The New Chrome

The New Chrome

Advanced steelhead tactics for 21st Century angler

  • By: John Larison

Only 60 years ago, West Coast steelhead streams churned with silver-plated natives. Waves of naturally reared steelies ascended their natal rivers, hellbent on reaching the same gravel beds from which they had emerged four or five years before. A modern steelheader need only read the accounts of such early anglers as Roderick Haig-Brown and Enos Bradner to appreciate how truly aggressive and plentiful these fish were.

Native-steelhead numbers have plummeted in the last five decades. Thanks largely to “water management” (or more accurately, unconscionable dam construction), “forest management” (irresponsible and outrageously selfish logging methods) and “fisheries management” (ill-informed and short-sighted hatchery practices), nearly all of our beloved steelhead streams have seen their runs of wild steelhead vanish. Even the big-ticket rivers like the North Umpqua, Deschutes and Skagit now host runs comprised mostly of hatchery-reared steelhead. Only those anglers lucky enough to travel to remote places—mostly in northern British Columbia, southeast Alaska and Kamchatka—still find large runs of truly wild chromers. And many of those runs are in peril these days. It’s a bleak world for wild steelhead and the anglers who cherish them.

And yet those of us entranced by the fish and the pursuit of them must continue swinging flies. Steelheading isn’t just some hobby to us, something we can exchange for darts or table tennis. In the words of Thomas McGuane, “It is for such things that we were placed on this careening mudball.” We’re forced entirely against our conscience and better judgment to pursue the only steelhead left: hatchery steelhead, a grossly different—and inferior—creature than wild fish.

Despite this shift in quarry over the past few decades, most of the sport’s how-to writing is still aimed at helping the reader catch wild steelhead. When one considers how differently wild and hatchery steelhead disperse within the river, respond to flies and react to environmental shifts, it’s of little wonder that so many anglers have trouble catching steelies.

The evidence is clear. To stay in chrome in the 21st Century, anglers must adjust their tactics to match the unnatural behavior of this new quarry.

Why the Difference?
The behavioral discrepancies between wild and hatchery steelhead can be traced to the gross disparity in how they spend their early years. Wild steelhead spawn throughout the river system, in any place they can find the ideal mixture of gravel and water conditions. Their offspring emerge as alevins into the natural river environment where they are forced to elude predators, find food and survive fluctuations in stream flow. After spending between two and four years in this dangerous and changing environment, the young steelhead smoltify and descend to the ocean. These early experiences leave lasting impressions with the fish, impressions that will guide their behavior when they return to the river as adults.

The behavior of adult hatchery steelhead is also affected by the experiences of their juvenile years. Except, instead of experiencing a dangerous and fluctuating environment, hatchery steelhead experience a tame and stable one. The young fish are afforded myriad comforts aimed at allowing more alevins to make it to the smolt stage. That way, so goes the logic of fishery managers, the hatchery can get more fish for each dollar invested. But these comforts, in the end, create an adult steelhead that behaves differently than their native brethren.

Adult steelhead, either wild or hatchery stocks, return to the specific section of a river they know best—in fishing-guide lingo, “the acclimation point.” For wild steelhead, the acclimation point varies tremendously. Since wild-steelhead adults spawn over large sections of river, their offspring are scattered and, hence, adult fish return to various points within the river.

Conversely—thanks to modern stocking practices—hatchery steelhead share precise acclimation points. If the facility at which they were raised sits streamside, the hatchery’s outflow will be the target of every returning adult. If fisheries managers deliver the smolts to the river, the stocking points (usually a select few bridges and boat ramps) will act as acclimation points. Either way, adult hatchery fish clump up at a few specific points along the river.

Steelheaders often break holding lies into two distinct groups— transition lies and staging lies. Transition lies are those downstream of the steelhead’s acclimation point. The fish only hold in transition lies for short periods, either until they are rested or until the water conditions allow further travel. Staging lies are those near the steelhead’s acclimation point. The fish hold in staging lies for long periods awaiting ideal spawning conditions. Since steelhead move through transition lies quickly, these areas tend to be less consistent producers of fish. On the other hand, staging lies tend to be consistently productive.

On a wild-steelhead stream, transition lies and staging lies frequently overlap their distributions, allowing anglers to consistently find fish over long stretches of water throughout the season. On a hatchery-steelhead stream, the transition lies and staging lies tend to be clearly delineated. Early in the run on a hatchery river, fish might be found throughout the system. But very quickly the steelhead will move through the transition lies and into the staging lies, resulting in a concentration of available fish.

Guides capitalize on the focused return of hatchery steelhead by following the waves of returning fish upstream. Early in the run, they’ll target downstream transition lies, but as the run progresses, they’ll begin concentrating their efforts near known acclimation points. Since the vast majority of hatchery steelhead pick a staging lie within a mile—both upstream and down—of their acclimation point, guides will focus their efforts there.

Response to Flies
The most profound comfort afforded hatchery steelhead is the easy distribution of food pellets. Instead of chasing a diverse array of nymphs and pupa, spinners and skaters—and learning to react quickly to items rising, swinging and dead-drifting in the current—hatchery fish see one type of food, the pellet. Rather than chasing an animate creature, they simply swallow an object after seeing it tossed their way.

Moreover, hatchery steelhead never witness their food moving naturally; it simply hits the surface and sinks. As a result, they don’t learn to respond to rising and swinging objects as voraciously as wild steelhead—the behavior isn’t ingrained in them by constant repetition. Hence, the average adult hatchery steelhead is less inclined to strike a fly fisherman’s offerings than the average wild steelhead.

Steelheaders have suspected as much for as long as hatchery steelhead have ascended our rivers. But recently an analysis of data compiled by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has added empirical weight to our suspicions. Along the Deschutes River, ODFW has for decades closely monitored steelhead-run counts and angler catch rates. After comparing both types of data, the results were revealing. While on average wild steelhead made up only a third of the run each year, anglers caught 1.64 wild steelhead for each hatchery fish landed. The data suggest that the average wild steelhead is several times more likely to strike a fly than the average hatchery steelhead.

Many guides compensate for the lack of aggressiveness in hatchery steelhead by adjusting their approach to the water. Steelheading is a systematic game; anglers, whether swinging or dead-drifting their flies, break the holding water into small sections and put a cast to each. Each section of water, or “slot,” is roughly the size of the steelhead’s strike zone. When swinging his fly, an angler takes a step downstream after each cast—each step puts the fly through a new slot.

When on a wild-steelhead stream, anglers frequently fish big slots. If the water conditions are ideal, some anglers advocate fishing slots as big as four or five feet. This way, you cover a larger section of river and swing a fly through the strike zones of the maximum number of fish. But on a hatchery-steelhead stream, where the fish are less aggressive, anglers usually do better fishing smaller slots. The average fish will be less inclined to travel a long distance for a fly; therefore, to be successful, the angler often needs to bring the fly closer to the fish.

Reaction to Environment
The stable hatchery environment influences the behavior of adult steelhead in yet another way. While in the cement tanks of their youth, hatchery fish are protected from many of the flow disturbances experienced by wild fish. While the river becomes murky, the hatchery tank stays clear. While the river floods, the hatchery tank remains low. While the river temperature drops due to snow melt and rises due to sun exposure, the hatchery tank remains isolated and consistent. By the time of smoltification, wild steelhead have survived varied and extreme river conditions, while hatchery steelhead have been coddled in an artificial environment.

No formal data exists detailing the varied reactions of wild and hatchery steelhead adults to environmental changes like stream clarity and water temperature; but many anglers have noticed a clear difference. Hatchery steelhead seem more likely to become dour when faced with shifts in stream conditions.

For instance, after compiling years of notes on a well-known Oregon river with a prolific hatchery steelhead population, a guide-friend and I recently realized we’d rarely had a hatchery fish strike a swinging fly once the water temperature rose above 53 degrees. When the water was between 48 and 52 degrees, our notes showed plenty of fish chased flies. But once the water reached 53, the action went precipitously south. Since 53 degrees is solidly in the ideal range for wild steelhead in our area, we were a bit puzzled.

Numerous steelheaders have voiced similar discoveries. Another friend, who fishes mostly coastal rivers, has noticed that the hatchery steelhead in his area are more sensitive to stream clarity issues than the area’s wild fish—they become notably more dour as the flows fill with sediment.

Learning exactly how hatchery steelhead in your watershed respond to environmental factors can help you catch more fish. For instance, that guide-friend and I learned that to keep catching fish once the water rose above 53 degrees, we had to rely exclusively on dead-drifting tactics.

Putting it All Together
In any type of angling, from warmwater to salt, those anglers who match their approach to the behavior of their quarry catch the most fish. Steelheading is no different. Here are a few guide-tested strategies to keep you in chrome when on a hatchery-steelhead river.

Step One: Locate the stream’s acclimation point(s). A quick visit to a local fly shop often provides the answer. But if it doesn’t, try calling the local hatchery—fisheries managers are usually quick to provide such information. Ask, “Where are smolts stocked in the river?”

Step Two: Fish these acclimation areas carefully. Instead of covering miles of river like you might on a wild-steelhead river, locate a few prime runs near the acclimation point and focus your efforts there. Cover these select runs slowly, using smaller slot sizes. And if the water is more than three feet deep, don’t hesitate to use a sinking-tip line. To provoke a strike, you might have to put your fly very close to the fish.
The water might be sufficiently warm or cold or murky to make the fish dour. In such situations, changing tactics frequently makes all the difference. On my local hatchery river, I usually swing my favorite runs first with a large fly, then with a small one, and if still no fish has taken, I switch to indicator tactics. Often, this last switch saves the day.
While we can’t turn back time, we can help wild steelhead recover (see sidebar at left). One way to help is with your political influence: you can enthusiastically resist fishery-management plans that call for stocking hatchery steelhead in rivers with wild populations. Another way to help is with your fly rod: by harvesting fin-clipped steelhead, you can ensure as few hatchery fish as possible reach the spawning grounds.

John Larison, a former fly-fishing guide and instructor, is the author of The Complete Steelheader (Stackpole Books). He lives in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.