Why you should present your lures farther down the tail out than you ever thought to do before.
Just like a fly, the spoon can be (should be) presented down and across, allowing “the push” to keep the lure up and wobbling across the shallow current to the temporarily holding steelhead in the lip.
I have a superpower. You probably have the same one. Not being able to actually talk to fish, like Aquaman or Buzz Ramsey, I’m one of the gifted, some would say cursed, who can be in a crowded room, a hundred people talking simultaneously in high decibel, yet I can easily pick out certain words. Not just any words, if they happen to be about fishing (not just in English, either) it’s as if the person was screaming the word(s) in my ear. From a rock concert din, I can pick out “salmon,” “hook-set,” “summer run” and the like. Hearing abilities far beyond those of mortal men. I believe the Justice League could use my skills.
I was sitting in a crowded bar in downtown Seattle some years back after a steelheading film festival had just played there when out of the muddled conversations I grabbed a second or two of “tail-out steelhead.” That’s all it took to sneakily go stand by two animated half-loaded fellows discussing how they just swung up a half-dozen winter steelhead by fishing further down in the run than anybody else that week. Hanging your fly in the lips of tail-outs, right before and almost into the head of the next riffle, they said. I would imagine standing next to the ladies’ bathroom would get anyone’s attention and they dimed me out, recognized me and busted me for eavesdropping. I apologized poorly and they offered to buy me another Black Russian and have a seat. I, naturally, grilled the partially sloshed anglers about their tail out success. What they told me confirmed two things: None of us knows more than all of us about steelheading and I just “discovered” a new technique to find travelling aggressive steelhead when dealing with heavy river traffic. But we all know the lizard brain of the steelheader. We don’t believe anything unless we see it with our own peepers. Even then, our minds try to blow it off as fake news. Presenting lures far into the tailouts and into riffle breaks is nothing new, bets are all of you reading this, if you have some years of experience have seen this for yourselves. I know at least a half dozen times while plugging a run we figured, “yep, plugs are running aground, it's too shallow, pull ‘em in” while one side is being reeled in the other is just barely diving, going over the lip of the tailout almost into the next riffle when blammo. “Boy, that was weird,” landed the fish and never even gave the scene another thought.
I know we need to fish lures thoroughly all the way down, but the lips are shallow, fast and don’t hold steelhead… right? Correct. They don’t hold steelhead, only fresh, travelling ones. They spend little time in these areas, and chances of finding steelhead in these travelling spots are never consistent. However, learning to fish these places that 99% of fellow anglers just float over can get you a fish—or two—on busy days.
This was hammered home by my friend and former Olympic Peninsula guide JD Love. We were swinging flies on the upper Hoh River some years back; JD was following me through a greasy run near the park entrance. As usual, when the current begins to speed up and shallows up near the break, the pull on the fly line increases and this is the signal to reel in. I did, and JD just kept working down into the break, many feet below where I had stopped casting. I was standing in the extreme tail, looking out into the clear river, the rocks easily seen all the way across where his fly was working. And shallow! The lip could not have been two feet deep, easily crossable where he was fishing. He set up, seven pounds of blue, silver and white got airborne and zazzed down to the next run. He hooked that fish in the fast lip of the tail, immediately above where it began the break to the next riffle…far below where I stopped casting.
Might have been a shrug your shoulders and blow it off as an accidental moment, but he did this to me several more times that winter. Light bulb.
All right… steelhead can be negotiated in these faster, shallower travelling lips. How do we present lures in these unusual locations? Sorry, float fishers, indicator fly folks and drift anglers, your techniques of choice do not transfer well to this type of water. Just gave you a hint of the best way, the swung fly. You may also do it with spoons, spinners and plugs. Here’s how we do it…
Fishing these spots are a must whenever I choose to break out the two hander and go swinging.
Know that we are targeting a fresh, moving steelhead in shallow, faster than usual holding water. These fish will be more than aware of their now exposed bodies in the clearer lips, easily seen by predators. These fish are going to be aggressive, yet anything out of the ordinary will spook them. We must present our lures horizontally, lure first, nothing above their heads. A quartered, swung fly is the best presentation for several reasons. First, the fly most of the time is simply a silhouette with slight animation, no flash or major movement to freak out a moving shallow water steelhead. Plenty of attraction for the situation. Second, the fly is usually slightly or unweighted so it may stay buoyant enough to be presented in the shallowest water.
In the winter, when we use heavier sink tips to properly work deeper runs with the fly, the reason we stop casting down low is our fly begins to scrape bottom, so we reel in and move on. This time of year requires a bit more work to fish the lips properly. Get out of the water, go to shore (you gotta pee anyway, man) and change out your heavy workhorse tip to five feet of light T-4 or 10 feet of clear intermediate, both will swing a fly in the shallows perfectly and allow you to present a fly down and across the break without hanging up. Travelling steelhead see only the fly, nothing to alert it of any possible danger over its head. When the rivers are far warmer during summer a full floating line gets the job done nicely.
Fishing these spots are a must whenever I choose to break out the two hander and go swinging. I fish unweighted flies for two reasons: one, I want my flies to swim far into the shallows, important in winter for colder/limited visibility and two for targeting the lips of tailouts. A weighted fly retards action, anyway, and is harder to cast.
Rare are the times when a fly angler has the upper hand over any gear technique, but his one definitely qualifies.
These fish are going to be aggressive, yet anything out of the ordinary will spook them. We must present our lures horizontally, lure first, nothing above their heads.
Just like a fly, the spoon can be (should be) presented down and across, allowing “the push” to keep the lure up and wobbling across the shallow current to the temporarily holding steelhead in the lip. While your spoon comes across, rod angle should be increased to about 11 o’clock to keep the head of the spoon slightly tilted upwards. This creates a bit more lift and makes it easier to smartly move the lure down and across into the strike zone. A cast more to the downstream angle will help the spoon stay “aloft” and moving slowly.
Because of the unusual location you will be targeting with the bent metal, not just any spoon will work. Remember, you are trying to negotiate a strike from a fish in shallow water. It will be on high alert for anything presented to it that may push it past its “attraction threshold”, that is you want to excite the fish to strike but not so much it spooks the creature. Your lure must meet two criteria: it has to fish shallow and have a size/finish that is not too big and bright. Put the silver plated 2/3rd ounce oval BC Steel back in the vest for the next deep run.
For “lip service” carry a few ½-ounce teardrop shaped spoons, like the Stee-Lee, in plain nickel finish. Nickel is fine in shallow situations where attraction radius is not necessary, it reflects only 30% of light and mirrors the color of its surroundings, making it blend nicely. A bit of flash for attraction, no more. The shape of the lure is most important. The teardrop style spoon has the greatest surface area to weight ratio, making it the most buoyant spoon style, therefore the easiest to present in shallow water. Under sunny conditions you may even consider a teardrop spoon colored black on the convex side.
Also consider carrying a few smaller ¼-ounce teardrop spoons for smaller water use.
Back in the day I watched Nick Amato pull steelhead after steelhead out of these “sliding tailouts” with spinners. He did it with a #4 Blue Fox Vibrax. That should be a hint right there. A heavily weighted spinner body will not fish in the shallow lips. The #4 Vibrax weighs only ¼ ounce, which is all the weight you need to reach these travelers. Since a spinning blade creates so much lift, and a #4 blade is not too large to spook a steelhead, these style spinners can be “floated” over shallows like tailout lips easily. Think of dialing the finish down on the spinner. Like a spoon, you ideally want a finish like nickel under cloudy conditions or if the rivers are running vodka clear (I hate gin) think about an all-black spinner, blade and body. A slightly upstream presentation from your position to even one parallel with you will keep the spinner blade up and moving in the shallows. Perhaps think about dropping to a smaller #3 blade when fishing smaller rivers.
I mentioned a bit earlier in this article how we used to “accidently” hook steel-head in the falling tailouts with plugs. Again, plugs are a fine selection as there is nothing over their heads, only the animated wiggle coming down. However, plugs are my last choice for these fish, as lures presented to the side are not nearly as threatening as ones coming straight down on them.
A few choices to properly present a plug to these travelers. First, keep the size/color of plugs you’ve been backtrolling all day clipped on and simply allow your boat to slip downriver at a slightly accelerated pace to prevent them from digging too deep and to move them swiftly through the slightly faster water/target area, not pushing or possibly spooking them by holding the plugs at a stationary position. Second, when nearing the tailout at the end of “normal” plugging water, hold the boat still or drop anchor and change to a smaller, shallower diver.
Take off that 3.5 metallic pink Mag Lips or that #30 Hot Shot and find a metallic blue or all chrome 2.5 Mag Lip or #50 Hot Shot. Another great time to think about the all-black plug. The smaller silhouette, shallower diver will still have to be presented a bit quicker in the faster, shallower flows of the lips but remember the attraction threshold.
Whichever technique you may choose to target moving steelhead in the falling tail outs, make only a cast or two, or when the plug passes quickly through the spot, then move on. If the fish are actually there, you won’t be searching like you might in the wider, deeper areas of holding water. If one is home, it will strike on the first presentation 99% of the time. If you think you made a crappy cast, do one well, then mosey to the next run. Steelhead under these shallow, faster water conditions will be very reactionary when they see a lure. It’s a “grab it or it’s gone” scenario. The only time you should make a second cast is if the first well presented one gets bit…you gotta see if that one had a travelling buddy!
These fish will be more than aware of their now exposed bodies in the clearer lips, easily seen by predators.
Even on rare days that are not busy and you find yourselves alone, fish down through the lips anyway, especially if it’s a slow day and steelhead are not around in numbers. I was taught years ago to fish everything on these tough days, remember, a steelhead is not very tall and can be just about anywhere the water has enough depth to hide them. Think about it this way… you will always have some first water, no matter how may dudes have floated over or fished the run in front of you.
You may do this on any size river, as water follows laws so definite that the tiniest stream is an exact replica of a great river. For example, I have negotiated fresh steelhead from the “lips” of little Cedar Creek on the Washington coast in January to the huge Snake River on the Idaho/Washington border in October.
Next time you are at a loud get together and you get into an animated conversation on fishing, stop for a second and look around the room… we are listening.
MORE GREAT ARTICLES FROM STS