Each spring, the river floods, and at some point I have a few days off. It is not that steelhead can’t be caught on those days. Fly fishing, however, requires that the fish see the fly and if I don’t feel that this minimum requirement can be met, cancellations are the likely result. Steelhead are of course a great gamefish. They are my favorite fish. I also have a tremendous respect for steelhead and other salmonids as they migrate. They really do amazing things as they traverse rivers big and small. When I had some cancellations last week, I visited several small streams and witnessed these marvels of nature working their way up river.
Steelhead take advantage of small creeks when they are flooded. As soon as this tiny, tiny creek became high enough for travel, up came the fish in droves.
In any creek, steelhead take advantage of breaks in the current. In fishing terms, these are snags. Steelhead love structure just like any other fish. They need the structure for protection in small places but they also need the break in current that these provide.
In this stream, a series of tiny water falls existed. I did not see the steelhead leaping over them, but they had definitely been clearing them, most likely at night.
The fact that there was little water in the stream was not an issue to these fish at all. I saw some fish temporarily stranded as they worked their way through the shallows.
Steelhead are a precious commodity, this year more than ever. The Great Lakes fisheries are in a period of change, with the decline in baitfish populations and the subsequent increased pressure on other species, such as steelhead. Now more than ever, they need a little respect. This means protecting the fish while they are in the rivers, and protecting them on the small scale even as we fish and handle them. They deserve it!
I have no affiliation with the people who make a certain product, but I have to say that some of their stuff is brilliant. The product that I am speaking of is ice dub, and between ice dub and the various colors of flashabou, I could guide every day with little else than thread and hook (though I do like some feathers and fur too:)). During the months of January-March, I rely very heavily on one color family of ice dub. The colors are olive, peacock-eye, peacock, and black peacock. These colors seem to imitate the same things to the fish. It could be that the sheen on this color scheme is just plain appealing to fish (it is an attractor color). On the other hand, it could be that many of the bait fish in the river take on a peacockish tint during the winter months.
When I started looking underwater in the winter, I was surprised at just how many creatures had a bluish/green tint in the winter months. The darter above is just one example of this color scheme in nature during the winter and spring. Crayfish, scuds, gobies, and other fish also have this peacock overtone to their colors.
Whether it is just naturally attractive, or whether it is due to the colors occurring in nature, or some combination of the two, I am not entirely certain. At the end of the day, these colors of ice dub just work great for catching predator fish.
Through the first half of the year, flies with this color scheme can be fished in several different ways. They can be swung on sink tips through flat runs during the winter months for steelhead. Another option is to fish the soft edges of the stream for resident trout with smaller olive or peacock based flies. I really enjoy swinging wet flies for trout and this is a great extension of wet fly fishing through the winter months. Yet another option is to tie weighted sculpins and fish them below an indicator for trout. Often times a nymph pattern is fished on a dropper between the indicator and the weighted sculpin.
This post mentions the months of January through May. However, as a guide, these colors are in my box year around, no matter what species I am guiding for. Give this color family a shot on your local stream. I am pretty sure that it will work!
Thanks for reading this!
Each year, in February and March, salmon fry pop out of the gravel and quicky grow to be an inch in length. They feed on anything, including the remnants of their ancestors. As this process begins, they become a food source for everything else in our rivers, including all manner of fish, birds, etc. Steelhead feed heavily on salmon fry, and there are things about these fry that make them vulnerable to a predator like a steelhead.
Often times, water is high in the spring. When water levels become high, the fry are pushed to the edges of the river. Any run that holds steelhead near the edge of the river in these conditions will be a great place to look for a steelhead on a fry pattern.
Notice from the picture above the prominence of the eye in the salmon fry. Your fly must exhibit this trait if it is going to be effective. This is especially true if you are fishing the fry pattern as a nymph. The slow nymphing presentation will make the fish picky about whether the fly has this one prominent feature.
Fry patterns can also be morphed into good swung fly patterns. Because they are prone to be towards the surface of the river, a small swung fly that is the shape of the fry, but not necessarily the same color, works great throughout the spring. A small black and copper leech, for example, the size and shape of a fry, is deadly during the spring. Often times it pays to swing small and colorful flies in the spring.
This is a typical night of tying for me at this time of the year; fry patterns in one form or another are always on the menu. You can tie the thorax of these patterns any color, but pink always seems to work the best. Typically, some of the holographic colors of flash work well on sunny days, as they make the fly twinkle in the current.
As the salmon fry head downriver and grow to a larger size, the process is repeated as steelhead and sucker fry emerge later in the spring. These are on the menu of steelhead, brown trout, and every other predator too.
Thanks for reading this post! Get out on the river and enjoy spring-like fishing conditions!
Well, it’s that time of year again. I’ve inventoried my fly boxes and I am scrambling to fill my spring, summer & fall fly boxes for the upcoming seasons, as old man winter starts thinking about taking his nap, I hope! This winter has been full of tinkering with new materials and techniques for favorite fishing, steelhead on the swing. Per usual, I completely forgot to do what I always intend, which is to fill the holes in my boxes from a spring, summer and fall of fishing. Ugh, production tying. Not a fan.
The most enjoyable part of tying for me is the development stage or learning of new patterns. When I sit down to let my mind wander and relax into it’s artistic side & start free styling, my default is steelhead streamers. The array of colors and materials that one could imagine using and attracting this quarry is astounding. So I play with color combos and styles of flies deep into the night while sipping on something brown. Bourbon, rye and scotch being the likely suspects. Sometimes the next day I awake with a headache, grab some coffee and go critique my flies from the night before. The bigger the headache, the more likely it’s “WTF was I thinking!” Sometimes I impress myself and sometimes the razor comes out & the hook is shorn of the monstrosity.
Which begets a question that I hinted to in the title- what are my beverages for tying flies? Sure, whiskey has turned my brain and fingers into madness & what transpired on the vice was abominable, but some nights it’s more about the drink than the tying. Then there are the nights that a neat dram of whiskey is the perfect accompaniment, as a sip every so often soothes my soul and the whiskey’s temperature does not change & some of the resulting flies have found permanent places in my boxes.
So, here’s my guide to what to drink when tying flies. Yours may very as we all have preferences.
- Production/Repetitive tying- I have three schools of thought here…
#1 Drink coffee to keep you rolling and the mind free from the numbing effects of doing a dozens of the same pattern. I know a few guides who really like tying production, as it gives them a “check out time” when they don’t have to think about what they are doing as they done the fly hundreds or thousands of times. Especially the dreaded egg patterns.
#2 Drink water- no better time to hydrate. Until it catches up with you and you spend more time in the bathroom than at the vice.
#3 Drink a low alcohol beer. Think macro brew or old world Pilsener. Pabst has been a fly tying staple for some for many years. Personally, I go with a craft “Session” beer. Short’s “Ale la Reverend” is my favorite when it’s available and Founders “All Day IPA” is good to go all year long and comes in 12 pack cans.
- Dry Flies/Nymphs- kind of falls in to the same category as above. They are not my strong point, so I stick to H2O. Sometimes red wine is a good option. It’s a sipper, doesn’t loose it’s temperature and gets better as the air mixes in and it “opens up”.
- Wet flies/Soft Hackles- tradition would call for a fine dram of Irish or Scotch as these patterns were originally from the British Isles. But be careful, as once you start working on the wet flies with tented or married wings, your fingers and mind need to be nimble. On the other hand, simple soft hackles like the Partridge and Red/Yellow/ Orange that work so well, can be done when a wee bit addled. The other traditional drink that I partake in if it’s summer and I am refilling the Wheatley box would be a tall Gin and Tonic. Nothing says summer like a G&T while tying wets/soft hackles!
- Traditional Steelhead and Atlantic Flies- Once again a glass of whiskey does well and for me, it has to be a Single Malt Scotch, likely from Speyside and even more likely it’s Mortlach 15yr or Macallan 10yr Fine Oak. I savor this traditional beverage slowly, maybe only taking a sip as I put the hook in the vice and when I take the finished fly out. I need all my wits about me when trying some of these complicated beauties.
- Streamers- Beer, beer and more beer! I love tying streamers and nothing goes better than beer. Likely something with a little kick, like a Stone IPA or a Ballast Point “Sculpin IPA”. Beer keeps my juices flowing and my thirst quenched. I tend to wet down and pull back materials on my streamers as they can get in the way of the next step. Usually all that is needed is a little saliva and beer aides in this process!
- Freestyle/Creative Session- Bourbon…on the rocks. When I’m messing around testing new ideas or materials, bourbon fuels the fire! It is also my go to spirit, period. When I am creating new flies, my concern is not for the immediate finished product, as it’s very rare that something comes off the vice and doesn’t get tweaked and refined. Most of the time it’s put somewhere on the desk where I look at it and critique the shape, size & proportions of materials. Then I tie it a second time with my improvements. Then I repeat this a third time. But I stop there until I can see them all on or in the water. Some patterns of mine have looked great until water tested and afterwards, straight into the garbage or under the razor.
One last thought…when it comes time to clean up your tying area, as I know most of us let it go until we can’t stand it, I advise a strong cocktail to ease the pain! Maybe a Dark & Stormy, a Moscow Mule or a Manhattan. My desk is a mess right now and will be until I knock out all my spring & summer flies. Then it will get cleaned up and likely stay that way until after the summer, as I will be too busy fishing & not tying. Unless I blow through a certain pattern that is lighting them up, then it’s back to it and the dreaded production tying begins. Ugh, production tying…and you better bet there will be an adult beverage involved!
When I was growing up, my dad loved watching birds. I remember driving down a dirt road one day and seeing a wild turkey. At the time, wild turkeys were just being reintroduced and seeing one was an extremely rare occurrence. My dad screeched the car to a halt and fortunately no one was injured as cars sped bye (and gave obscene gestures).
The same can be said of bald eagles. When I first started fishing the Muskegon River, it was a very rare occurrence to see a bald eagle on the river. Now, it is a daily occurrence (this pic was just taken today). A lot of things have come back and there are great stories in our natural resources about these things.
One thing that is really obvious if you are a guide is how fragile nature is. Though many things have come back, others become increasingly rare. In the past 200 years, our rivers have changed drastically. Some fish, such as grayling and blue pike, are totally extirpated from our state. We have filled vacancies in our ecosystems with some great fish, such as the steelhead and brown trout. Other openings are filled with invasive species and our game fish are in a constant struggle to hold their place in the environment. We have to be careful to protect our great game fish, so that they will always have a prominent place in our rivers and streams.
The last week was one of the coldest of this winter. We didn’t get much snow but it sure was cold! After a couple of days indoors, I needed to get outside, if only for a little while. I know most of you can relate to this after being indoors for a while. I went down to the river to take some photos on a dreary day.
One of the things that I look for is falling water when it is very cold. Often times, falling water makes really cool ice formations along the banks of our great rivers.
Another great photo opportunity is when there is lake effect snow in the area. Often the sun will break few for a little while in the afternoon, making for a beautiful array of pastel colors in the dwindling light.
It may sound crazy but winter is one of my favorite times to photograph things underwater. The reason for this is that the water is extremely clear at normal water level in the winter. Additionally, most fish and insects move very slowly in the cold water, making them easy to photograph.
I sure was glad when the weather did finally break today, allowing me to hook a few steelhead. My favorite places to fish in the dead of winter are the inside of bends and behind fallen trees. Trout and steelhead to a lesser degree congregate in the slower water as it holds oxygen and food sources in the winter.
Last year, we were fishing quite large baitfish patterns as there was a lot of lake run browns in the Muskegon. Each year is different, and this winter we are fishing smaller patterns in the same types of water. These smaller patterns catch as many steelhead as last year’s larger flies. Since the lake runs aren’t as abundant, the smaller swung flies take advantage of the stream trout that are biters. A slight change in tactics makes for some relaxed fishing, sometimes with many bites in the course of a day.
A lot of times I look for sandy bends that have a bit of deeper, darker water between the lighter colored bottom and the swifter current. Often times these are productive places for a variety of game fish.
As spring gets closer, there will be a period of excellent fishing in these areas as stone fly nymphs move in close to shore, and king salmon begin to hatch. You don’t need to necessarily match these hatches below the surface, as the increase in subsurface activity makes the fish search out moving targets.
When you look at rivers every day, you see the subtle changes that occur day to day. Soon the signs of spring will be apparent. For now, I am happy to fish whenever the weather breaks.
Enjoy this time of the year!–Kevin Feenstra
- Happy February! For those ski bums out there, better get it in before it’s gone. Winter is already on the downhill slide. In the world of unemployed fishing guide (like myself), what February means is only 1 more month until Prime Time starts again. New fishing reports for the Manistee River and the Muskegon River after a great weekend of weather. With a good mix of steelhead around on the west side of the state, and new fish starting to already show up for the Spring push, things are looking good. February has been a long time favorite, with plenty of fish around and less people. Makes for some good fishing.
- Fly Tying Event at Muskegon River Fly Shop , I’ll be tying February 19th and will be focusing on baitfish patterns for Pike / Muskie. Contact Justin to sign up. If you can’t make the 19th, check out Drew Rosema on February 5th , Drew will be tying Steelhead Patterns. Check out Kevin Feenstra on February 26th as well, you will not be disappointed. Should be a great couple events, if you haven’t stopped by Justin’s shop he has one of the best fly tying selections in northern Michigan.
- February 12-14th I’ll be in Milwaukee , WI at the Muskie Expo, if you happen to be in the area stop by. I’ll be hanging out with Brad Petzke of Rivers North, with some new things (that I can’t talk about yet) in the booth. Plus I’ll have the new muskie shirts available, they just showed up this weekend. They look great. Will get them on the web here soon as well. I’m looking to expand my Muskie calendar, if your interested in a trip contact me. Going on my 5th year of chasing these amazing predators. I look forward to learning additional water this year, and piecing together more of the puzzle.
Check out the video from Chagin River Outfitters featuring Jerry Darkes covering the basics of why Tube Flies are a good option for when fishing steelhead.
These are a few of my favorite recent photos. Without a doubt, January is one of the hardest times to fish for steelhead, especially if you are waiting for a pull. It really is rewarding when you have a chance to land one. This year it is even more so, as it was a challenging fall.
The fish above took a fly after the better part of a day without a bite. I was very excited to fish on this day as I had a pair of battery powered heated gloves. The gloves were a $120 failure but near the end of the day, the fish made the time on the water a success!
A steelhead is a flash of lightning and a splash of color in an otherwise dreary day. This fish viewed its home and went there….See you next year, I hope!!!!