When the steelhead had slipped into the depths, Mike urged me to make my way to the head of the run and fish through it. As I made my way upstream, he hung his cowboy hat on a branch then made his way down river. While I tied a surface fly to my leader Mike waded out to the large, flat rock that protruded from the tail of the run and lay down on it so that he was facing upstream. I sent out a few casts and lengthened my line. He raised his camera and took a few preliminary shots.
We had rehearsed for these opportunities. I would shout “now” as I pushed into my forward cast. At that cue, Mike would hesitate before hitting the shutter button at the precise moment in the cast when the loop of fly line was just about to unfurl over the water. He might have used his motor wind to achieve the same effect, but in that pre-digital age, film conservation was an issue.
As all this was going on above the water, natural triggers were being pulled, causing aquatic insects to unhook themselves from the bottom and swim skyward. Charcoal grey mayflies appeared on the surface, then drifted a rod length as their wings dried before lift off. At the same time, little brown sedges began smashing through the surface film and flitting about.
Trout fishers dream of these multiple hatches, those special, infrequent times when their quarry go on feeding frenzies – those miraculous times when binging on bugs brings trout to the top, narrowing their visual field and making it possible for the angler to get closer and more easily present a free floating fraud in a way that imitates the natural insect.
Fooling trout with dead drifting dry flies demands a solid understanding of entomology, skillful wading, pin-point casting, and expert line handling skills. Because of its challenges, it is the pinnacle of angling achievement for the fresh water fisher. Mike appreciated this. I did too. But, we weren’t fishing trout, we were fishing over sea run rainbow trout that were soon to be reclassified as members of the salmon family.
Roderick Haig-Brown had written of steelhead that rose to drifted dry flies, and there were anecdotes of others who had shared the same experience, but these reports were rare and endangered and dealt with smaller steelhead that had risen to floating flies only a short swim from salt water. Mike and I were 300 kilometres inland, on the upper floors of an interior river. We knew fish could be persuaded by a fly fished just under the surface, and were continually surprised when they rose through from three to five feet of water to intercept a large bushy fly dragged through the surface film. We never expected a rise to a free floating fly.
There was a large bulge in the centre of the run. I cast and followed the course of my fly. There was another bulge and another. On the second, the silhouette of a fish was unmistakable.
Did you see that? Mike shouted before I could complete my question. Those fish are rising for mayflies.
My heart started to pound. I reeled in then waded to shore, hoping my trout flies were in my vest. They weren’t, but in the corner of my steelhead wallet I had a couple of Tom Thumbs, simple deer hair patterns that, in smaller sizes, had tricked a lot of trout intent on mayflies.
I clipped off the Greased Liner and replaced it with a Tom Thumb, struggling to get the 10 pound test nylon through the hook’s eye. That done, I walked downstream until I was parallel with Mike and began fishing upstream as if I were fishing for freely rising trout.
The steelhead continued to come up and grab ephemeral bugs, not once in a while but often. I fought drag, narrowly focused on the passage of my Tom Thumb. Before long, a fish came to the scruffy pattern regally, head first then back and tail. I lifted. The rod bowed. My line pointed upstream. A silver fish leaped into the air a long cast down stream just upstream of Mike who with his motor wind on rapid fire, caught it in the air.
After the disconnect, I gained control and after some tense moments wrestled the steelhead to shore. It was big fish, a male, the first of six fooled by my simple deer hair fly.
Try it, I urged Mike, but he was more than content to capture my escapades on film. It’s difficult to get a picture of a steelhead in the air.
Mike did that over and over again that magical afternoon. One of those shots hangs on the wall of the North Coast Angler Tackle Shop.
We fished until the light faded then waded the river and began the climb back to the road, stopping at a place that afforded an eagle’s eye view of the run. We could see a dozen steelhead hovering over its bottom.
Be thankful, said Mike. It might be a long time before we have another day like this one.