The “down and across” wet fly for steelhead is technically more difficult than a dry fly presentation, but nothing surpasses the excitement of a steelhead rising to and through the surface film to take a floating pattern. There are a few determining factors which must be taken seriously if and when you decide to fish the surface with a dry fly.
In the first place, summer run steelhead are more willing to rise to the surface. Winter fish can be taken that way, as can spring run fish, but day in and day out, the more “trout-like psychology” of summer steelhead are your best bet. The fish which return to the rivers of their birth in July through October are usually more aggressive, and more curious than other kinds of steelhead.
Warmer water temperatures and greater clarity account for some of this, but not all of it. I also know that lumping steelhead which return in summer and fall months into one “class” or “strain”, may not be scientifically correct, but that doesn’t matter to me. It is their behavior I care about, and if they are in the river anytime from say late June through October, and they rise aggressively to skating dry flies, they are summer run fish to me.
Flies: In my opinion, there are two kinds. or categories of waking dry flies: (1) “Searching “ patterns, which are used to elicit a response over a great variety of conditions- ambient light, current texture, depth and speed etc, and (2) “Closers,” which are used when a fish rises to the first (Searching) pattern but will not take it.
I choose the size of my searching fly according to the following factors: (1) how much fishing pressure there is. The more fishing pressure, the smaller my fly will be. (2) How smooth the currents are. The smoother the surface the smaller my fly will be; (3) water clarity. The clearer the water, the smaller my fly will be.
Here’s the bottom line on your searching fly’s size: At least half of the steelhead which rise to your fly should take it. If significantly less than that actually end up taking your searching fly, it is too large.
I prefer flies dressed with bright wings so I can seem them better in the glare of intense sunlight, or when I am fishing in dark shadows. This is critical because sometimes a twenty five pound steelhead will sip a skating dry fly with a rise form and response identical to that of a ten inch resident rainbow and you have to be able to see the fly disappear so you can turn that responsive rise into a hooked fish.
Lines, leaders and presentations: My leaders average around ten to twelve feet in length, tapered down to a diameter of approximately OX
I use the same lines for both dry flies and wets, and prefer RIO’S Skagit lines for both endeavors. The shorter heavier bellies of these lines are fine for skating dry flies, if you “lead your target,” and set the fly down where you should- well to one side of the suspected lie of the fish.
This means I always make my cast toward the center of the river, and then let it swing slowly toward my target area. In almost every case this means either a straight across cast, or one at a downstream angle. The angle of delivery depends on how fast and how turbulent the currents are, and how good you are at controlling your line and the speed of the waking pattern as it moves across stream. The faster the currents are and the more turbulent, the more downstream you should aim your cast.
Summer run steelhead will take a dead drifted dry fly but it is a hard way to earn a living and a hard way to cover the water, because the fly will almost always drift down a single current seam. On the other hand a down and across presentation will swing the fly across many current seams in a single cast.
There is, obviously a lot more to it than this, and the addicts among us just can’t seem to get enough. If you are one of these, or want to be, you can refer to Chapter 9 of my book “A Steelheader’s Way,” (Headwater Books and Stackpole Publishers, 2009)
The material here was carefully written, and assembled the hard way- one day at a time, for over forty years fishing with some of the best steelhead anglers in the world, on some of the greatest rivers in the world. It doesn’t get any better than that.