About Come-back Steelhead Flies
By: Mark Bachmann
Years ago, I was guiding two ladies who were a couple of pretty crafty steelhead anglers, Jan and Marie. By lunch they had already landed a couple of steelhead apiece (back in the good old days when those numbers were more common). After lunch we moved the boat downstream and Jan brought her fly, a low water Prism (skinny dull colored brown & peacock, no flash) through a slick that was in the shade of a tall alder tree.
A steelhead boiled on her fly and gave it a very gentle tug just to say, "I'm here. Do you want to play?" She threw an identical cast and brought her fly across the fish again but drew no attention. I instructed her to wade twenty steps up stream and work downstream again with two step between each cast. The fish did not respond. We changed to smaller Undertaker (all black with a narrow red & chartreuse butt). She went in twenty steps above the fish and worked down river again. There was a big splashy rise in the same place as before. The fish had not moved. To make a long story short, we changed flies six times and the fish would rise, but refuse it the first time it entered its space, and then ignore it thereafter. The seventh change was back to the original Prism fly. The fish took aggressively and was pinned in the maxillary muscle with the barbless hook. It fought hard, then was released, then was left in peace. It makes you wonder why it had acted that way?
Such activity makes for a cute story but is far from a record number of rises from a “player”. There used to be a slick created by a huge boulder at the upper end of Sharp’s Bar. It was a long difficult cast. I rose the same fish fourteen casts in a row to the same Purple Peril and never did get a solid strike. Maybe the fish got bored and quit rising or swam away and changed locations. I changed flies several times after it quit without any reward.
Those stories are about extremes. Rarely will a steelhead rise more than a couple of times. Most of the time the grab is the first indication that they are there. They either are stuck, or the angler over-reacts, and the fish is never seen again. There were a couple of years in the mid-eighties when the Deschutes stayed very clear through much of the season and moving fish were easy to watch. I those days most steelhead flies had a prominent white wing and were easy to see. I spent hours watching customer’s flies. Nearly every day I observed steelhead rising about halfway to the fly, meaning that if the fly was swinging in water four feet deep a fish would be seen coming about two feet from the bottom and then sink back to the river bed. Usually these fish seemed to levitate slowly behind the fly then disappear. Rarely were these fish ever hooked with any come-flies or tactics. I always thought these fish were motoring upriver probably when a second cast was made the fish were already upstream past the angler.
All floating line tactics seem to work best on fish that are rested and holding in a specific territory. Even if that hold is temporary steelhead seem to be more prone to rise if they are stationary when the fly comes to them. Some places in a river are meant for steelhead to rest in, and other places are meant move through.
Come-back flies and a come-back routines are good indicators for what is holding and what is moving water. If a steelhead doesn't come back, it was probably moving. It is easier to think that was so rather than your presentation was sloppy enough that the fish was put down or driven off. In all cases steelhead are wild critters and deserve respect as such.
The tactic that I use when a steelhead has come to my fly but has not been hooked is to make one more identical cast that rose the fish. If that doesn’t get positive results, I mark the spot where the fish rose in my mind by studying the surrounding natural features. This way I can remember exactly where the fish came to the fly. I leave that length of line off the reel, so that cast can be duplicated. Then the line is stripped in to remove the fly from the fish’s territory. Maybe ten to twenty feet of line are left coiled in my hand. Then I wade twenty to thirty feet upstream. Then I proceed back downstream retracing the same path and methodology that brought the attention from the fish. More than half the time the fish will respond and be hooked. Often the fish will be hooked in the exact location where it rose the first time. Sometime the fish will be hooked several feet upstream from where it showed before.
If the fish doesn’t respond to the original fly, I usually change to a smaller, darker or more muted tone fly, after moving upstream. Then I work down to the fish pretending that I didn’t know it was there. Reducing the size and changing the coloration of the second fly works a fairly high percentage of the time. If that procedure doesn’t produce positive results, the fly is changed again. The third fly has produced strikes, but less often than the first or second fly.
Another method that has worked is to change the speed of the fly. Speeding the fly up has produce more strike-twos than slowing the fly down.
You can see from the examples given that there are come-backs that work, but none are 100%. Steelhead are rarely totally predictable, but that just makes them more fun.