For live and premium content, sign up for our email newsletter and we'll send reports directly to your inbox

Sign Up Now!

Most serious fly-fishers have a life list of rare, exotic or difficult species they hope to catch before their time is up. At the top of my own list is Pacific steelhead, the so-called fish of a 1,000 casts, arguably the toughest big-game fish to catch in North America. After yet another failed attempt to catch a good one this May on a river near Portland, I finally realized why I have been having so much trouble with steelhead. It is possibly the same reason you are having trouble with this fish namely, trout-catching experience just doesn’t translate to steelheading.

It does seem like a good trout fisher could just wade right in and do this, right? After all, steelhead are just big ocean-going rainbows. Well, I now realize it is not all that simple. Steelhead rivers are big, the wading tough, the fish inscrutable and unpredictable, and the techniques demanding and exhausting (especially if you’re not in good shape).

Yes, it is relatively easy to do what the experts say: namely, tie on a gaudy fly that makes no sense and take two steps downstream after each cast. But, likely as not, that will not result in a tug for hours, if at all (assuming you know where to cast in the first place and can get there). And when you finally do get a pull, you can be too flummoxed to set the hook.

Over the years, The Angling Report has not received many reader reports of adventures in steelhead country, the Pacific Northwest (PNW). It’s now clear to me why the PNW remains mostly a local or regional fishery, not so much a national or international destination. Yes, there have been serious depredations to America’s West Coast steelhead populations from dams, overharvest and pollution; consequently, there are a lot fewer of them to catch than there used to be. But even in the old days of Haig-Brown, Robert Ruark and Ted Trueblood, these fish were never easy. Unless you live in the PNW and have a lot of time to hit your marks (or are extraordinarily lucky), casual outside visitors can figure their chances are slim to none.

I learned these lessons in an extraordinary day on the Sandy River recently with Mark Bachmann of The Fly Shop in Welches, Oregon. At 64, Bachmann is considered one of the best steelhead guides in the region (if not the best) and a top national authority on spey-rodding. He’s a hero to conservationists for his decades of leadership in removing the dysfunctional (1913) Marmot Dam on the upper Sandy (finally demolished last year) to reopen ancestral salmon and steelhead spawning grounds. I contacted him at the suggestion of my buddy, Rich Domingue (see Article ID No. 1996 for his report on Bachmann’s annual Spey Clave), and Bachmann agreed to take a busman’s holiday and float us through six miles of the Sandy’s Wild & Scenic section.

A more picturesque and perfect wild river than the Sandy is hard to imagine, especially so close to a major city. Thanks mainly to enlightened private landowners, it was Oregon’s first designated Wild & Scenic river. Most people can reach only the lower two of the river’s 20 floatable miles at its confluence with the Columbia. Otherwise, you need a boat to get to the good spots (you can’t legally fish from a boat, only on foot, in this section). The day we fished, the water was high and cold from snowmelt making for a raw day on the river but keeping other anglers away and the fish were moving. Things started out promising, with Rich landing a nine- to 10-pound silver bullet, but it turned into a slow fishing day after that. It was still an overall good day, however, considering the wealth of instruction I received from professor Bachmann in spey-rodding and steelhead lore. Here are a few key lessons that stick with me:

Using two-handed 13-foot spey rods to catch these fish is not just conceit, but the clearly superior method. Specifically, it allows you to cover more water with less fatigue, with little or no backcasting (important on big deep rivers where trees and willows grow right down to the bank). The innovative Snap-T cast (developed in the PNW) is both a thing of beauty and an awesome way to reach out to distant currents with a sink-tip line. It is also counter-intuitive and difficult to master, requiring repeated demonstrations by an expert and extended practice (I got to grade 2).

Traditional steelhead flies may seem gaudy and silly, resembling nothing that swims in a river, but according to Bachmann there is a biological basis for them. Steelhead may be big trout swimming in fresh water, but their feeding habits were established in the ocean, where they eat small squid and shrimp. The gaudy flies (even stonefly nymphs) capture the colors and profile of their natural prey, which provokes the strike not so much from aggression as memory (you’ll normally find nothing or only a few eggs in their fresh-water bellies). The step-down procedure (taking two steps forward after each cast) is not just traditional covering the water and provoking aggression, but showing a vulnerable, predictable prey over and over again, provoking hard-wired feeding instincts.

Steelhead move through what Bachmann calls hydraulic tubes, or tunnels of least resistance from the flowing current. The fish are either moving or resting in these tubes. No matter how big the overall run, Bachmann said, there may be no more than 100 to 200 fish in the six-mile section we floated at any given time. Your best bet may be not moving to a new spot, but working the same choice water over and over again for new fish moving up. The beautiful specimen Rich caught had probably moved 20-plus miles that very day (explaining why it didn’t fight very hard). This puts a premium on reading the water in a different way than you normally would with trout. As a rule of thumb, look for currents about walking speed.

Bachmann subscribes to Murphy’s Law as the first rule of steelheading: If anything can possibly go wrong, it will. In a full day, you may only get one shot, and there is no forgiveness. Steelheading demands that you go back and review some of the basics of flyrodding starting with things like knots, keeping hooks sharp and wading heavy flows (I’ll never do this again without studded boots). Oh, and bring extra clothes in a dry bag for when you do a face-plant in 44-degree water.

My friend, Rich Domingue, summed it up best when he advised me to bite the bullet and plan to spend a week learning how to do it right, recommending I join one of Bachmann’s multi-day group trips (steelhead boot camps) on the fabled Deschutes during prime time late this summer and fall. Clients can stay from overnight to 10 days (three-plus days recommended) in tents on the river, serviced by Bachmann’s new jetboat for noontime turnover. They get personal coaching and instruction from Bachmann himself until they nail one not guaranteed, but with a multi-day commitment, highly likely. For schedules, availability and rates, check out his web site. Subscribers to The Angling Report are invited to call him.

I suspect that many readers feel as I did daunted by the mysteries and difficulties of this life-list trophy. I still feel a strange, long-ago lack of confidence about catching a big steelhead on a fly, knowing deep down that I need to be tougher, smarter, better prepared and more committed. I’m clearly a candidate for steelhead boot camp; perhaps you are too, no matter how high your fly-fishing self-esteem. My own wounded pride is consoled by knowing that my trout-bum idol, John Gierach, never caught a steelhead either until he sought out Dr. Bachmann.

Previous reading
More On That Bad Review On Cuba Bonefish, Tarpon And Permit Fishing
Next reading
Push-And-Pull On Fishing Bonefish, Tarpon and Permit In Cuba