishermen. It didn’t take long for me to learn about productive west-coast steelhead flies, and soon I was making my own variations of more traditional patterns.
We were fishing for summer-run steelhead in a winter setting. November and December iced the river banks, but the promise of summer steelhead lurking in the depths nearby kept many of us hopeful, so we fished into the chilly dark.
Summer steelhead differ from their winter relatives in that they enter the system in an immature state. With more time to make their migration, and with increased metabolisms due to warmer water, summer-run steelhead have more energy and a tendency to take both swung and dry flies.
Those of us who had previously fished strenuously with single-hand fly rods made the switch to double-hand rods (commonly referred to as Spey rods), making it easier to turn over heavy flies and sink tips. Until the increasing popularity of double-hand rods, the preferred fly fishing approach was to use much lighter, smaller flies (simple leeches, green-butt skunks, general practitioners, etc.).
While at the time we didn’t have Skagit lines or such pronounced shooting heads, Windcutters and mid belly lines still offered some ability to present larger profiled streamers.
With this equipment, we were able to add more size and creativity into our flies. Flies were tied on a cut-off shank that ranged anywhere from one to three inches in length. From here, we tied in a loop of reinforced wire or monofilament, extending it just far enough past the cut-off shank to attach a trailing hook (by loop to looping the stinger hook through).
This allowed us to switch out our hook in the event that it dulled, bent or rusted, without having to replace the fly itself. It also gave lengthy flies some leverage to land fish that would otherwise have 3/0 hooks teetering on the point of untimely self-removal.
Granted, such large flies had the potential to be over-dressed, too bulky to cast or to penetrate the water’s surface.
The goal was to give the fly enough volume to allow it the ability to dance and pulsate as it swam through the water’s current, but to do so with as few materials as possible.
This was done by tying in two balls of dubbing for a maximum splayed effect. One was placed in the front of the fly, the other in the back. With only a single strand of tinsel wound through the middle, each dubbing ball served to separate the sections of volume.
Such flies were the perfect compilation to show the fish something different, whilst still allowing the angler to cast effortlessly.
For simplicity sake, I’ve named these flies “two-steppers”.
Eventually the popularity of this fly pattern grew and today it is commonly known as Ed Ward’s Intruder (which is actually incorrect as the Intruder has its own specific pattern).
At the time many of us didn’t know the fly’s name or who had popularized such characteristics — what we did know was that we were catching more fish by using them.
To achieve such volume, there are several different materials on the market that I specifically seek out for my flies. Polar bear, arctic foxtail and synthetic ice dub are my first choices when looking for materials that are coarse enough to maintain a splayed effect, yet soft enough to move easily in the water.
Pre-dubbed brushes significantly cut down tying time, as standard dubbing can take up to three times longer for many tiers.
From here, an over-laying material is added above the dubbing to contribute to length. Again, there are many differing opinions on what works best for this. For me, it is the rhea feather. The rhea’s long fibres encompass the splayed dubbing beautifully, and the fly then holds its shape — moving with maximum action, yet with only a few very simple ingredients.
For a video of how to do each of these steps click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fckTjdVxi5Q
A couple years ago, to help educate and entertain students, I purchased a swim-tank to bring to all of my tying classes.
It’s a plexiglass tank with a pump that simulates an artificial current. The flow holds the fly in place so that observers may analyze the different characteristics of various materials and patterns.
With this, I quickly received an education on materials that look better in the water vs. those that look better on the shelf.
Fast forward a few years and it didn’t take long for “Intruder” variations to circulate throughout steelhead circles in both the west-coast and Great Lakes regions.
Before long, anglers all around me on my home rivers had swapped out their 9 foot single-handers and green-butt skunks for 14 foot double handers and large flies.
It was inevitable (and ironic) that I would eventually turn back to smaller profiled flies — except, rather than rid my arsenal of “two-steppers” altogether, I simply downsized my flies in half (one ball of dubbing), relabeling them as “one-steppers” instead.
While my tying style became minimized, so too did my time at the tying bench.
Often in a hurry to tie guide flies for the following morning, it was the tube fly that became my fly of choice.
Truthfully, I’d always been a tube fly fan. My early days as a steelheader meant that paycheques were few and far between — plus, the price for a package of Alec Jacksons (that I would only cut and use for the shanks), had me seeking cheaper alternatives.
Plastic Q-tips, W-40 straws, bobby pins… I got creative and found that as long as I had a package of stinger hooks, I could tie materials onto just about anything.
The Europeans had long since perfected the tube fly and some North American anglers were trying their best to do the same.
Tube flies have some advantages that shanks with looped wire can’t compete with. The amount of time it takes to tie in the stinger loop, paired with the cost of hook shanks and non-kinking wire, threw my thriftiness into a tube fly frenzy.
Using a simple tapered needle, I’d place the needle into the jaws of my vise and then slide the tubing down until it sat snug on the extension. From here, I would tie both one and two steppers by the hundreds — each fly only taking minutes to complete.
Now my flies were still able to interchange hooks, allow me the leverage of a short shank to land my fish quickly, and they were quick, simple and affordable.
In addition to their functionality, now I no longer had to comply with the rules of proper proportions. There are no hook eyes on a tube so an over-crowded head wasn’t of any concern.
I’d cut off excess tubing and then reuse it, saving me both money and materials.
Gone were the days of cautiously mapping out stinger wire and its spacing, the tube fly quickly replacing wire that had been tied in either twisted, too far back, or too short to actually slide a stinger hook on.
Suddenly I could simply slide my tube fly down my leader and then adjust the hook as necessary to ensure no short-takes or deep-throated fish.
I was confused why so many North Americans were vehemently opposed to using them.
And gone were the days of commercial tying companies using cheap, limp braided line to tie in their stingers. I’ll tell you a secret, no, the hook does not straighten out when swinging through the current – in fact, even when it’s being fished, the limp braid swings very similar to this:
The answer hit me one day while quietly sitting in a fly shop and waiting for my class to start.
I watched a young sales associate explain tube flies to a customer. Before the salesman could even begin to place the monofilament through the front of the tube, the customer’s eyes glazed over with boredom — he literally walked away mid-sentence, heading to the familiarity of the colourful leech bin.
It was at that moment my question was answered: tube flies weren’t less popular for any other reason than that they coincided with misunderstanding and unfamiliarity.
As I grew older I was able to begin traveling around the world in search of steelhead and Atlantic salmon. I learned that if I packed primarily tube flies for my trip, I could simply swap out hook sizes suitable for each unique fishery. I carried a plethora of tubes in all shapes and sizes. For example, in the event that I was fishing in BC for large Chinook salmon, I could use a 2/0 stinger hook — if I then saw a small steelhead roll in a slower seam, it took only a matter of seconds to remove the large hook and replace it with a smaller one (while still using the same fly).
I explained my method to the lovely people of Chile…
…and demonstrated that a white stacker can prove efficient.
As the versatility presented itself, I quickly had a revelation.
With all of the many talents of the infamous tube, there was one more advantage that could persuade me to use them: they were stackable.
Soon, I was only tying “one-steppers” in every colour of the rainbow. I’d tie them in two sizes: short (rear one-steppers), and long (front one-steppers).
I simply stored them in a zip-lock baggie and proceeded to travel, mixing and matching my tubes until I had the size and colour combination best suited to where I was fishing.
If a river was low and clear I would slide one small tube down my leader, securing a small stinger hook with a loop-knot (or knot of choice).
If a river was murky or suited for larger flies, I would then slide another “one-stepper” atop the small one and the current would push them together into what looked like the standard pulsating “two-stepper”.
If they were hitting on top, I just added some foam.
By leaving a little excess tubing on the head of the rear one-stepper (or on the back of the front one-stepper, this is personal preference), upon completion it gave enough space between itself and the stacker next to it to give the appearance of that same breathability, or undulation that the “Intruder” has.
If I needed to have weight on some flies, I always had a small bag of tungsten beads in my wader pocket, where I would then slide one onto the front (or back) of the excess tubing in the fly.
I no longer had to tie both weighted and unweighted flies for my trips.
If I went fishing for dolly varden, I would slide two or three stackers onto my leader, steelhead and rainbow/brown trout used one or two, etc.
Furthermore, say I needed a chartreuse/blue fly for chinook, I’d stack a blue one- stepper with a chartreuse one — upon seeing a rolling steelhead, I’d then just replace the chartreuse section with a pink one instead.
The mix and match options were endless; the colors, sizes, profiles, weights, species… as long as I was fishing in a current (or stripping flies back to myself), my small bag of flies could be transformed into virtually any streamer needed for that specific fishery.
Trip organization was no longer dependent on specific fly profiles, color combinations,weights, or hook sizes — I now had access to multiple fly patterns and sizes without being weighed down by boxes filled with flies I would likely never even use.
From my days as a girl scrambling through the house trying to find materials, to my days as a woman who tries to exit the constriction of a very square box, creativity and innovation are frequent visitors to my vise.
Over the years fly preferences will continue to ebb and flow; changing from small to large, and from criticized to accepted.
There are always going to be styles, techniques and ideas that may not be for everyone, but I urge anglers to at least open their minds to the exploration of new concepts. Sometimes the answer is at our fingertips, but we are too busy staring at what is already in our hands to clearly be able to see it.
Advantages to Tubes:
-an ability to change fly profile without actually changing flies (stacking)
-an ability to change hook size without changing flies
-extra leverage when landing a fish
-no set boundaries for proportions (ex. heads)
-flies last longer (only replace hooks)
-easy to use and affordable
-adjust hook to materials & avoid short strike or “tonguing”
This video explains how to use rhea when tying streamers used for a variety of species in either fresh or saltwater.
*Please note – this video is not intended to show how to tie one specific pattern, rather it is to demonstrate several different applications and how/why they’re done.
We recommend using rhea in flies of all sizes, and encourage anglers to use them in patterns that use heron, marabou, faux hair, ostrich, and anything else that is used for length/movement. While rhea is famed for its length, remember that small, short and sparse flies can sometimes be even more appealing to fish, and so we encourage anglers to try using rhea in smaller, more traditional patterns as well.
Our rhea ranges between $8-$9 CDN, and we guarantee our feather quality, length/size, and low prices.
We do all of our dying in-house and specially source our materials direct from farmers in South America where sustainable efforts are practiced. http://www.flygal.ca/shop/rhea-feathers/
*As previously published in Fly Fusion magazine.
Ask the average angler today who Richard Waddington was and you will likely get a vague shrug and mumble about overpriced hook shanks that have recently been replaced by cheaper, more accessible alternatives.
But Waddington was not a piece of bent metal, nor was he deserving of any description short of innovative, thought-provoking, inquisitive, or dedicated.
Richard Waddington was an angler who resided in the UK. He lived from 1910 to 1999 and wrote nine sporting books. In 1948, he teamed with several biologists to write a revolutionary book titled Salmon Fishing – a new philosophy. I stumbled across the book during a conversation with Topher Browne: salmon enthusiast and author of Atlantic Salmon Magic, who had kindly given me his reading list to review and study.
*You can find my full reading list/reviews here.
Of the 30 book suggestions Topher sent my way, I’m sure he didn’t anticipate that it would be Waddington’s book that would capture my attention the way it did. Page after page I absorbed Waddington’s findings, theories and calculations — it was genius!
Although the species’ genetic makeup and migratory patterns differed from wild steelhead, many of the anadromous characteristics between the two paralleled, so I applied much of his theory to my steelhead fishing at home in BC. My brain worked overtime trying to decipher biologist jargon from over fifty years ago.
There were days I spent giggling to myself, delighted that I had tapped into a holy grail that surprisingly few people seemed to have read or discovered. My time on the water, specifically when it came to finding fish, was rewarded by an increased number of both steelhead and salmon, and I was more confident than ever to fish light line presentations.
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
Adrienne Comeau photo.
But as biological books do, the “printed in 1948” stamp served as an expiration date and it was important that I resurface the book to several biologists and specialists in the field to examine if Waddington’s information still held true.
I ran the theories by five different respected biologists and was dissatisfied when each of them frowned at some of the concepts but couldn’t offer any scientific explanations as to why. Truthfully, there was only one man I had met who had digested the content of the book as thoroughly as I had, and who had accumulated enough research and data to prove or disprove the viewpoints of the late Mr. Richard Waddington – that man was Topher Browne.
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
In this blog, I will identify and summarize six viewpoints from Waddington’s Salmon Fishing that piqued my interest (some of which have worked for me on both steelhead and Atlantic salmon). I have asked Topher for his insight and reasoning as to why or why not these theories have any sort of bearing.
1) Why Salmon Take?
When Waddington and his crew examined why salmon take, they focused on the following previous beliefs: fear, anger, curiosity, reflex action, habit, instinct and amusement. I particularly enjoyed his quirky view on fish behaviour and his distaste for certain biological lingo, where he defined instinct as “zoologist’s jargon for saying that we really don’t have any other explanation and so therefore we will call it instinct.”
Catherine Laflamme photo.
Hunger was left out of the equation upon discovering that the salmon’s stomach goes through a stage of atrophy where it eliminates the need for external food resources.
Through observation, science and experimentation, he concluded that the anadromous Atlantic salmon takes for one of two reasons: eating habits in the ocean, or irritation caused by discomforting oxygen levels.
He went on to document that in the early spring, salmon were prone to taking large, deeply sunk flies, while in the summer, smaller flies fished near the surface were more productive. He was confident that an angler presenting their flies mid water column was wasting their time.
In conclusion, Waddington believed there was a connection between the fish’s freshwater and marine behaviour.
Even today’s current fishing methodologies (large flies in winter, small flies in summer) share a similar practice and so I was eager to hear Waddington’s explanation.
He believed and concluded that due to the salmon’s particularity about the size of fly it ‘ate’, that the salmon must be mistaking the fly for some recognizable creature that it was in the habit of hunting – albeit under similar conditions of light, temperature, length of day, etc.
Catherine Laflamme photo.
He suggested that during the cooler periods of winter and early spring, the salmon lives in deeper waters somewhere off the continental shelf and, that during this time, it feeds mainly on fish or eels between 3-4 inches long; food not found near the surface.
When late spring/summer arrived and the warm current swept over the feeding grounds, he believed a smaller species was the primary food resource that inhabited the upper layer of the ocean. He further elaborated the relativity of the size of the eel during its lifecycle and how that might apply to the salmon as a predator.
“Territorial aggression and a latent feeding impulse explain the vast majority of taking behavior for salmon and steelhead. Amusement and anger are anthropomorphic terms when applied to fish and constitute an error of behavioral attribution. Fear is present in all species, but seems more likely to induce flight as opposed to taking behavior in salmon or steelhead.
Ultimately, salmon and steelhead fishermen are trying to “flip the predatory switch” of a species that is not feeding. There are many examples of species that are not actively feeding at certain points in their lifecycle—salmon, steelhead, bass, tarpon, etc.—and yet take flies. Game fish are predators. They do what predators do, which is put things in their mouths.
Fly size has more to do with water temperature and the speed at which you fish your fly. A diminutive fly imitating a small creature is unlikely to move quickly in very cold water. A larger fly imitating a more substantial creature will presumably move more quickly (than the diminutive fly) at the same water temperature (and so forth). You should fish your fly accordingly.”
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
2) When the salmon takes
Simply put, Waddingon believed that oxygen levels were a direct factor in whether or not fish would bite. Through his findings, he had decided that salmon are most likely to take when discomfort in their habitat irritated them into biting. He felt ‘settled’ fish would not willingly take a fly until they were ‘unsettled’, and that even a fish typically categorized as ‘held up’ or ‘uncatchable’ could be coerced into becoming ‘catchable’ depending on their (dis)comfort levels.
Studies had shown him that such oxygen levels ranged in the river, depending on a number of circumstances. For example, deoxygenated water occurred as a result of pollution, logged trees (and the consequent increase in the speed of surface drainage), animal & plant life, road construction, sewage, agriculture, and rainfall that flushed in oxygen-absorbing soil and organic matter.
Catherine Laflamme photo.
His statement that rain significantly lowered oxygen levels (in the upper two thirds of a watershed) came as a profound proclamation, especially as it did (and still does) seem to appear as though some of the best fishing, in steelhead and salmon streams, happens as the water begins to rise with rainfall.
Waddington believed that a fish deemed uncatchable, or lock jawed, might still be caught so long as that fish was irritated by way of a severe decrease in oxygen levels.
To be fair to his theory, in my own experience, the water does actually feel warmer to my hand after a substantial introduction of rain.
On the other end of the spectrum, an increase in oxygen levels was thought to have the same effect on fish. Waddington and his team of biologists found that while rain water decreased oxygen levels, melted snow water had the opposite effect and tended to increase them. He also claimed this additional oxygenation could be found in broken or rippled water, highly oxygenated tributaries, steep gradient, cool water flows, and several other natural occurrences. He noted that often times fish preferred to lay behind the ‘v’ of current caused by protruding boulders, as they brought about broken water and an increase of oxygen flow.
Tracy Moore photo.
“At this point in the scientific curve, I would say that there are far more elegant explanations than Waddington’s oxygen theory available to salmon and steelhead fly fishers. This is a nice way of saying that Waddington’s oxygen theory no longer ‘holds water.’ The oxygen content of water is more closely related to water temperature than it is to the factors Waddington lists. Activity levels in anadromous species (i.e., taking behavior) are more closely linked to river levels that are suitable for upstream migration than they are to finding ideal ratios of oxygen to water.”
3) Where the fish will hold
With a variety of contributing factors, specifically a steepening gradient in main stem river systems, Waddington felt that the oxygen levels in a river were heightened.
He demonstrated that with the addition of two tributaries into the main stem of a river (see the below chart), fish would be displaced as a direct result of the oxygen. He claimed that an angler might find fish easier with this knowledge and that this was the reason why certain sections of river held more fish than others.
Here, he charts a fast flowing mountain stream with a high oxygen content, with the other being a low oxygenated and stagnant drainage from agricultural slush and slough.
Waddington believed that fish were unlikely to leave an area rich with oxygen for one that was deficient. His observations showed that as the fish migrates up the river, it needs and seeks a higher O2 level, and that its journey is based around these fundamentals.
His chart showed that fish traveling below the low O2 stream would be sure to stop above the tributary entrance in an attempt to rest in the more oxygenated area of the stream.
On the contrary, where the high O2 stream pours in, his thoughts were that a fish, upon leaving the comfort of an oxygenated tributary, would not rest again until it had traveled far enough up the main stem river’s natural gradient, where the oxygen was higher than that of what it had last rested in.
“The oxygen content of water depends on its temperature. Colder water holds more oxygen than warm or very warm water. Salmon and steelhead will hold in slack flows when the river is cold as it satisfies their oxygen requirements. As water warms and oxygen levels decrease, they may change their lies to find a current speed that is more to their liking. The speed of that current can play a role in satisfying their oxygen requirements if they are unable to find cooler water. If the water is too warm, salmon and steelhead seek out springs or move upriver, where the water is generally cooler.”
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
Waddington was convinced that a water temperature of 48 degrees Fahrenheit was a watershed. When the water was below this temperature, he would use a heavy gauged wire hook with a large profile (around three inches long) to sink down to the fish. He fished temperatures above this point with light, small flies on or near the surface of the water.
Waddington believed that there was a direct correlation between the eating habits of salmon in the ocean and their taking behavior in the river.
Tracy Moore photo.
“Fish are cold-blooded. Their body temperature approximates the temperature of the water in which they swim. Different species of fish also have a specific range of temperatures inside of which they are content or simply not stressed. For our purposes, salmon and steelhead seem pretty “happy” in temperatures ranging from 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius) to the low-to-middle 60s Fahrenheit (approximately 17-18 degrees Celsius). I don’t generally fish a dry fly for Atlantic salmon until the water temperature hits 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), so I’d say Waddington’s watershed number of 48 degrees is pretty accurate. While exceptions to this rule abound, they do not fundamentally disprove it.”
5) Light and the sun
Waddington had some very interesting perspective on fish’s vision and the effects of the sun, refraction, and reflection. At one point, I even read that he almost guaranteed that an Atlantic salmon would not take a fly during a red sunset.
In addition to fishing theories, his team concluded that the pigment of the salmon’s scales is caused by the chemical effect of certain rays of sunlight, rather than the fish’s maturation. In a simple summary, he states that in low clear water, without the mask of the sun’s rays, the salmon’s body reddens faster.
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
“In very clear rivers, I find salmon color up (i.e., darken) more slowly than they do in rivers that are heavily stained (i.e., tea-colored). A bright salmon in clear water is hard to see. A darker salmon in stained water is equally hard to see. Salmon are not chameleons, but they do seem to be able to influence their coloration for purposes of camouflage.
As far as red sunsets go, if all salmon and steelhead fishers get out of the pool during red sunsets, they will catch no salmon or steelhead during red sunsets. Keep that fly in the water. It’s the only rule of anadromous fishing.”
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
6) Fly Profile
Historically, salmon flies (and even early steelhead flies), were dressed with a wing designed to keep the fly riding upright through the river’s current.
Waddington popularized the revolutionary Waddington shank, and was one of the first people to bring light to the benefits and usage of a wingless, 360 degree profile fly that had no predetermined “top” or “bottom”. He felt that this sort of fly looked more natural in the water and that it was beneficial to have the fly look similar regardless of which way it turned in the current – he was quickly criticized and mocked for his viewpoint.
Today, almost all of our common steelhead flies have this sort of profile and it is rather amusing to know that he was given such grief for what we so commonly regard as “the norm” today.
“The debate still rages. Lots of winter steelhead flies are tied “in the round.” Most summer steelhead flies feature a wing on top. Scottish tube flies are frequently tied “in the round.” Nearly all Scandinavian tube flies are tied with a wing on top.
Who is right? I suggest you fish both styles and let the fish decide. If you fish flies that inspire confidence, it probably doesn’t matter if they’re tied “in the round” or with a wing on top.”
As I pour through studies and books from both our past and present, my findings and viewpoints seem to vary as frequently as the copyright dates in my library.
So what’s my theory? My theory is that with time modern science will always either prove or disprove what we preached as gospel in days past, but my prediction is that we will always have just as much fun debating what the “right” answer is today.
For more blog posts like this, please visit April’s new website here!
In my last Fly Fusion column I expressed my determination to share the teachings, methodologies and philosophies of anglers before our time. It was with these intentions that I made mention of the late Arthur Wood of Scotland, and the greased line technique that he popularized over a century ago.
Grease lining was a 1903 revelation that Wood stumbled upon one day while observing the behaviour of salmon and their disinterest to the deeply sunk fly.
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
Across the world, anglers actively used water-absorbing lines and heavily gauged hooks with the desire to fish their flies deep in the water column.
Mr. Wood soon perfected and popularized a revolutionary change. He learned that if he could coat the material of the line in a substance that would stay afloat, he could then swing his fly in a subsurface and somewhat drag-free presentation.
At the time, the best flotation materials were variations of grease – mucilin, lanolin, and animal fat were all thought to be suitable.
As I personally own and fish a silk line on my single-hand rod, it is in my experience that silk lines cast as seamlessly and effortless as the fly lines of today.
But maintenance can take its toll on the most patient of anglers. I know that for me, having to remove the line from the reel, dry it out overnight, restring it in the morning, grease it, apply felt, cotton, paper towel, stay busy until it dries, fish for four hours, and then have to do it all again… basically ensures only occasional use.
Waiting it out – Jennifer de Graaf photo.
Traditionally fly lines were made from hair, but as time went on line makers progressed to the addition of silk to increase the strength of the lines and to tone down excessive roughness. Three threads were loosely twisted together and each strand was then braided to form a fly line. Prior to this, line had only been twisted but it found itself liable to kink. The braid helped to prevent this problem.
Soon it was silk that dominated the market. It was superior to hair, ordinary linen lines, lines mixed with jute, or lines comprised of scrap silk from dresses and stockings.
Two types of silk were used: raw and boiled. Raw silk was that which had been spun by the worm, with the gum slowly discharging to hold the filaments together (much like a cocoon). Boiled silk, on the other hand, eliminated this gum thus losing around 30% of its weight and requiring additional material which in turn made it stronger.
Stringing up the silk – Jennifer de Graaf photo.
So Mr. Wood, innovative and experimental, coated these same lines with floating substance and, while always watching his line, maintained control of it to ensure a natural looking swing. When done right, the fly was presented to the fish broadside, its position managed through delicate control.
Wood was most recognized for the time he spent using this semi-natural presentation on his Cairnton beat on the River Dee. By using the water’s current, hydraulics and speed, he played the eddies and used flies shockingly sparse in attempts to imitate fish or other small creatures in distress. He has been credited for “inventing the mend” and his skill in line manipulation was unparalleled.
He preferred a small belly of downstream line to form just several feet in the leader, where it would pull slightly to assist the fly in hooking the fish.
Adrienne Comeau photo.
I specifically chose to feature this methodology in hopes that I might enlighten others not only to participate in its success, but also to learn more about its efficiency (found by way of reading).
Truthfully, I first learned of the greased line technique when I was a teenager looking to learn all I could on the sport. I had been told that to “grease line fish” was to fish a wet fly on a dry line, but there had been no more elaboration.
Years of guiding and conversing with other fishermen showed me that I was not alone with my confusion. In fact, there seemed to be a clear line between those anglers who were familiar with the intricacies of the greased line practise and those who weren’t – a line that teetered uncertainly on what I can only sum up to being age.
Diving into books, written explanations, diagrams and charts, I began to unfold the true definition of the grease line method and hoped to blur what seemed to be such a crisp gap between generations.
It was inevitable that I would eventually purchase the book that started it all…
Victor Cooper photo.
The idea of the original greased line fishing book was conceived in 1933 when the elderly A.H.E. Wood discussed his concepts with writer and angler, Jock Scott. Aging and armed with years of grease lining notes, diaries and records based upon his own trials and errors, Mr. Wood allowed Jock Scott to take the reins on a book that would impact the history of fly-fishing “how-to’s” for centuries to come.
The book was a success in its day, and long after Mr. Wood had perished the pages of Greased Line Fishing for Salmon lived on in the lives of Atlantic salmon anglers. What Mr. Wood likely didn’t expect was that this book would reach the west-coast of North America where an abundance of knowledge-hungry steelhead fishermen were looking to enhance their skills.
That particular era of angler was accustomed to finding their way around the pages of peers and elders, and their desire to learn sparked a reprint and revision in the 1980’s when the book was introduced by Bill McMillan, appropriately titled, Greased Line Fishing for Salmon (and Steelhead).
But as equipment changed, books became less popular and immediate results became the expected norm. The greased line practise gradually lost much of its following and a simplistic approach was adopted: sink it, cast it, swing it, step down, repeat.
So this year I brought some of the knowledge I’d learned with me up to British Columbia’s steelhead mecca, and tried to make Mr. Wood proud. When I would manage a fish, I’d release it in silence and take a moment to connect with this man I had never met.
That connection made the effort all the more worthwhile and soon it was less the fish I sought, and more so an invisible force that bonded me with the ghosts who were silently leading me to my catch.
My floating line drew scepticism in runs (particular those with depth) but I stayed persistent with my presentation. There was an occasional fish caught behind me by friends with heavy tips and large flies, but the differences in numbers was neither abundant nor important. What was significant however, was the interest the method piqued by those who had never witnessed such an approach.
Adrienne Comeau photo.
Scepticism isn’t new when it comes this topic. Wood’s grease lining book was at times said to be biased, as he rarely left his beat on the river Dee in Scotland; a river well suited to the technique he developed. Long stretches of flat gradient provide a relatively consistent current, whereas the rivers of the west coast are often comparatively steeper, resulting in a more dramatic change in water flows.
Wood and cane rods up to fifteen feet long were used, but overhead casts ensured the stoic water wasn’t disrupted. Double hand rods originated in the UK, but it wasn’t until years later that most of the casts we now know as ‘Spey casts’ were developed.
Fear of water disruption was a genuine concern at that time. Within my own reading lists, I have read reports by the likes of Frederick Hill, Richard Waddington and Arthur Wood who had all expressed certainty that fish held either in the surface of the water column, or amidst the rocky bottom of the river floor. Whether it be true or otherwise, belief that fish did not sit mid-column was enough of a caution to use care when frolicking about on the water’s surface.
Tracy Moore photo.
The technique was best-suited to low water conditions where the fly could provoke enough action from the fish to allow the angler to see the disturbance, and in turn be able to drop line into the water for a thorough hook set.
While I am years away from perfecting the technique, I began to choose traditional patterns, cast cross-stream (or slightly up or down), and then manipulate my floating line in such a way that the fly was suspended just below or subsurface on a slow swing.
Adrienne Comeau photo.
The goal is to bring the fly down and cross stream so as to avoid any of the drag that speeds the fly in an unnatural manner to the current.
As the fly is presented broadside, it allows the fish to see it better. Wood argued that in addition to this, the materials were able to move with more motion and that the hook had less resistance in the event that a fish put its mouth around it.
“There are, of course, all sorts of eddies and places where the fish lie, and all have to be fished differently, so as to present the fly to the fish at the angle at which it is best able to see, most likely to be tempted and not come short.
Avoid any unnatural drag at all costs. As there is little a fish does not see, the fly ought to behave naturally all the time, as an insect or other live creature would do in the water, and try to let the fly move with all the eddies it meets as will any living thing that is trying to move in the water with the stream and across.
If you swim across a river, you have to swim at an angle to the stream and make use of all the eddies; but if you have a thick rope tied to your waist which someone on shore was holding, you would soon be in trouble. The current would get hold of the rope and belly it downstream, then you’d have to struggle hard and face more upstream, and in the end get pulled down backwards. No living creature behaves in that way, and the fish will wonder what a dragging fly is, and, even if they go for it, it will probably be dragged out of their mouths — “fish coming short,” so called!”
He did not believe in short strikes and was firm in his stance that it was only by the fault of said angler when this would occur.
By using the rod tip as his main hook-setting tool, he rarely set the hook on fish, quite certain that he could get a better set if the current and fish did the work instead.
Rather than striking, he would hold his rod low in slow water and higher in faster water, to allow a small downstream belly several feet in front of the fly to catch the current and adhere to the fish’s mouth with natural pull.
Tracy Moore photo.
In the ever difficult situation where the fly was taken on the hang-down (the ‘dangle’ in the Spey world), he would hold his rod tip high and then drop it low into the water to allow any available line to be aided downstream by the current, and hopefully, into the fish’s maxillary.
Chapters on gear and water conditions expose themselves on the yellowing pages of my copy of Greased Line Fishing for Salmon, and diagrams help to piece it all together.
Photos of the large man clad in his dressy attire ignite a spark of curiosity in my mind. What was he like? What would he choose to fish today? Would he have changed his ways?
Page upon page glows with an admiration for his beloved greased line technique. His words so full of vigour and enthusiasm that they speed my fingers to lace my boots.
Is this a way of fishing that is slowly being forgotten?
Is it because it catches less of the fish today?
Or is it because it’s catching less of the fishermen from tomorrow?
There’s only one way to find out and it costs a library card, 226 pages, a day of reading time and a season of experimenting.
I promise that it is worth every single second.
~ April Vokey
I am the owner of a 50 inch plasma television that sits perched on a storage unit shelf in a cardboard box. At least I think it’s still there – I’ve never taken the damn thing out of its wrapping.
I’m just not a television girl and, honestly, up until I got married I vowed I would never own one. An old movie theatre is one of my favourite treats to indulge in and the internet pretty much serves all my other curiosity.
So when the time came to write a television series, I would be bold-faced lying if I said that I wasn’t intimidated through to my core. In fact, the last fishing television show I watched was Mark Pendlington on one of his first seasons (I’m aging myself here for you.)
Truthfully, the dull lodge promo was hurting my head, the bikini babes just made me want to starve myself, and the “fish porn’s” flashing images edited to loud music just didn’t seem so cool anymore – I casually chalked it up to me becoming a grumpy old fart who would rather read and let my mind create accompanying images instead.
A part of me contemplated researching other series; learning how a show should be orchestrated. But I was elbows deep in a book called Blue Ocean Strategy and couldn’t bring myself to muddy my mind with other people’s visions. Through my company, experience, and reading, I’d learned that the world of business was appropriately referred to as a red ocean; businesses fighting each other for the same market with cutthroat strategies involving clawing and scratching to achieve success.
When I was eighteen years old, I had mapped out where I wanted to be in this industry and I had deliberately walked around the blood red ocean to step peacefully and creatively into the clear blue waters of my very own sea. I wasn’t willing to step out of the tranquil blue – even when it came to television. I refrained from trying to follow the trail, comfortably paved as it may currently appear.
And so the work began. I had a vision, a message that I wanted to share, and this message was what drove me to the planning (while trying to plan a wedding at the same time.*) The show was to be based around our history, conservation, elders, tricky steelhead and Atlantic salmon… basically, everything I had been told would never succeed in the high impact, drama driven world of television today. So with eyes on the road, I shut out the naysayers and just kept writing. We began the BC shoot two days after my wedding* – eyelash extensions*, patient husband, and all. We were on a mission.
* Not recommended
I will never be able to thank VP Media House enough for their continued faith in me…
I’d partaken in the occasional series before and realized that the average amount of time allocated per episode is 3 days – hell, I’d even done a whole series once in seven. Television business is based on $$$ and I get that, I just didn’t know how I was supposed to get to everyone I needed to visit in that amount of time. We finished the ten part episodic series in just under 50 days and it took months and endless sessions of writing, recording, submitting, editing, and fighting the “powers that be” to maintain our message as best we could.
In the peak of fishing season, I had to not only read the history but also try to track down my interviewees and commit them to several hours off the water – not an easy task. Let alone having to sacrifice fishing time of my own to make interview appointments and keep my subjects comfortable enough to open up to me (not the sort of thing that can be done in mere minutes).
Much of our footage will likely never be shown and unfortunately some of our interviews had to be cut out entirely. Before commercials, we get less than 24 minutes of actual airplay and it was just impossible to fit the amount of footage we had into this slot.
I plan to post some behind the scenes on my blog and hope that you will enjoy learning about our incredible sport as much as I have. Thank you to everyone involved in this series and to all of you who helped make this possible by following these adventures.
VP Media cameraman (and 100% gentleman), Yoshi Aoki.
I simply had to visit the Heritage Park Museum in Terrace. The history here is amazing!
The old settlement was a hunting/fishing lodge from the early 1900’s. It’s believed to be the first fishing outfitter in the area. There’s even an old dance hall where women would travel from across the province to source out eligible bachelors!
The amount of work put into the homestead is astonishing.
Interviewing curator Kelsey Wiebe to learn more about the settlement.
Riverboats were a major part of Terrace’s economy.
The first store in 1912!
Imagine this driving through down these days!?
Kinda looks like my cabin on the Dean (pee tin included)!
Next we were off to visit with friend and long-time Terrace guide/resident, Noel Gyger.
Noel’s home is like a fishing museum. Books, albums, photos, videos, charts and graphs… Noel has been documenting fishing in the area for decades! Check out his report here.
Wondering what April is up to these days? Visit www.aprilvokey.com for more stories like this…
As previously published in Fly Fusion magazine.
Who did I think I was kidding?
My forehead rested heavily atop my hands; the cool river water from my stripping fingers helped to ease my heated discouragement.
My line slacked and bellied into my legs until the river’s current caught hold and pulled it taut on either side of my obstruction. It reshaped the flow into a broken ‘v’.
I stood in the middle of it all – fly hooked securely into a tall tree limb on the bank behind me, line rubbing against my legs like a florescent, unwelcome house cat.
The single-hand rod lay deceitful and light in my palm. For a moment I was tempted to donate it in shards to the rock bed beneath me.
Yes, I was frustrated.
The wind routed through the valley in one consistent gust and my lack of skill casting off my left shoulder had me ducking in an attempt to avoid contact. How absolutely embarrassing.
Ugh. One of those days. Alyssa Lloyd photo.
The cast finds its muscle memory, making itself comfortable in the bushes yet again – not the sort of habits I was looking to build.
My head remains stationary, eyes scanning from left to right beneath polarized sunglasses.
No laughing spectators. I unclench my jaw – we’ve all been there.
I was on a mission to prove a point, to prove a theory, to prove that tradition could be revived within my own angling practices. I’d committed to spending the day attempting a ‘greaseline’ presentation on said river with the use of a nine foot rod, delicate tapered fly line and lengthy, accurate cast.
But who did I think I was kidding? It was all I could do not to wish for my double handed rod, condensed shooting heads, and casts that didn’t matter to the non-judgmental current or the extremely discriminate wind.
Wind? Who cares? Right…
The cool water on my brow lightens the red in my cheeks and the situation broadens its spectrum.
Undeniably, long rods, short lines, heavy tips and large flies landed fish at my feet but I couldn’t help to feel as though I was robbing myself of specific methodology that required more skill – patience at least – and I was failing miserably at each of these right now.
It began close to three years ago when deeply sunk flies lost a great part of their appeal to me. The “out of sight” concept threw me into an “out of mind” state and I slowly lost the tranquility of silence in my head upon the mid-swing submergence of my fly.
I needed more – needed to see more.
Without this, too much noise emerged during a mindless, unfocused swing.
Dry flies were the obvious solution but upon facing an entire season of disinterested steelhead, my own enthusiasm was inevitably turned back towards my trusted wet flies. As compromise might suggest, I hoped a subsurface presentation would suffice to satisfy, so I purchased an old reprint of Greaseline Fishing for Salmon by Jock Scott (as per A.H.E. Wood).
The term greaselining is a method introduced in the early 20th century by the late Arthur Wood of Scotland. Silk lines and deeply sunk flies were a standard practise by anglers worldwide but it was Wood who popularized the greasing of lines with Mucilin, lanolin (or a grease substance of choice), resulting in a subsurface and somewhat drag-free presentation of the swung fly.
Wood sought to fish his Cairnton beat on the River Dee with a semi-natural presentation. By using the water’s current, hydraulics and speed, he played the eddies and used flies shockingly sparse in attempts to imitate fish or other small creatures in distress.
His casts varied but often angled on 90 degrees where he then mended regularly to ensure his fly presented itself broadside and at the same speed of the current. Wood cast a long line, the fly swinging slowly while maintaining a semi-natural drift. Low and clear water often meant difficult fishing, as increased water temperatures and changes in fish behaviour meant that the sunk fly could not be fished as efficiently as those on one that had been greased (a floating line by today’s standard).
As I turned each page with reignited fervour, the spine of my book arched in flexible delight; relieving its cramps from prolonged hibernation.
My right hand gradually gripped fewer pages and I dreaded the moment I would reach Wood’s conclusion – for he was gone and I had no where else to find him.
As Scott came to the final sentence of his masterpiece, I heard him clearly – “Very, very rarely have I known an angler who refused to succumb to the temptations of the greased line!”
And he was right. I was enamoured with the lost words of the art – a book so available yet so unknown amongst most of my peers in this sport.
But a subject with such facets would be poorly represented by merely one sportsman. Given the century of growth that the 1903 greaselining birthing entailed, it was only inevitable that revisions would find their way laced through the margins.
I turned to the likes of Hill, Waddington, Kelson, Haig-Brown, Wulff and just about anyone else passed whose literature sat dusty on the shelf.
The philosophies, techniques, theories, prophecies, equipment, innovations, stories and passions wove themselves into my heart and mind.
Late nights were spent reading – early mornings spent practising what I had learned. Mentored through their words, I felt a connection with them and a revitalized flame in my journey as a young angler.
I would catch myself holding my breath through almost an entire chapter, other times having to put the book down to regain composure. My stomach tensed with realization that these books had been here for me from the start – what had taken me so long?
The value I placed on the the old guard began to expand as quickly as my reading list, and upon reaching out to a few of its select gentlemen (and one special lady), I was kindly received and warmly engaged. Their support was genuine but their underlying message to me was clear – “Your generation doesn’t read books…” They would trail off as though lost at the concept.
Adrienne Comeau photo.
I couldn’t tell them that they were wrong – for the most part, I had no reason to believe that they were.
So dive to the depths of knowledge I did, and in tribute to the education they offered me, here I now stood red-faced and statued in the water of a steelhead run where there was sure to be a fish.
The longline presentation of my single hand rod was putting me to the test. The wind threw my backcast for the long grass to catch eagerly – an uninvited game of catch and I was the ‘piggy in the middle’.
I was desperate for the shallow backcast of a short line on my double handed rod and was kidding no one other than myself. The double handed fly rod (commonly referred to as a Spey rod), has been around for several hundred years before my time. Though not originally from North America, double handers were in fact deemed traditional and I cursed myself for leaving mine behind. Even Mr. Wood himself would have asked me what in the world I was doing.
As obsessions tend to do, soon I’d committed to writing a book on the sport and history of fly-fishing as it migrated and evolved from the UK to the west coast of North America.
My workload exploded – I had just taken on the most ambitious project of my life.
Interviews, gear comparisons, copious reading, travel and experimentation all consumed my time and soon I was analyzing temperature changes, oxygen content, aquatic life cycles, fly size and just about every other technicality that I had never actually needed before to catch fish. It was only natural to question why I was bothering at all – fishing for me was always based around fun and awareness. Beyond that, was all of this just overthinking? Were the ghosts of the past leading me by way of disproven theories and solely emotional connection?
But then the fish came. Upon applying my findings from the books that I’d read, my fishing productivity increased and I finally had some understanding of why!
Today, every book that I read inspires me to further preserve some sense of our history within this sport.
My studies are showing that remarkably fewer books are being read by young people. While that argument is offset with theories that we are actually reading more (only by way of the internet and tablets) when it comes to fly-fishing, much of this knowledge is still only found over a crackling campfire or amidst the yellowing pages of a good old-fashioned book.
Adrienne Comeau photo.
Several years ago, I agreed to take on this column with Fly Fusion. The agreement was that I would inspire the reader and possibly evoke an excitement for them/you to get outdoors.
Naturally, I still aspire to do exactly this but I am a thirty one year old woman – excitement and inspiration can’t help but sparkle in my eyes. So what would it hurt to add an element of ‘yesterday’ into our rapidly transitioning ‘tomorrow’ – time taken to help us understand more about a sport that draws us closely together? For the next while, this column will be taking a soft turn on a backtracking road and I hope that I may share my reading list with you here as a preview to your own library.
True, evolution exists only with progression and there are no rights or wrongs – but there is invaluable information that seems to dim over time. It would be a shame to smother a flame that once gleamed so bright as to light a whole village.
Our community today thrives in the light of immediacy, but there is not one of us who can deny the warmth or appreciation for the slow burn of a campfire glow – sometimes flames are exactly what is needed to bring people back together.
Thank you for reading,
***Note – April has moved her more personal blog entries to our partner site www.aprilvokey.com/blog – feel free to have a look!
Last week at our Patagonia meeting, we were informed that Patagonia was having a hard time getting the last 10,000 signatures for an extremely serious proposal to crack down on deadbeat dams.
They informed us that they had 30,000 online signatures & 10,000 written ones and that if we could just get 10,000 more, we could fight this!
I couldn’t help but volunteer you. I am asking (begging) that you take all of ten seconds to sign this online petition so we may move forward. If you could share and sign until we hit that 40,000 mark, it would just prove that, together with social media, we can make a serious impact.
Please help – it’s so little to do so much!
Peace and love, April. xo
The first Spey line that I ever purchased came packaged in a box as thick as an encyclopedia.
Like a book cover designed to culminate my curiosity until relief by purchase, the word “Spey” prominently highlighted the box’s crisp edge and sold me on the promise of its contents.
Encyclopaedic is not far off from what I held in my hands.
Rich with knowledge and the possibility of growth, the comparisons were evident; the difference being of course that with an encyclopedia, I had an idea of where to start.
At the time I had just become a proud owner of the easiest Spey line to cast on the market; the Windcutter at fifty-five feet long.
The kit included the mid-belly line (already fused to an integrated running line) and a series of fifteen foot sink tips in a compact wallet with a cardboard cut-out to explain the different sink rates.
As a new caster, my casting stroke was unsightly and I imitated a flailing backwoodsman while chopping liquid wood with a piece of graphite. It was horrifying.
It was soon thereafter that the popularized Skagit shooting head hit the scene and nothing was ever the same.
Half the length of the Windcutter, the short condensed head allowed anglers the option of turning over heavy sink tips and large flies with ease, especially in areas with limited back-casting space.
This particular line was developed in the Pacific Northwest and was specifically made to be cast with a tip on its thickly tapered end to avoid having its anchor ripped from the water’s surface before allowing the rod to completely load.
As a general rule, a sink tip should not be longer than the rod being fished, making most tips somewhere between eleven to fifteen feet long.
The Skagit line, while deemed the more simple of the line categories to cast, is one that is a blessing to many of us who guide. New casters easily adapt to the stroke of the short line and are able to keep their time on the water more efficient as their fly remains in the water and out of the bushes behind them.
With this sudden casting aid, I dusted off my old lead-core lines and began to make my own cost efficient systems. I was not alone in my ventures…
Shops were soon selling tips in various sink rates/lengths in either a home-made tungsten fashion (labeled as T7, T11 or T14) as well as the RIO pre-made tip systems (labeled as Type 3, Type 6 or Type 8).
To many customers, the differentiation between the two was unclear. For some, it was the simple matter that both systems were named with words that began with the letter ’T’. For others, it was expressed confusion regarding each’s relation to depth and density.
Enter the MOW tip, T17 and fused looped tungsten systems and we had widespread befuddlement.
With four tip systems available through RIO, the confusion only seems to grow within our clientele. While the systems are rather self-explanatory to those who use them regularly, to some customers, this gave them the impression that they were outdated; intimidation set in.
While many of our guests come from overseas equipped with a variety of Poly or VersiLeaders, we are left to explain that as a standard rule of thumb, such leaders are best cast on a Scandi (or longer line) due to the inefficient energy transfer from the diameter difference between the thick front taper of the Skagit line and the butt of the aforementioned leaders.
With that in mind, I had thought that a clear explanation of the very basics of Skagit sink tips would be a fresh change to this column.
I reached out to Simon Gawesworth of RIO to clarify the mystification and have simplified it here for you in hopes that it may make your time on the water carefree.
Option 1 – 15 Foot ‘Type’ Tips
The original fifteen foot tips, come with a color coded welded loop that indicate the tips’ density (or in this case, sink rate) and the weight of the rod/line weight it should be used on. One will note that the heaviest tip (type 8) is thinner than the lightest tip (type 3), thus explaining how the system works.
Such tips are tapered and allow for a much better presentation than their level tungsten relatives.
They come in the following:
- Intermediate (1.5 to 2 inches per second)
- Type 3/Yellow (3 to 4 inches per second)
- Type 6/Grey (6 to 7 inches per second)
- Type 8/Green (8 to 9 inches per second)
To ensure consistency as a balanced outfit, each tip is given a standard weight (measured in grains) per weight class of rod.
For example, all #10 weight tips weigh 150 grains regardless of which of the above ‘types’ they are, so as to allow the angler the option of changing their tip density (depth) without losing the line weight necessary to load the rod efficiently.
(#8 = 109 grains, #9 = 129 grains, #10 = 150 grains, #11 = 166 grains).
Option 2 – 10 Foot ‘Type’ Tips
These are simply a shorter version of the fifteen foot tips. They are ideal for shorter rods, tight casting situations or smaller rivers. The density options are the same as the fifteen foot tips listed above.
Option 3 – Level ’T’ (stands for tungsten) Tips
These tips are level (non-tapered), fast sinking and designed to be cut to a desired length. Their lack of taper delivers them with a “punch” and large flies roll over without much effort from the caster.
Quite opposite to the density of the ‘Type’ tips above, these lines sink as per the amount of grain weight they have per foot. In the case of ’T’ tips, this equates to the amount of tungsten impregnated into each foot of the tip (example, T8 weighs eight grains per foot).
- T8/White (6 to 7 inches per second)
- T11/Green (7 to 8 inches per second)
- T14/Blue (8 to 9 inches per second)
- T17/Black (9 to 10 inches per second)
- T20/none (+10 inches per second)
Option 4 – MOW Tips (stands for McCune, Ward and O’Donnell)
Available in ten and twelve foot lengths, the Mow tips come in “light”, “medium”, “heavy” and “extra heavy” ratings. They are of the same tungsten material as the ’T’ tips and translate to:
Light = T8/White
Medium = T11/Green
Heavy = T14/Blue
Extra Heavy = T17/Gray
So what’s the difference between the MOW and the ’T’ tips you ask?
There are times when an angler is looking to specifically sink their fly into pocket water or behind rocks/structure without the use of a full tip. At times, just a mere two feet of sinking line is required to get the necessary presentation to catch a fish.
The dilemma here is that a two foot sink tip wouldn’t allow the short compact anatomy of a Skagit line to anchor in the water without “popping” itself from its loading sweet-spot.
The MOW tips feature six different tips with differing lengths of sinking sections seamlessly fused to a floating line. Each of the below blended tips is available in the light, medium, heavy or extra heavy as mentioned above.
10 ft Floating
7.5 ft Float/2.5 ft Sink
5 ft Float/5 ft Sink
2.5 ft Float/7.5 ft Sink
10 ft Sink
12 ft Sink
When trying to determine whether your rod will cast best with a light, medium, heavy or extra heavy class, the RIO recommendations are that:
Light tips are ideal for Skagit lines of 475 grains and lighter
Medium tips are ideal for Skagit lines between 475 and 575 grains
Heavy tips are ideal for Skagit lines between 575 and 700 grains
Extra Heavy tips are ideal for Skagit lines heavier than 700 grains or for when large heavy flies are used.
Personally, even after gaining an understanding of the above explanation, I still find myself favouring the same sink tip I once did as a bright-eyed Spey hopeful; a 15 foot, faded grey to white type 6 fifteen foot tip (now slowly nipped down to about 13 feet).
Fishing it differently depending on the situation at hand, there are times where I high-stick it, times where I dump slack into it, times where I walk it through a seam with side-drifted tension and the frequent occasion where I just let the pushy current fondle it as it sees fit.
Like all things casting, mathematics and physics are the sole components of the efficiency of proper rod load. Both are equally as essential for comprehension of how objects of various densities/materials sink with varying current speeds or hydraulics.
Truthfully, one could spend a lifetime trying to analyze every factor that plays a role in a presentation that they feel the fish prefers to see… or one could find something that simply works for them and just go fishing.
Several years ago I spoke with steelhead expert/biologist Bill McMillan while collecting data for a column I was writing. I recently stumbled upon the article in my folders and thought it would be worthwhile to share…
Five steelhead facts worth knowing:
1) It is no secret in the world of steelhead fishing that there are two distinct runs of steelhead. Appropriately termed “winter-run” and “summer-run” steelhead, it is a fair assumption that winter-run fish enter the freshwater system during the winter months, while summer-runs begin their migration earlier in the year during the spring and summer.
Beginning as early as November and continuing through May, winter-run fish enter the system at a relatively developed stage of maturation. Their bellies are robust; their time scarce and their attention concentrated.
Upon entering freshwater and undergoing the transition from saltwater to freshwater, winter-run fish have a limited time to spawn before their reproductive systems are ripe with sperm and eggs.
Conversely, summer-run fish begin to venture into freshwater as early as April, entering in abundance through the warmer months before beginning to trickle off by November.
Sexual maturation in these summer fish differs substantially from their winter-run counterparts. Reproductive organs in summer-run steelhead do not begin to mature until after their transition from salt to freshwater. Historically harvested, it is documented that the entrails of retained steelhead were not only immature, they were near barren.
Mild weather and comfortable water temperatures increase the metabolisms of summer-run steelhead and their aggression is anything but subtle. These differences make summer-run fish a sought after quarry for many angling enthusiasts.
Despite the differences in their migration timing, both winter and summer-run fish typically spawn in the spring/early summer time frame.
2) Naturally, given the above data, timing is a vital factor of a steelhead’s migration pattern.
Maturation inevitably drives both summer and winter fish towards a schedule – one which is presumably more lax than the other.
Winter fish, swollen and up against Mother nature’s clock, primarily dominate tributaries within 100 miles of the ocean. Summer fish on the other hand can spend up to a year in freshwater, historically traveling as far as 800 miles away from the salt. Both races of fish have been known to survive up to one year in freshwater without feeding in abundance.
Battling long journeys and major obstacles, summer-runs often require the extra time allowance to ensure a punctual arrival to their spawning beds. Fish venturing further inland must factor the increased number of barriers into their journey so that they are able to time their travels accordingly.
McMillan made note of a stream paralleling that of an obstacle course – complete with fourteen waterfalls and other contributing hindrances.
When I asked him how these fish know? His response was, “genetics”.
It makes me wonder how well our hatchery fish will fare in the ‘time management’ category.
3) Steelhead have otoliths or “earstones” in their head between the ears and behind the fleshy part of their brain.
An otolith is solidified calcium carbonate that serves as part of the hearing and balance system in fish. This calcium carbonate is primarily derived from water and, as its host grows older, new calcium carbonate crystals form allowing trace elements of water to bind with the otolith (causing layers to develop).
All of this composition and build-up play a very important role for biologists.
From the otolith, a scientist is able to determine the age of the fish and the properties of water bodies that fish have previously occupied. In addition to being able to determine the specifics of the river system each fish has visited, the otolith plays a key role is showing how long a fish spent in both fresh and salt water. It also identifies individuals who’ve returned to freshwater to spawn more than once.
While scales also tell biologists specifics about fish age (they have rings on them similar to trees), scales can become damaged or misconfigured during spawning migration. Scales also have a tendency to reabsorb during times of weakened or decreased energy levels, thus securing analysis of the otolith as an extremely significant research tool.
4) As steelhead are anadromous rainbow trout, their spawning habits are inevitably very similar. A unique fact unknown to many is that rainbow trout have the ability to fertilize steelhead eggs and vice versa.
John McMillan (Bill’s son) is a biologist who is currently conducting a major study on such data. He specifically takes note of the amount of lipid body fat within individual fish. An interesting find is that fish who are already healthy and not in desperate need to gain body mass are more likely to remain in the freshwater, avoiding the perils of an ocean commute entirely and indefinitely.
Comparatively, a fish low in body fat is much more likely to seek saltwater where it will feed heavily until it has reached a substantial size.
High body fat content is often related to water temperatures, and cold water is a contributing factor to finding fish with higher lipid reserves.
The further down a river system one will venture, the warmer the water becomes and these fish become much more inclined to partake in anadromy (return to the ocean) as a result of lower body fat reserves.
Research has shown that male juvenile steelhead (often assumed to be resident rainbows) have a higher inclination to remain in freshwater, as they have less demand to gain bulk than the egg-bearing females. In addition to the advantages of security and fertile stream-beds, these male fish are able to spawn with the large ocean-run females and are in fact even more efficient than many of their anadromous counterparts in that they often spawn multiple times with multiple females.
5) Steelhead are a species with an adaptivity beyond our comprehension. It is their wide array of life history choices that explain why they have been such a successful species through the years. Seeming to break all of the rules in areas of consistency, steelhead in some parts of Russia have been documented to spawn as many as ten times!
Regardless it is undeniable that, try as these fish might, their survival rate is increasingly plummeting.
Smolt to adult return rates (SAR) historically varied between 10-20%. Now, present day data shows an alarming decrease with return rates as low as 1-2% (and sometimes even lower).
Equally as disconcerting is the misconception that all steelhead return to spawn again throughout their life cycle.
While it is true that a great number of steelhead do not decay, as the Pacific Salmon do upon spawning, it is an incorrect assumption that all steelhead survive their migration route after leaving freshwater.
Contrary to public belief, the majority of post-spawned steelhead do indeed perish as they attempt a migration back to the ocean.
Weak, spent, battled and debilitated, steelhead bear the marks of exhaustion brought on by competing fish, angling pressure, reverse osmotic chemistry and biological fatigue. Their poor condition makes obstruction all the more lethal.
Male fish have a very low respawn rate as they eject sperm multiple times while spawning, resulting in severe fatigue. Females only drop eggs once, thus slightly increasing their likelihood of survival.
Additionally, the respawn rate is lower on summer-run fish as they spend so much time in the system without food and travel longer distances than winter fish.
Historically, the percentage of respawners in the northern and southern steelhead ranges fared higher than that of the central basins. In places such as Kamchatka, steelhead reached respawn rates as high as 70%, and southern ranges (like northern California) once averaged between 25-60%.
Presently, the average return spawning rate finds itself somewhere between 5-20% – with central regions like the upper Columbia tributaries ranging between 1-2% (largely in part due to the excessive damming).
All in all, it makes me wonder about my own contribution to the decreasing numbers of our steelhead stocks. Data indicates that in some systems steelhead are caught an average of 4 times during their commute (twice on their way up and twice on their way down). If the catch & release mortality rate ranges from 3-10% on a steelhead caught once, is it a relatively fair assumption that a quadruple capture might raise the mortality rate to 12-40%?
Such numbers cannot help but demand the attention of those who will listen. It’s a scary thought for a wild steelhead advocate, isn’t it?
Thanks for reading!