Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lessons From Late Winter Steelheading

Last weekend was spent swinging flies for steelhead in northwest Michigan.  Leading up to the weekend the fishing reports were sketchy, mostly because Michigan's rivers were choked with ice and not fishable.  When I arrived, the air temperatures were in the mid-teens and the river flows were tight with shelf ice - not promising.  

 I'm dedicated to swinging flies for steelhead - I love everything about it.  While I will employ other techniques such as using an indicator (that's fun too), and if the conditions require I will stoop to chuck-n-duck (although that is only a last resort), if given a choice I will swing flies.  In Michigan, the spring spawning run is not a particularly good time to swing flies.  Although you have high concentrations of fish, the fish are either concentrated on spawning or they have keyed on the nymphs and eggs that are kicked up by spawning steelhead and so they are not inclined to chase a streamer.  Moreover, the rivers get very crowded with people which tends to hurt the swing bite as even an aggressive, player, steelhead will get turned off by heavy human traffic. There is of course the drop-back steelhead but that's another topic all together. 

Gold of Winter
So, I like to head north at the end of winter to avoid the crowds and get some swinging in before the fish transition to their spring pattern.  The best case scenario for this pattern is a mild winter that lingers so the fish numbers increase in anticipation of the spawning run but the temperatures remain cold enough to keep the fish from hitting the gravel.  In that case you will have good numbers fresh aggressive fish and typically far less people. There are two worst case scenarios: (1) spring comes early with an abrupt late winter warm-up that blows out the river; and (2) the winter is brutally cold and the ice prevents both the fish from entering the river and the fisherman from fishing.  If the first worst-case scenario occurs, you will have no choice but to employ the dreaded and infamous chuck-n-duck!  Moreover, very high water early in spring will shorten the run as the fish may quickly and easily spawn in the high flows and drop back to the lake just as fast.  In the second scenario, you are very cold and there are just a few fish in the river, fish that have been in the river for at a month or more.  In short, you will have your work cut out for you.  I was faced with the second scenario.

On the water, the air was cold; mid-teens to start the day and looking forward to mid-twenties.   The river was cold as well and nearly covered in ice in some narrow spots. Water temperatures maxed out around 33.8 degrees!  Naturally, the water was low, clear, and appeared to be dropping as the river was contracting into a solid form.  The only positive factor was a lack of fishing pressure.  Swinging flies in these conditions is technical and will teach you a number of things.

First Lesson: You Don't Always Have to Make a True Spey Cast

For a casting junkie this is a hard lesson.  You are getting into the swing game.  You've become proficient at the snap-t cast and the double spey cast, which makes you finally feel legitimate and not just another poser with a two-hander.  The last thing you want to do is quietly slop roll cast your fly all day!  Don't let yourself get wrapped up in the process - you are out there to fish not just to cast. Many Midwest streams are small and narrow to begin with and with low water and shelf ice they are even more so.  A typical skagit head plus a ten foot sink tip and leader may be enough length to swing a hole or run (probably even too much).  Also, to fish a run properly you may be forced to stand right on the edges of runs; right on top of the fish.  In those conditions, the rip of a heavy shooting head to form a proper d-loop can and will spook fish.  Instead, simply roll cast the fly to your spot.  Such a cast is stealthy and will get the job done. Sure, the cast won't look pretty but do you really care?  When you approach a run in all but especially low, clear, and cold conditions think about distance and what it will take to get the fly in front of the fish.  Don't do more than you have to to get the fly to the right spot. 

Second Lesson: Don't Always Mend

In low, clear water, depth and current can be less of an issue.  When swinging flies you get into a routine: cast - mend - swing - repeat.  The cadence is hypnotic.  However, the mend has a particular purpose and is not always necessary.  The mend is typically used to allow a fly to achieve the proper depth before it begins to swing.  In shallow water a sink tip and weighted fly will likely get the job done without the assistance of a mend.  Unnecessary mends will cause you to snag and the added commotion on the surface may spook fish in low clear water.  At times in these conditions a mend may be necessary, but as with the first lesson, think "what do I need to do to get the fly in front of a fish?" before you cast.

Third Lesson: Fish Your Feet

This applies in all conditions.  I hooked the Buck pictured below with less than a full shooting head out of the rod tip.  He was sitting in the gut of a hole that begins with a steep ledge and tapers into a long tail out.  The gut is closer to the top of the hole.  The hole is in a relatively wide section of river and the tail out looks awesome - finally a chance to bust out a snap-t!  NO!  Especially in winter, fish seek out the gut of holes (especially alpha fish).  They will also sit at the base of a ledge at the head of a run.  Take your time and fish the water throughly.  When faced with a steep ledge dropping into a gut, fish close and let your fly drop over the ledge.  You never know when that stud may be right at your feet.  

Hammered an egg sucking prom dress tube as the fly passed through the gut of the run in 33 degree water

Tight Lines

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