We swung flies for steelhead last weekend in western Michigan. It is no secret that the run is unusually light this year. When we couple low numbers of fish, high sunny skies, and plenty of human traffic we've got our work cut out for us swinging the fly. The following are some strategies I've learned over the years for putting fish in the net in some difficult conditions.
Primer on Conditions:
In normal fall conditions the water is relatively warm and steelhead are in the river to feed rather than spawn. So, the fish hold in active lies such as the heads and tailouts of runs. They also tend to hold near to but off of structure and higher in the water column, which is conducive to a swung fly presentation. Moreover, since they are in feeding mode they are more prone to chase a steamer.
As we transition to winter, the water temperatures drop. The fish seek out deeper guts and troughs. Moreover, in the rivers I fish, the steelhead also begin holding very tight to structure. I suspect it's because the material warms ever so slightly and disrupts the current giving the steelhead a comfortable place to sit without having to expend energy.
As a fisherman we need to be aware of these patterns in order to get the fly in front of fish.
But what if the conditions throw you a curve ball?
In fall, bright sunny skies and people can quickly alter a fish's pattern. When faced with these factors fall fish will shift into a winter pattern particularly as to in-stream structure. Here are some strategies I've found to be productive in the past.
Fish lowlight conditions. When the light is low fish feel safe in more open lies. For instance, every fish we hooked on the swing occurred when the sun was below the tree line. When the sun was high we coaxed some pulls but no solid grabs. The fish were there and we got bites on indy rigs but nothing on the swing during the middle of the day.
Early bird gets the worm:
People and boats put player steelhead off the bite. For instance this past weekend there were a number of people running and gunning for brown trout. That means lots of splats, oar strokes, shadows, and movement over the steelheads' head. There is no doubt they hide from the commotion in the wood. During high traffic times being the first fly through the run dramatically improves your odds of a grab.
Tight to cover:
If fish are holding tight to cover, try thinking about how to get the fly to dangle in front of that structure. This may require wading deeper and fishing deeper to allow the fly to be seen by fish holding in or under cover. Fish heavy tips and or heavy flies to get down to the fish in a hurry. We may hook some logs along the way but if the fish never sees the fly we really aren't fishing the water well.
Natural colors (be aware of flash):
Fish on bright days, at least here in the Midwest, key on natural tones. Sculpin or baitfish patterns tend to perform the best. Moreover, give them a chance to see the fly with generous amounts of flash. However, be aware that if the water is extremely clear, then flash can be counter productive. So, in regards to flash play it by ear and try to feel out what the fish are looking for.