Steelhead flies by the season

Steelhead flies for overcast days in mid-October to early November
Flies for Autumn - small flies in rear for shallow water, clear water and cold, clear mornings for stubborn fish. Bigger flies in front for lively fish in bigger water ready to inhale

The Essence of Fall 2009 – Celebrating Anadromous Fish

Tying steelhead flies provides escape into the fantastically infinite world of intuition, dreams and pure, raw thought. Who invented calendars and watches and such that strive to pull us away from the real, into a place delineated by boundaries and frustration?

By my reckoning, we sit almost smack dab in the middle of Autumn, 2009. By the calendar’s telling, it began on September 21 and ends on December 21. Tonite, the moon wanes a week from full and pokes through showery clouds. The storm wet us down last night enough to raise the northern rivers a bit, but nothing of any appreciable runoff. Maybe in a utopian climate, fall would steadily evolve from summer’s drizzle into warm, light rains punctuated with the occasional heavier shower at night. These would be the Chinook rains where the rivers would raise slightly, allowing early fish to enter the coastal rivers. The rains would continue on and off, in a gentle, easy fashion, and we would say this is fall, regardless of the day or week or month; the time of passing rains. Chinook would find the lower rivers fresh and dependable generation after generation. Heavier rains would kick in around Thanksgiving and an early winter would set in. By Christmas, the rivers would all be swollen and open to the wanderings of steelhead and winter Chinook for several months. But it’s too easy to describe the ideal and, rather, fall seems to be a time of change with persistent bouts of summer hanging on and weather that remains uncommitted, or hesitant, maybe.

I am always intrigued by some of the reports from the early 1900s of fishable runs of Eel River fish showing in late August. Did the rains start earlier back then? Did the greater abundance of fish back then simply give way to earlier fish? In the 1930s, for example, Clark van Fleet wrote of fishing steelhead on the lower Eel in September following freshets that raise the river a bit – something almost unheard of these days. Newspaper reports hint at fishing for Chinook at the Van Duzen confluence in late August. Certainly, less aggraded rivers back then would likely have meant more surface water available in late summer, so maybe rainfall was not as essential for early fish as it is today. Still, though, the thought of rains routinely setting in during September on the coast is almost deliteful, if not disturbing to know those times have passed.

Now, here in early November, we can sit on the porch listening to the light shower dance down on the roof and dream of rivers and fish while the full moon lights a canvas of broken clouds. We can dream of those years when the rains come gentle and easy, guiding our way through a season like so many before. Instead we are left to guess and hope. Then again, maybe this is the essence of fall; a time of hope mixed with the turmoils of change. The frustrating part is that I could have told you September 21st was just as much Autumnal as is today. Interesting to note that December 21 marks the date of some of the more significant storms to pummel the north coast since records began. But even then, on the shortest day of the year, Autumn is everywhere. Then again, I could find you a Chinook in that same river, September, October, November or December. And they know, despite their chances early or late, that they will get it right.  Now, relieve me of the bondage of this absurb notion of time so that I might better know the essence of this season.


Readying the phesant skins for dyeing.  I’m after the choice rump feathers near the very rear and the base of the tail.

I’m excited about the whole new universe of fly tying possibilities that are about to open up. Stay tuned for the step-by-step dyeing experiment some rainy weekend.


Choice rump feathers at the base of the tail.
Choice rump feathers at the base of the tail.

Thoughts on tying steelhead flies with coot

For the most part, the coot has fallen out of the winter repertoire – the largest spey-type patterns I have been able to muster up is a size 5.  Size 3 would be possible, but asking for long, spider-type hackles would be pushing it.  There seem to be two groups of feathers that have application for smaller steelhead flies in the sizes 5 and 7.  First, feathers near the shoulder and wing junction, provide a good supply of slightly stiffer and darker hackles that I tend to favor.  Feathers from the flanks are much lighter in color and resemble blue-eared pheasant in their shape and tend to be a tad longer barbule length than the shoulders, though the coot flank tends to be a wee bit softer than BEP.  The shoulder, however, is a tad bit stiffer than the BEP I’ve used.

Below, I tied two simple identical patterns using these two feather types on size 5 hooks.  The guinea collar tends to dominate the coot, but the overall finished fly fishes well in the late summer and early fall when these smaller offerings are the go-to choice.  Much of the remainder of the coot skin is full of feathers that have the potential for making great soft hackled flies in smaller sizes though I have not yet experiemented with this yet.  I think there might be potential for caddis emerger patterns as well.

Of course, having said all this, I’m still torn between coot and pheasant rump as my small fly hackle of choice.  Choosing between the two while standing knee deep in the river is difficult.  Though I find I use the pheasant rump when fish are spread out and there are long intervals between grabs.  The coot seems to shine when the fish are there and on the nab – though I suspect just about anything would suffice during those times.  In any event, I find the coot a wonderful alternative to BEP in smaller sizes and the flies it turns out are among the buggiest around.

Tied with feathers from near front of wing.
Tied with feather from near the shoulder. Also with collar of guinea and topping of bronze mallard.
Tied with flank feather.
Same pattern except tied with coot flank feather. It is a lighter color, though the camera flash washed it out a bit here.

What is it?

Imitating no particular creature, pieces of fur and feather wrapped around a hook explode to life when in moving water.
Imitating no particular creature, pieces of fur and feather wrapped around a hook explode to life when in moving water.

What is it about moving water that draws us from afar?  Makes us skip out of work?  Entrances and enthralls us?  Excites us and soothes us?  From the tiniest trickle to the worlds largest rivers, we, as a species, seem drawn to moving water.  Whether for its life-giving, thirst-quenching sustenance, spiritual renewal, adrenaline rushes or simple relaxation,  I can think of no place where it can all happen.

For those of us who find an angling connection to moving water, there is that anticipation, excitement and hope that precedes each trip.  Even though we go to the same places maybe; we know full well that each time reveals an entirely new place.  Maybe only subtly different than the last time, beckoning close inspection.  Or, a changed riverscape, such as after a freshet or even a flood.  Always, there is an opportunity of discovery, of finding something new and different – perhaps overlooked during the last visit.

So, many of us get giddy with excitement about going to the same old places, fishing the same old water and hoping for the same old fish.  Because we know, deep down, that this time it will be completely different.

Preparing for the New Spey Rhythm on the Eel

Replacement camera arrived today.  Just in time for green water on the lower river.  I tied a few larger flies using pheasant rump and hackle-tip wings.  More to try out the camera than anything as the fly box is well stocked.  Hoping to do the early walk into Elinor bend where the river does a long sweep along the bank.



Down Among the Stones

I can’t see any of what lies below. Only a guess, a feeling that the little seam on the far side ‘seems’ like the place to sit. Just a hunch that they are there lying in wait unfettered by the fast water rushing by. Their sleek bodies slide through it all, waiting for a cue, maybe a change in the current, or the fall of night, or, this morning, the light dawning over leaden skies full of rain. They know those stones where they can just sit and watch it all go by. They see the crawfish poke its head briefly up, colored burnt orange and then disappearing under the cobbles again. The water drops slowly at night and, still, they just sit and wait.

This weekend will mark two weeks without swinging a fly line.  While I’ve been out to the river for a couple of brief walks, I’ve yet to participate for any length of time in the refreshed riverscape that is appearing all over.  In other words, I’m approaching desperate status for some extended water time.

Sloppily tied with poor form, yet these things are irresistable when worked slowly just over the bottom.
Sloppily tied with poor form, yet these things are irresistable when worked slowly just over the bottom. Tail: golden pheasant (red and gold tied in split) Body: dyed alpaca (orange and purple). Hackle: rear of dyed ringneck rump; front of coot, Wing of paired pheasant rump. All ribbed and counter-wrapped.

Prototype Christmas Gift

Playing with the alignments, colors and, of course, the flies for a gift.  I ended up placing the flies upside down in relation to the hanger on back, so I will have to do a version 2 which is OK since I figured out a better way to secure to mounting posts for the flies and I will color the wood inside a light brown perhaps.

Suicide dogs

The dogs lie in waiting during the dawn hours.  A truck zipping by at 50 miles per hour constitutes fair game apparently.  Twice they seemed to just miss the front tire.  Maybe that was their version of success – game won.  Crossing and walking down to the bottom of the north-south run at the corner another pack of dogs wandered by, sniffing the morning air -making the rounds of their turf.  They were gone, my fingers were already turning numb by the time I worked out a first cast – fish on!  A feisty half pounder landed.  The sun had not begun to clear the ridge yet, the river was steaming off its accumulated heat, and the fish were right were they were supposed to be.  Everything was working.

A couple of missed grabs (that coulda been the ONE) here and there, a few more half pounders to hand, and I decided to try the wade across to the East-West Run: Steelhead Shangri-La.  In some years the wade isn’t doable.  At the crossing point the river crosses back to the near side cutting a slot along the willows with some sunken wood tangles thrown in to roughen things up a bit.  My first try was denied – the slot was too deep.  Moving farther up, I found I could cross by wading straight across past the slot, then straight downstream, then angle down and across to complete the mostly deep wade.  I’d have to remember the precise path coming back – and a long push of water wading upcurrent – else I’d catch the slot and get swept into the woody tangles and add to the growing pile of human carcasses that accumulates underneath the willows each year.

This was a source of some concern.  However, arriving at the top of the run I could only notice that it was better than ever.  What was nearly the perfect piece of steelhead fly water has subtly shifted to become, well, nearly perfect steelhead fly water.  That’s the thing with steelhead fishing and defining “good” water.  There’s all types of good water out there, and better yet, many variations on “perfect” water.  Just when you think you’ve found mecca, a better place likely lies just around the next bend.

Some things were still the same here, though.  Near the top, there is a rough line of boulders or bedrock along the far bank that creates a wonderful fast water lie.  And it was along the face of these boulders that my ruminations and reminscings came to a halt.  A big halt.  The swing just stopped and I came fast into a cartwheeling adult.  It all happens so hard and fast that describing the sequence of actions that happen from cast to hook set would just be guesses.

I finally managed to work a hatchery adult to the bank, snap a quick picture and send it on its way – hopefully to feed a hungry anglers family.  I’m not a big fan of the large numbers of steelhead and salmon that the hatchery cranks out – a whole host of issues.  Not the least of which are the thousands of anglers who travel to fish the upper reaches below the hatchery.  Up there the river is small, narrow and, in my mind, one long extension of the hatchery holding tank.  Steelhead fishing at its finest. Oh boy.  But here I am, happy to be swinging flies and hooking a hatchery steelhead.


Probably. Definitely.

Somewhere around ten, just as the river was starting to turn into an aquarium and the first gentle breeze was rustling the leaves, the off switch was hit and I left with the one adult and a dozen or so half pounders.  I need to get to work on some flies for this fast, shallow and clear water – my fly wallet has a few voids that need filling.