Everyone wants to connect with screamer early run steelhead like this one
Well, I've been hearing reports of steelhead already pushing into the creeks for the last few weeks. Not numbers but a fish here or there. Please leave those fish be until the weather gets more appropriate for fishing. Catching one right now is likely a death sentance in all but the most unseasonably cool of temperatures. But it does get my thoughts turning to one of my favorite topics- early run steelhead fishing.
As the month of September marches onward and temperatures cool, the true beginning of fall steelhead fishing will occur. And I can barely wait. Each year I just get more and more amped for the start of fall steelhead. The last week of September and first couple weeks are my absolute favorite time to fish. For those who have been following this page for a while, you already know my reasons for it. But one thing I've been thinking of recently is the difference between my early boxes and even boxes that I will use mid-late October and onward. So I thought I'd write a piece on it.
WHY AN EARLY BOX IS DIFFERENT:
One thing I enjoy doing a fair amount is to critically think through a question that may have a multi-factored answer. It's kinda a mental exercise, and I think it also helps develope a better understanding of the sport and the fish in general. So why would an early fall box be different? The obvious answer is that the conditions are different- most years those first weeks of the season are spent fishing to lower, clearer, and warmer water than even a few weeks later. And this affects the fish. But a large factor in my answer to the question is also one that I think a lot of anglers may overlook. The fish themselves are different.
In the context of west coast classifications of summer and winter steelhead, those first fish that enter the river in late September and early October would be considered summer run fish. These are fish that undergo a significant amount of maturation in the river itself, verses fish that towards the later fall and winter that usually enter either fully developed or very close to fully developed for spawning. One of the most telling things that a female steelhead is physically capable or closely capable of spawning is the external development of the egg depositor cone extending from the cloaca. Many female steelhead taken later in the season, November and December, have a pronounced egg depositor. Even late run steelhead that are perhaps only a day or two or less from the lake can have this physical development. I have yet to see an early October steelhead, not including fish that are obviously of domestic rainbow stock, with the same physical development. The lack of this in early run steelhead is significant because, again, it suggests that entry of the fish occurs prior to full maturization.
This mid-December fish from last year still had tail shine, meaning that at most she was 24-48 hours from the lake. Yet if you look closely you can see the clearly developed fleshy egg depositor cone above the anal fin extending outward.
Since spawning is not as immediate a concern for these early run fish, they appear to be more inquisitive towards their surroundings and more susceptible towards a wider range of spey fishing techniques that require a fish to move farther, even vertically, to take an offering.
The other relevant factor that I believe plays into difference between early run fish and fish returning later in the fall is that I believe early run fish have a higher proportion of wild fish in the predominate river system I fish in the fall. Though I lack the ability to formally test this, and my conclusion is based largerly on circumstantial evidence, this theory does make sense to me. What I base my theory on is that very early in the season, usually the last weeks of September and first half to two-thirds of October the pods of fish I find mid-river have a very high, and sometimes complete, porportion of fish with perfect fins. Sometime around the last week of October this changes.
After about the end of October, we begin to pick up high amounts of fish with visible and obvious signs of fin wear or erosion. If hatchery fish made up the same proportion of early run fish as they demostrably do of later run fish, even only a few weeks later, based purely on visible signs of fin wear, then I would expect that the percentage of early run fish with visible fin wear or erosion to be the same or similar to the percentage we see later on, again starting only some couple weeks later. It simply is not. In late September and early October, we see very high proportions of fish with perfect fins that we catch mid-river.
There are some questions I have regarding my theory that wild fish make up a disproportionately larger percentage of early run fish. Perhaps it is the location that I take my samples- I am usually fishing higher up in the system and so it could be possible that both wild and hatchery fish enter the river in similar proportions throughout the season but wild fish simply move up the river quicker, etc. However the result at any rate is the same: early on I believe I am fishing to higher proportions of wild fish. And that conclusion makes sense to me as well. There may be an ecological benefit of wild fish returning early and/or running the river quickly, not the least of which would be first access to high quality spawning habitat.
Again, how this really matters to me is that wild fish are absolutely more aggressive and will move farther to take a fly. So as you are constructing your early fall box, don't forget to consider the reasons why that box might look different than one with your trusty November patterns in it.
Okay, so maybe I've been misleading you. I do not have a single early fall box. I have several based on anticipated techniques that I enjoy employing early in the fall: baitfish box; floating line streamer box; and dry fly box. But to get the point across, I'm just going to pretend they're all in one large fly box and discuss why there is a useful purpose for each.
Baitfish patterns are all around producers of steelhead, early fall included. Though it is a good idea to have a few colorful attractor baitfish or streamers with you for the days when the water is higher or more colored, for the normal early fall conditions of lower and clearer, my baitfish patterns are reflective to those conditions. They're usually smaller, usually drabber. I make use of many earthy tones- olives, tans, quiet yellows. I also like mutued whites with accents of colors such as chartruese or pink. Here are a couple:
These are patterns that can be fished either on a light tip, such as a slow sinking poly, or simply sent out there on a floating line with a longer leader and using the small weighted eyes to get down. I don't classify them as "floating line streamers" because I'm still getting these down in the column even when I'm fishing them on a floating line which I tend to do a fair amount especially when the water is low and clear. Remember, even some of the deepest holding spots in low flows might only be in the ballpark of three or four feet at early fall flows. This means in the early fall when fishing these on a floating line, even if they're riding two feet or so under the surface they're definitely still in the danger zone.
Floating Line Streamers
Okay so the difference I make between fishing baitfish on a floating line and "floating line streamers" is just how high up the column I anticipate fishing them. Floating line streamers in most cases are smaller streamers that the majority of the time I anticipate fishing in the upper half of the water column if not even in the upper foot or so. These are usually more traditional-type patterns tied on single salmon hooks or light wire hooks, and include things like my small bunny speys, muddlers, hairwings, etc. Here are a few of my favorites:
These are flies that I anticipate fishing very high up off the bottom, sometimes all the way up to the surface film or even surface proper for the muddler. I am asking the fish to move a distance for them. The reason they are useful is that unpressured fish this time of year are aggressive fish if you can avoid spooking them. These are smaller patterns that are more discrete on delivery and can get to a fish that might otherwise have been spooked by the aggressive delivery of a larger, more gaudy pattern on even a light sinking tip. The vast majority of my early run fish are taken with this method, and using the weight of the hook and line management alone to determine depth that I am fishing at.
Some final bits of advice- when we swing we are used to pinching the line against the cork on the rod. When I'm swinging these, it's usually on 3x. Do not pinch the line or you will break off your aggressive takes. Just let a fish slam it from the reel. It's an odd sensation not holding the line. But it's super cool when your reel just starts screaming at you out of the blue.
Finally, the dry flies. Make sure you have at least a couple in your box. There are some days where the only fish we see is a fish that rolls on a dry. But most of the time these come into play with the following scenario: we're having a great day fishing to a good pod of aggressive early run fish. The fish are willingly taking traditionals or wets on the floating line well off the bottom all the way to the point that they are boiling the surface with the take. So we listen to them and after a while toss a bomber or foam waker on. Somewhere down the pool it just gets annhilated. Sure we could have stuck with the streamers way up off the bottom and probably caught fish. But it is days like this that pose legit shots at hooking a wild, early run steelhead on a waked or skated dry fly were we werent fishing to cornered fish in a tiny bucket of water. That's the real shit. These are the days we live for and that we remember forever. My last day like that was October 21, 2017.
That's not to say that I don't spend a significant time when I'm out by myself fishing the dry blindly. I do. But my best days with it are usually days we found the fish first (or already knew where they were) and then switched over. Either way, throw a few dries in your early season box because- well fuck it you never know. It's steelheading. Good patterns are bombers, oversized caddis, and foam wakers. You would not be out of place to put muddlers with dries as well, particularly smaller ones you want to fish on a hitch. Tube flies can be good waking flies as well. Here are a couple of mine:
So hopefully this helps. It can be intimidating putting together a gameplan for early season. Often times the tried and true patterns that may catch the bulk of your fish later in the season just do not seem to produce as well early in the run, or only have limited applications such as first and last light or periods of higher water that carries color. That's normal. Make the adjustment, and maybe you can put a few extra fish on the board early on when the conditions might not be as "prime" for the spey game. Who knows. It might even become your favorite time of the year. It sure has for me.
Tight Lines and Here's to a Great Upcoming Season