It is strange to me why I love being on the water during certain times under different, but specific conditions when I know other periods of the day have accounted for more fish. I don’t know about everybody else, but the best time, for me, to hook steelhead has been between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM. I have caught and my clients (when I was guiding) have caught more steelhead during that time than either pre-dawn to 10:00 AM or 3:00PM to after sundown. Why is that? Pre-dawn on any river emptying into saltwater as its final destination, with a run of steelhead, is full of anticipation. It is like NOW is the best time (like the first time you have sex; no, no not now, not so soon), but as the sun gets higher, “best-time” continuously deteriorates. The anxiety builds and piles up until the shadows lying heavily over the river are slowly disappearing and getting thinner.
The morning fog which slowly makes its way eerily upstream creates a fantasy-like vision as you look down the length of your fly rod. If fog is heavy, you might not even see where your fly meets the water. It is just one of the coolest times on earth for a fly-fisher. You just don’t want it to end. Rarely, you will feel a slow drag on your line and your rod begins to bend towards the middle of the run. The rod is set with a sweep to your side of the river and it starts to react to the steelhead’s head quake. The magical spell is magnified to an almost unbelievable thrashing on the surface. You think sometimes everything is in sync. Even if there is no pull, every cast produces the excitement of all of the possibilities. Time and the sun dissipate the fog and the river run becomes crystal clear. As the sun makes its way higher above, the mood (the magic) gives way to methodically casting your way through the run.
OR, it could be raining and windy in the pre-dawn hike to your run. But as long as it is dark and you can’t get a clear view of what is going on, the same expectancy builds. The excitement continues until you work up the confidence to wade into the strong black current. You know this run, so the wind, rain and dark don’t dampen your spirits. You wade confidently into a familiar current. You toe-feel your way into position while wading. But, there is something different. A log has shifted, a rock that has been there for years is not there, and the current feels strange. You start to wonder if you are in the right position. But you are there, so casting becomes second nature. You start with short casts and then stretch them out. Then you start feeling your way downstream by foot-Braille. As dawn gradually brightens a gloomy vision of the river and landscape under the dark clouds you think to yourself (optimistically) the rain and the sinister cloud formations will make the steelhead more comfortable and willing to bite your fly. But as the morning moves toward high sun, it becomes clear that the fish are not as excited as you about the current conditions.
However exciting and hopeful pre-dawn river fishing is, it always seems that conditions deteriorate as the sun gets higher. Even though I know (I KNOW) I’ve caught more fish between 10:00 and 3:00, I am never more hopeful as the earliest of my times on any river. BUT, I have rarely caught any fish during these enchanted times. I do remember one time when hiking into a perfect run on the Wenatchee River with a friend of mine. We met at dark-thirty and make the hike with headlamps. There were no other cars parked nearby so we knew we were going to be first on the river. In a great mood, we came on the shoreline only to be greeted by the glow of a cigarette situated at the peak of the run. Someone had hiked in from who-knows-where. We both looked at each other, shrugged and went upstream of the earlier angler after greeting him with a “Mornin’” while he maintained his perch on a log. My friend went in the water a comfortable distance above the other guy and I went upstream from him a respectable distance. We waded in (the run was familiar to both of us) and I waited until I could just barely see the river surface and the opposite shore. I started casting short and then pushed out more line to where I knew there was a slightly deeper run close to the other shore. After two or three casts, I was surprised with an excited pull from the end of my line. The fish’s jump was just dark blur, but I heard and felt it. I got it close, then it cut behind me and honest to God it swam through my legs making its way back out into the main current. Somehow I managed to get the line straight (no easy task with a 14’ rod) without it the cutting through the crotch of my waders or me falling over and managed to bring the fish to hand a few minutes later. That is the reason I still fish early on river. It rarely happens, though I still enjoy the anticipation.
Oddly enough this is not my favorite time on the river. I love the last hour or two before and the first after dusk depending on conditions. If it is pouring down rain, I’ll probably pack up and go back to camp. God, I can still envision the reflection of the eastern shoreline of the Snake River under a clear blue sky sliding golden across the river as the sun races to the western edge of the earth. I know it doesn’t set any faster than it rises, but it seems like it to me. I want it to last forever. I am on the western shore of the Snake. I can watch the sun set by tracking the shadows making their way higher and higher on the other side. I am in the shadows and looking east to the sun drenched hillside on the opposite shore. Pretty soon the golden wash of the sun-denied grasses is dancing its way across the Snake River waves. There is no better sight than a floating fly throwing its wake through the veneer of gold. It is just heaven to a surface fly addict. It is especially wonderful when there is no wind on the river. I have only hooked four fish and landed two of them, here, during this time, but they have been worth all of the time I have spent fishing those conditions. My evening fishing is the most valuable to me. Not for the fish, but for the understanding that this is when I have the most fun on the rivers. The late afternoon, early evening fishing seems to get better and better, instead of getting worse and worse (like morning fishing), until you can’t see to wade or cast. I am just in awe of the evening on the river.
All of this said, I have caught more fish during mid day. The sun is high. The shadows are not interesting and not on the river. I have often wondered why this has not been my favorite time on the river. It has been the best of hooking times. I’ll tell you why I think mid day works. No matter what run you are in, if there are willing fish, if you are first through the run, you are probably going to hook up. It is up to the fish. If you are first in at dawn or at sunset and there are no willing fish, there will be no hook ups. During the middle of the day, if you are first through the run and there are excited fish, you stand a good chance of hooking up. In fact, a great chance of a steelhead pulling line off of your reel.
I guess the moral of the story is look for first-time-through-the-run, instead of giving up when the sun is high…….. But this is such a good time for a cold beer and a short nap.