I first heard of Hugh second hand. He lived in Kitimat and worked for Alcan. The grapevine had it that Hugh didn’t just catch more than most flyfishers do, he caught a lot more salmon, trout, char, and steelhead than the best of the rest of us did.
Hugh Storey, more like Huge Story, guffawed another Kitimatian fisherman, when I asked what he’d heard of Hugh’s prowess. I related this comment to Bob Johnson, another Kitimat fly guy who knew Hugh The huge stories, Bob said, are all true.
Later, when I got to know Hugh, and had the privilege to fish with him, I learned that Bob’s assessment was spot on. If fish could feel fear they would fear Hugh Storey, a skilled angler and a superb fly dresser whose patterns occupy prominent places in my fly boxes.
Nymphing occupies a prominent place in Hugh’s angling arsenal. He was the first fisherman I know to apply the technique to steelhead fishing on local rivers. Hugh’s approach was similar to the one advocated by Charlie Brooks with two notable differences. Where Charlie used a full sinking line and a short leader to take his giant stone fly nymphs down to the lairs of large trout, Hugh used a full floating line and a long leader to carry his heavy stones to Skeena steelhead. When salmon were spawning all around him, Hugh hunted steelhead with a single egg that is still the best imitation of its type I’ve encountered.
True, a salmon egg isn’t a nymph, but an imitation of one apes a sought after food source of trout and steelhead, so using one qualifies as matching the hatch. One December day with the woods recently turned white by the first dusting of snow, I watched Hugh stand knee deep in one spot and catch four steelhead in an hour and a half from a slot the size of a bathtub with his egg. It was a remarkable performance. Most anglers would have passed on the entire reach because the water was so low, but Hugh had learned over the years that, contrary to accepted angling wisdom that has fish stopping and hiding in such situations, steelhead will move through clear water barely a metre in depth.
Many years after that day, Webb and I were prowling the middle reaches of the Lakelse River. We’d both released a steelhead when young fish hawk, Sky Richard, appeared upstream and began working through the water we had just fished. To our amazement, Sky beached and hooked eight steelhead, losing two and releasing the rest.
What was he doing that we weren’t? He was fishing with a nine foot, six weight rod, the same length and weight rod preferred by Hugh, and nymphing in a manner so similar to Hugh’s that I could have sworn Sky had taken lessons from him.
After watching Hugh’s feat that December day years ago, I began nymphing with a floating line more and more. Now almost all my steelheading is nymphing with a floating line. I’ve had more success with this technique than any other. This isn’t surprising since Skeena steelhead spend from three to six years rearing in fresh water during which time they feed on nymphs, fry, and the flesh and eggs of salmon. Nymphs are the mainstay of their diet, and, though I have no concrete proof, I suspect that underwater insect activity awakens juvenile feeding instincts in adult steelhead. This explains why Zymoetz steelhead rise to mayflies when the latter are hatching in large numbers on shady fall afternoons, and why a little emerging caddis pupae I call the Zymosedge, will catch those fish when nothing else will with any regularity. With the advent of two fisted fly rods, nymphing has been made easier. Keeping as much fly line off the water as possible to control the drift is fundamental to nymphing technique. Feather light rods of 11 to 13 feet allow the nymph fisher to achieve longer, drag free drifts than were possible heretofore.
The small heavy tungsten beads and cone heads one can now find in tackle stores have made it possible to tie small compact nymph imitations that will sink to the desired depths efficiently. It bears mentioning here that adding external weight, like split shot or lengths of lead core fly line, to your leader, not only takes most of the pleasure and skill out of angling with a fly rod, it takes you out of the realm of fly fishing.
In summer and the first months of fall, a floating line is all one needs to angle steelhead. At that time, subsurface nymphs and floating flies are all an angler needs. In winter and on the wintery waters of March and April, a weighted stonefly nymph along the lines of those tied by Charlie Brooks, and a single egg pattern for the times the rivers are plugged with salmon, will do handsomely. You can toss in a fry pattern, say, a Silver Brown or Teal and Silver, if you want.
This outfit and some practise nymphing (and some study of the aquatic entomology) will enable you to discard those awkward rocket taper lines and gaudy foot long flies, and fish with grace and ease for steelhead year-round.