Written by Bob Melrose.
Looking back through my old fishing journals of the last thirty years reveals an evolution in the fly du jour. Back then the steelheader tied on a Skunk or a Skunk. We varied the size but the Skunk was the fly du jour of the day, month or year. Sometimes you tried something a little more exotic such as a Thor, Skykomish Sunrise or Burlap. Inevitably you would reach in the box and tie on that old familiar friend, the Skunk. After all the Skunk had prevented a skunk many times and you don't want to throw an old friend into the feather pile to slowly rust in peace.
Over the years new patterns, materials, methods and colours came into vogue. The need to become "with it, in fashion, current, hip, out of the rut" created a need to fill those fly boxes with the newest and hottest patterns available. And what a selection there was. Flies and the companies that tie them had come out of the dark ages. Colours and materials had fly anglers salivating with perfect creations. Domestic and offshore sellers brought the fly tying to an art form with perfect clones of some incredible patterns in a kaleidoscope of colours and designs. Companies like Umpqua, Idylwilde, Rainy Riding, Solitude and others gave us superbly tied flies on high quality hooks that rivalled the best that most of us could tie ourselves if we had the skill and time.
Over the years those fishing journals showed definite preferences for certain flies. New flies were added to the personal "Fly Hall of Fame". One year there were a lot of steelhead "players" in the river. Players are those steelhead that play with your mind and cardiac health by coming up to nose the fly, jump over it, swirl on it, look at it and generally do everything but take it. Those frustrating teasers were driving us nuts as we kept trying smaller flies and different patterns. A fellow visiting angler suggested using a great little fly named the "Undertaker" and riffle hitching the fly. The "Undertaker" was aptly named as it became our finishing fly for those players. Whenever those players had us on the "expletive deleted" as a second language we would finish them with an "Undertaker".
In another year the first trip of the year yielded a half hearted rise and that was it for the day. The next trip the water was higher and dirtier so decided to "Blue Moon" them. In two pools I mooned 7 fish. Guess what fly was my "go to fly" for the rest of the season? That combination of blue and black marabou in the water was unbeatable or was it? I don't know, because why would I use anything else, right.
The next year a local priest was interested in a pontoon boat so we arranged a Saturday morning short float to show him how to handle the boat through the rougher water. Of course we took the rods along. Wouldn't want to waste all that water on just paddling would you? I was following him through the run hoping divine intervention would bless him when the 6 inch string leech i was using stopped. Oops, wrong angler. The best steelhead I have ever taken gobbled that leech. We took a couple of pictures of that fish and every picture had my head cut off. Maybe it was on purpose. He said it was just coincidence, as he was not familiar with the camera. Anyways, you know that big string leeches were well used for the rest of the season.
The Steelhead of the Skeena are particularly predisposed to the dry or waking fly and many anglers use nothing but. It certainly is one of the most thrilling of the takes. Watching that white mouth come up and inhale the fly is heart-stopping and we can fish the dry/waking fly right down to around 40F(4-5C). Many anglers feel that this is the purest of the art and will only use natural materials such as moose or deer hair bomber type flies. There are many variations of these and they have their zealous followers. I have used an all foam fly called the "Pompadour" with very good results and it is unsinkable. The dry rod is always loaded with one and because it has worked so well it is another in my own confidence fly series.
A good angling buddy who is a very good angler has a fly box loaded with egg sucking leeches. As he often states "If they aren't taking these they got lockjaw". He catches a lot of steelhead but most important is he is a very good caster, powerful wader and knows the water.
Each season brings new lessons as the Steelhead fanatics migrate to their beloved rivers. The smell of fall, that feeling in the air and the promise of fish in the most beautiful places in BC call the soul. As the fly boxes open old tried and true friends call out "Pick me, Pick me, I've got your back before, I won't disappoint". However, a visit to your pro fly shop reveals a heady array of new patterns that you swear that if you were a Steelhead you would have go on a steady diet of because they look so good. And when another angler says "Yeah, I got 3 on that the other day". Well you just have to have some, right?
The reality is many flies work including those old favourites and some of the new ones just have to be tried. Confidence, strong casting, good wading and ability to "read" the water are so intertwined in steelhead fishing that they are inseparable. Whether they are store bought, loaned, tied by yourself, ugly or as beautiful as a Paul Miller creation they can all bring magic to the Steelhead river.
Oh, and the best fly for Steelhead is the one that is inches in front of their nose when they are hungry and the best time to fish Steelhead is whenever you can. As Wayne Gretzky told us "You miss every shot you don't take".
Please take care in landing those Steelhead. Land and release Quickly. Respect the fish and fellow anglers.