Author Topic: Steelhead on the Skagit Coordinator: Pat Smedile  (Read 270 times)


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Steelhead on the Skagit Coordinator: Pat Smedile
« Opened on July 21, 2017, 04:59:02 PM (Edited December 09, 2017, 01:14:22 PM) »

Steelhead on the Skagit
Coordinator: Patrick Smedile  Dates: TBD

Several Fidalgo Fly Fishers have expressed an interest in fly fishing for steelhead this January and Tim Cooley has been kind enough to allow the Outing Members to use facilities on the river near Concrete. The day will start in the early morning with us meeting at an agreed upon location and end with a fun lunch at a restaurant.  More than one outing may be scheduled if there is interest in doing so.  If you are interested please contact Pat by December 15th so he can plan a great outing.  This outing is for both two handed and over hand rods. The objective of this outing is to get members to be able to understand and control the swing and secondarily to improve their casting.

About the Skagit
The Skagit originates in Canada and is impounded in Ross Lake which was created when Ross and Diablo dams were constructed for power generation. The Skagit hosts runs of both summer and winter steelhead, all five species of pacific salmon as well as runs of sea-run cutthroat trout and dolly varden char. It's major tributaties include the Cascade, the Sauk and the Baker.

The Skagit above the Sauk is generally very clear as a majority of the river flows from Ross Lake behind two dams. The Cascade will occassionally color the river during a winter high water, but otherwise it is gin clear. The water below the Cascade is broad and relatively flat with long even riffles and runs. In other words, perfect fly water. The river below the Sauk is of a different character. The Sauk is very tempermental and can change the Skagit's clarity and height quickly as it is a very swift river as well as being glacier fed. Winter rains can produce unfishable conditions in the Sauk that continue into the Skagit. The river continues to broaden below the Sauk and longer stretches of flat water are common between excellent pieces of holding water for all of the anadromous fish that call the Skagit their home.

As the days move into the new year, the prize fish of the system, the winter steelhead, become a distinct possibility and anglers pursue these fish religiously through the end of the season, which is now the end of January.  The Skagit and Sauk rivers have been closed to wild steelhead fishing in the late winter and early spring season since 2010. Fishers can fish in December and January when the hatchery fish come through. But many anglers would rather try for wild aggressive steelhead for a more fun experience.  Make sure each angler checks the current regulations as the rules change frequently.  Check out the photo below, there might be at least one Fidalgo Fly Fisher there.

In an article in Swing Magazine, Marty Sheppard stated his 5 keys to Winter/Spring Steelhead Success by importance.
#1.  Conditions.
#2.  Presentation.
#3.  Dedication.
#4.  Sink Tips.
#5.  Flies.

#1.  Conditions speak for themselves, as the steelhead should be running, the rain and river conditions should favor the fish returning to spawn and the weather should be favorable for fishing.  Rain is an important variable in the Steelhead equation. As the rain falls, the rivers begin to rise and this triggers Steelhead to migrate high into their native streams. The rising water and the flush of minerals instill a sense of urgency in Steelhead to migrate upriver. They may move upriver quite quickly and they have been documented to travel over 20 miles in a 24-hour period. While rising rivers signal upstream migration, dropping rivers tend to set up ideal fishing conditions. After moving further up their natal rivers, Steelhead become more aggressive.
Water temerature at Newhalem Observing fluctuating water temperatures is also vital for locating the bulk of steelhead in a river through the fall, winter and spring seasons, but also for monitoring steelhead holding locations (as well as movements) on a daily basis. It can also influence the technique and flies the steelheader chooses to use for that particular day on the water. As the seasons and river temperatures change, steelhead seek current breaks that they can comfortably hold and rest in depending on the water temperature. This behavior is directly related to the fact that steelhead are a cold-blooded species and their metabolism decreases as water temperatures fall. As this occurs, steelhead become less active and more lethargic and will lose their ability to hold in faster currents.
Temperature controls about 99% of a steelhead’s behavior, and the temperature for trout to change in activity and location seems to be about 40°F. As the water’s temperature drops under 40°, steelhead start to fall back into slow water.  As the water drops to 38°F, activity begins to slow dramatically and the same presentation that would trigger a bite from a fish at 40°, now just becomes cast practice. As the temperature drops lower into the mid and low 30’s, steelhead fall back even further onto the river floor in the middle of the slowest, deepest pools.
See more from Tom Larimer below.

#2.  Presentation is about casting and the swing, about getting the fly to the fish.  Casting skills are a real asset. Turning your leader over, casting distance and accuracy are all important skills, but you can catch fish with a bad cast.  You are much less likely to catch a fish with a bad swing.  The fish does not see the cast.  Hopefully, it does see the swing.  Winter and spring steelhead fishing is primarily about wet flies and sink tips, getting the fly down to the fish.

There are two thoughts on where one should cast. straight across or quarter down.  Of course, all choices are situational and there is no one right answer.  The choice of fly lines will also be a determining factor. In two handed winter/spring steelhead fishing, the line/head of choice is mostly, but not limited to Skagit type heads.  The method is to get the fly to the depth a Steelhead will be attracted to the fly.  This means rigging your fly line, sink tip, leader, and fly to fish deep, whether you cast across or quarter down.

The following are videos for swing technique.
  Reds Basic Swing Technique

C. F. Burkheimer: Steelhead Swinging Techniques

Manage Your Swing - Steelhead on the Spey

4 Tips on swinging

Winter Fly Fishing by Todd Moen

The rest of the presentation is the physics to help the fly sink and control the speed of the swing.  If you take your steps before you cast, your fly will ride higher in the water column. Stepping down with the drift of the line greatly increases the sink time. High sticking and easing the fly into the swing keeps the fly moving at a slow pace that will entice the fish to eat it in the current midstream. Once the the fly is swinging at the proper depth and speed, the object is to manage the belly. To much belly downstream will move the fly too fast.
Hopefully the swing will be successful and the tug will be there. If not reposition the line and cast again.

The objective of this outing is to get members to be able to control the swing and secondarily to improve their casting.

#3.  Dedication:  Get out and fish under all conditions and practice.  This is hard to quantify.

#4.  Sink Tips:  Tom Larimer has some great tips on Sink tips. Here More on sink tips
#5.  Flies:  Although there are no hard and fast rules, Steelhead fly selection is usually based around water conditions and daylight. Many northwestern rivers flow from glacial fields and almost always have some amount of silt present and never or rarely run completely clear. The color of the water flowing from glacial fields has the look of a liquid elementary school chalkboard. It is greenish/grayish in appearance. In general, all rivers will run brown at high water, then to greenish as the water level begins to drop, and then may run clear after a few days to a week of little or no rainfall. Water clarity will play a role in determining fly color and size. Tom Larimer on Steelhead flies also Jon from the Ashland Fly Shop If you looked at these Videos you will notice a lot of Black and Blue and a little pink and purple.

For water with limited visibility, you want your fly to stand out, so relatively large flies are a good choice. winter Steelhead are not going to be spooked by large offerings under such conditions. As for color of the fly, bright maribou flies and/or dark flies are generally a good first choice because they can be distinguished from other debris floating down the river. In the final analysis fly color, fly patterns, and hook size are personal choice, but those that provide movement and action will entice more strikes. This movement and/or action is probably the single most important factor responsible for triggering a strike.

For very clear water conditions and in direct sunlight steelhead can see in all the visable wavelengths from 700 nm through 400 nm and possibly into the ultraviolet.  ( See discussion below ).  That means in these conditions the fly patterns can assume any color that the fisher thinks pleasing to the Steelhead based on his preference for what may work.

In regards to Sink Tips and Flies, they should be considered as part of the presentation and as very important part of the presentation..  An analogy would be going to a great restaurant and ordering a very expensive meal.  When the waiter brings the meal to the table and it is not delivered to you, but to a table across the way, this is not very good for the presentation.  Also, a gourmet dinner is usually presented in a very pleasing visual way that excites the taste buds.  That is the same function of the sink tip and the fly.  That is to get the meal down to the Steelhead with the proper visual appeal and size properties to trigger a response.
There are some physical things that should be considered when presenting a fly to a steelhead.  Trout and salmon can see all of the colours that we can, but whilst our eyes are most sensitive in the green area of the spectrum, the trout's eye can discriminate best in the blue region.

Experiments show that not only will the fish show a preference for blue under most background and light intensity conditions, but that they are able to differentiate between small, subtle differences of shade. Second in sensitivity to blue comes red (about 10 times lower sensitivity than blue) then black, orange, brown, yellow and green in that order, but what they actually see depends on a number of factors including the frequency (wavelength) of the available light and the turbidity (cloudiness) of the water in which they live.   If the object is white and capable of reflecting all incident wavelengths, it would remain visible at longer ranges.  The flash of mirror like reflection from a shiny surface such as tinsel will be seen over a much greater distance than body color of your fly.

As white light passes through a column of water it is progressively absorbed, the deeper down the less light can penetrate. The long wave light (red) is absorbed first and is virtually non-existent at around 12-15 ft so that any red materials in a fly will appear to be black at this depth. Orange survives to about 25- 30 ft. and so on until at about 60-70 ft. only blue light penetrates. These are approximate figures typical of very clear water illuminated by bright sunshine.  The light penetration will obviously be less in dirtier water or in low light conditions. As an example, in a rising fast flowing river with a high level of suspended solids, red light would disappear only a few inches below the surface. If there is no direct sunlight hardly any color will penetrate to a steelheads depth of 3 to 6 feet. So, what the fish sees is partly determined by the depth the fly is presented.  This may be the reason for so many blacks, blues, purples and whites.  For shallow water in sunlight reds and pinks ie. bright colors are readily discernible to a steelhead..  Steelhead also have shifts of rods and cones during the diurnal cycle that affect their color acuity and night vision.

1. Steelhead have color vision, but it is limited to relatively clear, shallow, water and short distances, so at close range, the Steelhead can see the full detail of color.
2. They can discern differences in shades with the highest in blue, then red and then green shades.
3. The color red appears brighter than it does to humans, but quickly becomes black at greater distance.
4. The ability to detect color is greatly impaired and completely eliminated within 12 feet.
5. Impurities in the water or stained water makes colors less significant, but under these conditions, white will remain the best.
6. In the low light conditions of dawn or dusk, trout can not distinguish color. Black, then, becomes the most visible.
7. In clear water bright sunlit days, fluorescent colors are more visible with red, orange and yellow being the most visible. In deeper waters, fluorescent yellow and green stand out the most. However, in stained water fluorescent is useless.
8.  A strong predatory stimulus such as the impression of vulnerability is much more important in a steelhead fly than the minor details of its physiognomy. The following links are a discussion on the Vulnerable Prey Image that affects fly presentation.

Steelhead do not have to eat on their path to spawning, so they must be induced to respond.  Also, because of the set of their eyes they have distinct visual limitations.  A fish has a cone shaped range of vision that is defined by a circular window on the surface of the water (called Snell’s window). As a rough guide the circular window is twice as wide as the fish is deep. For example, if a fish is holding 6' deep then the circular window will be 12' in diameter.  Outside of the window the fish sees nothing above the water and the surface around the window from below either appears black or like a mirror.
A fish with eyes positioned at the side of the head has a wide field of vision. This is because it has both binocular and monocular vision. When both eyes are used to see in front and above it is classed as binocular vision and when only one eye is used to see to each side of the fish it is monocular. The binocular fields are typically 30 – 36 degrees wide whereas the monocular field is 150 degrees on both sides of the head. This is shown in the image above.  Note that there are a couple of blind spots directly in front of the snout, behind and underneath the fish. If your fly or lure passes underneath the fish or lands too close to it and passes over the fishes head before sinking to eye level then it will likely be ignored.

If a fish sees the fly or lure in the binocular zone then it will be able to perceive depth and detail most accurately and mostly it aligns itself so that it can intercept a food item using both eyes. Presenting the fly or lure in the binocular zone well ahead of where a fish is holding is generally going to give the best chance of success. This gives the fish time to spot the fly, align its fins to rise and intercept it and drop back down to where it is holding with minimal energy expenditure.
Steelhead have a much narrower width of binocular vision than humans. The steelhead’s binocular vision allows them to only focus on things that are within a total of 30 thirty degrees directly ahead or fifteen degrees on either side of a line directly forward of their eyes.  However, they have a much larger field of vision than us humans. It is a total of 330 degrees or represents an area almost completely
around them. Of that 330 degrees field of vision, their zone of peripheral vision represents 300 degrees of it or 150 degrees on either side of their narrow 30 degrees binocular zone. When they detect something with their peripheral vision, they must move their eyes towards the object in order to focus on it.

There is only an area of 30 degrees directly behind a trout that is not visible to them. This narrow area is commonly referred to as their blind zone. The bottom line to this is that although trout can detect movement and contrast almost all the  way around themselves they must look almost directly at an object, or align the  object in their narrow 30 degrees field of binocular vision, in order to clearly see it. Binocular vision is necessary for the trout to see things in detail. It is necessary for a trout to feed. Peripheral vision is great for detecting movement and contrast
but things within the trout’s peripheral vision cannot be seen in detail.

Many Steelhead fisherman carry a Summer fly selection and a Winter fly selection, the difference being mainly the size of the flies.

Skaget River access sites

Fly Fishing for Steelhead - 101 by Steve Buckner of The Northwest Fly Fisherman.

Ed Ward Skagit #1

Ed Ward Skagit #2

Tom Larimer on Short Skagit Heads

Travis Johnson of

Winter Run by Todd Moen - Pacific Northwest Steelhead Fly Fishing

OPST Commando shooting Heads[/b][/size][/color]




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Re: Steelhead on the Skagit Coordinator: Pat Smedile
« Reply #1 on November 20, 2017, 02:13:07 PM (Edited November 28, 2017, 11:52:37 AM) »
By Louis Cahill


Many anglers who successfully swing flies for steelhead could be catching even more fish by improving their swing. Steelheading is all about taking advantage of every opportunity and it’s pretty common for anglers to waste as much as half their fishing time with a poorly swung fly. I include myself among them. It’s technical business and requires constant attention.

The key to a good swing is keeping the fly moving at just the right speed and angle. That buttery slow swing that gives the fish time to see the fly and react. The gentle motion that entices the attack. It’s a hard thing to visualize and even harder to describe. Fortunately there’s a reliable visual cue that will help you determine when you fly is swinging well and when it isn’t. The belly of your line.

Before we talk about what the belly of the line tells you, let get some terms straight.

The belly is the part of the line which is swept by the current causing an arch in the path of the line. When swinging flies the belly determines the speed at which the fly moves across the current.

Picture yourself fishing from river right. You cast directly across a swift current, which flows from your left to right. Your line bellies down stream so that the middle of your line is down stream of your fly. We will call this a convex belly.

Now, picture yourself on the same side of the river but casting across a slow moving current with your fly landing in faster current on the far side. Your fly moves down stream and hangs below your line, which curves to follow. We will call this a concave belly.

Picture a swing where your line makes the shape of an L. Your fly and leader point in a direction perpendicular to your rod. We will call this a 90% belly. A 45% belly would have less curve in the line and a 100% belly would have more. A straight line swing or 0% belly would have no curve in the line.

When the fly is swinging at a good pace and angle, we will say it’s fishing. Not fishing means the speed and angle are wrong.

Now that we have our terms, what’s the swing we are looking for?

For starters, a concave belly isn’t a good thing. When the line curves out and down, rather than down and across, the fly moves too slowly and the angle presents only the tail of the fly to the fish. This is not to say that a steelhead will never eat a fly swung in this way. It’s happened to me. Fish do crazy things, but it’s not your best presentation.

A good swing presents a convex belly of 90% or less. Any more than 90% and you’re not fishing. The closer you are to a straight line or 0% swing the better your chances of getting a fish.

A belly that looks like a J with the line pointing up stream does not fish. The fly is ripped through the water so fast the fish will not waste the energy chasing it.

My buddy Jeff Hickman explains this well.

“If your line is pointing up stream, you’re not in the game. If it’s pointing across the current, it’s a lottery. The further downstream it’s pointing, the better the odds.”

The lost zones

Most folks get a swing that fishes at some point during its progress across the river. Usually through the middle of the swing. The parts of the swing where the most trouble occurs are at the beginning and the end of the swing. I call these the lost zones. If you are catching all of your steelhead in the middle of your swing, this may be why. There are a couple of things you can do to help.

It starts with a good cast.

A good Spey cast delivers a nice tight loop which allows the entire system, fly, leader, head and running line to land on the water at the same time. When this happens, the swing is instantly under the angler’s control. A common problem is for the head to land on the water before the leader, fly and sink tip if you’re fishing skagit style. When this happens, the current takes the line downstream before the fly even lands. The J belly of over 90% is already in place when the angler gains control of the line.

The most common cause for this casting malfunction is wood chopper’s syndrome. That’s when the caster’s top hand moves forward during the casting stroke, creating a downward arch in the line. Remember, the casting stroke is powered by the bottom hand.

And then a good mend

In most cases, even when you’ve made a great cast, it still needs to be followed up by a good mend. A good mend is one where the entire head is realigned. If you’ve made a good cast and a good mend, your fly should be the part of the system which is farthest down stream.

Then you slow it down

The first part of the swing is always the most challenging. Your line is usually crossing swift current and the tendency is for the fly to move too quickly across the river. To slow the fly down, keep the tip of your rod held high and pointed straight across the current. As the fly swings down stream, lower the rod tip and draw the rod closer to your body then slowly start to turn it down stream. This will keep the fly moving at a slow and tempting pace in the fast water.

Leading it in

The end of the swing is another matter. There are a lot of steelhead to be caught on the hang down. The problem is that too many anglers never get the fly to them. A fly takes a surprisingly long time to reach the very end of the swing and it needs some help getting there.

Lead the fly into the soft water by pointing your rod tip toward the bank and touching it to the water. Be patient. It takes longer than you might think for it to make the journey. The best way to get a feel for it is to swing dry flies. When you see the dry fly on its course, you realize how aggressively you must lead the fly in and how long it takes.


Next time you’re swinging flies, pay close attention to the belly of your line. It will tell you a lot about whether or not your fly is actually fishing. Try a few of these techniques and see if you don’t catch more steelhead.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline


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Re: Steelhead on the Skagit Coordinator: Pat Smedile
« Reply #2 on November 27, 2017, 10:39:08 AM (Edited November 28, 2017, 06:40:23 PM) »

More from Louis Cahill


Water is a poor conductor of light at its best. It affects the way fish see color as well as their visual acuity. Water absorbs light at different rates depending on its wavelength or color. Long wavelength light, colors like red and orange, are absorbed quickly while short wavelengths like blue and violet are absorbed more slowly. This means that as light passes through more and more water, warm colors fade to black while cooler colors fade more slowly. Overall, as a fish moves into deeper water his environment becomes darker, at which point the biology of the fish’s eye affects his perception of color as well.

It is not necessary however for a fish to be in deep water for its vision to be affected by the absorption of light. The rules hold true for a fish in shallow water, viewing an object at a distance. A red streamer, for example, that is running at a depth of one foot, where there is plenty of red light, will appear black to a fish viewing it from fifteen feet away. As the fish closes on the fly, however, the red will become vivid. The same would not be true at a depth of fifteen feet. At that depth the fly would remain black to the fish, even at close range.

Ultraviolet light, which we do not see but trout do, is scattered in water. Colors like white and reflective materials like flash are visible to fish at long distances but may appear blurred by this effect. These flies will get a fish’s attention from a distance and become sharper as the fish draws near.

Color perception and visual acuity are both affected by the chemical composition of the water as well as what foreign matter is present. Tea stained water, which is present in many mountain streams, absorbs UV light quickly, changing the rules dramatically. In these conditions warmer colors become more important and while fish may see less color overall their visual acuity will improve. When water is dirty, light is scattered by foreign particles and the fish’s environment becomes darker with little visual acuity.


The biology of a trout’s eye is similar to ours in some ways and very different in others. Their eye has an iris, a lens and a retina with both cone cells and rod cells, much like our eyes, but each functions in a different manner. The human iris or pupil dilates and constricts to regulate the amount of light reaching the retina. The trout’s iris is fixed and the retina itself adapts to changing light levels. Human eyes focus by changing the shape of the lens. A trout’s eye focuses by moving the lens closer to, or further from, the retina. The trout’s vision is very sharp in its focus but its depth of field, to use a photographic term, is limited.

The function of the trout’s eye which is of most interest to anglers is the adaptation of the retina to changing light conditions. To understand how it works we must first understand the cone and rod cells themselves. Cone cells see color and require bright light. The trout has four different types of cone cells. Humans only have three. Each type of cone cell is sensitive to a different wavelength of light. The trout’s extra cone cells see the UV spectrum and in some species dwindle with age. The trout’s eye is also more sensitive to the red spectrum than the human’s. The color it has the least ability to discern is green and the color it sees best is blue. Rod cells are very sensitive in low light and give the trout excellent night vision. These cells do not see color. To the rod cell the world is black and white.

During times of bright light the trout’s retina is dominated by the cone cells giving it very precise color vision. Still, the fish’s ability to discern color and its visual acuity are governed by the physics of its watery environment. As the light becomes lower the retina adapts. The cone cells recede and the sensitive rod cells are exposed, engaging the trout’s night vision and turning the world slowly to black and white. This is a physical change and takes time. The trout, like almost all fish, experiences a brief period of diminished vision as conditions change.
Chromatic organization of cone photoreceptors in the retina of rainbow trout: single cones irreversibly switch from UV (SWS1) to blue (SWS2) light sensitive opsin during natural development
Christiana L. Cheng, Iñigo Novales Flamarique
Journal of Experimental Biology 2007 210: 4123-4135; doi: 10.1242/jeb.009217


The retinas of salmonid fishes have single and double cones arranged in square to row formations termed mosaics. The square mosaic unit is formed by four double cones that make the sides of the square with a single (centre) cone in the middle, and a single (corner) cone at each corner of the square when present. Previous research using coho salmon-derived riboprobes on four species of anadromous Pacific salmon has shown that all single cones express a SWS1 (UV sensitive) visual pigment protein (opsin) at hatching, and that these cones switch to a SWS2 (blue light sensitive) opsin during the juvenile period. Whether this opsin switch applies to non-anadromous species, like the rainbow trout, is under debate as species-specific riboprobes have not been used to study opsin expression during development of a trout. As well, a postulated recovery of SWS1 opsin expression in the retina of adult rainbow trout, perhaps via a reverse process to that occurring in the juvenile, has not been investigated. Here, we used in situ hybridization with species-specific riboprobes and microspectrophotometry on rainbow trout retina to show that: (1) single cones in the juvenile switch opsin expression from SWS1 to SWS2, (2) this switch is not reversed in the adult, i.e. all single cones in the main retina continue to express SWS2 opsin, and (3) opsin switches do not occur in double cones: each member expresses one opsin, maximally sensitive to green (RH2) or red (LWS) light. The opsin switch in the single cones of salmonid fishes may be a general process of chromatic organization that occurs during retinal development of most vertebrates. 

Refer to  For the complete article.

Degeneration and Regeneration of Ultraviolet Cone Photoreceptors during Development in Rainbow Trout
W. TED ALLISON, STEPHEN G. DANN, KATHY M. VELDHOEN, AND CRAIG W. HAWRYSHYN* Department of Biology, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia V8W 3N5, Canada

Ultraviolet-sensitive (UVS) cones disappear from the retina of salmonid fishes during a metamorphosis that prepares them for deeper/marine waters. UVS cones subsequently reappear in the retina near sexual maturation and the return migration to natal streams. Cellular mechanisms of this UVS cone ontogeny were investigated using electroretinograms, in situ hybridization, and immunohistochemistry against opsins during and after thyroid hormone (TH) treatments of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Increasing TH levels led to UVS cone degeneration. Labeling demonstrated that UVS cone degeneration occurs via programmed cell death and caspase inhibitors can inhibit this death. After the cessation of TH treatment, UVS cones regenerated in the retina. Bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU) was applied after the termination of TH treatment and was detected in the nuclei of cells expressing UVS opsin. BrdU was found in UVS cones but not other cone types. The most parsimonious explanation for the data is that UVS cones degenerated and UVS cones were regenerated from intrinsic retinal progenitor cells. Regenerating UVS cones were functionally integrated such that they were able to elicit electrical responses from second-order neurons. This is the first report of cones regenerating during natural development. Both the death and regeneration of cones in retinae represent novel mechanisms for tuning visual systems to new visual tasks or environments. J. Comp. Neurol. 499:702–715, 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

Refer to  For the complete article.


The idea is simple. Under bright conditions trout see color very well and in dim conditions they do not. It becomes a bit trickier when we start to define bright and dim conditions. Obviously a sunny day is bright but not to a trout sitting at the bottom of a deep pool. At a depth of ten feet much of the light has been absorbed and all of the red spectrum is gone. A trout sitting in shallow water on a sunny day will discern color very well at close range but not when looking at a submerged object ten feet away.

When fishing deep water or stained water that bright pink worm will appear much duller to the trout. Fluorescent materials, which trap UV light and shift it to a longer wavelength creating intense color saturation, are great triggers for fish but not in stained water where the UV light is quickly scattered. In low light fish will respond more quickly to the contrast of a fly tied in black and white than to carefully blended colors. For this reason Tie black and white stonefly nymphs which are highly effective in dirty water. When you are fishing Yellow Sallies on a bright day a red egg sack will improve a fly’s productivity.

Another important thing to remember is the fish’s point of view. A fish sees a submerged object with greater clarity and color than an object on the surface. The refractive index of its cornea is almost exactly that of water, meaning a fish sees much more clearly through water than air. In addition, objects on the surface are backlight from the fish’s perspective, appearing mostly as silhouette. This makes it hard for a fish to see the color of a dry fly.

Color that is not opaque, like the translucent body of a mayfly, is much easier the fish to see. This is why dry flies with loose dubbing, translucent wing material or flash underwings work so well. It is also one of the reasons that flies which sit in the film, like parachute patterns, are effective.

What trout respond to primarily in surface patterns is the impression of the fly on the surface film. The dimples on the surface caused by the weight of the fly resting on the water are a powerful trigger and their profile tells the trout that the object is likely to be food. These impressions focus the light, causing bright spots. The translucent color of a Thingamabobber combined with the way it focuses light often makes it irritable to hungry fish.

Flies and indicators are not the only tackle that create these impressions. It is often the bright dimples from curly tippet that give it away to fish. This is why I fish dry flies on fluorocarbon tippet. It sinks and vanishes. (There will no doubt be comments on this. I will write a separate article on the subject)

The important thing is to understand how the fish sees in a variety of conditions and what the triggers are that make him eat.

Natural waters contain particulate matter that increases turbidity, imparts apparent color, and interferes with light penetration. These particles originate from erosion on watersheds and within water bodies, vegetative debris from watersheds, and microorganisms produced in water bodies. Suspended particles vary from tiny colloids (1–100 mμ) that remain suspended indefinitely in still water to larger silt and sand particles held in suspension by turbulence. The settling velocity of particles in still water is estimated by the Stoke’s law equation and it depends mainly on particle diameter and density—large, dense particles settle the fastest. Organic particles settle slowly because of their low density, but planktonic organisms also have adaptions that lessen settling velocity. Solar radiation of all wavelengths is quenched quickly—about 50 % is reflected or converted to heat within the first meter. Within the visible spectrum, red and orange light is absorbed most strongly followed by violet, and by yellow, green, and blue. Plants absorb mostly red and orange light and yellow and green light for use in photosynthesis. Turbidity absorbs all wavelengths of light and diminishes photosynthesis.



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Re: Steelhead on the Skagit Coordinator: Pat Smedile
« Reply #3 on December 01, 2017, 11:00:22 AM (Edited December 01, 2017, 01:35:25 PM) »
Sink-tips for Winter Steelhead
By: Tom Larimer

Photo by Tom Larimer

One of the big challenges of winter steelheading is how quickly the water conditions and the attitude of the fish change. As an angler, you need to adjust your sink-tips accordingly. Given the fact that you get so little positive feedback as a winter steelheader, this is the most demanding aspect of the game. However, there are a few elements that can help you form an educated guess of what sink-tip to fish.

The biggest factor in sink-tip selection is the trend of the water flows. If the river is dropping right after a big winter storm, you can assume you’ll be fishing over fresh, aggressive fish. More times than not, the water will be high and have some stain to it in these conditions. In this situation the fish will hold in surprisingly skinny water, sometimes less than 2’, and very close to the bank. A long, heavy sink-tip will actually fish under the fish. Not to mention you’ll loose a ton of flies. This is the time to wade shallow, cast short and fish a light sink-tip. Also keep in mind that new fish are more willing to chase a fly swimming higher in the water column. -This is not the time to dredge the bottom! A great choice of sink-tip would be a 7.5’ MOW Tip in T-14 or a 10’ section of T-7 or T-10.

A couple of days after a storm, as the water drops and begins to clear, the migration of the fish will slow down. Consequently their willingness to hold in shallow water and their aggressiveness will change. You’ll want to fish more “tradition” 3’ to 5’ deep holding water in this situation. During this time the fish will still be fairly active but you’re going to need to get the fly deeper with mending and bigger sink-tips. A logical choice of sink-tip would be 12’ to 13’ of T-14 or T-10 during these circumstances.

Photo by Tom Larimer

One of the hardest times to catch winter steelhead is those periods during the winter when our rivers get low, clear and cold and we haven’t had a bump in the water level for a week or two. In these situations, there is little to no migration of existing fish in the system and new fish are hard to come by. The longer a steelhead sits in a river without migrating, the less aggressive it becomes. Usually they are very reluctant to move either laterally or vertically to intercept a fly. Plus, the fish will more than likely gravitate towards deeper holding water. This is especially true if the sun is out. This is the time to wade deep, fish your biggest sink-tips and blaze some big casts. You need to hit them on the nose so don’t be afraid to mend the fly hard and make your steps during the swing. -A wise angler fishes their fly deep and slow during the doldrums of winter. Make sure to layer up on your legs and feet because you’re going to wade deep! Although finding winter steelhead in low, clear, cold water is tough, your chances will go up if you have the right sink-tips. Make sure you’re carrying 12’ to 15’ of T-14 and T-18 for the low water times of the season. Sometimes getting the fly right in their face is the difference between casting practice and winter steelhead bliss.

If you’re ever in doubt of what sink-tip to fish or where to fish it, make one pass through a run wading shallow with a light tip. Make your casts short and concise and cover the shallow water near the bank. Then, make a second pass wading deeper with a heavier sink-tip. This is easy to do if you’re fishing with a partner.

Photo by Tom Larimer

Finally, always remember that if you’re loosing flies on every cast, you’re not fishing effectively. Steelhead don’t tip down to eat flies like a bonefish does. While the toughest conditions do necessitate getting the fly deep, most of the time active steelhead will be suspended 10” to 15”off the bottom. If the water you’re fishing is four feet deep and the fish is suspended a foot off the bottom, a fly swimming two and a half feet below the surface is right in their dinning room. One thing is for sure; you can’t catch a fish if you’re constantly tying on a new fly.

The next time you hit your favorite winter water, be observant of the situation, form a game plan, and take the time to change sink-tips accordingly. Make adjustments for each run you fish, the given conditions of the day and the attitude of the fish and you will find reward this winter.

About the author: Tom Larimer is a full time fly fishing guide from Hood River, Oregon. Outside of guiding he is one of the most respected Spey casting instructors in the country. Additionally he hosts destination trips, is a professional fly tier and works for Airflo Fly Lines.


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Re: Steelhead on the Skagit Coordinator: Pat Smedile
« Reply #4 on December 04, 2017, 04:07:44 PM (Edited December 04, 2017, 04:27:47 PM) »
I lifted this from McDonnel's article on his blog in Ireland.  What applies to Salmon is probably pretty close to a Steelhead.

by Paddy McDonnell   February 18, 2015

One of the most highly prized achievements in angling is to land a fresh spring salmon, and to accomplish this in the cold water conditions of early season is probably one of the most gratifying achievements of all. Some anglers associate early spring salmon fishing in cold water with the months of January, February, and the first half of March, but quiet often we can get severe cold snaps right through April also.

Spring Salmon fishing on the Owenduff

Mr Willie Behr fights the cold as it starts to snow on the Owenduff, April 2010

You must fish a big fly slow and deep when the water is cold in springtime.This statement has been handed down from father to son/daughter over many generations and is part of the lore of salmon fishing. Thousands of anglers over the generations have found this is the best approach, are they right? Today we have many advantages in terms of better fishing tackle etc, so are there any modern tactic’s that can replace the advice given above? How deep is deep? How slow is slow? and what size is a big fly?.

When an experienced angler or ghillie passes on some advice to help solve a particular fishing problem the recipient must trust that it is based on personal practical experience. Better still if the advice can be supported in some way by any relevant scientific studies, then the angler can fish with the extra confidence, and persistence that is so vital when searching for that elusive early Springer in cold water conditions.

Luckily for us the effects of water temperature on salmon behaviour have been studied by MH Beach in the early 1980s, and some of the results were published in the early 1990s by the Scottish Fisheries Department in their document – Notes for Guidance on the Provision of fish passes and screens for the safe passage of salmon.

When constructing fish passes it is important to understand the swimming, and leaping ability of salmon so as to provide safe passage for them through the system. There were two types of speed noted in the study ‘cruising’ which can be maintained easily for long periods, and ‘burst’ which gives the salmon the extra thrust to swim at high speed when needed, and can be only maintained for short periods of time. The study showed that large salmon could swim faster than small salmon, and that water temperature affected swimming speed. Colder water = slower maximum speed.  A graph was produced to show maximum swimming speeds in relation to fish size over temperatures ranging from 2-25 degrees Centigrade At 5 degrees C a 6lb salmon had a predicted maximum speed of 2.6 meters per second, the same fish swimming in water at 10 degrees C had a maximum speed of 3.7 meters per second, and when swimming in water at 15 degrees C its maximum speed increased further to 4.7 meters per second.  The graph for a 20lb salmon was 3.3 meters per second at 5C, 4.7 meters per second at 10C, and a staggering 6 meters per second maximum speed at 15Centigrade.

Through trial, error, and practical experience (when all is said and done there is no substitute for practical experience) our forefathers had it right about fishing slow and deep in cold water for salmon. The study also supported the observations made by previous generations about the reluctance of salmon to negotiate stretches of rapids or waterfalls in cold water conditions, with the fish normally waiting to run until the water temperature reached at least 5-6 degrees C. With their maximum swimming speed severely restricted in water of 4 degrees C or less the salmon have little choice but to wait. These rapids or waterfalls became known as temperature barriers, and the pools where the salmon rested waiting for the water to warm up became known as temperature pools.

When choosing which salmon fly to use in any given situation we must consider what it is we are trying to achieve. The first objective is to create a reasonable impression of a living, vulnerable prey item which will have an impact on the fish. The second consideration might be the profile of the fly, slim tubes, and hair wings suit fast currents whereas Irish shrimps are best used in moderate to slow currents. In fast water the salmon gets less time to see the fly so you might choose a bigger fly, and conversely in slower water a smaller fly might be enough to create the illusion of life, and guard against creating too strong of an impression, or impact thus maintaining the holy grail which in my opinion is a fly that is visible, and vague at the same time!. There are other considerations also, such as in coloured water we might use more colourful flies, in slow currents we might consider flies tied with extra soft mobile materials, as they will be hovering close to the fish for longer, and this may help in the deception. The main reason big(and sometimes colourful) flies are successful for salmon in cold water is the strong impact they have on the fish whose metabolism has slowed way down with their senses dulled slightly and this is what it sometimes takes to wake them up. Yellow (especially fluorescent yellow) is a great colour in cold water, and is the dominant colour in many of the great traditional, and modern cold water salmon flies. One of my favourites is the gold Willie Gunn, tied with proportionally extra yellow hair for coloured water, equal amounts of yellow, orange, and black hair for normal conditions. For clear water I like a standard Willie Gunn (black body, gold rib) tied with more black hair than yellow, and orange.

Every spring salmon river system has its own local favourite flies, and it is usually wise to include them in your armoury, just make sure you have them in large enough sizes for cold water fishing. Big flies in my opinion start at about 2inches overall measurement up to about 6inches with 3-4inchs being the most commonly used sizes, and there are some anglers who occasionally use flies (usually sunray shadow’s) of 8-10inches long. Three or four favourite patterns in different sizes tied on plastic, aluminium, and brass tubes are usually enough to take with you as cold water spring salmon fishing is not the place to be experimenting with variants of established patterns, because when the going gets tough doubts creep in, confidence flags, much better to stick with proven original patterns that have stood the test of time.

Spring Salmon Flies

Some of my favourite cold water salmon flies, A 2 inch Gold Willie Gun, A 3 inch Silver Grey, A 4 inch Cascade, and a 6 inch Sunray Shadow, all on tubes

Lethargic cold water salmon need the fly to be put in their face to wake them up, and this means swimming it at1-2 ft from the river bed. Regardless of skill level when we fish this close to the bottom there are going to be flies hung up and lost, in fact if we fish the whole day without hanging up, and losing the occasional fly then we are probably not fishing deep enough. We use various sinking fly lines to get down, and swim our fly close to the fish with a balance to be struck between choosing a line that sinks too much constantly snagging bottom, a line that never snags at all presenting our fly too far above the fish, or the best compromise, a line that causes our fly to tick bottom regularly enough to make us feel confident that we are bumping them on the nose.  Nowadays we are spoilt for choice with the range of different sink rate fly lines available to us. There are full sinking lines, and wide choice of density compensated, or sink tip lines which should help us cope with most situations. Type 2, 3, and 4(inches per second) sinking lines are probably the most useful, but its no harm to have an even faster sinking line with you to cover all eventualities. I prefer to use lightweight flies with my sinking line as they retain their lifelike appearance even in slow currents, but if my fastest sinking line isn’t getting deep enough then I will use one of my brass tubes to reach the taking zone.  Leader lengths can vary from 3 ft for the deepest presentations, up to 6-8ft for clear water situations. Monofilament breaking strains of 20lb, or more should be the norm as our leaders will be in contact with the river bed and rocks many times during the day. Every time we snag up on rocks, or whatever, it would be wise to check for any signs of abrasion, and replace the leader if in any doubt.

Sink tip v Full sink line

Sometimes when fishing deep in very rocky pools a full sinking line can get hung up a lot, because it tracks relatively flat as depicted by the orange line in the diagram above. If we use a sink tip line instead as depicted by the blue/green line, we may dodge some of the snags as we work our way down the pool.

Aerial mend

In cold water the salmon’s metabolism slows down so we fish our flies as slowly as possible. The more of an angle we cast down and across the river the slower the fly will come around, however if we need to get extra depth (especially on the far side of the river) we can make a reach mend upstream after we make our cast, and as our fly line is unrolling out in the air over the river, as depicted in the diagram above. Another wrinkle to add to this is to have some spare loops of line retained after the reach mend so we can roll or shake out extra slack to achieve even more sink time before the current starts to tighten up, and fish our fly across. If that’s not enough we can always take a step downstream as well!!


Sunray Shadow                  The Sunray Shadow works its magic once again

Salmon taking the fly in cold water often take so gently that its as if they just slowly grow on the end of the line, and as the slow deep throbs grow stronger we immediately seem to forget all those fishless hours, and aching cold limbs. Some experienced anglers just clamp the line on the rod cork, and wait until everything tightens up before lifting into the fish; others set the drag on their fly reels on a light tension (just enough tension that it doesn’t overrun) and allow the fish to take a couple of yards of line of the reel before lifting to set the hook, either method is good.

In cold weather the middle part of the day is usually best as whatever sun maybe shining will have had time to hopefully raise the water temperature a little, and encourage the fish to take. Anglers who regularly catch spring salmon on the fly especially in cold water conditions, are not just lucky, they consistently present their flies accurately in difficult conditions, and persist when others have thrown in the towel.  Later on when the water warms up, and reaches temperatures of 6-12C, the salmon will be invigorated as this is the temperature band which suits them best, allowing them to once again reach maximum speed and reclaim their glorious title. Salmo salar -The leaper.