Story last updated at 4/22/2009 - 10:59 am
The island chain waters of Southeast Alaska are a Mecca for steelhead. During April and May, these prized freshwater game fish quietly slip into select rivers and streams from the misty rainforests of Ketchikan in the south to the wind-and-surf battered beaches of the remote outer coast north to Cape Yakataga. In my opinion, this wild and unblemished geographical locale encompasses some of the best remaining wild steelhead waters in North America.
So what does it take to intercept and enjoy Southeast's spirited spring steelhead? Besides a bit of luck, and being in the right place at the right time, I'm a firm believer in exercising two fundamental components of fly-fishing.
First, one needs to understand the freshwater requirements of steelhead in order to recognize and locate potential holding water (where steelhead rest) and secondly, one must be comfortable and proficient with the principles of fly presentation and drift. This latter element is crucial to getting the fly through the water column and down to resting metalheads. A solid understanding of these two components - locating resting lies and fly presentation - will have a tremendous impact on one's steelheading success and overall angling pleasure.
In freshwater, steelhead are shy animals and choose to relax and rest whenever possible. They have tend to seek out current breaks caused by structure or changes in substrate. Where possible, they will also seek the confines and security provided by deeper water and will often hold and rest in pools as long as there is significant current flowing through their lie. Ideally, steelhead are most comfortable in water types with moderate currents combined with depths of three to five feet and a moderate amount of substrate for structure. When I search for steelhead, I key in on these favorable water types in which steelhead prefer to lie and concentrate my angling efforts there.
I use a number of different techniques and casts to present my fly when I'm targeting steelhead, yet my objective never changes. I want my fly to drop rapidly in the water column and to drift "low and slow" through the suspected lie. I also want my fly to maintain a "horizontal" presentation for as long as possible during the drift. In my opinion, this is the key. Steelhead in the wild continually observe suspended debris drifting in the current, but rarely do they note these objects dropping or falling or rising or moving erratically from side to side in the water column. What they do see, however, are objects that drift "naturally" or horizontally towards them and many of these items (food related or not) end up in their mouths.
I prefer to fish the traditional wet fly swing when water conditions exhibit slow uniform currents or when steelhead are noted lying in deep, slow flowing pools. Under these conditions, sink tips or full sinking lines work extremely well. However, when steelies are found resting in fast, riffled water or in pocket water with tricky seams and currents, I quickly change over to a full floating line and fish a perpendicular hinged-nymph technique. The nymph technique offers me better control over my drift, and it also allows me to quickly present my fly deep and horizontally through the suspected lie.
I know it's hard to think spring or even fishing when mounds of snow still carpet our yards. But remember, it's flow and water temperature charged by our seasonal spring runoff that trigger the annual return of these noble sport fish to our local waters. When this occurs, new shadows will lurk in quiet pools and I will be there too, casting my flies hoping for that elusive take.
Good luck, and tight lines!
Rich Culver is a fly-fishing freelance writer and photographer and member of the Scott Fly Rod Company's Pro Staff. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.