Steelhead and Wind Knots

Lesson learned and a change of tackle.

  • By: Peter Harrison


We published the following first-person essay, with an introduction by fly-fishing great Joan Wulff, in our March issue. Largely because the angler/author killed a steelhead to weigh it for record consideration, we received a fair amount of reader mail about the piece, both pro and con. We welcome you to add civil comments at the end of the article, contributions that add to the overall sharing of angling voices...Tangential arguments, profane responses or opinions that do not carry the discussion forward will not be published. We repeat, we post the story here in the interests of discussion and as an example of how we might join in meaningful national discussion of fisheries issues.....

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Those little overhand knots that appear in our leaders from time-to-time are euphemistically called “wind” knots, which sounds better than “bad casting” knots. These knots are usually caused by starting the forward stroke with too much power, creating “tailing” (closed) loops instead of open-ended loops. Wind knots can be caused by the wind, especially when the diameter of the tippet is too small for the size of the fly. In 2006, I was honored to be fishing for Atlantic salmon with new friend Peter Harrison, on a favorite river in New Brunswick. In usual fashion, we took turns, covering the water a section at a time.

After one such “drop,” Peter took over and I did the usual checking of my leader for wind knots and, to my horror, found one—but in an unusual place. It was in the heaviest section of the tapered leader, a foot and a half below the end of the fly line. Knowing (and teaching) that wind knots reduce the strength of the monofilament in which they appear by approximately 50 percent, it seemed obvious that my clear 12-pound tippet would break long before the heavier mono, even at half-strength.

On my next turn, I happily experienced the powerful take of what we guesstimated to be a salmon of around 20 pounds. He made two magnificent jumps (during which I obediently “bowed” to take pressure off the leader) and then, as he tired, he made a low, horizontal jump. His big body appeared to come down on the leader—and he was gone. Guess where the leader broke? The rest of the story is Peter’s.—Joan Wulff

On Friday, February 20, 2009, I was fishing on the Hoh River in the state of Washington with my wife Shirley. It was a wonderfully clear day, the temperature a little below freezing and a herd of elk were grazing in a riverside pasture. The river was running exceptionally low and clear and we were swinging flies through some attractive water. I was using my 15-foot Loomis Spey rod.

The Hoh is a wild, glacial river that begins in the Olympic Mountains and empties into the Pacfic Ocean. It’s a classic steelhead river, a Spey fly-fisher’s dream, with plenty of braided gravel bars, logjams and deep, slow pools and pocket water. From December to mid-April the majority of the steelhead arrive. March and April are the prime months if you are after big fish—and the Hoh is known for monster fish, hard-fighting 20-plus pound fish that can humble even the best of anglers.

I’m not in that best-of-angler’s league. I had fished the Hoh River for more than 10 years and, despite spending at least 14 days a year walking its wild and tumbling course, I had never caught a single steelhead in all that time. For me, fishing is more of a Zen thing. I love to walk rivers where wild fish live and, on any day, I would rather be casting well than catching well. This is God’s country and here in the Pacific Northwest no river is wilder or more beautiful than the Hoh.

There had been little action during the morning, but I had seen one good-size fish roll ahead of me and, for a brief few seconds at least, I had hooked what appeared to be a 12- or 15-pound fish. It took the fly on the dangle and exploded into the air, three feet above the green roiling water, spitting the fly in the process. For me, however, my day was complete: I had raised a winter steelhead to my fly. It was one of those magical fishing moments to remember for all time.

Morning turned to early afternoon and I found myself at a slow, long pool. Several eagles were perched like sentries in snags on the opposite side of the river. It was a classic piece of holding water, complete with several logjams, prime habitat where steelhead would hold on their upriver journeys. I had tried many flies that day, always changing and never really sure what to use; but sticking to the bright day/bright fly theory, I tied on one of my own patterns. I have caught more fish on this pattern than all the rest of my flies put together, from 20-plus pound Arctic char above the Arctic Circle to rampaging “sea runs” on the Rio Grande. It is nothing fancy, a simple pink bunny tail with lead eyes and a Woolly Bugger body.

For once my casting was going well, my fly drifting over and past submerged logs, probing the depths. On a particularly nice cast, the fly passing tantalizingly close to a sprawling logjam, I felt a solid tug. Was it a take? I could not be sure. I brought the fly in to check, testing its sharpness on the nail of my thumb. It was still sticky sharp. It was then that I noticed a wind knot, about two feet up from the fly. Just one small single knot.

I looked across the pool; it looked fishy. I was itching to swing that fly past the logjam again. I remembered a time, however, up on the Upsalquitch in Canada, fishing with a good friend. She had hooked a dandy Atlantic salmon, maybe over 20 pounds, that had taken off like a scalded cat. After much excitement, the fish was near the net. At that point, the big salmon made one last jump and the leader broke. The fish swam off. It was heartbreaking. I voiced my disappointment, citing bad luck. Joan Wulff looked at me and said “No Peter, I had seen a wind knot in my line before the cast, I should have changed it, not bad luck at all, just bad fishing practice.”

Ever since that day I have always taken the time to change my tippet material whenever I see a wind knot.

Now re-tied, I cast out and the fly swung through the pool without incident. I recast; I was just a few seconds into the drift—I had not even had the time to think of mending the line—when something that I can only describe as a lightning bolt hit my whole body. My Ross reel was screaming at a decibel level usually reserved for Rolling Stones concerts. In a couple of heartbeats, 200 yards of line had disappeared from my reel as the fish headed for Alaska. I told myself not to panic, but my whole body was shaking; I knew that if I could survive the first run I would at least have some chance of getting the fish to the bank.

For the next 30 minutes, I battled the fish, standing at times chest-deep in the middle of the river on a submerged bar. Several times the line caught in snags and on hidden limbs. Mercifully each time, giving the fish slack, I managed to coax it back into midstream. At this point I had not seen the fish.

Eventually I managed to make it back to the riverbank and stand on dry ground to get beneath the fish. Now the fish exploded into the air, executing three cartwheels. I bowed the rod and the fish was still somehow on. I could not believe my eyes, the fish was almost four feet in length. I had never seen a steelhead like it.

Another 15 minutes of intense give-and-take followed before I managed to gently beach the fish. My intention was to let it go, having first measured the fish. We recorded the length as 44 inches from the nose to the notch of the tail, with a girth of 23 1/2 inches.

As we started to take some photographs, we noticed that the fish was bleeding quite heavily from its right gills. As it seemed very likely not to survive the ordeal, I decided to dispatch the fish. The state of Washington allows anglers to harvest one wild steelhead per year. I have fished the area for nearly 20 years and, although this was the first steelhead I had ever caught on the Hoh River, I have certainly caught my fair share on nearby rivers. In all my time, hatchery or native, I have never taken a single fish of any description from a Washington, or for that matter from any U.S., river. It is just not a thing that I do. Clearly, however, the fish was not going to survive; taking the fish was not done lightly.

Within a few minutes, a couple of drift boats arrived on the scene. Two fishermen had portable scales and each weighed the fish. One scale read 32 pounds and another read 31. Later that day, at Olympic Sporting Goods in Forks, WA, it weighed 31 1/2 pounds. The owner, Bob Gooding, took one look at the fish, shook me by the hand and said “This isn’t the fish of a lifetime, it’s the fish of a 1,000 lifetimes.” We bought the longest cooler that we could find, packed the fish in ice and began the long drive home.

Over the years I have certainly heard of fish this size being caught on Washington rivers and farther north in Canada; therefore, at the time, I had no idea that the fish was a potential world record. A friend who saw the fish, however, insisted that I get it properly weighed and to check the state record for a Washington, fly-caught steelhead.

In my search for information, I contacted the International Game Fish Association and was surprised to discover that it would apparently be the largest fly-caught steelhead ever officially recorded. My only problem was that I needed to weigh the fish on certified scales. This was no easy task but the day after the fish was caught I did manage to find a set of accredited scales. At that point, over 24 hours after the fish had been taken from the river, it weighed 29 1/2 pounds. The IGFA accepted the record in April of this year as a new world record, breaking the original 16-pound, line-class record for steelhead set 24 years ago by Chuck Stephens on the Skeena River, British Columbia, on October 20, 1985. His fish weighed 28 pounds. According to IGFA records, mine is the largest fly-caught steelhead ever recorded.