It pains me to admit that I’m posting this article from the balmy metropolis of Mexico City. Far away from my flyrod and waders, I know the chilly drizzle and foggy mornings of fall are heralding the beginning of fall-run steelhead season.
Daily automated emails from the USGS have been showing up in my inbox just about every day, showing the fluctuations of the Huron River. A pattern of rainfall and cooler temps, especially at night, is sure to get the silver marauders heading into river mouths, seeking flowing water, salmon eggs and baitfish that aren’t wise to the game yet.
Unlike the dour, spawning-run steelhead of springtime, these fish are as silver as a freshly minted dime, feeding aggressively and ready to perform on the end of your flyline. Months removed from the urge to reproduce, fall steelhead will strike wellpresented flies and lures with abandon, sometimes circling back for a second strike if they miss the first time. I’ve seen this play out before, on a river whose flow was just slacking after a spate of rain, and the water an exciting shade of green (to borrow a line from Bob Arnold).
I was floating a favorite stretch of river in my pirogue, listening to the muted jingle of the chain against the stern, and watching my breath coalesce in the chill air. A skim of fog lay on the surface, a sure sign that the air temp was dropping at night. The rivers’ flow was coming back down after a day of rain, and I hoped that the flow increase had brought a few players up from the big lake. Alternatively sipping coffee and putting in a few strokes with the kayak paddle, I swung around a shallow bend and found the spot that I wanted.
I steered into a slack spot at the upstream end of the pool and loosened the anchor rope, letting the drag chain grab bottom. Stashing my paddle next to me, I picked up my fly rod, unpinned the streamer from the hook keeper and got ready to cast. Casting from a sitting position on the floor of my pirogue is like standing in chest deep water, and limits the length of my backcast. For this reason the rod was strung with a ten-foot sink tip, short 17lb fluorocarbon leader and a large white and chartreuse Clouser minnow.
Working some line out with a roll cast or two, I picked up the line with a sharp snap and then shot it towards the pool. I threw a quick upstream mend to help the fly swing through the depths of the pool, then waited, watching the line trace a large white curve through the bubble lines and ripples on the surface. Before the fly had swung through half the pool, there was a muted flash and heavy strike that I answered with a quick snap of the rod tip. The line came up tight, then hung dead in the water – a missed strike, nobody home. Watching about where I thought my streamer should be, I dropped the rod tip and let a foot or so of slack slide back out into the river. Before I could strip any line to give the streamer a jerk or two, another muted flash showed at the surface, followed by my line ripping through the rippled surface. Setting the hook was an afterthought – the second strike was hard enough that the beast had hooked itself. There was a surface boil and then two feet of bright chrome steelhead cartwheeled clear of the water with my clouser pinned snugly in the corner of it’s jaw. My reel kicked over and began to sing as the line rolled off the spool. Not big enough to manhandle my gear or make me pull anchor, the silver jack finally came to hand after a few spirited runs and a stubborn bout of thrashing and splashing. Unpinned and released to swim back to the pool, he was the first of three or four that I would tangle with that chilly November morning.
Fly selection isn’t an exact science at this time of year. If your favorite river hosts spawning salmon, a few egg and nymph patterns will round out your flybox. Otherwise, stick with whatever streamers or searching patterns you favor (I inevitably start with a Clouser in white/chartreuse, or a buggy pink leech that works wonders on the steelhead who crave pink worms). If you have any secret killer patterns that require validation and/or river testing, this is a great time to break them out. Keep your leader heavy and short, being sure to feel it occasionally for the nicks and abrasions that are common when bumping bottom or river debris. If you prefer to weight your rig with split shot rather than a sinktip, clamp them to the tag end of a short piece of leader. This can help you free your leader if the shot get hung up in rocks.
An added bonus of fall fishing in these conditions is that hunting season is in full swing. Deer, small game and ducks are all in season right now, and chances are good that many of your fellow outdoorsmen are on solid ground, hunting game with fur and feathers instead of scales and fins. Take advantage of the elbowroom you can find on your favorite runs and pools and chase some hungry fall steelhead today. Tight lines!