Last Fall, for the first time in my life, I found myself on the banks of a Steelhead river with a spey rod in hand. I’d spent a fair amount of time swinging streamers and learning to Spey cast on some of Colorado’s larger rivers, and had a general idea of the water types and flies that typically produce Steelhead. As I stepped into the current, any confidence that had been built through hours of pouring over forums, magazines, and videos about chasing Steelhead with a swung fly began to disappear. While working line into a foreign angling situation, I realized I had no idea how to really target these fish. My mind had been conditioned by a lifetime of fishing trout streams, and the prospect of targeting a fish that does not eat was starting to disturb the trout fishing mindset I couldn’t seem to shake. Swinging flies for Steelhead forces us to focus on the water itself rather than the behavior of the food source of the species we are targeting. In a pursuit that does not offer much in the way of positive feedback, effectively finding and reading swing water becomes a constant and mentally taxing task that can rob us of our all important confidence. Building confidence in the water we fish allows us to shift our focus to effectively fishing the water and presenting the fly in the way we feel has the best chance of initiating a grab, and is the first step for anyone who finds themselves in a new angling situation.
For this article we will primarily focus on water that is suited to swinging flies. Without a doubt, nymphing can be an extremely productive way to target Steelhead, and is probably the most versatile method in the variety of water types that it allows anglers to fish. We can take what we know about trout fishing and apply it to the pockets and tight spaces of a Steelhead river that are unreachable by swung fly. Conversely, swinging flies with a single or two handed rod limits the type of water we can fish but brings a massive advantage in the ability it provides anglers to cover water, a lot of water. Wide runs, riffles, and tailouts that would be impossible to reach or cover with a drifted fly can be covered down to the square foot by a competent Spey angler in the matter of hours. By targeting the areas that are most likely to hold fish at any given time, Spey anglers can say with confidence that by the end of a run, any fish that was in the area saw their fly. Whether the right fish with the predisposition to grab a swung fly happened to be in that run or not is another story.
To start we must make an attempt to understand basic Steelhead behavior as they transition from the open ocean to the rivers that provide pathways for Steelhead to travel great distances to spawning grounds. Fish can move very quickly when conditions are right, but must use the strength built from years at sea to power through countless obstacles on their way towards laying the foundation for the next generation. In consistent water conditions, with relatively steady flows and water temperatures, Steelhead typically cover water during low light hours and at night. Along the way, Steelhead tend to hold and rest in specific water types in an effort to make their efforts upstream as efficient as possible. This general behavior provides us as anglers with a template of general water features to look for as we target Steelhead.
One of the most frequently given pieces of advice among Steelhead anglers is to look for water that is walking speed. Staging areas below large rapids and extended stretches of fast water, along with similar areas that provide opportunity for rest above such obstacles can be places to find increased concentrations of anadromous fish. Ideal water will be deep enough to provide some overhead cover, and contain rocks and other structure which create holding areas and soft water for resting fish. Water that is 3-6 feet deep with a mix of cobbles and various sized boulders will attract fish that are looking for an area to hold during the day, or for an extended period of time as they wait for conditions to change. The most classic Steelhead waters are broad, slow tailouts and wide runs with consistent flows that push flies downstream and towards the bank. These are the waters that require an efficient approach in order to find the fish or two that are sometimes almost certainly holding in the run.
When conditions are right, we can also target Steelhead that are on the move and actively working their way upstream. When fish are truly focused on covering water it can be difficult to impossible to attract their attention or pull them from their mission of moving upstream regardless of fly choice or presentation. However, when fish are beginning to move or cautiously making progress we can absolutely find success. When conditions are right we can find fish moving into fast moving riffles or being funnelled into a slow current that provides the path of least resistance. Low light hours of late evenings can be ideal for finding fish that are beginning to move from their holds to work upstream for the night. In the mornings, we can find fish settling in from a night of travel. Fish also move when water levels are high, and rising or falling levels on either side of a high water event provide similar opportunities to find fish. During winter, when precipitation can have huge impacts on the flows of a river, water levels become one of if not the most important factor in determining when to find fish. Most anglers prefer to fish the tail end of a high water event as flows drop and fish that have moved into or up in the system settle into holding areas while they wait for the next round of precipitation. Fish can also be found as they begin to move as water levels rise.
The results of targeting a fish that is never in the same place of a river for long are hours of anticipation and excitement as we work through runs that are known to hold fish which have had minimal contact with humans. Many runs build a reputation for themselves, and earn names and status for the rewards they can produce. These runs take time to learn, and require an active approach in searching out the nuances and characteristics of the individual boulders, buckets, and slots that attract new fish year after year. Identifying and choosing water that is likely to hold fish is one thing, mastering the dynamics of fishing that particular run with a swung fly is another. At some point in this unique and challenging process, many anglers realize that while connecting with a fish is the goal, it is the pursuit what keeps us coming back.