Steelhead are tough to catch on a swung fly. We who live for this soulful pursuit are fighting big odds. So why would we want to make it even harder on ourselves by skating dry flies? Because seeing a big, sea-run rainbow chase down a dry fly is freakin’ cool, that’s why!
So when I had a chance to guide my friend Les Martin on his third consecutive day of fishing the lower Deschutes with Larimer Outfitters, I asked him if he had any interest in trying a dry.
“Well….” he said, sounding reluctant, “I’ve heard about that. It sounds neat, but I like to hook up!” Then he added, with some trepidation,”Whatever you think, Jeff. You’re my guide.” I told him there was only one way to get ‘em on a dry and that is to try.
“Lets try it then!” he said, finally sounding enthusiastic. I tied on a Claret Shade Chaser, one of my favorite skaters, and we walked down to a sweet little break where I’ve gotten fish up on dries many times before. The spot is a shallow wade, only ankle deep on a large flat basalt ledge, and a very short cast. I instructed him carefully how to present the fly. Often times the fish are so close, and they take the fly so quickly, it startles people and they pull the fly completely out of the water.
“Don’t set the hook until you feel the weight of the fish,” I instructed.
We moved to just the right spot and Les pulled few feet of line from his reel. He flipped the fly into the choppy seam. I told him it was very important to guide the fly all the way over onto the shallow bedrock ledge before re-casting, as the fish sometimes will eat the fly just as it comes up over the ledge. Almost instantly there was a chrome explosion right in front of us! Both of our hearts stopped, waiting for the pull, but the fly was unscathed by the burst, still skating across the surface. Then, just as the fly came up onto the ledge, the fish shot out of the water and engulfed the fly with half of its chrome body high-and-dry on the rock! With the fly in its mouth, it turned and wriggled back into the water, taking off with the fly. I couldn’t contain my excitement and let out uncontrollable screams. “Oh my…SET THE HOOK!!!” To say that Les was caught off guard would be a gross understatement. He arched the rod back so that the tip went straight up into the air. But tension was lost as the fish did a 180 and came screaming straight back towards us. In a flash, it thrashed one more time on the surface and threw the hook.
I tried to regain my breath but just broke into laughter as what we had just witnessed set in. A kamikaze steelhead! I patted Les on the back and brushed off the fact that the fish was gone.
“Throw it back out there!” I urged. Les flipped the fly out and worked it through the narrow seam again. We both calmed down as the fly made several swings without reaction. Then four steps down from our starting point, “BOOM!” Another explosion on the fly, but no connection. Then again, “BOOM!” in the same spot. Then another cast, followed by another explosion. Again and again. I was laughing hysterically! The fish came to the surface five times, but kept missing the fly. Maybe it was just trying to throw the fly from the water with its tail, or maybe it was just near-sighted. But after five attempts, the fish quit coming up.
We switched flies, tying on a smaller purple Silvey Steelhead Caddis. The first cast in the same spot brought another violent slash from the steelhead. And this time the fish got the fly and Les hooked up! We both screamed for joy as the line came tight. The rod bent hard and the fish took off into the rapids.
Later, back at the boat, Les and I recalled the action over coffee. He admitted that his expectations had been low.”But seeing is believing!” he said with a big smile.
We caught plenty of fish that day, switching to wet flies as the sun beat down on the canyon. All the fish were great, but none could top our dry-fly kamikaze steelhead.