Nymphing Techniques for Alaska Steelhead
by E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.
Still, cool and humid beneath an overcast sky, the air smelled faintly of the nearby sea. The absence of direct sunlight overhead represented both good and bad news. The clouds denied the ability to spot fish despite the clarity of the current, but conditions that let you see fish also let fish see you, especially in small coastal streams like this one. Furthermore, steelhead are usually more active on cloudy days. Pleasant as sight-casting to individual fish might have been, I decided to accept the hand I’d been dealt and play it.
Five rainless days—no common event in Alaska’s southeastern panhandle—had left the stream low and dropping lower. The fish were going to be spooky despite the leaden skies, demanding a light touch and cautious approach. Like so much of the region’s prime steelhead water, the little stream danced and tumbled through a warren of chutes and boulders on its way to the sea. It actually looked more like a mountain trout stream than classic anadromous fish habitat. Nonetheless, I felt confident that I had the right tackle and the technique for the conditions.
And I knew just the place to deploy them, thanks to years of experience in the area. It’s no accident that the pool at the end of my hike that day is known as Don’s Hole among our circle of steelhead fanatics. Even before I climbed onto the downed log that provides an ideal vantage above the water, I knew I wasn’t going to spot any fish in the shrouded gloom below. But I also knew they were there.
Moments later, I started to cast. Forget swinging big streamers with a Spey rod. The water looked like a trout stream and I was fishing it like one, aiming my 7-weight floating line up into the riffle at the head of the pool. My #10 Prince Nymph bore no weight other than its brass beadhead, but under the low-water conditions that was just enough to get it into the zone and keep it there as it tumbled downstream past my feet.
Steelhead may be known as the fish of a thousand casts, but under delicate conditions like this I’ve learned that the first dozen in any run are more likely to produce a strike than the next hundred, as was the case that day. In fact, to call the beginning of my encounter with that first fish a “strike” seems like verbal inflation. The leader simply hesitated midway through its course down the pool in a way the current couldn’t explain, earning a strip-set from my line hand. At that the pool exploded as a fish that seemed several sizes too big for the water went airborne.
I eventually landed it, too, against such odds that it doesn’t bother me to admit losing the next three in a row. Hooking four fish like that would add up to a memorable morning anywhere, but on a small stream I can easily cover with a lazy roll-cast? Priceless.
Even though I’ve yet to buy my first two-handed rod, I’ve done plenty of classic fly fishing for steelhead over the years: standing waist-deep in big water, swinging gaudy streamers across dozens of yards of powerful current, in famous rivers that host thousands of returning steelhead annually. But even as a kid growing up in western Washington 50 years ago, I loved to turn my back on the big, crowded rivers and hike up little Olympic Peninsula streams that flew under the radar. They seldom held many steelhead and they were tricky to fish, but they sure were fun.
A lot of the knowledge I gained there translated well to coastal Alaska when I moved north. Many elements of the outdoors come in plus-sizes here in the Great Land, but with some exceptions steelhead streams aren’t among them. In southeast Alaska’s panhandle, most are small enough to wade and cast across easily. The current is more likely to form tumbling riffles and complex pocket water than the long runs that invite Spey rods and swinging streamers. I’ve already invoked their resemblance to mountain trout streams, and it should come as no surprise that fishing them as such produces results.
Most articles of this sort begin (and often end) with a discussion of what fly pattern belongs on the end of the tippet, so we’ll get that over with quickly. When the angler is presenting nymphs to wary spring creek brown trout in the Lower 48, minor variations in size, color and pattern can make the difference between refusals and fish. For a whole variety of reasons—naïve fish, lack of angling pressure, complex current, limited freshwater feeding behavior—steelhead are far less selective. Usually, fly selection is the least important decision the angler will make on an Alaska steelhead stream.
But you have to start with something. My standard is a #10 Beadhead Prince Nymph, simply because I know this pattern works. Hare’s Ears and stonefly imitations like George’s Brown Stone will draw strikes as well. I’ll go up one or two hook sizes in rising water or down to #12 when the current is really low and clear. While it would be impossible or at the very least difficult to do a scientifically meaningful side-by-side comparison, I’m a big believer in adding a beadhead to any of these standard patterns. However, that has more to do with the fly’s behavior in the water than its appearance to the fish.
Veteran steelhead anglers accustomed to working flies in “the zone” can skip the next two paragraphs, although the concept is so important it bears repetition. After making long migrations across the Pacific, steelhead can hardly be accused of laziness. But in common with most wildlife species, they have “learned” (by natural selection, not personal experience) to expend as little energy as possible to get the job done. When the job consists of heading upstream against strong current to the spawning grounds, that means spending most of their time near the bottom (where friction slows the current) in areas of smooth, laminar flow (so their design can let them hold their position with minimum effort.) After all, that’s where the term “streamlined” comes from.
The angler wants to have the fly there for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: that’s where the money is. Of course steelhead will leave the zone for a variety of reasons, including the urge to smack a swinging streamer or even a dry fly. But the first foot or two above the bottom—the right bottom—will almost always out-produce any other segment of the water column. Reading the water in order to identify that “right” bottom may be the most important skill the steelhead specialist can develop, but we’ll have to leave that discussion for another day.
Getting the fly down into the zone will almost always require some kind of weight. Sink-tip lines offers one potential solution, and they’re often useful for swinging streamers. However I rarely use one when I’m nymphing, because I find that weighted tips compromise line control in current and make strike detection more difficult. Adding weight to the fly—with a beadhead or a few wraps of fine lead wire under the body—gets around these problems, and I tie most of my steelhead nymphs with one or both. Adding (or subtracting) a small split-shot or two allows precise control of sink rate and is almost always necessary in rising water. Putting the split-shot above the knot between leader and tippet will keep it from sliding down onto the fly with repetitive casting.
But it’s not enough for the fly to get there—it has to act properly once it does. While there’s plenty of room for variation, it’s best to think of the default position as a totally natural dead-drift, letting the fly follow the current with as little influence from the line as possible. While the specifics will always vary with circumstances, this generally involves an upstream cast at an angle determined by current and water depth, followed by a careful series of mends as line and fly pass downstream. This sounds simple and it is, but the ability to do so accurately and automatically requires practice and experience, as best illustrated by watching a novice try to get a nymph through a drift without doing about ten different things wrong.
Nymphs do not have to be dead-drifted to catch steelhead. Try letting the fly drop on a short, slack-free line as it passes by in the current. Then let the line draw tight at the end of the drift, causing it to rise and swing at the same time. Of course trout stream veterans will recognize this technique as the venerable Leisenring Lift, developed during the 1940s to make artificial flies act like emerging aquatic insects. Easy to master with a bit of practice, it works on steelhead, too, especially when sight-casting to fish reluctant to strike.
Detecting strikes is much more difficult with a dead-drifted nymph than a swinging streamer. The first principle to remember is that a 20-pound steelhead taking a drifted nymph may well feel like a 10-inch trout instead. Strike indicators have their place but I just don’t like them, because they distract my attention from the current and the fly, where it belongs. I prefer to follow the junction of fly line and leader with my eyes instead. Never wait to feel a strike—you’ll miss way too many. The best practice is to treat anything that happens to interrupt the orderly pace of the drift as a steelhead until proven otherwise. Hesitation by a drifting fly line can be caused by many other things, including rocks, moss, unexpected current behavior and Dollies. But if you wait to sort it out, you’ll lose a lot of good fish.
Proper strike technique demands total absence of slack in the line, which in turn requires attention with every cast. Let the current create even a little belly in the line and you’ll miss fish; strip aimlessly after the cast and you’ll ruin the tempo of the drift. Follow the fly’s course with the tip of the rod and set the hook with a quick twitch of the line hand. This basic saltwater technique, designed to keep from snapping the tippet on impact with powerful fish, offers additional advantages on tight, brushy coastal Alaska streams. A strip-set won’t necessarily ruin the drift, and it won’t leave your fly in the treetops behind you if the strike proves imaginary, as it will more often than not.
Fishing the zone with any tackle means encounters with the bottom. In fact, if you’re not hanging up from time to time you probably need to add some weight or change the angle of the cast relative to the current. You’re going to lose tackle. Get over it, and remember what a great rainy-day activity fly tying can be. In Alaska steelhead country, there will be plenty of rainy days.
By now it should be clear that nymphing for steelhead has more to do with technique than nymphs. The venerable single-egg pattern in all of its versions fishes just fine this way. In fact, the Egg-sucking Leech has likely accounted for more anadromous fish than any other fly pattern in the state. This ridiculously effective (and effectively ridiculous) fly offers a great two-for-one option: dead-drift it through the heart of the run, then lift your rod tip and swing it through the tailout of the pool at the end of the same cast.
Back when I was a kid, everyone I knew routinely used big hooks for steelhead—#2s for flies and even larger for conventional tackle. Not surprisingly, I’ve had a lot of anglers ask me how small nymph hooks fare in the face of big steelhead. In fact, they do quite well. The tippet will break before the hook, and I think I actually have fewer hooks pull out when I’m fishing with small nymphs—probably because I’m paying more attention and getting the hook set better in the first place. As an added bonus, small hooks are easier than large ones on fish meant to be released, as all wild steelhead should be.
Practical considerations aside, there’s something incredibly gratifying about taking a really big steelhead on a really small fly, especially one that looks like what a trout fly is supposed to look like. Atlantic salmon enthusiasts celebrated this impulse decades ago by creating the Sixteen Twenty Club, membership in which required catching a 20-pound salmon on a fly tied on a #16 hook. I dislike rules, weights and measures too much to propose anything that formal, but there’s nothing wrong with the idea behind it. No snob, I have plenty of Glo-Bugs and Egg-sucking Leeches in my fly book (not to mention many more classic steelhead attractor patterns that look even less like anything occurring in nature) and I’m not afraid to use them when I think they will prove effective. I fish with beadhead nymphs primarily because I know they catch fish, and the optimal means of fishing them as described above is perfectly suited to small, brushy steelhead streams in coastal Alaska.
But at the end of the day steelhead are still Oncorhynchus mykiss—rainbow trout by nothing but another name and different life stories. Catching them like the overgrown trout they are provides no end of fun and satisfaction.
Don Thomas and his wife Lori divide their time between homes in Montana and southeast Alaska. Don’s latest book, How Sportsmen Saved the World, documents the contributions hunters and anglers have made to the conservation movement. His 17 outdoor books are available through the website www.donthomasbooks.com.