Island rivers have moved into their summer phase this past week and that means fly fishing for summer steelhead, anadromous cutthroat, cutt-bows and, in some rivers, Dolly Varden. Rivers are low and this affects your fishing. Fish are in riffles, pools, tailouts and runs.
Cutthroat are normally found related to woody debris, while steelhead are related to rock. Neither has much interest in being exposed over sand bottoms. In addition, cutthroat fishing covers the river in two foot slices whereas steelhead, more motivated, need only cast to every ten feet. The rule in steelhead fishing is: keep moving and find the high percentage water. Take a step or two before a second cast.
Summer rivers are low, warm and lower in oxygen. This affects where fish will station themselves, preferring cool, oxygen and surface turbulence that makes them feel safe. This is also the time of year when steelhead smolts migrate down rivers into saltwater. In a river like the Stamp, our best all-around river, these smolts, usually about 6 inches, can be as large as 13.
For a hoot, snip off the bend and barb of a floater like a Tom Thumb and with a four-weight, dust the surface with your fly in riffles. Steelhead smolts prefer this as holding water. They will attempt to nab your fly again and again and it is very funny to watch, and harmless for them.
In more conventional fly fishing, this is the time of year to use your nymph imitations: bead head imitations based on black and with wriggly rubber legs and much larger stonefly nymphs of varying colour combinations. The larger flies are easier to see and dissuade more small fish from biting.
If you are fishing large Popsicle-style flies with lots of marabou, and receive taps and short bites, switch to shorter flies. In nymphs, it is the hook that is the tail end of the fly and thus the first thing a fish will contact, not a mouthful of marabou extending beyond the bend. Note that you can immediately fish the same stretch of water after switching from a longer fly because the action of a less-connected nymph-drift fly not only is a completely different kind of fly, but also a change of silhouette and colour.
In summer, you will find more dead water – declining water level tends to slow river speed as well as make it shallower. You move through these sections, keying in on higher percentage water.
Get to know your river over a decade’s calendar cycle. Any place you have caught a fish before, presents some opportunity another time, even if it looks less fishy. And over the years get to understand how the gravel is moved during winter and changes all the bottom features. I once landed several rainbows (residual steelhead or not, I do not know) beside a rock feature that had caused the water to scour a small thigh-deep run.
In another year, the river bottom had shifted away from the rock, piled up gravel behind the run and thus the spot was only calf-deep backwater. I tossed a few casts into the spot that any other angler who had less experience with the river would have passed right on by – as would I on rivers I might not know as well. Instead, I hooked the largest steelhead I have ever caught, and after chasing it downstream for 600 yards, landed and released a fish of more than 20 pounds – longer than my arm. You just sit in the gravel, thankful for your knowledge. And you write it in your log book of bites and catches, for perusal the next year, before you head back to that river.
The bite info is crucial because if you have a dozen bites on one fly, but take a fish or two on another fly, you want your records to show that the preponderance of fish you touched were on the fly they didn’t stick to – next time around, you want to put on the fly that got the most bites, not the one you landed a fish or two.
Our rivers show lots of logging damage, choking out a century’s worth of gravel a few hundred yards per year. If your river is the San Juan, you know this well. Above the confluence pool with the Harris, a major place to fish, the entire valley was flooded by a log jam letting go one spring, with enough weight and wood that it made this small stream into a flood plain a half mile wide.
But, and here is the point, the places where there are rock walls and where stumps with their root balls as much as 20 feet across get dumped as the water decreases and subsequent rain-swollen rivers flood, will scour holes where you will find fish in subsequent years. Where I landed my big fish, there is now a tree that has fallen from the rock structure and now a hole has been dug that is 7 feet deep. Any structure like this is a likely spot, particularly in this case, because it has given me fish many times in many years – even though it has changed drastically many times over the years.
I was once told that a hatchery intake pool had cool springs coming up through the bottom and thus cutthroat would preferentially sit there in the warm months, while they would not sit any where else in the same pool. If you get to know your rivers, you will find spots that give you more fish, even though they change drastically and in some years don’t look at all fishy.
One run I have fished for the past two decades has changed so much ten times over those years that you would not expect to catch much. But, I typically take more fish out of this one run than any other place on the river. That leads me to suspect there is a spring coming up in the middle of it and so fish stop here even though it does not look fishy many years.
Another tip is to fish when a pool or run is in shade, either morning or afternoon. On the river you will fish, ask yourself ahead of time, when will certain stretches fish better because they are in shade. I sometimes fish a river then hustle back between the spots that have given out fish, and fish them again later in the day. Pools now in sun often don’t fish as well, with cutthroat crowded back into the stumps, etc. and not as willing to be seen when sun penetrates to the bottom of still water.
Recently, I hooked a beauty of a cutthroat plumbing the only water in a four-hundred-yard stretch that looked like it had a chance. It had bluey-green water over a gravel bottom that did not have algae, meaning the sun did not penetrate well enough. The fish leapt into my morning. Through my pleasant surprise, it came to hook itself around a branch elbow-deep in chest-deep water. I waded in, found the line around the branch, and started ripping it apart. The fish jumped right beside me over my bent-over head, and hast la vista, escaped.
On my way back upstream to my car, I tossed a sharpened stonefly into the spot, and less than 15 feet below where I had hooked this nice fish, managed to hook it again. Duly admired and released, it was a three-pound cutty – large by anyone’s standard.
So remember the spots, fish them again after several hours and you may be rewarded. Most of all, this time of year, put on those flies with short tails. Another example, is what I call rats: a size 8 streamer hook, with tiny bead eyes and a clump of olive marabou and that’s all. Once wet, it becomes a slim little fly that darts here and there, and darned if it doesn’t catch fish. But, if you get short bites, snip off a half inch of trailing marabou, and try again.
One final thing: the way a fish fights when it is on your line, often tells you what species it is. Steelhead jump many times, cut-bows (a cross of steelhead and cutthroat) fight just under the surface and cutthroat seldom jump. If you don’t land the fish, you can be reasonably certain what species the fish was. For Dollies, at this time of year you are more likely to catch them coming in with the tide and passing out, so their estuarial nature often gives them away. Once committed to a river, they key in on wood and deep pools.