Friday, November 6, 2009

Nymphing for Steelhead

Indicator nymphed with a switch rod and an Agent Orange PT using the new Airflo Speydicator. This new line will be out in stores later this winter.

Back in 2001 when 633K steelhead swam over Bonneville Dam, I was a very green steelheader. In fact I new jack shit about steelhead at that time and though I owned a 896 Sage DS2 and had a few green butt skunks in the fly box, you would have never known I was a steelheader. At that time I did not even know about the epic returns in the Columbia system and on that cold September weekday trip to South Junction on the Deschutes I was prepared more for trout with a six weight rather then steelhead. But after a few days on the water and loosing many nymphs on light tippet to steelhead, an addict was formed.

Not reading the writings of Roderick Haig-Brown, Bill McMillian, Jock Scott, Bob Arnold, Trey Combs and many more, I did not know or understand the traditions and techniques that were founded over generations before I found my first steelhead on a size #10 Zug Bug. What I discovered was that steelheading wasn’t that hard with a strike indicator and nymphs were very affective.

Now years have gone by and like most real steelheaders you go through a learning process. Filling my library, getting guided and non-guided instruction and putting in hours on the water have led to lots of thoughts and theories about steelhead, movements, techniques and flies. All of which matter and don’t matter depending upon the person you are talking to. That is one of the great things about steelhead fishermen. We all have our theories and arguments/discussions are entertaining and educational at the same time.

What I have a difficult time with is the whole nymphing versus swinging flies debate. There is nothing more rewarding in steelhead fly fishing then skating up a fish in the summer or fall or swinging a big native in the winter. The beatdown you get from working, struggling and working for your fish makes the reward more fulfilling. If you could take the Prom Queen home would you? How about he girl next door, would you like to bang her? Well what if they both want it and you have to choose, would you take the prom queen home or the girl next door? Well personally I would take them both at the same time, but if I had to choose then the prom queen will she sitting on my face in no time.

Skated on a Mini-Fergus Skater

Now I got nothing against the girl next door. Nymphing is a game you play when the conditions make it more effective like in temps in the low thirties, working over hatchery fish or in small water like that in the Great Lakes, or fishing from the boat between swinging runs, etc. On that note, nymphing through swinging water, especially without swinging through it first or nymphing only from a boat all day is for bush-leaguers, elderly or the handicapped. You guys don’t get it or refuse to get it right. That is alright if you have done both and accept that for what it is, but remember if you catch ten fish nymphing, you won’t remember which one is which, if you skated up one fish, you will remember that for the rest of your life.

Nymphed while sight fishing with a Possie Bugger.

I do not believe nymphing is the same as fishing gear. Jig fishing with a spinning reel takes little effort; nymphing takes a lot, especially when done with a switch or spey rod. Fighting fish with a single action reel makes it more personal and pleasurable to me. It is legal and fighting fish on any type of fly gear is enjoyable. As long as you are aware of your surroundings, other people swinging through the runs and courteous to other anglers, there should not be any gripe. You need to be aware that nymphing up fish is at times going to hot lip many of them and because of that they might not come to a swung fly later in the day or week.

Fishing with a centerpin is another subject, it may seem similar because you use the same approach, but you loose the casting and mending aspects of nymphing that make it challenging. We do not fly fish because it is easy, rather except the challenges and struggles in search of the same goal. The argument that casting an indicator takes away from fly fishing and gear would be easier is horseshit. If you new how to cast in the first place, then this shit would be easy. The same thing goes with swinging two flies at the same time. If you know the fundamentals of casting then it is easy.

The approach you take to steelheading should not be about numbers. If it was then you would be trout fishing or bait fishing. The success you achieve on the water is more about the process and the experience that you take home with you. Moving an aggressive fish to a fly, especially when they are not here to eat, can to all steelheaders be more rewarding then putting countless fish on the bank. However the train of thought that does not allow one to step outside the box of their norm or social/fishing standards leads to the close minded snobbery that has plagued fly fishing and separated us into a bullshit cast system. Fly fishing is fun because we can challenge ourselves in whatever way we want to catch fish. None of us are wrong in our methods unless done unethically and harmful to the precious resource we hold dear.

I will end this rant with a quote from one of the best steelheaders in the Pacific Northwest, “But, there are times/conditions/circumstances under which the viability of a swung fly approach drops below my personal standards of expectations. At such times, I have/will fish other methods/techniques on my Speyrod as long as it is legal and falls within the ideals of "fair chase (sporting)" to do so, because it is/can be FUN, and it is interesting to see what can in fact be accomplished with a Speyrod. Bobbers are great on a Speyrod when needed and shouldn't be so controversial in my opinion. Heck, what will you all think when word gets out that SOME of us actually cast/use small ultra light SPOONS on our Speyrods to catch the infamous non-fly-biting silvers of the northern Sound area (once they get in the rivers for a couple of days).” This is a quote from Riveraddict on Spey Pages. For those of you that do not know who Riveraddict is, this is Ed Ward.


Millsy said...

fucking great post bro!

Bjorn said...

Seems, pretty much, like the folks that hate 'cater steelheading are not too different from the folks that say graphite is a sin or that only dry fly fishing is fly fishing... I have no time for that. I nymph because I enjoy catching. If you like casting, great... swing away. Just say'n.

the nutman said...

Just picked this up off moldy chum ,I have seen the rants ,i know a couple of trout guides who only trout fish one way ,cause that is what works for them . I started out nymphing for steelhead as well .I got into two handers and love it . Tradition has dictated that a fly be swung .This was the same back in the eighteen hundreds when nymphing was considered to be next to bait fishing .Dry fly was the only way .
Today we know much better ,and we know nymphing works ,how it is done at this point can be an issue .If Im going to nymph I'll use my single hander ,I swing with a two hander ,because Im after that one fish that takes on the swing and if you keep at it, it happens .It is'nt all about how many I catch it is about being out there and excepting the challenge of the swung fly it is hard to learn and takes time to do it right . It is'nt as simple as nymphing ,both have alot to offer though and you have to learn alot inorder to do either right .So go out and fish and enjoy being out there and stop worrying what other people think, if you are catching fish have fun cause it is about having fun and being out there .It is'nt about how you are fishing ,so long as you do it leagally and eithically .Tight lines guys

matt_stansberry said...

Good stuff. John Larison does a real nice job laying out this same discussion in his book.

k8 said...

your prom queen analogy is ridiculous.
you're brave steelie mike.

bill said...

Amen! I swing to what will take and when they wont I go to the nymph or the dreaded bead!!! Hahaha That should stirr the pot!

Slow and Low said...


gribble said...

As long as it’s legal it should not matter how you catch fish! Here is one for you! One some of the larger tributaries on the Great Lakes I take my spey rod, switch rod, and an eggbeater “spinning rod”! I bottom bounce flies with my spinning rod if I can’t get there from here! Now I’m talking holes or areas that have a lot of volume and current where you can’t fish a fly rod! This is also water that most pass up while on the river cause they know they are going to donate half of their box!

Perry Gillette said...

I would love to swing and catch steelhead and have caught a few and snagged more. On the other hand I have caught several hundred on tiny stuff, no weight, long belly lines with a weightless indicator in dozens of different runs on the southfork of the clearwater and a hundred miles of the salmon from below corn creek to the Sawtooth. Other than on the Clearwater I seldom see a fly rod and must compete for the run with the traditional guys.
My opinion of those that swing is that they are basically all blow and know show and none are man enough to get the prom queen. The South Fork of the Clearwater is arguably the best steelhead stream anywhere and you seldom see the debutantes swinging.