Casting to the Small Water
By Jackson Stalley
It took 10 minutes to carefully maneuver to this
vantage point above the scenic
The faint shapes hug the edges of the submerged rocks, almost imperceptible. Crouching behind a small clump of bushes, I survey the water through polarized lenses and begin counting. A minimum of twenty chrome steelhead sit motionless in the gin-clear water below. An occasional territory grab by one sets off a burst of activity before the pecking order is re-established. The shadows come to rest around the rocks and once again disappear in the sun-dappled water.
From my vantage point, I note the exact locations where fish are holding, memorize the structure around them, and select a casting position allowing coverage of the water while concealing myself. I even pick out the best spot to land a defeated steelhead. I carefully reverse course from my fish-finding perch, approaching from downstream. Maneuvering into position behind a large boulder, I take a deep breath to fight the tightness in my chest and make the cast.
The purple and white spey flutters through the air and slips soundlessly into the water. Heart pounding, I have to force myself to relax. I repeat my steelheading mantra “take the fight to the fish, take the fight to the fish” as the fly swims gracefully downstream. I lose sight of the collection of feathers in the bright glare of the sun as it swings through the hole’s sweet spot. This is the cast I want. Scanning the water, I brace for the inevitable strike. But one is not coming. “This next cast is the one,” I tell myself as a quick double haul sends the green line snaking through the blue sky.
After an hour of casting and no takes, I shake my head in disbelief and move upstream to the next large hole. Once again, it is full of summers. Once again, my stealth and planning produce no fish. I replace my trusty purple spey with a skunk. A gladiator. A bomber. Nothing. Nothing. And nothing.
I find a good spot in the shade to settle in for a long look at the next hole and some soul searching. Summer is traditionally a very productive steelhead season for me, and I catch more steelhead in the July and August heat than any other time of year. This summer, however, was different. I was hooking up very few fish and landing even fewer. My gear had not changed; the same old 8wt and plastic butter tub full of trusted patterns lay in the weeds next to me.
The last four or five steelhead trips had produced no fish and only one hook up that ended quickly with a mighty head toss from the leaping buck. Rolling a cigarette from the pouch of tobacco in my pocket, I turn over some of the variables in my mind. Conditions in the river were similar to last year; same for the weather and barometric pressure. The river had decent numbers of fresh fish; I had been casting to them all summer long in the deep water. In fact, I was seeing more fish this year than last year but I wasn’t catching them. How had I tempted these holding fish into not only moving but frequently striking my offering last summer?
Then it happened. No flash of revelation, no “
I maneuver to the tailout of the deep hole in front of me and scan the water. The choppy surface denies my penetrating stare. Only 20 feet long or so and 2-3 feet deep, the narrow stretch is studded with rocks and a few small depressions. I see not a single fish.
I resist the urge to move into the pool and cast to the 15 or so steelhead schooled up there. I check my fly (I had gone through my lineup and was back to the purple spey) and make a short cast into the riffles. I let the fly swing through the run and then hold in the current below me. Another cast. I watch the fly drop into the water and come alive as the current grabs the fly and leader, pulling them through the water. As they start downstream, the feathers simply disappear, engulfed by a faint shadow emerging from nowhere. Whipping the nine-foot rod skyward, I simultaneously haul down on the line in my left hand.
The water explodes as a silvery hen escapes its confines and is airborne. Once, twice, and a third time the fish propels itself out of the water, head shaking back and forth. On the second jump, I catch sight of the white hackle wing of my fly trailing from the side of her mouth. Adrenaline floods my body, my eyes close for a long second and a wide grin splits my face. I set the hook a second and then a third time as the fish dashes into the pool above me.
I shake hands with the small hen and send her back to the river after a short but energetic fight. Forty-five minutes and one hole later, my line stops mid-drift with a subtle bump. I set the hook, set it again (whispering “take the fight to the fish, take the fight to the fish”) and hold on. A large buck comes halfway out of the shallow water, thrashing wildly before racing downstream. In an instant, the loop of line in my left hand is gone and my drag starts screaming. I palm the spool hoping to slow the fish and use the second of time I’ve bought to tighten my drag slightly.
He barely stops before taking off again. I have way too much line in the river and I need to get some back before I find it wrapped around a rock or a submerged branch. Cranking the handle as fast as I can, I give chase downstream. Although I am clearly behind in this fight, that toothy grin is plastered on my face and the adrenaline is making my whole body quaver. Sometimes the river gods smile on you. I get some of my line back and fifteen minutes later, a 33 inch hatchery chromer and I are headed back to my car.
I spent the next week or two, and several additional days of river observation, pondering the implications of where and why I consistently caught fish. The “where” was easy. The big holes had good numbers of fish, but were significantly less productive for me than the “small” water above and below them. The deep water did account for some hook ups, but these tended to be very early in the morning and were typically subtle. Most of my hook ups, especially aggressive strikes, came from the throats and tailouts of the large holes. Data recorded from the last two or three years seems to back up my experiences this summer.
Why these fish, separated by only 20 or 30 yards of water, respond differently to the same fly is more of a mystery. Personally, I’m not certain why fish do anything. I know no one who does know. I often learn new perspectives and ideas from people attempting to define fish behaviors, but I am unaware of any theories that hold up day in and day out on the river. So, that said, I would like to offer a possible explanation for the behavior of some summer steelhead.
The fish stacking in the big holes are often reluctant to move. This could be for many reasons, but two seem likely explanations. First, movement makes the steelhead visible to predators. The more movement in the water, the more likely that movement is to draw attention to the fish. This is especially true in the clear water and bright light of summer. Most fish I spot are noticed because of their motion, even the subtle sweep of a tail. Second, a fish that leaves its holding spot is likely to lose it to another fish, and good unoccupied holding areas can be hard to come by.
The more aggressive fish, in my experience, move into faster water at the top and bottom of bigger holes. The flowing water masks motion, disrupts sight lines of potential predators and provides opportunities to ambush unsuspecting prey. The faster water can also be slightly cooler (water depth plays a factor here) and contains more dissolved oxygen than slower water.
My favorite summer runs are usually 2-4 feet deep with
enough water flow to obscure the bottom of the river.
Often the best runs are the ones easily overlooked. Many of the areas where I consistently catch summer fish are no more than 10-15 feet long, 5 or 6 feet wide and deeper than a foot only in one or two spots. On a recent weekend excursion, I hooked up a steelhead from a little run tucked up to the far bank. The hole’s sweet spot, only about four feet long, was guarded by overhanging branches forcing an upstream presentation. Second time through, my peacock streamer was gulped down almost instantly as it passed under the tree into the heart of the hole. The charging buck came right at me, spitting my fly and leaving a wake in the shallow water as it shot by my feet. No less than four fishers had walked right by the hole that morning.
Conventional wisdom claims summer steelheading is best in the early morning and late evening hours. I won’t argue with this but there is more to the story than just time of day. I think there is something to be said for casting to the small water. For me, I catch more fish in the bright light and heat of the summer than during any other time of the year. And, besides, do you know what time I would have to get up to be on the river before the sun comes up in July? I’d rather sleep in.
Copyright Jackson Stalley