Rating the Bite | by Bill Herzog

Rating the Bite | by Bill Herzog

What type of grab from a steelhead is the most thrilling?

How would you rate a steelhead bite?

It’s the blink when it all comes together, when the endless hours of preparation out in the garage are cashed in for seconds of gratification, when we’ve chosen the proper technique, color, size, degree of flash, speed of presentation, etc.


So many variables have to line up to get that abra-cadabra moment. It’s all filed into the awesome column. But let’s be honest, there are some initial connections with the silver ghost that are far more exciting than others. Some techniques we prefer to use over others for this reason, even when we know there may be one or several other techniques more effective under current conditions. So just for fun, let’s look at the most popular methods and discuss which ones generate the ultimate reaction on the wow meter from the greatest game fish.

Remember, this rating has nothing to do with which method is most fun, satisfying, popular, productive, legal, most challenging or the like. It’s all about the yank. We’ll not be rating the bite on a twitched jig, due to this being basically a coho/pink salmon technique.

Here is a list of the magnificent seven. From worst to first, from lame to fame, guaranteed to raise a debate!

#7) Drift Fishing

Including side drifting, boondogging.

Last but never least...love the drift fishing. Caught more steelhead with this technique by far. I wrote a book about it when smoke signals and stage coach were modern modes of communication and transportation, for goodness sake. An all time favorite way shake hands with Mr. Shiny. However, the generally soft, spongy stop can be easily missed by the sleepy, the distracted or greenhorn. Best case scenario, a sharp pulsing chew that pulls the rod tip down several inches.

The most exciting thing about a drift fishing grab is the steelhead’s reaction to a sharp hook. And let’s be honest...a bite when side drifting is no more than line going tight from an “angler” merely holding onto the rod. Effective? No technique can top it. Exciting on the bite? Dead last.

#6) Bobber with Jig/Bait and “Nymphing” with a Fly Rod.

These two are all visual, all the time. So similar I’ve lumped them together. There is not one person reading this who does not get his jones rubbed out by watching a float or indicator go shooting under the surface. So cool! The eyes getting quite wide at the second of vanishing float/indicator. This is the one grab that causes us to set the hook in our sleep. You know the one that smacks the old lady in the side after a day of one too many bobber-downs.

After a day of bobber/jig fishing for chums which normally feature dozens of take-downs, I beat the hell out of the wife with hook sets as I fall asleep. Come on, you’ve all done it! A solid nine out of ten on the visual side, but as far as pull, it’s all hook-set. Great to watch? Yeah. The yank? Meh.

#5) Plunking and Divers/Bait.

Similar takes, similar excitement. These would possibly rate higher if the angler kept the rod in their hands. The bite, the adrenaline burst, the Zen hold off of hook set until the slow to swift build to full bend/tight line, the turn of the fish, the panicked shaky handed attempt to remove the loaded rattling rod pinned to the holder, the power of the fresh steelhead on the initial run...Mostly visual, this grab is just a rung or two lower on the ladder of excitement below #2.

#4) Spoons/Spinners.

Thought this one would be ranked higher, didn’t you? Especially when you read who was writing this article. Only rated fourth because of the variety of strikes metal flashing lures elicit. First is the slack line grab. Really subtle, if you are not watching your line, this one is the easiest of all steelhead bites to miss. Caused by an aggressive fish charging the lure from immediately behind, after it swiftly grabs the fish’s momentum carries it rapidly forward toward the angler’s position, causing instant slack.

spoon fishing steelhead

The only clue is a rapidly dropping line and perhaps a slight “tick”. Second is the “stop” The lure just halts movement, as if bottom or a tree branch seized the lure. This is common when rivers run with limited visibility, as steelhead will move only a short distance to bite.Again, not too thrilling. A swift hook-set to determine if it’s real, wood or bedrock tells the tale. Ah, but the third type of strike on metal...

This rates as #1a. Violent, sudden removal of the invading lure second to none. A giant, bright buck of trophy status chomping down going away with your BC Steel is something burned into the memory for a lifetime, and when it happens, a gear tosser will want to do little else ever again.

Rods swiftly bent to maximum capacity clear into butt sections, which occasionally flip up and smack the owners in the chin. Mouths and eyes opened wider than wide. Unsolicited guttural yells. The instant we know why we spent extra cash on higher quality reels featuring superb baby bottom smooth drags.

The crush on metal is most common under premium visibility conditions when a steelhead charges the lure from a distance, allowing the creature to achieve full speed before contact. Too light of lines are snapped, compound dirty words are immediate, shorts will be changed. To quote a famous rock song, “Metal health, it’s what we gotta have, it’s what we all need!!”

#3) Floating (Waking) Fly. This one is rated high for the pure visual-ness of the moment. Yes, the take down with floats is purely visual, but what is happening on the business end is not seen by the angler except for the knock-knock of the float vanishing. When the skated fly goes out of sight, things are happening rapidly and water is being displaced. Bulging water, gaping mouths, spray, heads, tails, leaps, it all can be part or all of a surface grab from a steelhead. The anticipation factor when the fly shimmies into position is just flat nuts.

Once a steelheader takes the leap of faith to try, I mean really try to skate up their favorite fish, when it happens you will be changed. Wrap your minds around that one, side-drifters...

#2) Plugs.

How many of you have hooked a fresh from the tides native steelhead on a back trolled plug? Right. Can we agree that the term “violent” is just not enough to describe the ferocity of an aggressive fish reacting to a plug invading it’s holding territory?

An old friend used to say about pulling plugs... “Hours of watching paint dry punctuated by moments of sheer terror and adrenaline.” Nail on the head, that one. There is one other type of grab on a plug, similar to a spoon bite where the fish is attacking from below. After swiftly grabbing the lure the steelhead just keeps going upstream, momentum carrying it several feet, resulting in immediate slack line. However, when we are back trolling this “light” bite lasts only a second or two before the fish swiftly turns and the rod slams down, creaking into the cork. Brutal, abrupt and heart stopping, there is only one connection that steps over the plug strike for the pole position.

....and the absolute, no debate, people’s champion...

#1) Swung Fly.

There is a reason that this method has so many tag lines, such as, “It ain’t no thing if you ain’t got that swing” or “Smack down on the hang down” or the famed “The tug IS the drug!!!”

Fly guys, you get this.

If I have to explain, you’ve never caught a fresh steelhead on a swung fly. Those of you that have, no need to explain. The broad I-just-seen-a-naked-girl grin and knowing head nod speak volumes. The sudden unseen, instant bowstring tight reel-spinning almost losing the rod (and sometimes actually losing the rod) breath robbing, eye popping, butt clenching, leg wobbling primal scream inducing crescendo is the cosmic funk.

fly fishing

The strike that really never snaps you into realization you are being taken on a Nantucket sleigh ride until fifty plus yards of line and a backing knot ripping through the guides brings you to the orgasmic reality that it’s on, b*****!!

To a man, the reason we drown fur and feathers is for that unbeatable grab. On the swing, real steelhead fly fishing, not “bobber and jig” angling with fly rods. (You pretenders with the indicators and Glo Bugs, please stop calling yourselves “steelhead fly fishermen.”

Get a spinning rod and drift floats and jigs. You’re not fooling anyone.) Poor knots, inferior leader material, crappy hooks, all exposed and taken to task by the grab on the swing. It’s a combination of the aggressiveness of the plug and spoon with the rod in your hands! This is the most amazing take in all of steelhead fishing, hands down.

What Is Your List?

So...agree, disagree? I’m sure everyone reading this will be harmonious in opinion with some, and others, well, let’s just say the FCC would not approve of the chosen language.

One thing that I know there will be no argument—the most exciting, gratifying part of our day on the water is when we make that first contact, no matter the chosen technique.

Be it subtle or violent, hidden or visual, difficult or easy, it’s all about “shaking hands” with the star of the show.

- Bill Herzog

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