Mistakes to Avoid When Fly Fishing Steelhead by Capt. Armand J Castagna

Mistakes to Avoid When Fly Fishing Steelhead by Capt. Armand J Castagna


My first chromer on this spey rod What a grab... 

My first chromer on this spey rods first day out on any river. What a grab... 

While we had already driven several long hours from the Bay Area to our favorite fly water, we agreed that our thirst for a coldie would have to wait.

However, we also knew, and agreed, that our thirst and anticipation for a wild steelhead “on da fly,” could not. We were obviously on a mission to get at least two hours of quality fishing time in, before dark.

Onward, without even a single stop, was to be the only way to assure that this would happen. As we made the hard right off of the pavement and onto the gravel, we looked at one another as if to say, ok, it’s time to bow our heads in prayer.

We had just passed the huge fallen redwood without a single sight of any cars, boats, or fishers. The next bend would prove to be boom or bust for us. Wow!

Bobby yelled. "Do you believe it? There’s no one freaking here!"

There was absolutely nothing for me to say, as I already had one foot into my Simms waders. In an avalanche, out came the rod tubes, fly reels and boxes, and of course ye ole “magic vest,” with everything, and anything in it that I might possibly need to catch pacific steelhead on a fly.

On many of our Northern California rivers, we are truly blessed to be able to use two flies on the busy end of our fly line.

This being the case, I had quickly tied my usual large weighted rubber legs to the end of my 12-pound tapered leader. I then grabbed my 8-pound fluorocarbon, and tied on the tiny Psycho Prince Nymph directly to the shank of the rubber legs, about 18 inches down.

We scrambled down the gravel shoreline as fast as we could, to the “Holy Grail” water, still in fear a boater might be sitting on the fillet of run. To our delight, it was ours for the taking.

We flipped a coin to determine who would work, top to middle, or middle to downriver, and we were off.

I was the lucky one to work middle to down, and while my second cast was somewhat short of the fallen and partially submerged tree, my flies fell right onto the beautiful seam it had created. The strike indicator standing tall, had floated about four to five feet downriver, after my first upriver mend. My anticipation level was rising, when my prayers were answered.

My indicator made a sudden but, unmistakable twitch. 

This was as subtle a take as I may have ever witnessed. There was no waiting for another twitch, or a sudden disappearance for that matter. There was my hookset.

Yeah!!  First the heavy throb, then boom!

There he was in all his majesty, a huge buck, which first gave me the old cork screw move, straight up and out of the water, before the next humpy, back barely out of the water, porpoising sprint, straight across the river. After he went as deep as he could, I simply held on as he appeared to want to sit on the river bottom and hold the both of us there, for a long moment in time. 

Finally, once I had changed positions, both backing up and moving downriver, I was finally able to move him. This one wasn’t easy to tail being I was using a thirteen, and a half foot, 5-weight, Metolius Spey rod.

After a quick photo, which is the one at the beginning of this piece, sea lion scrapes and all, he was off like a bullet back into the run, perhaps “to fight again, another day.”

I could have just screamed with joy and exhilaration, but chose to simply shake my head in awe, as my right hand was also shaking a bit as well. I could not help but look skyward with a humble, “thank you” in my heart, with an additional thanks, going to Bob, as well, for taking the photo.

I was ready for number two, and was already retied on the bottom fly with new tippet, when I looked up river and noticed how far into the river Bobby had restarted his quest for his own chromer. Being the loudmouth Italian I am sometimes known to be,

I yelled upriver, "Dude, you are standing right where the fish, 'used to be.'"

He simply shrugged his shoulders, and continued to beat the water. It was then that I realized that a few more chrome gladiators, were probably headed my way. I did not believe the fish he might have spooked, would charge upriver into the rapids, above his current position, but thought that they would travel down into the more calm, but dancing water below him.

This time I started seven or eight yards upriver from where I landed the first fish. I had intentionally backed up a few yards on the gravel. It was the seventh, or eighth cast, which intentionally landed only five to six feet from the shoreline I was standing on, when my indicator disappeared completely, yesss, I was on, and doing battle, once again.

This time Bobby looked over and appeared to be puzzled, and ticked off, at the same time. I kind of understood why, and without hesitation, called him over, to share the wealth. After I released about a 6-pound hen, I provided him with my flies of choice, which obviously worked, and then suggested that we tip a brewski.

The time out, would also give the run a well needed rest, which was my main motivation, at that moment. It was then that I discovered that this was only the third time he had gone fly fishing for steelhead. Yes, I did see him hookup on our local river of choice just two weeks ago, however, I had just assumed that he was up to snuff, and had a pretty good grasp of the goal, and task at hand. I had never asked him about his experience level before.

I couldn’t help but feel bad for Bob.

While identifying that he appeared so frustrated, I stopped fishing altogether. I then decided to walk upriver, and sat on a rock out of casting distance, directly behind him. I asked him if he wanted any pointers, or coaching, and he near begged me for the help.

This was all I needed to hear. No ego, just “please show me, and help me cut through the learning curve.”

He first needed to learn how to mend line upriver, above his strike indicator without upsetting or moving the indicator so radically. Initially, he lifted the fly line way too aggressively, off the water. He would throw the line violently upriver, above the strike indicator, with the indicator dancing all over the place, while unmistakably disturbing the water surface quite a bit. This was all too noisy and sloppy to my liking. 

Once he clearly understood what he should be attempting to accomplish, the run went listless after his second hookup, and lost fish. He had finally learned that gentle, and quiet was good, as well as necessary. The actions of lifting and throwing line upriver, were to be smooth, and somewhat exaggerated, with little, if any water surface disturbance at all.

Unfortunately, while hooked up, he had mistakenly pulled on the line in his left hand with steelhead attached, instead of attempting to get all the line in front of him, back onto the reels spool, and then use the drag system of the fly reel. This pronounced “tug of war” caused him to inevitably pull the barbless fly out of the first fish, then, brutally broke the tippet on the second. I believe he was onto something when he said to me that this wasn’t as easy as he originally had thought it would be.

We soon had to pack it in and retire to the campground to set up our camp. I then searched the Mondomobile to find my spare battery for my laptop, and bingo, there it was.

I was excited to find that it still had a decent charge left in it.

This was when I asked Bobby to do the wood, and cooking thing, while I sat down at a picnic table, with lantern and laptop in front of me, in an attempt to write a portion of this piece. I thought I could at least get the top ten don’ts, about fly fishing for these awesome creatures, available for him to read by late night, or at least by the next morning.

I liked this approach versus being a lecturer. It might have been as important as it was to me at the moment, because I was thinking that I might be able to make some tracks on my own at some point of this three day steelhead safari.  I seem to enjoy the hunt a bit more, when I can literally “loose myself” on the day, in the river, while on my own. Sometimes fishing alone, often has its merits. However, at least for the first morning, I decided that I was going to do my best to bolster his confidence, while coaching him up with some simple but important pointers. Being he had appeared to do so many things wrong during our first two and a half hours of fishing, I thought that this is where I should start.

Many of us are visual learners. Some of us take to written instruction, better than others. A more thoughtful approach to helping Bobby out, was to critique his efforts, and make suggestions about the obvious. I sure didn’t want to always be telling him exactly “what he should do” all the time for fear of ruining his enjoyment of his weekend off. More importantly, I did not want to take the pleasure of self discovery out of his hands either. Therefore, I chose here to go a different route, with an, “every now and then” important suggestion, and nuance for all to consider while riverside. Yes, we can learn by our own mistakes, as well as those of others. Hopefully, we can save an awful lot of time and wasted effort, by avoiding some of the following.

# 1. Never, ever enter the water, while wading, haphazardly, without a plan well thought of, before making your first cast. I have come to learn by my previous mistakes, and you should try to as well. Now, I will always make a surveillance of the run, determining what I believe are the sweet, and high probability spots on that given piece of water. It is here that I will spend the majority of my time. We all should know by now that steelhead, actually do prefer certain kinds of water, and shelter, over other types of water. Look for submerged boulders, seams created by rocks, or even tree branches, all kinds of structure, especially logjams. Most of all though, look for “dancing water,” not the deepest water, but broken, dancing water, with consistent flow. Stay away from boils and most of the dead, deep salmon water. In closing with this point, remember to work your presentation “into” the high probability areas, do not cast right on them, or at them, but make sure your fly is down in the strike zone when it gets there, to them.

Dan's first steelhead on the fly, a Poxy Back Hairs Ear did the trick.

Dan's first steelhead on the fly, a Poxy Back Hairs Ear did the trick.

#2. Never listen to others that may tell you that, their way, is the “only way.” In other words, while developing and learning your talent, be careful of whom you may want to take coaching from. Look, I started steelhead fishing 40 years ago with a spinning rod and reel, then it was a baitcaster, and now here I am with a totally different tool in my hands. I decided to learn this by doing what is most comfortable for me at first, and in addition, what gave me the most potential for success.

I have heard repeatedly, that “if you are not swinging, you are not fly fishing .“ I say Bull s . I have been told this misnomer, by the same people who sometimes have to race down a four, to five mile stretch of a float, to the only three to four “swinging spots,” they can hot hole me to.

I personally prefer that my customers, and I are with line in the water, at least a third of the entire time, on this same long run. We can accomplish this while using strike indicators, with a suspended drift, while fishing way more water, on this very same piece of river. We will swing fish, if and when the situation presents itself.

Who is right, and who is wrong? Neither one!

Perhaps there is simply more water to fish with a suspended drift. While learning this endeavor, do what is comfortable to you at first. There is hopefully plenty of time to develop other skills. Didn’t you crawl before you walked?  I have always felt that the more times you succeed at anything, the more you will put effort into it, and possibly enjoy it more. I am also a strong believer in the fact that the more big fish you can fight while using a fly rod and reel, the better fighter you become.

Me personally? At this point of my development, I prefer action, not a boil behind my fly.

Therefore, I choose swinging, when it’s the time and place to swing. I choose nymphing, the same way. In closing with this point, try to recognize where you are on this learning curve. Training wheels? Mid level? Advanced? Try to figure this out right away, and fish accordingly. Graduating to different levels, is all there for the taking with this sport of kings, (and former bait only, men, like me). Catch some fish with that fly rod and reel, both ways.

Decide for yourself, based upon your very own personal experiences. You may find, that being adaptable will pay off for you, throughout the years to come. Remember, that everyone will always have an opinion, which is all that they are really entitled to. Yours is the only one that truly matters here anyway.

#3. Try to not use the same equipment for every condition, river, and stream. Save and spend accordingly. Yes, try to choose multi-dimensional equipment, which may give you several options for use. However, choose equipment that is also comfortable, and easy for you to handle. Most of all, choose equipment that can “get the job done.”  As an example, don’t show up on Washington’s Hoh River with the 10 foot, 6 weight that you used last week on California’s Trinity River, and expect to catch steelhead to 25 pounders successfully, and easily. The size of the rivers that you may regularly fish, and the potential size of the fish, should be some of the ingredients used to determine your equipment selection. Personally, I prefer to use a six-, or seven-weight 10 footer, on a smaller, more narrow river, with an absolutely BIG steelhead being about 15 pounds at most. If you are likely to need to roll cast, with lots of trees, etc. preventing you from back casting, I like a ten footer, for the ease of roll casting, it provides me.

While fishing BIG water like many Oregon, or Washington rivers, or even California’s Eel, or Smith River (with the potential of a 20 pounder or above), I would prefer an eight, or even nine weight. Yes, you could be successful in some situations, however, don’t go after goliath with a slingshot, unless these are the odds that you personally crave.

#4  Do not think for one single moment, that landing, a wild Pacific steelhead is close to the same thing as it is catching a 2- to 3-pound rainbow, or brown, on a fly rod and reel. I see it all the time on different rivers. There is the hookset, and now the newcomer to this endeavor, is into a tug of war with their hand pulling on the line as you would see on some celebrity television show, featuring one- to five-pound fish. I see leaders breaking, hooks pulling, and sometimes straightening, or even fish being close lined out of the water. I believe that the only time you are pulling line with big fish attached, versus reeling line onto the fly reel, is when the fish is running at you, or you are somehow into the no, no, slack line zone. I mean they make these new fly reels with very good drag systems for a reason. Get all the line in front of you, off the water and onto the reel as soon as conceivably possible. Keep the bend in the rod, with pressure on, at nearly all cost. You can do this after the initial hookset by using your index finger, while pinching the line gently against the fly rod, above the reel, with the same hand that is holding the rod. You are now using your index finger as the temporary drag, while reeling all your loose/casting line onto the reel. This is not only one of the most fun things I enjoy doing while fly fishing, but also one of the most important things to master, with quick thinking, and fast acting movements. You can do this by gently using your index finger to lightly let off pressure, (while pinching your line against the rod above the reel, back towards you). Sometimes I do this when and if a steelhead is violently shaking its head, all the while I am reeling all the slack line onto my fly reel. After a while, you will feel confident in the ole finger drag, but will also recognize when a long graceful, and awesome run is about to happen. The kind of run that can take all the line out in front of you, without having to reel this loose line in at all. You are letting the fly line slip through your index finger here, without pinching heavily, with your finger. To me this is an awesome jaw-dropper. You have done this now, often enough to potentially recognize this beast of a run is about to happen, and then it does. Obviously, this is one of those unforgettable happenings, that keeps me looking for a moment like this on each and every fly fishing endeavor.

Hooked up is Dan Castagna, "Gentlemen Steelheader"

In summary, you are more than likely, not going to win a “tug of war” with fish 6 pounds and above, unless you are using rope for leader. However, you should always be ready to peel, peel, peel line in, when they are running at you, or when you start to see that bend in the fly rod start to disappear, and flatten out. Therefore, forget the small time tussles you often see on TV, with much smaller fish, perhaps in calm water, (not a strong flowing river). Learn that your fly reels drag system, and your index finger, are tools you bring to the fight with you, for a very good reason.

#5 Please do not ever forget why you are there in the first place, in space and time, on the river, stream, creek, or lake of choice. Birds chirping, river sounds running through your sometimes blank, and unstressed mind. Relax, enjoy the moment. Sometimes, try “being one” with something. One, with possibly the river, your fly line, the next cast, or even your thoughts, and memories of that huge lost fish, or even lost loved ones. (See photo of my Brother Dan who passed 2 years ago). This piece was inspired by him, and written in his honor. I see, and feel my memories, often while casting my fly. In summary, the catchin’ is the bonus, not the “only “ objective. I like leaving a river, having learned something. No matter what it had to do with. Like I said before, I like to get lost in the river whenever possible. Try it, you just may love it, as I do.

#6 Do not always feel that in order for your next fly fishing endeavor to even happen, that you need to go with someone else. There is a litany of reasons why I often fish alone. Just recently, I showed an article I had previously written, about the merits of fishing alone, to a very good fishing buddy. Unfortunately, I could see, and hear, that, he was outwardly offended. Therefore, try to think and imagine for yourself, all the reasons you could possibly think of, as to why fishing solo, might work sometimes better for you. I bet you could easily think of five to eight reasons without racking your brain very much. Therefore, why hold yourself back from getting in the car and “making it happen,” just because you could, and someone else could not? Trust me, after your first few casts, you won’t even think, or feel that you are alone at all. Perhaps it is because you are not. In summary here, don’t be wishin’, when you could be fishin’!

#7 Do not make plans for a steelhead safari, weeks, or even just days before, and be completely rigid and strict about following the original plan, and agenda. It’s common knowledge that river/stream conditions often dictate the potential for success. We should consider documenting the reasons why we spanked them, as well as why we may of struck out. How about learning from our previous mistakes? If your time outs to fly fish, are always at a premium, why not choose these moments carefully? How many times in the very beginning of my fly fishing days, did I “just go?” After getting there, hours from home, I near kicked myself in the ass, for not checking the river, and weather conditions. You might be able to plunk up a steelie or two in a raging torrent, however hooking up on the fly in these same situations, is a different animal.

The internet is your friend here, and one would be foolish to not use the many tools now available to you. Check the weather for the past few days, as well as those coming up. What is the height/flow of the river? What was the height and flow the last time I was skunked, or even wacked them? Limit your wasted opportunities, by avoiding blown out rivers, or absolutely unbearable wind/weather conditions. Don’t be rigid, be educated, and not stubborn to change the original plan. This adaptability, will undoubtedly add to more successful opportunities.

#8 Do not stop fishing altogether, and completely quit working a run, that you may feel has a fish, or three, within it. Do not give up, just because there were no takers your first trip through the run. Don’t quit, just because you have not hooked up as quickly as you did last week on this same water. l can’t tell you how many times I just wouldn’t give up, and it turned out to be the fourth combination of different flies, perhaps an hour or more later, that put that big one on the hook.

Sometimes it could have been the new aggressive fish that “just moved in,” or maybe the lighting conditions were now suddenly in my favor. Or maybe the fish in the run are no longer spooked. Go with your hunches, but do not keep on beating the same water with the same flies that may have worked there three days ago, but are not working now. Change up, and maybe you will be rewarded. The slightest bit of differentness, could prove to be your friend here.

Danny the Psycho Prince. This one fell for a Red Copper John

Danny the Psycho Prince. This one fell for a Red Copper John

#9 Do not believe that cupping the reel, with a big fish attached is the only way to bring fish to the bank/net. I propose, that in the beginning, while learning this wonderful sport, that you get your hands out of the way, while hooked up. Once again, do your very best to use the drag system on the fly reel. Yes, cupping is fun, and exciting, however there is plenty of time for you to “de-drag,” and cup only, moving forward. I can’t even count how many clients have, pulled hooks, broken tippet, or even close lined fish out of the water, because they were new at this, and thought cupping was a “must.” When getting started, use the advanced features of the reel. I guarantee, that while fighting your first few dozen steelhead on the fly, that you won’t regret the advantage, the drag system can provide you. You will see for yourself that as you progress, you will automatically develop your cupping skill/ability anyway. When the time comes, this skill will have developed quite naturally for you, with fewer lost fish as well. Remember… Hands out of the way, in the beginning.

#10 Do not underestimate how critical it is for you to NOT disturb the water. Always do your best, and try your hardest, to disturb the water, as little as conceivably possible. Stealth, is good/best. It is oh so very important, from entering, or leaving the water, to not slapping the water hard or loud, to mending quietly and responsibly, etc. I say that fish will take a fly more often, when they feel relaxed, and are not scared or disturbed. Sometimes your very own movements, will often move fish. If you don’t work a run with the right strategy and technique, you could be moving the fish to a place where you will never make the right presentation to them. Or you could even move them to where they won’t bite period. As an example, when stripping line back in, do so OFF of the high probability water, and never right back over the water you want to work. Be careful to be careful. I am sure you know what I may mean about “stealth,” in every way possible, at that.

Whew! I could go on and on about many, many more mistakes that I have made, throughout the years while learning to fly fish for steelhead, but like most of us, I would easily prefer moving to the positive.

Such as mentioning, “the top ten things we ‘should do’ when learning how to fly fish for steelhead.”

However, it is late at night, and I expect to hit the water in the morning running fast. Therefore, we’ll save the positive thinking for another day.

 - written by Capt. Armand J Castagna

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