As published in Fly Fusion magazine.
I steadfastly refused to troll for gamefish. An avid steelheader, the idea of casually lounging in a gas-guzzling mini-yacht, trusting deckhands to help me catch fish, all while sitting in a chair that I suspect my dentist designed… I was beyond disinterested.
In my mind, bill-fishing was for one of two sorts of people: the fat, rich kind who need their egos stroked, and IGFA record-chasers desperate to see their names in print. I felt about as much connection to either party as a magnet does to plastic. So, in my travels to saltwater destinations, I instead chose to stalk permit, bonefish, and other species on the flats. Flats fishing seemed to be the saltwater equivalent of steelhead fishing. The patience of a hunter is a necessity. You need an awareness of subtle movement and a willingness to work tirelessly for a single shot at success. Loud engines and a team of people relying on my coordination just didn’t seem to fit the bill.
My conversion kind of happened by mistake, starting three years ago when I made the decision to exchange my Canadian winters for Australian summers. Australia’s attractions are enormous marlin, Indo-Pacific permit, giant trevally, and short plane rides to New Zealand. It seemed my new part-time home was a playground of relatively unexplored terrain — opportunity perfect for a fly fisher. While I was eager to get to the glowing, yellow permit that live north of my home in Sydney, it is the infamous billfish that are most accessible to me. Found only a short ride from the boat-launch near my house are warm currents and bait balls large enough to sustain a plethora of predators.
It was actually my husband’s enthusiasm for fly fishing for billfish that piqued my interest. Neither fat nor egotistical, and with no interest in chasing records, his entire world still seemed to revolve around the mystical deepwater beast he called marlin. I was amused by his endless excitement for the subject and so agreed to give the fish a try.
Because our boat is only eighteen feet long, it required some unique rigging. The shortage of space meant that our crew would consist of just the two of us. Unlike the charter boats, there would be no long off-shore distances travelled, and we would be the only people shouting orders at one another (nothing new there). My perception of marlin fishing was starting to change.
It was when he sat me down and drew a diagram of “how the fly-fishing for marlin game is supposed to be played” that I felt myself panic. The realization that marlin fishing is the epitome of a team effort hit me like the sickening slap of a slimy mackerel dropped on a boat deck. I realized that to do this right, I was going to have to listen.
Since that lesson three years ago I have spent countless days searching for marlin, working to tease one of these mighty animals to the surface, only to then find a new creative way to mess it all up. It would appear ol’ Murphy and the marlin had a secret meeting some years ago. So, while my success rate hasn’t necessarily been on an upward trajectory, it seems that the public’s understanding of fly-fishing for these gamefish hasn’t either.
Australia is home to the striped, black, and blue marlin. While foolish dreams of landing a blue grander (a fish over a thousand pounds) often play through my head, it is the smaller black and striped marlin that are a more reasonable pairing for my fly gear and my five-foot, five-inch frame. But the truth is that all three of them absolutely terrify me.
It doesn’t take much beyond a quick YouTube search to see how billfish anglers get themselves into trouble. Poor boat-handling aside, often it is simply the sheer panic of a leaping marlin that sends anglers into damage-control mode as the fish’s sharp bill stabs at the sky, the boat, and anything that may be unfortunate enough to get in its way. I needed to learn the protocol before I could responsibly target one of them.
In short, in a chartered situation there are two deckhands (deckies for short), a captain, and a fly fisher. The captain steers the boat through fishy territory while the deckhands rig and troll teaser baits which drag and “smoke” in the white frothy water that’s churned up by the boat. The goal is to create a disturbance in the water that imitates a school of tuna (or similar school of other feeder fish). This in turn “calls” a fish up from the depths of the ocean, where it then hopefully sets its sights on the trolled bait, mistaking it as a straggling, easy meal. This is always a hectic moment — the water erupts, a bill spears the air, a dorsal fin slices the surface, and fluorescence lights up the entire backwash. When billfish get excited, their bodies turn magnificent shades of blue, green, and purple.
If the deckhand is doing his job properly, the fluorescent flash of fury is headed straight for the stern of the boat and the rapidly retrieved teaser-bait. The fly fisher awaits the fish’s approach and when the chance comes, shouts for the deckhand to get the teaser out of the way. At this moment the captain must knock the boat out of gear, the deckhand must get the teaser-bait out of the water, and the fly fisher must make the appropriate presentation to have a reasonable chance at a hookup.
And this is all just to make the cast. Granted, it’s a short cast, but what it lacks in glamour is made up for in pressure.
The angler needs to be aware of the direction the fish is swimming and try to drop the fly somewhere near the side of its head. A cast to the front of its bill results in a difficult hook-set, or an occasional lassoing. Depending on whether the angler is fishing a top-water pattern or a large streamer, the fly is either stripped or “blooped” near the infuriated fish. In the frustration of losing sight of the teaser-bait, it snaps at the nearby fly instead. Takes are almost always visible, as most of the time they happen either on or just beneath the surface.
If the angler has been able to manage all of the above steps and the fish is hooked, it either greyhounds (jumps repeatedly) or sounds (heads straight for the bottom). The angler then adjusts the drag on the reel accordingly, typically reducing it to accommodate the increasing resistance of the water on the long length of fly line and backing.
When it comes to marlin, I can’t tell you what happens next, as I’ve never actually landed one on a fly (only on gear). If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, am I insane?
I have, however, landed enough sailfish to know that they provide the best practice for anglers determined to land a marlin.
For my husband and I, the routine goes like this: catch and rig baits the night before, launch the boat, run until the water turns to cobalt blue and the air temperature starts to rise, set out the teaser bait on the spinning rod, strip a bunch of fly line into a laundry basket so that one of us is ready to make the cast, bring the motor to trolling speed, stand in each corner of the stern in anticipation, stare at our bait until seabird wings look like marlin bills, and generally fall to pieces any time a fish shows up.
As word of my marlin-obsession spread through the fly-fishing industry, I found that my initial negative misconceptions about trolling flies, chumming, and boredom were shared by other people who hadn’t tried it.
Such notions forced me to examine myself, looking for a reason for my new and endless determination. Excitement and adrenaline aside, there were two aspects of the sport that I kept returning to. After spending so many years as a solo angler whose mission was to escape other people who were equally eager to escape me, there was something refreshing about being part of a team. Sure, a day’s float with a buddy on a steelhead river is still technically “teamwork,” but marlin fishing requires people to sync and work together on a whole different level. While marlin can certainly be caught by way of a “one-man-operation,” the fine-tuned process is best (and most safely) undertaken by several people working together. The very thought of needing others was one of my initial deterrences, but after putting in so many hours with dear friends, I’ve learned to love the team-spirit that is so rarely found in fly-fishing.
While interaction was indeed a bonus, I knew there had to be more to my unshakable perseverance, so I dug deeper still for an answer. I found it when I asked myself why I was so drawn to my favourite species of fish: the steelhead. Steelhead rule when they enter the river systems. They make me work. They beat at my sanity, my body, and my patience. And when I land one, I’m reminded that I am simply a brief observer of its highly complex life-cycle. The marlin is very much the same. King of the ocean, there is no saltwater species more regal.
Fly fishing is a sport of growth and progression, and that’s a path many of us follow. For some, the path leads to the mountain tops, for others it’s a meandering trail through the valleys. For me, it’s been a long trek over peaks and shorelines, and has landed me smack-dab in the middle of the ocean. So if you’ve been avoiding a certain type of fishing because you believe that it’s not for you, try it anyway. It might be the best chance you’ll ever take.
For a great listen on marlin fishing, check out the Anchored podcast with Dean Butler http://www.aprilvokey.com/podcasts/ or at https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/dean-butler-marlin-igfa/id951475911?i=1000369854966&mt=2
As seen in Salmon and Steelhead Journal:
I grew up in Surrey, a city where nothing surprised me. “Drugs, sex, and alcohol” were the cliche catch-words used by teachers who knew nothing of what happened in our world after midnight — words used to deter their students from strolling down the wrong path. What they didn’t know was that “drugs, sex, and alcohol” took place in the high-school handicap bathroom during lunch breaks, let alone off school property in the after-hours. In fact, for many of my friends, the over-used rock and roll phrase wasn’t something to stay away from, rather an improvement to their current lifestyle.
I was fortunate to have been brought up by loving parents who worked hard to ensure that my younger sister and I were comfortable in both home and living. Dad worked late nights in a rope factory, while mom ran an office nearby. They focused on raising us as strong, moral young women, at times even fearing that they’d encouraged us to be too hard-headed or ambitious. Looking back now, I’ll admit that I occasionally wonder the same thing.
To imply that I was difficult during my teenage years would be an understatement. Neither drugs, sex, nor alcohol were my vice, but disobedience, fighting, and nonconformity easily took their place. I had a big mouth, strong arms, a vast vocabulary, and a complete lack of respect for anyone who bullied the weak. Be it teachers or peers, I couldn’t help myself from fighting to make wrongs right. Suspension was an annual event, but my recurring lead-role in the school’s musical theatre managed to clear me of expulsion. I knew my cards and I played them well.
But years of harsh reality inevitably take their toll on soft hearts, and by the time I was a senior in high school I was searching for a getaway beyond the city lines. From my days as a young child, I’d always loved the outdoors and its endless opportunity to explore the unknown. So, armed with a beat-up car and years of accumulated fishing tackle, I skipped my afternoon classes to unwind by the river. Alone and liberated, I roamed the forest looking for adventure in its mossy shadows, and while I found much excitement in the white-water rapids and bear inhabited cliffside, it was the exploration of myself that truly lead me to the river.
By the time I graduated, my passion for fishing had drawn a dividing line between myself and the people I surrounded myself with. Late night parties and brawls saw me duck out early so that I could be somewhat rested for first-light fishing treks. Roommates who brought home random men laughed at me as I sat alone on the floor greasing up reels, and I laughed back knowing that as soon as they’d served their disgusting purpose that the same very men would be sitting around me, curious and eager to know more about my craft. The entire routine sickened me, and before long I was sourcing out alternate living arrangements in the countryside where the rivers were close and the drama was limited.
Ironically, it was when the river pushed at my knees that I felt the most grounded; when the road lead me to mossy overgrowth that I felt the safest; when I’d forgotten where I was that I felt the most found. In those days the mornings never came soon enough, and only the black of night stopped me from leaving the house any earlier. Even that may not have been enough of a deterrence, if it hadn’t been illegal to fish for salmon and steelhead before dawn.
My love affair with the sport wasn’t nearly as romantic as one might like to think it should be for a fly-fisher. Starting as a bait-fisher, I would rely on the use of treated eggs to tempt fish to bite. Bits of crusty roe nestled themselves into the curvatures of my thumbnails, and I would habitually grate my finger tips down the leg of my waders in an attempt to fade the cerise stain of pro-cure and borax from my hands. It wasn’t until several years, fishing buddies, and books that I came to own my first fly rod and box of handmade flies. But equipment does not make the angler and it wouldn’t have made a difference to me if I was fishing a dew worm, or a Victorian-era featherwing. I was there for the fish, not the methodology. The “fish”. Just the simplicity of the word seems to cheapen the significance of an animal many of us devote our lives to pursuing.
I still have not yet been able to decide if it’s the steelhead themselves, or the places steelhead live that draw me to some of the most remote corners of our planet. The steelhead enter the freshwater system with scales so bright they appear white when the fish is laid on her side. A subtle blush smears her cheek, so perfectly placed that one might think she was embarrassed she’d been caught. Her downturned eye, an indication that she is alive and well flecked with blue, green and purple, dances in the sun’s reflection, reminding her captor that without water they will quickly dry, dull and flatten. She is wild, she is free, she is adaptive, she is everything that is perfection in the natural world. I suppose that in many ways she reminded me of who I was — of who I am — beautiful in a strange sort of way, primitive to the very core, and born to fight for survival. As she pulled my line taut and leapt from the depths of the rushing white water, her head shook with anger, spitting my fly back to me on the shore. I reeled in the slack line smiling. Today she had beat me and, for one reason or another, I was happy she did.
I decided at eighteen years old that, to spend as many days as I could on the water, I would have to make fishing my profession. To do this, I would need to start guiding. So I began guiding for an outfitter, before eventually starting my own company, Fly Gal Ventures, at the age of 24.
At first, business as an independent operator was difficult. A bad car accident in the beginning months of my start-up put a major dent into both my body and planning. Up until one month before the wreck I waitressed part-time in the evenings at a casino, which allowed me a late start time. Now with a rebuilt foot and no side-job I needed to be extremely innovative. I started by putting together business plans that would draw revenue from every pot available to me in the fishing industry. Guiding (when I was back on my feet), teaching, writing, television, and selling printed merchandise were all active columns in my Excel spreadsheet. To be able to afford ‘z’, I needed to make ‘y’, so I needed to sell enough of ‘x’ to make it all happen. The planning was thorough, the budgeting tight.
Year one of my business was ambitious — too ambitious for some. The fly-fishing industry is renowned for its shortage of business-minded people. Primarily made up of fishermen who face the same dilemma I did, they long to spend their days immersed in the sport and therefore start their businesses rich with passion, yet poor in funds. I was aware of the predicament and strove to steer clear of the typical traps many business owners commonly fall into: starting a fly shop, building a brand entirely around oneself without an outlet for expansion, speaking for free, working for gear, missing opportunities in fear of seeming vain, being afraid to say no to those who wanted to use me for anything against my integrity, and, the hardest part of it all, keeping my head held high when the wolves tried to tear me down for simply figuring the cycle out — worse off, for simply having the balls to run with it. Big balls for a woman who isn’t supposed to have any.
They hated me — seen as attractive by some, primitive to the very core, and born to fight for survival. Like the steelhead, it only made me work harder. I took her lead and spit back at them on shore.
The road of entrepreneurship winds along a mountain of narrow paths and falling rocks. At times I dodged rockslides. Occasionally I fell off-course. I dusted my pants off and stood back up. Bruises heal.
I am quickly realizing that while it is the fishing itself that initiates people’s interest in my own personal story, it is actually the timeline of how I came to be that intrigues people the most. I can only hope to inspire them — to give them a glimmer of hope that they too can succeed, live, take chances, and follow their hearts to something they love. If there was one thing I have learned over the years, it is how to live my life with a purpose.
Like the river, my business ebbs and flows. There are days when I wonder what the point of it all is. Why I care so much about making an impact on an industry that has tried for so long to get rid of me. But then my email dings with a person who found strength in my blogs, or someone approaches me with a story about the job they hated and left to follow their heart after listening to an episode of Anchored, or my PO box receives a crayon coloured drawing from an eight year old who wants to be just like me when she grows up…
I walk to the water where the truth sounds clearly through the rushing river and rustling leaves. A steelhead rolls in the heart of it all and the symbolism doesn’t escape me — she reminds me to keep moving upstream, to trust in the quiet noises, and to let mother nature take care of the rest.
Chase it all — the fish, the rivers, and the pursuits that lead you into unfamiliar terrain.
To those of you who have reached out to me with dreams as high as the mountains you climb, this blog, this song, these shirts are dedicated to you. #ChaseIt
Shirts available in black and brown here at Fly Gal:
Alright fly tiers and rhea users, I am announcing a fun competition commencing now until August 1st! Eight winners will win $50 worth of rhea from Fly Gal www.flygal.ca/shop/rhea-feathers/
All you need to do is: tie a fly in one of the below categories, email a photo of it to us at email@example.com, allow me to post it on social media/our site, and let the voting begin!
Categories are: toothy critters, saltwater flats, saltwater general , bass/warmwater, Atlantic salmon, steelhead, trout, billfish.
For immediate release:
Wanaka, New Zealand: May 12, 2016
Place of Media Release (Date of release)—Swift Fly Fishing, the company behind Epic fly rods and the award-winning films, Casts that Catch Fish, Once in a Blue Moon, and Itu’s Bones, is pleased to announce that April Vokey has joined their team.
“A guide since the age of twenty-two, writer, accomplished fly angler, and respected businesswoman, Vokey’s seemingly boundless enthusiasm, sincerity and positive energy are in perfect concert with our goals,” says Swift’s founder and owner Carl McNeil. “A company is only as good as its team and we’re incredibly fortunate to be working with such a great bunch of people. If I sat down to draw up a list of the qualities I look for in a business partner to help lead a pioneering and disruptive company, it would be a description of April.”
Vokey, a noted fly-fishing personality, has bought into the company as a shareholder and director. “I am very excited to be on board with such an innovative and dynamic company. I’ve been watching the Epic brand grow since its first introduction into the industry,” said Vokey. “It was important for me to put my name and confidence into a company whose quality is flawless and uncompromising, with components only sourced from the best manufacturers in the world, and each blank rolled and quality-checked in New Zealand. Between Carl and myself, the majority of our time is spent in British Columbia, Australia and New Zealand. This gives us a unique opportunity to dial in tapers, materials, and construction. I’m genuinely looking forward to being a part of the Swift team.”
Epic is refreshingly honest and innovative at a time when personal connection with the consumer is often missed. The fly-fishing company is working hard to bring the world some of the finest carbon-fibre two-handed rods on the market, and they are also committed to fine-tuning the glass and carbon rods currently available.
Each Epic fly rod is built upon a proprietary taper and is handcrafted in the Swift studio workshop. Using “just in time” manufacturing, rods are made one at a time as ordered by the customer.
For now, it is business as usual — with the company producing a limited number of fly rods for current orders. McNeil said, “Our short-term focus is ensuring that we keep producing the absolute best quality fly rod we can. Volume will come later, but we won’t be mass-producing anything any time soon. We don’t aim to be the biggest or the cheapest, but we do aim to deliver the very best.”
We’ve got a new order of rhea in stock and we thought you might like to learn how to use it (you can purchase it here: http://www.flygal.ca/shop/rhea-feathers/)
Over the years the rhea feather has become increasingly popular with steelhead fly tiers. In fact, in some cases, it’s so popular that stores even have a difficult time keeping it in stock. Despite the demand, the rhea feather is still pretty much the “new kid on the block” (when comparing it to other feathers that have been used by tiers for the last few centuries).
The rhea bird is South America’s version of the ostrich, except the plumage on each individual barb of the rhea is much shorter, making each strand remarkably thinner. While there are many fly tiers who are adept at using these long, flowing fibres in their streamers, there are an equal amount of tiers who aren’t sure why or how to use them — and so they don’t.
Perhaps the most common hesitation about the feather is the price point. Ten years ago, the feather could only be found through a handful of distributors who essentially owned the market. If supplier costs were $4 a feather, they were sold to shops at $8 a feather, and from here the shops keystone’d at $16. Factor in shipping to some stores and the costs were sky-rocketing.
Even though there’s enough material in a single feather to tie multiple flies, for some, $16 is still a tough figure to stomach. More recently, feathers have been found at cheaper rates and, as a result, prices are lowering to a much more competitive rate.
So with the price tag out of the way, what’s the advantage to using the rhea feather — specifically when compared to regular ostrich plumes?
Rhea fibres are long, durable and relatively sparse. If they’re applied properly, they can give flies a full profile and extra length, all while ensuring that flies aren’t overdressed. The lack of fluff or surface area of rhea ensures that they can penetrate both the water’s surface and the air while being cast.
It’s stronger than ostrich, holds colour better than most feathers used for these purposes, and are able to be tied in as long or short as the tier prefers. Plus, because they are so much thinner, you can fit more strands into your fly without over dressing it.
For every one standard ostrich barb used in a fly, three barbs of rhea can be used to achieve the same coverage. So, for example, if a properly dressed fly can only accommodate 8 pieces of ostrich, that same fly has the ability to hold 24 pieces of rhea; rhea that isn’t as brittle as the ostrich, or as prone to fading. My ostrich flies don’t last long in a season of summer steelheading. What few pieces of ostrich I can fit into my fly are soon broken and irrelevant, or simply ruined by the sun and water. Rhea grants me durability and more action in the water, a result of being able to fit in “more for less”.
It didn’t take long for the commercial industry to see the appeal of the rhea feather and before long they were seeking it out. Such distributors are hard to find and a viable source was tricky to obtain. So an alternate feather was produced: bleach-burned ostrich.
Bleach-burning is a method used by many tiers who are looking to strip or reduce the “fluffiness” of the barbules from a barb. The feather is dipped into a mixture of one part bleach to several parts water. From here, it is left to sit for a few seconds before being removed and neutralized in vinegar. The ostrich plumage is now mildly burned and can bear a resemblance to the rhea.
This burnt ostrich is excellent for guide flies and flies soon to be lost in snags, but bleaching the already brittle ostrich only weakens the feather further and colour has a hard time keeping vibrant.
In a nutshell, there are two main ways to tie in rhea fibres — you can wrap them, or you can stack them. Personally, I stack them and I’ll explain why.
To wrap the feather you obviously can’t wrap the rachis. It’s far too thick and it would look ridiculous wrapped around a hook or tube.
To make it work, you have to strip the membrane that holds the fibres onto the stem.
One of the problems here is that it takes one or two trial feathers to become competent with this process as the membrane is prone to cracks and breakage.
A solution is to soak the whole feather in a mixture of water and hair conditioner to help soften the membrane, making it easier to peel and then wrap around the hook shank/tube. (You do not need to worry about the brand of conditioner, or if it will leave a fish-deterring smell).
But I found a number of things went wrong when I used this method. As the membrane has to be palmered tightly side by side with each wrap, the wide material takes up more space than I prefer; the delicate membrane left unprotected and prone to breakage from teeth marks, bad casts, general wear and tear, etc.
Counter wrapping wire can be tedious and super glue only stiffens the fibres. Plus I get stuck with little broken bits that are amidst the lengthy fibres, and adding another colour is next to impossible without overdressing or hassling with curly stems. Lastly, sometimes I’m forced to use extra long rhea in flies that I wish to give a shorter profile to. Truthfully, eventually I tired of clients reeling in flies with broken rhea membranes dangling uselessly in the current.
So I looked to an alternate method — the stacking option.
With this, I could now save time without having to peel stems, pick out any broken off pieces (without compromising the membrane strength), tie in my fibres as short or as long as I saw fit, play around with different colour combos, and reinforce my materials without having to worry about them uncoiling.
There was, however, one disadvantage (I’ll address that in the next few paragraphs).
Cutting close to the stem, I cut off between five to seven fibres (sometimes less), then tie them in small “clumps” on the left, right, top and bottom of the shank/tube. With only three wraps of thread per “clump”, the fly now has a distinct profile without using copious amounts of material that often collapse or overdress the fly.
Where the method loses its advantage is in the bulk of the tie-in point. Four “clumps” of rhea with three thread wraps each, inevitably results in a mounded thread build up. I’d always just tried to cover this with a collar, but my solution was presented to me during one of my workshops.
I was helping a student break his habit of over-wrapping when the answer hit me. Abiding by my own three thread wrap rule, after the stacks were wrapped in, I used my holding hand to firmly grip the already secured tied-in fibres. From here, I simply unwrapped his thread twelve times.
Being sure to keep hold on the rhea, I wound the excess thread up onto my bobbin, and then rewrapped three times!
From here, I always give my tag ends a quick dab of superglue, then use nail clippers and a safety pin to quickly and closely trim the ends.
Naturally, there is a time and place for each technique and material, but this has been the simplest and most efficient method for me.
Looking to learn more? Check out April’s podcast, Anchored with April Vokey for free downloadable conversations with some of the industry’s most influential people!
Thank you so much for your business!
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.
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