SUMMER STEELHEAD ANGLER PRECEPTS
ON THE NORTH UMPQUA RIVER
STEELHEAD AVOID HOLDING IN AND WILL NOT APPROACH FLIES IN THE SUN
Photo #1. November 1, 2013: 1:55 PM. The left-bank shadow is still present in Big Bend Pool, yet notice the steelhead holding in the sunlight.
At the start of my fishing the North Umpqua, everyone, and I mean everyone, told me that steelhead avoid the sunlight and will not hold in it.
The wild summer steelhead that hold in Big Bend Pool seem have a more complex
relationship to sunlight than anglers think they do. Because of the orientation of Steamboat Creek in the area of the pool, all season long there is a definite strong swath of sunlight that works it way across the pool all season long.
This means that the sun chases a band of shadow from the pool and is followed in turn by another band of shadow that reaches out to encompass the pool in the late afternoon. The period during which the sun completely covers the pool diminishes from about five hours at the solstice to only a single hour by the time my dogs and I leave the pool for New Mexico.
What I call the right-ridge shadow in my natural history notes is cast by the sun as it drops from sight below the far ridge late in the day. This right-ridge shadow is preceded by a separate finger of shadow that was created by the falling of several large far bank trees during my time at the pool (see Photo #4).
Alright, other things being equal, the steelhead show a tendency to stay in the left bank shadow, to hug it and retreat from the sunlight when it comes. This is particularly obvious when the leading edge of the sunlight is crossing the deepest part of the stream channel, the thalweg. In Photo #1, the thalweg is approximately under the near edge of the steelhead holding in the sunlight.
Eventually, as the leading edge of the sunlight gets closer and closer to the near bank, more and more steelhead gradually and easily peel off the left-bank shadow to swim over to the sunlit part of the pod with gentle sweeps of their tails. In Photo #1 there are three steelhead visible as they make the transition from the shadowed to the pod in the sunlight.
So, this shows that the steelhead do appear to prefer the shadow don't they? If this were the only time that I watched the reaction of the steelhead to sunlight I would think that, in fact, steelhead do not like it.
Photo #2. August 5, 2012: 10:08. There are several shadows being cast onto the pool from the near bank trees.
Early in my time on the pool, I noticed that the steelhead commonly released large bubbles from the top of their gill plates in the late afternoon as the far bank shadow was in the process of replacing the sunlight from the pool. Commonly, these fish are stationary or drifting quite slowly and the bubbles that they release ascend vertically through the water column. It took me a couple of seasons to determine that-in the pool-when a steelhead releases bubbles from its gills, this is a clear sign that it is nervous. Steelhead have voluntary control over the amount of air in their airbladders.
As the late-day, far-bank shadows make their way across the pool the steelhead retreat from these shadows just like they earlier retreated from the sunlight when it first began its traverse earlier in the day. In the afternoon, there is every sign of nervousness on the part of the steelhead as the right-ridge shadow continues to make its way across the pool from the right, or far bank.
So, considering the apparent inclination to retreat from sunlight early in the day and to retreat from shadow late in the day, it seems to me that pool steelhead prefer to stay in either sunlight or shadow, whichever has been covering the pool, and to retreat from sunlight or shadow, whichever is encroaching onto the pool with the rotation of the earth.
Photo #3. October 4, 2012: 3.28 PM. This portion of a steelhead pod, besides being at ease, is clearly holding in the sunlight.
There are two Douglas fir that have grown old just behind and above where I sit on the near, or left bank of the pool. The apparent movement of the sun across the sky causes the shadows of these two trees to sweep from the lower to the upper end of the pool (see Photo #2). At times the pool steelhead prefer to hold within these tree shadows and at other times they appear to prefer to hold in the sunlit patches between the tree shadows.
One situation that is apparent is that, when spooked-when spooked enough-the steelhead show an inclination to retreat into whatever shadows are available to them if these shadows are big enough.
So, anglers, what does it mean that wild summer steelhead hold comfortably in either shadow or sunlight, whichever is at hand, and show a marked and an apparently equal inclination to retreat from shadow if they have been holding in sunlight or sunlight when they have been holding in shadow?
Photo #4. November 18, 2013: 3:09PM. Steelhead are holding in the sunlight and the shadow. Note the presence of sunlight on the far bank. This is a slender finger of sunlight that was created by several large conifers falling in about 2006.
One, if you have been angling in shaded water since the crack of dawn, there may be a slow down in hookups as the leading edge of the sunlight sweeps over the river. Equally, if you have been angling sunny water, there may be less interest in your flies as shadow replaces sunlight. These changes, shadow to sunlight or sunlight to shadow appear to spook the steelhead in Big Bend Pool and it is rare to see an apparently nervous or spooked steelhead rise to or approach any item in the pool.
These observations of the Big Bend Pool steelhead strongly suggest the belief that steelhead avoid the sunlight is erroneous. I have found that steelhead will approach my flies equally in sun or shadow. As I have said elsewhere in these Whistle articles that discuss steelhead behavior, the reason I will leave the river has more to do with the common up-canyon winds and my use of very long leaders than the fact that the water has sunlight on it.
SURFACE FLIES IN WINTER? OR STEELHEAD WILL NOT COME TO THE SURFACE IN COLD WATER
December 7, 2009. Around a hundred steelhead under iced at the lower end of the pool.
In what way I wonder does the air influence a steelhead that is holding in the North Umpqua River or Steamboat Creek? According to what some of the more experienced anglers say, steelhead won't take items off the surface when the air is cold or when the air is colder than the water anyway. Is this even true? I will start this discussion of steelhead moving to surface flies in cold water by stating that-as usual, for what it's worth-I believe only one circumstance will stop a steelhead from taking a surface fly and that is a layer of ice between it and the fly . . . and that may not stop a steelhead from trying to take this fly.
I am certain that it is only conjecture that will deny the likelihood that steelhead will move to the surface for flies when the water in below 50°. The truth is that, insofar as I can see, no one has fished only surface flies-or predominantly surface flies-in water temperatures of 49° or less for enough time for this to be representative of anything. Once a fishing buddy who had looked over the book that recorded over twenty years of catch statistics at a Skeena River lodge. He told me that only 2% of the steelhead had been taken with surface flies by lodge patrons. That's something isn't it?
Actually, that 2% is a meaningless statistic without knowing what percentage of the rods over the time in question fished solely surface flies. For example, if only 1% of the rods were fishing the surface, then rods fishing the surface were twice as effective as those fishing sunken flies . . . that is unless my math skills [such as they are] have failed me once again.
In fact, my experience suggests that, of those anglers who fish the surface, none of them do so frequently enough when the water is in the 40°s or lower for there to be any meaningful statistics presently in existence. I will go out on a very thick, healthy, and resilient limb and say once more that any statement by anyone yea or nay about fishing surface flies for steelhead in the late fall and winter is conjecture only. I wish this was not true, but it is.
If I am right about this, then a very interesting question occurs to me: "Why do the majority of those who fish for steelhead repeat this untested and therefore meaningless maxim?" Is this fiction so well accepted that fishing with surface flies in winter is considered worthless? Is the proposition that steelhead will have their curiosity aroused and move to a surface fly in cold water frightening in some way? Other than the joy of shooting lots of line well, is angling with very heavy flies and dense sink tip lines so much fun that it is addictive? For those who fish floating lines and wet flies: is swinging a fly six to eight inches under the surface so different from swinging a surface fly?
Is bringing a steelhead to your line so important that anglers will refuse to deviate from the weighted-fly path and pretend that this path is the only path and not just one of several paths. As anglers, have we not been offered nice enough shrubberies to try surface flies in winter? Are our parents therefore hamsters and do they smell of elderberries? Has the coterie of those anglers lucky enough to be able to fish the North Umpqua River for winter steelhead simple been insufficiently taunted?
Probably every once in a while for the last seventy or eighty years, and often accidentally, anglers have been casting and working flies in the North Umpqua River that either on purpose or accidentally stayed in the surface film of most of their drift. If accidental, the probable culprit was a half-hitch around the fly made by a tailing loop.
It was not until the late 90s that a significant number of North Umpqua anglers finally accepted that steelhead would readily come to surface presentations during the summer. It was at this time or infinitesimally later that the experienced anglers on the North Umpqua began in significant numbers to mention the use of floating flies in the summer. Let me add that there have probably always been anglers like Jack Decius and Frank Moore who were not afraid, now and then, to fish the surface of the North Umpqua during the 1950s and 1960s. These anglers who periodically fished the surface probably fished dead-drifted surface flies, not the waking flies that are the most common surface patterns in use today on the river. This sometime use of surface flies did not strongly influence anglers on the river and this was perhaps primarily because the preferred flies that were being cast to intrigue steelhead were moving in the opposite direction, that is, down.
Beginning en masse, I believe, sometime in the eighties, anglers had concluded that if you wanted to catch steelhead or more steelhead, you took your flies to them with lead-core lines or you wrapped lead around your flies. Remember, steelhead stay on the bottom, don't they? One older angler, though I am unsure how experienced he was, categorically told me that steelhead were not even able to look up. Many anglers dallied with weighted flies only briefly, but the damage was done, if it's appropriate to use the word damage in this context . . . Actually, it probably is if the weighted flies were used in the summer, and they were.
By the time I began to spend my time on the river in the late 1980s you were told, often whether or not you had asked to be told, that the go-to steelhead technique used here and most other places too was a sinking line and a weighted fly.
Why am I digressing like this to weighted flies when this article is purportedly about cold water and steelhead rising to the surface for flies and other items? The reason is that most of the anglers, even those who would like to fish surface flies, have constrained their effective use to a limited and mythic set of circumstances. Stated negatively and generally, the fable is that it is a waste of time to fish a surface fly if the water is too deep, too dirty, too fast, or too cold. This confines their use to smooth, shallow, clear tails of pools or to any water with a glossy or placid-seeming surface and only during what amounts to the summer time.
There are plenty of anglers who regularly fish the river who now preferentially use surface flies, usually waking flies (with and without popping them) and they do so all summer long. The balance of these anglers will go to wet flies when the water drops into the fifties and below.
Long ago, Joe Howell told me of fishing with his friend Harry Lemire and watching him bring a steelhead to the surface when the water was in the low thirties. This does not surprise me at all for this legendary angler . . . these two legendary anglers. Unfortunately, one hooking or rise or one swallow does not make a summer steelhead technique. Unless I am missing something, there are very few anglers other than my friend Bryan D. who will fish a surface presentation with nearly perfect equanimity when winter comes to the river.
What do the wild summer steelhead in Big Bend Pool have to say about this conundrum? I regularly see steelhead approach items on the surface in the pool when the temperature of the water is as low as 34°. In another Steamboat Creek pool, on February 10th, 2001, I watched three steelhead during a hatch of centimeter-long mayflies. Two of the steelhead were paired up, a male and a female. The third fish was another male and it was holding about eight-feet downcreek from the paired fish. Neither male paid any attention to the mayflies, but the female was confidently rising and taking individual mayflies from the surface film about every minute. The water there was 39°.
So, what does the fact that by wild summer steelhead regularly rise to leaves, twigs, lichens, and insects late in the season when the water is below 50° mean to anglers?
Very little or nothing.
Why? Because to my knowledge no one has ever fished the surface consistently enough during the winter to make any meaningful statements about it. I guess this means that anglers are comfortable repeating half-truths or quarter-truths. Now I wonder, if we got some actual facts about fishing the surface for steelhead when the water is cold, wouldn't this make our conversations more interesting and-depending on what the truth is actually shown to be-a lot more interesting?
Good friends, let me propose an experiment. This coming winter-- during a spell of good fishing, why not fish the surface for a whole day. Unfortunately, fishing just a run or two will yield no more than what we presently have, anecdotes.
If only three to five anglers fished two or three whole days with surface flies, by the end of five years, there might be enough useful info to say something meaningful about steelhead and their preferences for flies in the winter.
If nothing else it will give us something to hang our conjectural hat or hooded rain jacket on.
 Of course, this data would have to be written up in an acceptable way