Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 4)

In this installment of the steelhead fishing primer I'll discuss some of the specifics of how to catch fish.  First we'll look at where to fish (that is, where on the section of stream you're fishing...where to fish in general is covered in part 3) and then move on to presentation methods and the best terminal tackle to use in these presentations.

In case you haven't been reading the updates as they were posted, you can find all previous installments at the following links:

Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 1)
Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 2)
Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 3)

Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 5)

Where to Fish

We've already covered the process of finding a place to fish in part three, but once you get parked, rigged up, and in the water, you're presented with a whole new matter of where to fish, specifically, where within the stream will be the best location to find fish.

Since the steelhead are making their 'run' upstream, in the most literal sense, they can be found anywhere in the stream.  If you have a pool at point A and point B, both holding fish, it only stands to reason that the fish farther upstream had to cross through the "poor holding water" in between the two points to get there.  With this in mind, you can come to one of two conclusions: that the water in between should have fish moving through it (and since all the other fishermen are crowding point A and point B, this is a great place to fish), or that this water in between must not have that many (if any) fish in it, or else they wouldn't have bothered to move up to point B.

Strangely enough, either, both, or neither of these conclusions may be correct.

When steelhead make their run, its generally understood that it isn't one big push from the lake to the upper reaches.  Steelhead will continue to move into the streams from the lake from late August to Thanksgiving, and throughout that time and into the winter, fish already in the stream will continue to migrate in a generally upstream direction, covering a lot of water when conditions allow, and lying low when they don't.  In practice, this run consists of these fish powering upstream through falls, riffles, and rapids, until they get to a deeper, slower section or a pool, where they pause to rest.  While they are in these pools, fish who have nearly regained enough strength to make another push congregate with tired fish just arriving, meaning that the pools of deep, slow water usually have the largest concentrations of fish.  By late October, any given pool can have anywhere from 10 to 100 fish holding in the slow water, catching their breath.  In these situations, there are huge numbers of fish, all in one place, that are easy to spot.  After a moment of thought, the average fisherman usually decides to play the numbers game, and that he has a much better chance of catching one fish out of 100 than one fish out of 2 or 3 in the riffle below the pool.  Unfortunately for the average fisherman, he isn't alone, and he's usually sharing that pool with a minimum of 2-3 other guys and often as many as 8-10.  It's a simple fact of Erie trib fishing that crowds congregate anywhere that large numbers of fish can be easily seen.

The observant fisherman, however, will not that for all those pools holding 30+ fish, and all of those crowds of fishermen hovering over them, there's a disproportionately small portion of those anglers actually seen catching a fish compared to the guys who go off alone and fish an inconspicuous riffle that the others walk past on their way up to that hole up above.  In fact, in terms of catching, as opposed to the amount of fish being cast to, the guys fishing the water that others skip over catch far more than the average guy standing in line beside a pool.

When I'm scouting out new or unfamiliar water for steelhead fishing, I'm looking for three key things: depth, current, and obstacles.  I'm ignoring the pools with stacked fish.  The pools are full of resting fish, and resting fish are not feeding fish.  Any fish caught in a pool is probably biting out of irritation more than any natural reaction to the fly.  So I focus on water just at the heads or tails of pools, where it's fast and flowing.  In terms of depth, I'm looking for water anywhere from 1-3 feet deep.  Much shallower, and the fish will just scoot right by, unable to get comfortable.  Much deeper, and it becomes problematic to get your fly down to the bottom and drift it effectively in the fast current.  Speaking of current, you want it.  Plenty of it, and most of it going in more or less the same direction.  I tend to steer clear of strange back-currents and whirlpools, finding that most of the fish I catch are in more normal flows.  Feel free to try these areas, its just not for me.  Finally, I look for obstacles.  Ideally, you want to find a small section of fast water between pools that has water deep enough for the fish to feel comfortable, in current that's fairly straightforward in terms of getting a drift, with rocks and logs to break up the fast current so that the fish don't feel pressured to keep moving, but rather slow down a bit as they move.

If you can find a spot like this, you'll also find that the fish in this more active water are not nearly as picky as the spooked fish in the pools, and will often take a slightly less than perfect drift.

Presentation Methods

For all of Erie fishing, you really only need to be familiar with 2 methods, the drift and the swing.  Really, these are methods that should be familiar to any fly fisherman, and I'm not going to get into the fundamentals of how to do each here, but rather explain how to use them in the context of Erie steelhead fishing.

For swinging, you'll want to be using a streamer or wet fly.  Anything from about a #16 soft hackle, to a big #2 hairwing will work (also any intruder, tube, etc...from 2-5" long, with maybe a #8 hook).  In the small water of the Pennsylvania Erie tribs don't bother with sinking lines, sink tips, or any other such departures from the norm.  If anything, add some lead 12-24" above your fly on your leader to get the streamer low, or fish it higher in the water column.

Fishing in this way will catch fewer fish because it will only entice the most aggressive, energetic fish in the stream, however, it also tends to mean that the fish you do catch will give you among the most intense fights of any fish in the water.  Swinging streamers also reduces the chances of foul-hooking to nearly zero.

In addition, this method is really simple for the beginner to get the hang of it, but certainly allows for plenty of improvement.  Also, it makes the take exciting and very very obvious, as the fish strikes violently at the fly, hooking itself without any input whatsoever from the angler.  If you've got aggressive fish, this is the way to fish, as you don't have to watch for the very subtle bite as you do while drifting.

Speaking of drifting...

For 90+ percent of Erie steelhead fishermen, the preferred method is the drift.  As I said before, I won't get into the specifics of how to do the drifting, but rather modifications to the technique to tailor the tactic to the Erie steelhead fishery.  For most of the fishing you'll be doing, you will only have a tiny amount of line out.  In fact, for most of the drifting I do, my fly line never touches the water.  You can only really effectively drift about a 20' section of water in front of you, so there's no need to have any kind of advanced nymphing setup, and you will (or most definitely should) have so much lead on your line that the turnover of a leader will be a moot point.

For your setup here, you'll want your fly (or flies...about 3-6" apart...but I don't fish tandem so I can't really dispense advice in that area) drifting along the very bottom of the stream, literally bouncing off the stream bottom.  While some truly fantastically heavy nymph patterns might  be heavy enough to accomplish this alone, for the majority of your fishing, you'll need to add weight to the line.

Weight, Leaders, and Floats

The popular choice here is split shot, but all shot is not created equal.  For Erie, I recommend using three or four (or more) smaller pieces of shot as opposed to one larger piece.  They create less of a disturbance when they hit the water, allow the leader to flex and drift more naturally, and are less likely to get snagged up in rocks and other obstructions.

You definitely want lead shot, too.  The alternatives being tin which is far less dense, meaning you'll need more shot for less weight, and tungsten which is prohibitively expensive, especially in Erie, where you tend to go through terminal tackle pretty quickly.  If you're such a good little environmentalist that you can't bring yourself to use lead shot, Erie fishing probably isn't a natural, pristine enough experience for you anyway.

When you're drifting for steelhead, you must present your fly on the bottom of the stream. I'm talking the bottom 6" of the water column.  If your drift is in the top or middle of the water, you aren't even in the game.

As an added note, while flash on a fly can be a great attracting feature, flash on your shot is anything but.  For steelheading, you'll want dull, drab weight.  If you have some small, dark lead shot that's been sitting in a tackle box for 5 years since you abandoned it for a fly vest, now's the time to get it out.  Tin, in addition to its other shortcomings, is an offender here as well, as it is bright and silvery.  If for whatever reason you must use tin shot, get it early, and let it sit in a cup outside in the elements for a few weeks to dull it.  Better still, hit the shot with a coat of a flat finish spray paint.  Using lead, especially old lead, will solve the problem.

As an alternative, I feel I should mention that I don't use shot, but rather 'matchstick lead'.  As the name suggests, the lead is shaped like a flat compressed-paper match.  To use it, you pull a strip from the book and twist it around your line.  Usually a good, tight twist will be all you need to secure it in place (a quick squeeze form your hemos will fix it if it doesn't want to stay).  Advantages are that the strip is removable and adjustable, and that it doesn't dig into the leader nearly as much as shot.  It's much harder to come by than shot (which can be found anywhere, even wal-mart), but many fly shops will carry it.  I prefer to use "Twist-Ons", which come in the matchbook I described, but I've also used alternatives such as spooled strip lead that, while not quite as convenient, still provided all of the advantages of the matchstick lead and none of the disadvantages of shot, it just wasn't quite as easy to use as the Twist-Ons.

Luckily for you, both methods (drifting and swinging, remember?) are best accomplished with similar leaders. Also luckily for you, the ideal leader is extremely simple: a short, heavy butt section with a slightly finer length of tippet.  No complicated tapers, no step-downs, just heavy leader material tied to your fly line, and 18-30" of tippet tied to the other end.  That's it.

I usually start my day with a fresh 2X or 3X leader (fluoro or mono...your preference), and use it until break offs and fly changes have reduced it to about 5-6 feet in length, and I'm into the thickening part of the taper.  When I get to this point, I tie a perfection loop in the end of the leader, and tighten it properly (moisten the knot, pull it very hard...a 12 pound fish isn't going to baby it, you shouldn't either).  I usually take the added precaution of hitting the knot with a bit of UV Knotsense, but this isn't strictly necessary.  After that, I'll get about two feet of tippet, tie a perfection loop in the end, and loop-to-loop connect it to the end of my leader. This setup will prevent you from slowly consuming your entire leader as you clip it off bit by bit to re-tie tippet.  Since you aren't concerned with a fancy turnover, the somewhat bulky loop-to-loop won't hamper your fishing in the slightest.  In fact, may guys will attach a small swivel to the end of their leader where I put my perfection loop.  This too is a perfectly viable solution.  The only reasons I don't do this are because that would mean I'd also have to carry swivels out on the stream (not a major deal), and that I have a little bit of mistrust when I'm depending on a tiny metal contraption to keep me connected with the fish (major deal).  You might say, "But you trust the hook..."  True, but I never claimed that I always make sense.  Suffice to say that if you like the idea, definitely give it a try.  Hell, I might have just talked myself into giving it a try.

Tippet is one of the few areas I usually get a little spendy.  The mono vs. fluoro debate has been going on for years, so I won't get into that, but what I will say is that for my steelhead fishing I only use Seaguar Grand Max fluorocarbon tippet, in 3X or 4X.  That's it.  Nothing else.  I've had other brands break, wear out quickly, and other undesirable effects, Seaguar has not let me down yet.  Until it does, I'm unlikely to switch.  For trout around home, I like experimenting with different brands (and am currently liking Stroft, Varivas, and Beartooth), but for Erie, I leave the trout tippet at home and bring 2 spools of Seaguar Grand Max.  While it is expensive at $15-16 per spool, for the peace of mind, its worth it, and a spool of each is usually enough to last me the entire season as well as some fishing around home in the spring.  Does that mean you have to buy Seaguar?  Not at all.  In fact, if you can find a cheaper alternative, that's awesome (and I'd appreciate you leaving a comment letting me know what you found!), but for now, for my fishing, I'm going with Seaguar.

Another option that many guys like to use are floats, bobbers, indicators, etc.  Most that use them will say that the indicator helps them "detect the strike" or gives them a "better" drift.  Some might say it "reduces foul-hooking".  While any or all of these reasons might be true, if they are, the indicator is simply a crutch for subpar technique, in my opinion.  If you need help detecting the strike, use an indicator, but really, there's no substitute for being able to detect a strike all on your own.  In high, slow, murky water, a float indicator might get you more fish than you would by not using it, but if you're hitting the fast water, like I suggested, not only will the line not have time to straighten out between fly and indicator, but also, you don't really need it to detect the strike.  If the line stops mid-drift, you either have a fish or a snag, so either way, when the line stops, lift the rod.  As far as a 'better drift' and 'reduced foul-hooking' are concerned, both of these effects result from the switch from a diagonal line drift (like you would have if you were nymph fishing for trout 30-40 feet across the stream), to a more vertical drift (czech nymphing, etc.).  Since this is Erie, you should be within 20 feet of the fish you are casting to, and as such, your drift should already be pretty vertical anyway.

Personally, I almost never use an indicator. They have their time and place, but that time and place, for the most part, isn't found when I'm fishing in Erie.  If you're having trouble detecting a strike in deep pools, try one, but in the faster water, they're fairly unnecessary, in my opinion.  Some people use indicators that don't float, essentially a piece of bright material that they can see underwater, and when it stops or moves against current, they set the hook.  Why not incorporate a hook into that design and essentially fish 2 eggs?

In simplest terms, the more 'junk' you add to your line, the harder it will be to get a flawless drift, so your terminal tackle choices are simply how you choose to balance gear that will help you versus your drift quality. You obviously need a fly.  If you aren't drifting across the bottom, you're not going to catch 95% of the fish, so weight is a necessity.  A float, to me, simply does not offer enough of an advantage to justify its effect on my drift.

Should you decide to use one, there are a dizzying variety of sizes, colors, styles, and attachment methods.  For the few times that I decide to use one, I prefer Thingamabobbers.  They're simple, effective, easy to attach, provide a good compromise of staying where you put them without wrecking your leader, and never wear out.  I got a pair of 3/4" and a 5-pack of 1/2" and I still have all of them, after 2 1/2 years, and they all work just as well as the day I opened the pack.  Of course, I don't use them very often, and in those 2 1/2 years, I've probably spent less than 3% of my time on the water indicator-fishing, but really, their design is simple enough to convince me that they'd get lost from misplacing them sooner than you'd lose one from your line or have one wear out.

For Erie steelhead fishing, stick to the smallest sizes (1/2" and 3/4").  If you get a pack, just choose whatever color you think will best contrast the water in your conditions, if you buy singly, I find I use the orange one most often, but that's just personal preference.  To attach it, just fold your leader into a small loop, push the loop through the hold in the thingamabobber, pass the bobber itself through the loop, and pull it snug.

Well, I had originally intended for this to be the final installment, but there's still fly selection to cover, and I think it deserves its own section, so I'm going to wrap this up.  As always, links to the other sections can be found at the beginning of this article as well as in the following links section, and feel free to leave comments in in the provided comments section.

Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 1)
Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 2)
Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 3)

Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 5)


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