Nymph and egg patterns are not always best for getting steelhead to strike
October 13, 2013 4:00 AM
Streamers can provoke the most aggressive steelhead to attack, says fishing guide April Vokey.
By John Hayes Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Conventional wisdom holds that fly anglers in search of steelhead should learn to perfect a natural drift with nymph, egg and sucker spawn patterns -- the smaller the better in low, clear waters.
But anyone who's ever seen a big silver bullet shooting 10 yards across a stream to attack a flashy streamer has witnessed "strike reflex" theory in action.
Sometimes, it seems, bigger is better.
"In my experience, sometimes streamers will get the more aggressive fish to bite," said British Columbia steelhead and salmon guide April Vokey. "At times, streamers can be more effective than nymphs and egg patterns."
Vokey puts clients on fish from Norway to Belize and is a Federation of Fly Fishers-certified casting instructor. Thursday at International Angler in Robinson, she'll host steelhead workshops on two-handed Skagit casting and tying Intruder-style streamer patterns.
Clearly, there are times when a nymph or egg will catch fish. Sometimes, said Vokey, particularly in low and clear conditions, steelhead will go to the surface for mayfly patterns. But to spark the interest of the most aggressive fish, she said, a selection of streamers should be included in the fly box.
"It doesn't have to be Intruders," she said. "It's the method, not the pattern. The fish that are the most aggressive, whether it's a buck or a doe, will be the ones that go for the streamers. And when they hit, it can be vicious -- the rod can be yanked out of your hand."
Reading the water is equally important in both styles of fishing, but the current is used differently with streamers. Cast across and downstream, allow the current to "swing" the fly and strip in line mending to attain specific depth and water positions, plying the current to "fish" the fly back upstream.
Streamers are extremely versatile. Using no indicator, an angler can swing it through a hydraulic boil, dangle it near structure, parallel a seam, slowly sink it deep and then fly it across current attracting maximum attention -- if necessary, all on a single retrieve -- making full use of the fly on every section of water. And when none of that works, don't forget the counter-intuitive dead drift.
No one's exactly sure why minnow imitations can lure fish that are attempting to reach spawning waters. "Strike reflex" theory suggests that when aggressive steelhead see the fly's movement, they're instinctively triggered to attack as they would during years of feeding in the lake.
And there are other advantages to streamer fishing.
"From the second the fly lands to the end of the swing and the retrieve, it's covering more water," said Vokey. "That's something people need to know. With nymphing, you're covering one straight drift. With streamer fishing you're often casting farther, and even if you're not, the streamer has to make its way all the way across to your side of the river and lots of fish will see it. You'll miss some fish, but the aggressive fish will make up for it."
As in other types of fishing, said Vokey, successful streamer anglers have to be "very, very aware of what the fly is doing in the water. That's what separates good anglers from people who go out and hope it will happen."
Streamer size is determined by flow rate and water clarity. When it's murky and fish are closer to shore where there's more oxygen, Vokey downsizes her hook.
"When I started streamer fishing 11 years ago, we were fishing big, big flies," she said. "Five or six years ago, everyone started fishing smaller flies. I don't fish big, gaudy flies. I like a happy medium."
Getting the fly down to the fish is important. Getting it too deep can result in hanging up on every cast.
"Typically I fish sink-tip lines," said Vokey. "Sometimes I use [weighted flies] and very light sink-tip and mend the line rather than rely on split shot or a bunch of weights. But that said, sometimes I can't get enough split shot or I use no weight."
In Pennsylvania steelhead waters, anglers are often packed within a few hundred yards of tributary mouths. Vokey recommends finding good habitat away from the crowds.
"Maybe try to get away from them. The whole point of fishing for me is to get away from people and to concentrate on one place," she said. "Steelhead are incredible. I've caught them in places that you'd think would never hold a fish. And that's part of the fun -- they keep you guessing."