I am tying steelhead flies for an upcoming trip (in October). I only have about 4 million steelhead flies dating back to the 80’s, but I could always use a couple hundred more. I tie several dozen to hundreds of flies for major trips (major trips for me are any time I can get on the river). I do enjoy tying for upcoming fishing, so any river time is a good excuse for tying up bunches of flies. I’ll tie my standard patterns, but I always tie up new patterns to try. Some of them really turn me on. I can’t wait to get them wet. Others, I never get wet. I’ll tie different colors, sizes and use different materials to tie the same pattern. I have some really different patterns (some have actually caught steelhead). One that I remember was even too far out there for me but there was a certain something about it that really made sense. It was tied with a purple dubbed body ribbed with silver oval tinsel, a peacock breast feather beard, and a full peacock eye tied in horizontally over the fly as a top wing. I tied it to have a big profile (looking up) to use on the Thompson River, BC. All of my friends laughed when they saw it. That’s OK by me. I’m used to it. I was at upper Grave Yard late in the evening and decided this was the perfect time to use this fly (I called it the “Whole Bird”). There was nobody more shocked than me when the fly pulled hard at the start of the swing. I had that perfect, direct contact with the fly. My rod tip curved to the river surface. A big steelhead was on. I played him to a quick release. I was so awe-filled that the fly actually worked. I used it several more times over the next few years with not so much as a casual glance by a fish. That fly was so worth tying even for one fish. It was a Thompson River fish of around 15 pounds. I haven’t tied that fly for 15 years. Maybe, I’ll try it again this year.
I decided, tonight, to look at a book that I used in the 70’s when I first started fly fishing for steelhead for patterns to get an idea of how to steelhead fish. It was “The Steelhead Trout, Life History – Early Angling – Contemporary Steelheading” (1971). The next book that meant anything to me was “Steelhead Fly Fishing” (1991) both by Trey Combs. I hope he doesn’t mind that I took a couple of photos of his fly pages from each of his books for this blog. A fisher just starting out right now could do no better that to read these two books. Treasures of great information, history of the guys who figured out how to fish for steelhead and the flies that make up the history of Steelheading are found in them. When I first started fly fishing for steelheading there just wasn’t much printed information (no internet, then) available for someone wanting to cast flies for this almost mythical fish. I had no friends or relatives who fly fished, much less for steelhead. That first book mentioned above was my first clue to fishing for them followed by any magazine article I could find. There was another book I read that really made an impression on me. It was “Steelhead To A Fly” by Clark C. Van Fleet, printed in 1951. What an interesting read; to compare steelhead in the 40’s and early 50’s to what it is now. If you can get a copy of this book and you love steelheading, you have to read it.
Anyway, I found that tying flies for the steelhead, was almost as much fun as fishing for them. That is until I caught my first one. Then, I tied only to catch more and more. The standard fly patterns at that time were pretty basic compared to our flies of today. But, “basic” does not mean ineffective. Those patterns are still used today (mostly, by those of us over 60) with success. I still like several of the “old” patterns, but with some adjustments to make them more personal to me. The Skunk has several variations. I tie one with heavy bar-bell eyes tied on top of the shank just above the point of a 1/0 hook. The top of the fly then becomes the bottom with the white wing slanted up over the hook point. This makes the point ride up and is especially useful in rocky bottomed runs. It has been very effective for me, especially with a polar bear wing. The Purple Peril is another one. I have tied so many variations of this fly, I forget the original pattern (without looking it up). It is so effective. Another, I have an affection for is the Silver Hilton. I was introduced to this pattern by my Wenatchee River Mentor, Bill Barnett. It was his favorite and soon became mine. It is classic looking with fine lines and swimming qualities. I have used the original and variations with great success. Another classic-through-modern day pattern is the Skykomish Sunrise. The overall Red, Yellow and White colors are still one of the best combinations.
Later on, about 11 years after Combs’ Steelhead Fly Fishing Book, the next most impressive book I’ve read on tying flies hit the book stands and I fell in love with tying even more. It was John Shewey’s “Spey Flies & Dee Flies – their history & construction for Steelhead and Salmon”. I can’t tell you how important this book is to modern steelhead tiers. It revitalized my tying spirit, skill and ambition. I devoured this book. There are such fun and demanding patterns illustrated and explained between its covers. Tiers find the coolest fly patterns on earth, here. I still refer back to it all of the time. Even the newer Intruder type flies, borrow heavily from the tying techniques in Shewey’s book.
I have always described steelhead flies by color (bright to dark); size (from size 8 to 4/0) and density (sparsely to heavily dressed), I always have flies with me in bright to dark, large to small and light to heavy dressed. Then, there is floating, neutral and heavy/sinking.
When I look at the patterns in the 1971 book and compare them to the 1991 book, it is interesting to note the addition of marabou to the newer flies; making them longer with more movement and flow. Intruders are not mentioned, but a string leech is. This pattern changed future pattern design, looks and profile. The Intruder is like a string leech with a spey-type pattern; sometimes with two patterns, on the full length of the fly. It is full of movement, color, flow and profile. Most of all, it has been effective. It is hard to look into a steelheader’s fly box without finding intruder-type flies taking up most of the space.
What hasn’t change much are spey flies made popular by the Forks, Washington, tier Syd Glasso. His patterns are still copied, now. They were as timeless and they were effective. I don’t know of more artistic, color biased, beautiful fly patterns, ever. Syd used to come into the fly shop I worked at in the late 70’s and early 80’s and I was always impressed with his easy-going personality and his fascination with birds and their songs. He told me of spending hours recording the music of the local birds around his home. He was always free with information about his fly patterns and steelheading. His flies were simple (and complicated at the same time) but elegant. And always, always, effective.
I don’t know what is next in favored fly styles, but I know I have a built up urge to tie flies on a standard hook without a stinger. To me they are becoming more and more likable. I will still tie intruder style flies (because they are so effective), but I am including more and more flies tied on one hook. I like their classic look. It is almost like this is the way steelhead flies are supposed to look.