You Can Be In The 10% Of Steelheaders Who Catch 90% Of The Fish

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Jeff Hickman

You’ve heard the old adage; 10% of the fishermen catch 90% of the fish.

I had a client ask me just the other day if I believed in that. “Absolutely” was my response. He then asked how many days would he have to spend with me to be in that 10%. I laughed and told him he already was. Simply by going with a guide you are likely in that 10%. But many aren’t fortunate enough to afford fishing with guides. So what is it that makes those 10% catch so many more fish than the other 90%?

In regards to swinging flies for steelhead there are three key things I have noticed that directly equate to success.

Being in the right place at the right time:

Of course fishing the right river, in the right month, and concentrating in the runs that are the best holding water will maximize your odds. Which holding water is best, changes with the seasons and as the river levels and conditions change. Concentrate your efforts in the best spots or section within the run.

Some big runs are great, but fishing them top to bottom could take several hours. Is that the best use of your fishing time? Some spots fish well in the morning, some fish well in the evening and some fish well midday.

In general, steelhead bite best when they are holding and fresh. Bumps in the water level and low light causes them to move and travel.  Dropping water levels and bright light causes them to hold. Experience tells you where and when you’ll find them.

For beginners, swing your fly in water that is walking speed and 2-6ft deep with structure. For no apparent reason steelhead like certain runs and holds, and others that look good they don’t seem to like. So fish good looking water, but if it doesn’t yield results after several trips you might want to try elsewhere. Play your odds, don’t waste time fishing where they aren’t likely to be.

Maximizing the time your fly is in the water:

Efficient casting keeps your fly in the water where it could get eaten. When you are struggling with your cast it’s easy to keep recasting over and over because you’re not satisfied with your cast. Or to start the next cast before the swing is completed because you are anxious to correct casting mistakes.

The better your cast, the more time your fly will have to fish. A long cast often doesn’t increase your fly’s fishing time, especially not if you are casting well beyond the likely holding water. My goal is to make as few casts as possible, using as little energy as possible and keep my fly in the likely holding water as long as possible.

Fishing your fly properly for the conditions:

It would be impossible for me to list all the possible water conditions and contributing factors here. With four seasons of steelheading, thousands of flies, fly lines and rivers to swing them on, the sky is the limit. But I can speak in general terms.

If you are struggling with your casting, you are not likely fishing the fly well or consistently. I see people all the time, trying way too hard to force their cast out. This results in the fly landing upstream of their line. This line belly causes the fly to get pulled downstream charging towards the fish. The instant tension doesn’t allow for any sinking of the fly. In my experience, a cast that hooks upstream usually isn’t fishing for the first half of the swing.

If the water is clear and cold, they may want the fly swung deep and slowly. With ideal conditions they may be ok with a faster swing. Summer steelhead with ideal conditions don’t even need the fly below the surface and sometimes they seem to prefer a quickly swung fly. Knowing what works best for you, and the conditions you are fishing in, is a huge help.

Keeping these three things in mind when planning your outings and while on the river will greatly increase your odds of success. With a little experience you can be in the 10%. 


Jeff Hickman
Gink & Gasoline
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2 thoughts on “You Can Be In The 10% Of Steelheaders Who Catch 90% Of The Fish

  1. Oh so much to learn. I just started swinging flies for Steelhead this year. I learned a lot from my guide on my initial trip and managed to land one fish. I was able to land another on a local stream a month later on my own. Felt pretty cocky but subsequent trips quickly pointed out to me how much I have to learn.

  2. Pingback: Good Steelhead articles from Gink and Gasoline - LinespeedJedi

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