"The Steelhead Popper"
By: Scott Howell
The Ska-opper is a skating/popping pattern that, probably more than any other fly, defines who I am as a steelhead fisherman. Firstly, I grew up on the Rogue River where at one time, twitching flies from the front of a drift boat was synonymous with summer steelhead fishing. The "Rogue River Twitch" was just something ingrained in me as a boy. When you combine that, with the fact that as a teenager I was certain I was destined for the Bass Master Circuit, you are sure to get somebody who loves to fish poppers for steelhead.
My first experience with adding action to a skated dry fly was fishing mouse patterns for rainbows when guiding in Alaska. There, we would fish for trout with large clumps of hair spun on a hook that only slightly resembled mice. After casting these patterns into likely spots, we would skitter and pop them across the surface. By looking at the simplicity of the fly, it was obvious to see that it was not the pattern that was important. It was the surface disturbance the fish were after. It seemed to be an action that no trout could resist. This was an important learning experience that still influences how I fish to this day.
It was at that same lodge in Alaska that I was first introduced to foam skating/popping flies. One of the most innovative tyers at the lodge was a Dutch guide named Frans Jansen. He introduced some fresh ideas into many of the proven concepts already being used up North. Frans incorporated a foam back and bill into the popular Mouse and Wog patterns and is recognized for creating his Techno series of these flies. It was the design of his flies that is the framework of my Ska-opper.
I first started experimenting with poppers for steelhead while fishing a remote stream on one of the islands off the BC coast. There, my curiosity was sparked when I watched anglers successfully practicing some of the most peculiar methods. The first of these anglers had just beat me to my favorite spot and was drifting bait below a dink-style float. Not surprisingly, I observed him almost immediately catch a fish. So, I walked upstream of the man and continued to watch as I fished the run above. After covering the pool thoroughly, he pulled a trick out of the bag that I had never seen before. He cast his float and bait out into the slot and began chugging it back across the surface. I initially thought he was just hung on the bottom and was jerking his line to free it. It was when he cast back out and starting jerking again that I knew he was up to something. On that cast, I saw a fish explode on his float. Shortly after, the man was hooked up. I really couldn't believe my eyes. But it wasn't until I saw him catch his second fish chugging his float that I had to wade down and ask him what he was up to. The angler told me he always chugs his float across the pool before leaving. He explained to me that the chugging action of his float would often attract fish that were unwilling to take his bait drifted naturally. I found it interesting that the fish would often chase and even take his float before they found the bait a couple feet behind.
Even after watching that angler's float get crushed, it never crossed my mind to throw a dry fly. These were winter steelhead after all. It just never occurred to me I could take these fish on the surface. It was after I talked to another island bait angler I knew, that I broke out the popper. I was telling him about what I had witnessed the day before. He was not remotely surprised with my story of the float being taken off the top. As a matter of fact, he responded by saying a good percentage of the fish he catches show themselves on his float first. He said there was nothing unusual about fish chasing his float down as he retrieved it back across the surface to cast again. Well, that was enough to get the wheels turning even in a thick skulled steelheader like myself.
That night I went back to my trailer and tried creating a fly to match the orange headed black dink float hatch. My fly began by taking shape around Frans's foam popping head concept. At the end of the night, my creation basically ended up being a three-inch-long black intruder with an orange foam popping head. I couldn't wait for the next morning to give my new concoction a try.
At first light, I was back at my favorite stretch with my dry fly and an unwarranted amount of confidence. Even though these were winter steelhead, for some reason, I just knew it would work. It didn't hurt that I had been haunted for two days by visions of that guy's float being engulfed in the same pool. I began casting near the head of the run, stripping my fly back as it chased across the surface. Stripping the fly as it skated created a popping action similar to a bass popper. Even though I had never heard of such a method for steelhead, it looked incredibly fishy and my confidence only grew. However, it wasn't until my fly chugged across the shallow boulder-filled tail out that the dorsal fin of a large chrome buck chased my imitation float down. That was one of three fish I rose to my fly over the next two days. Unfortunately, shortly after my success, it rained and those were the last days I ever spent on the river with reasonably clear water conditions.
A week later, I was back to where I lived in Terrace, BC and incredibly anxious to give my new popping fly a try for the Skeena River's winter steelhead. I knew just the spot. A large tail out that regularly held fish in relatively shallow water. Considering that these northern steelhead spend their winters in 32 degree water, I figured they would raise to the surface better if they only had to come a few feet. Whether that was the case or not, it wasn't long before we were renaming that run the Dry Fly Spot - for good reason. It was here that we started playing around with different actions on the fly that at the time we called the Steelhead Popper. It was so cold, stripping the fly as it swung was not an option. Aside from the fact that my hands couldn't take handling the wet line, the guides would freeze up after only one cast of stripping. So, we simply fished a set length of line on our two-handers and popped the fly with our rod tip as it chased across the current on a tight line. This soon became our preferred method of fishing the fly in all fishing conditions.
It wasn't until years later when I made my way back home to Oregon that the Ska-opper completed it's evolution. While guiding on the North Umpqua, I noticed fellow guide Tony Wratney and a group of his friends had developed a skating fly that they were twitching. After my experiences up north, it instantly caught my attention and it wasn't long before I was fishing a scaled down version of my popper. Success came immediately with this pattern and it wasn't long before it became an integral part of my fishing program.
As with any secret weapon in fishing, it wasn't long before other anglers caught on and were having success with their own poppers. I knew it was time to market my fly. When I first introduced my Steelhead Popper to fly fishing rep extraordinaire George Cook, he was concerned with how well the consumer would respond to a steelhead popper. Popping simply wasn't a concept that most steelheaders were familiar with. So, he combined the terms "skater" and "popper" and advised that we rename it the Ska-opper before marketing the pattern. In hindsight it was a very smart call. The Ska-opper has proven to be as equally effective as a traditional skater as well as popper.
I have now had success with the Ska-opper on many different rivers from Northern California to the north coast of BC. I also know fellow guides fishing this pattern on the Deschutes, Rogue, Klamath, Trinity, and North Umpqua. I have even had clients report back on having success with this pattern as far as away Tierra del Fuego for sea run browns, and in western Russia for Atlantics. However, it is the stories from closer to home of anglers popping for steelhead that I enjoy the most. The best of these had to be from a client/friend fishing the lower Deschutes several years ago. This was on an annual trip that he had been doing for some time. His first year fishing the Ska-opper was his best trip ever. He rose 19 fish to the fly during his two day stay. If his first success with me on the North Umpqua was not enough, he certainly shares my confidence in the Ska-opper now since that Deschutes trip.
I experimented with popping bugs for steelhead back in the 1980's when we
had small rivers full of steelhead around our store. At that point I hadn't
heard of anyone else using this approach for steelhead. It is obvious now
that other anglers, such as Scott Howell were on the same track. I didn't
stick with it, but Scott did. My first success with a popping bug for
steelhead was in the late evening with my wife sitting on the opposite bank
of Salmon River. I worked my way down stream through a long flat pool. Near
the center of the pool a very large steelhead made a wash tub sized boil as
he took my #8 hard body bass popper from the end of my #8 Maxima tippet on
the strike. - Mark Bachmann
The densest/darkest colors for the darkest days and mucked up water.
Brown and White
For normal conditions. This one has that caddis/stonefly look, and you've seen its effectiveness in the SKAGIT MASTER II video.
kind of a big deal from Ryan Peterson on Vimeo.