Working a Steelhead

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And Now You’re Mine Photo by Louis Cahill


I had the opportunity to watch my friend Jeff Hickman work a shy Steelhead the other day and his effort was exemplary.

Swinging flies for winter steelhead is a game of numbers, very small numbers. It’s a given when chasing winter fish that there may be limited numbers of fish present in the river. Even fewer of them will be willing to eat a swung fly. You can not afford to miss putting your fly in front of every fish. These fish are on the move so you never know where they will be. You have to be methodical and know that it could happen at any time.

When you really think about it, the mathematics of the system are remarkable. For those not familiar, the idea is pretty simple. You cast across the current far enough to cover any possible holding water and swing the fly down and across until it hangs directly below you. Strip in your line, make the same cast with exactly the same amount of line, step down stream the length of a fish and repeat. Granted, this is a gross oversimplification of a very nuanced technique but that’s the general idea. If you take the time to draw a picture, using a drafting compass you will see that the concentric circles your swinging fly makes cover the water with amazing efficiency. It’s a bit like Tai Chi. You are always striving for perfection.

After hours, or days, covering water in this way it can be heartbreaking when you find a fish who’s interested but won’t commit. Often a single tug is the only evidence that you have found a player. I had the opportunity to watch my friend Jeff Hickman work just such a shy player the other day and his effort was exemplary. Here’s how it went down.

Jeff was fishing through a run and got a timid pull on a purple and black fly. He immediately changed flies rather than show the fish the fly he had rejected a second time. A good call in any type of fishing. He went to a pink fly. The water had some color and pink generally gets a reaction. Jeff moved carefully back up stream and started the run again just as before. No way to know if this fish is moving or not so don’t take a chance. Cover the water. The second time through he got a little better pull but still no hookup. Again, he changed flies and moved back up stream. The fish had reacted well to pink so Jeff stayed with the color but tied on a smaller fly with a bit more weight. Subtler and in the fish’s face. The third time was the charm and the fish came to the net. It was great to watch. For me, the fish I work like that are the ones that mean the most. In the end it’s seduction, so when you find that player who won’t commit, take your time and do a little sweet talking. It’s that much sweeter when they come to hand.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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7 thoughts on “Working a Steelhead

  1. That fires me up!!! To bad the season is over on the east. Will have to do some exploring in Ohio and Farther north in NY to find some bigger water to practice with the long rod on.

    I would comment on the photo but it’s a given on how good yours are, but the fact that i know your down in the keys i’ll just stick with a YOU SUCK and i hope your tarpon gets eaten by a shark. Charlie loves you.

  2. Great shot man! Jeff’s a true master of the swing and a kick in the pants to fish with! He sent me your link a couple weeks back after you guys had fished the Clack and it looks like you got some great images!

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