The War in Heaven
War is brewing. You can smell the conflict in the air over our steelhead rivers, wafting amidst the pines like the aroma of a festering salmon carcasses shot full of maggots. Like the great battles of the Civil War, Antietam, Shiloh, or The Battle of the Wilderness, this battle is pitting brother against brother. Or more accurately, fly fisher against fly fisher. Or, even more accurately, those who swing flies for steelhead against those who use nymphs to fish for steelhead.
Well, maybe this battle is a bit more like a game of Parcheesi or checkers than it is a Gettysburg. Yet there is still a deep ideological rift developing among some steelhead fly fishers. So deep, in fact, that there have been laws passed regulating the use of certain of these flyfishing techniques. On 31 miles of Oregon's famed North Umpqua River it is now illegal to use a weighted fly or an indicator. In other words, those who think that steelhead should be fished with a swung fly have convinced the authorities that it should be against the law to fish for steelhead with a nymph on the North Umpqua. And there is also talk of banning fishing from boats on some popular steelhead rivers in an effort to curtail nymph fishing.
But this is crazy, isn’t it? After all, isn’t this dispute akin to pro bassers getting in a fistfight over the efficacy of the crankbait vs. the jig-n-pig? In other words, isn’t this a remarkably idiotic and trivial conflict? Maybe it is, but then again, maybe it is not.
Before we go further, let me (attempt to) briefly describe the two techniques:
The steelhead swing is the traditional technique where a streamer-type fly or even dry fly is cast across the river, usually angled downstream from the angler to some degree. The fly is then pulled across the river by the force of the current against the line and the fly. The fly is held under tension by the taut line and thus “swings” across the river. The usual approach to fishing this technique is to start at the top of a run and methodically work your way down, taking a step or two between each cast and swing.
Nymphing for steelhead usually involves the use of weight on the leader and/or a weighted fly or flies. An indicator is often used to help detect the take of a fish and also frequently to help float the fly at a certain depth, generally right above the bottom of the river. This technique is frequently employed by repeatedly running a fly through the most probable holding water in a run - the “bucket”.
Now how could the use of either of these techniques possibly cause concern, conflict, and consternation among steelhead fly fishers? To help better understand the use of these techniques and to help explain why there is potential conflict concerning their use, I have asked several prominent Northern California and Southern Oregon Steelhead anglers for their opinions on this subject.
Ken Morrish, Writer, Photographer, Owner Flywater Travel
My preferences are really quite simple. First, I prefer to fish for steelhead over any other fish, and secondly I prefer catching steelhead to not catching them. As far as techniques are concerned, I love them all. Skating dries, greased line fishing, swinging tips, high sticking and indicator fishing all bring me great pleasure in their proper context but to say which technique is best, most productive, or pleasurable is, in my opinion, absurd as conditions vary so greatly from season to season, river to river and even run to run.
My basic philosophy is to match my techniques to the conditions at hand, while at the same time factoring in pleasure quotient. If I am on a glassy well-rested section of summer steelhead water and all the conditions are right I will often opt for fishing a skater. Not only is it exciting, but it works damn well and can actually be the most effective technique under certain circumstances. Likewise, if just around the bend there is a deep narrow slot with a seductive seam, I will yearn for the indicator. Interestingly, as time goes by I find myself wanting to fish the swing more and more because in and of itself I find the technique more pleasurable than indicator fishing. Its easy on the arm, conducive to long casts and spey rods, and the takes and tugs are hard to beat. But, in the same breath, many of my favorite winter rivers are too crowded in the lower reaches where the swing fishing is best. As a result, I head up into the slotted canyons where I find solitude and water far better suited to the indicator.
These days there are countless anglers in the readership whose angling success is predicated on trout based indicator techniques and as an extension of what they know, they use the technique for steelhead irrespective of conditions or prevailing traditions. On the Umpqua this became an issue. Here, in situation where fish clearly concentrate, it was remarkably effective and eventually lead to a clash of cultures. What nympher would willingly leave the bucket without fully milking it? This could take all day. Why should the dry line anglers be allowed to fish through (as they have for the past 80 years)? Etiquette has become increasingly important on our crowded rivers yet it is seldom taught in today’s fend-for-yourself, I-got-here-first, world of fishing. Were the issues at hand truly biological (for the traditionalists battle cry was that nymphers repeated catching of staged fish stressed the population), the Umpqua's famed Camp Water would have closed to angling altogether, for in the end a fish cannot distinguish between the hook of a nympher or a traditionalist. But as with all ideological struggles, one faction will always end up taking it in the shorts and this case it was the new kids on the block.
As a side note, while nyphing is deadly effective over concentrated fish on systems like the Umpqua, set those same nymphers out on the Skagit, Thompson, Bulkley or Skeena and they would be remarkably ineffective and a laughing stock because big broad systems with vast amounts of holding water are far better fished on the swing.
Jeff Bright, author of "Found in a River: Steelhead & Other Revelations"
The decision of whether to occupy your precious time on a steelhead river swinging flies or free-drifting flies under an indicator–or even dapping from an overhanging tree branch is in my view a personal one and predicated on what you want to get out of your angling experience. This is a self-serving perspective, however, and I do think there are considerations of conservation and ethics to influence your choice. But first, let’s assume it’s all about me.
It’s been said steelhead are the ultimate freshwater, flyrod gamefish. When I string up a rod to pursue them I want to give them the best chance to be just that. To that end, all of my steelhead flyfishing and strategizing time is aimed at one thing: putting myself in position for THE BIG GRAB. I fish particular rivers, particular water on those rivers and particular times of the year on those rivers specifically to give myself the best opportunity to experience the instance when a hot steelhead grabs my fly swinging across the current on a tight line and immediately turns and bolts hell-bent for a far corner of the pool, usually vaulting through the air numerous times on its way. This is the charged moment when I’m most connected on a creature-to-creature level and when all the wildness in the fish, the very essence of its will to survive, is most fully injected into my relatively comfy reality. Largely because of the Big Grab, the steelhead gained its legendary stature and has made some us go more than a little nutty.
The key to experiencing the Big Grab is that the line must be tight to the fly when an aggressive, territorial fish moves to intercept it. When this happens, the fish immediately feels resistance as it turns to head back to its station and its flight response kicks in. (I’ve read that steelhead are the fastest swimming freshwater fish and can reach 40 miles per hour very quickly, so the “kick-in” can be substantial.) This translates into your rod being nearly yanked from your hands, the reel screaming, line hissing through the water, a silvery phantom crashing through the river?s roof and you standing slack-jawed–or whooping, depending on your disposition–all in simultaneous splendor.
Indicator nymphing is deadly, no two ways about it, and requires more than a fair amount of skill–most times, more skill than swinging flies. But, by design, you can't get the Big Grab employing this method. By the parameters of the technique there must be some slack in the line to get a natural drift. Therefore, when the fish takes the fly, you're not likely to feel it until you strike and remove the slack line between your rod and the fly. At this point what I’m after has already happened–the opportunity to feel the “thousand volts of the firmament,” as Enos Bradner put it some 50 years ago, has passed.
While I may angle for steelhead using traditional techniques for self-involved, sensory reasons, I also feel like the traditional method has its merit from a conservation standpoint. When returning to their rivers, steelhead are migratory animals with a finite amount of energy in reserve and no instinctual intent to replenish that reserve before spawning. Each stressful encounter for the fish will take its toll and perhaps hinder its ability to make more of the fish we love. So, by targeting the players, the fish that will move for a fly, I am targeting those that have the energy reserves to play our game. My feeling is if a steelhead won't move for a swinging fly, there's a good reason and it should probably be left alone. It needs the rest and instinct is telling it so.
There was a time, many decades ago, when steelhead stocks could withstand indiscriminate angling pressure. Those days are likely gone forever, at least for our foreseeable lifetimes–too many people, too much pressure from development and progress, too much loss of habitat, too many places much less wild than they used to be. I firmly believe being a steelhead flyfisher today is as much as about stewardship and being an advocate for the fish and their rivers as it about hooking six fish a day. It’s up to us to take care of what we love because there are forces that see only dollar signs where wild rivers flow and these forces have the weight of history behind them.
Considering the well being of the resource, and that of my own, my credo is: Catch less fish, but better fish, so that we can fish at all.
Bill Lowe, Northern California Fly Fishing Guide
Indo-nymph or swing? Tastes great or less filling? Hump or die? All good questions and each worthy of thoughtful conversation…none right or wrong, just matters of opinion (except for the last question). My response to the first question is loosely based on nine years of guiding experience on the Yuba, American, and Feather Rivers where we get runs of fall (Yuba and Feather) and winter (American) fish. Let me just start out with my philosophy on fishing…fishing is fishing. No matter how you go about it, it comes down to where you’re fishing, whom you're fishing with, and enjoying how you're fishing. Hell, you could be pulling weeds!
Without a doubt, or even much pondering, the majority of adult steelhead that I've had the opportunity at helping anglers catch have been caught under a strike-indo. I remember a fair number of those fish and those anglers who caught them. I remember almost each and every steelhead that was caught on the swing. Selective memory, you ask? No. Too few to forget? No. Then why?
To perform either technique effectively, some skill is usually required by the angler. “Usually” negates the occasional fish that decides to eat your offering as it hangs downstream of you while you're still fastening your wading belt. We all still count these fish but they never really feel as good as those where we are actually TRYING. Most folks know how to perform a dead-drift, with a strike-indo, and therefore are somewhat confident while fishing that way, although I'm still privy to a fair amount of “indo-swinging” or “not-so-dead-drifting.” What I have found interesting is how many anglers don't really know how to swing-fish, although I’m repeatedly hearing, “Yeah, swinging is just kinda cast across the river and hold on.”
There are three main things that I repeatedly see anglers do when they step into a run for some swinging. They hardly ever start high enough in the run so that their fly could be eaten by the fish who is laying in the very top corner of the inside soft water;the top “step” of the run, if you will. That's where the next fish to ascend the riffle is resting. The second situation that I’m constantly tuning is the angle at which swingers are casting their lines and presenting their flies. Remember, if your line isn’t under tension you won?t feel the grab. The more towards that ideal 45 degree downstream angle the fly hits the water, the more quickly your line is under tension and the more likely you’re going to feel the grab. The third problem that folks have is letting moss grow on their wading boots. MOVE! This is a mine sweeping exercise or an Easter egg hunt. Once you've determined that there are no mines or eggs or aggressive steelhead in your immediate swing arc, take a big step downstream and try to find one. Repeat this process after each swing. Now you’re moving, you’re swingin’, you’re taking a hike through steelhead water.
To me, swing fishing isn't better than indo-nymphing, it is just more fun. With the indo you have to deal with the mental game of, “was that a fish, or a rock?” Of course, we all should be optimistic…it was definitely a fish. If you feel something pulling your swung-fly, it was a fish. Period.
Herb Burton, Owner Trinity River Fly Shop and Fly Fishing Guide
I personally hate to read or yet become involved with any black and white issue that may encourage putting a wedge between fellow anglers. I would like to believe we all share a common bond. Material supporting extreme or harsh positions generally only creates dissension between anglers.
Flyfishing history has revealed that anglers have raised hackles over origins, theories, techniques, equipment, fly fashions (natural-synthetics) and flies since the evolution of the sport. The heated Halford/Skues “Dry-Wet Fly” debate of the late 1800’s is just one classic example of anglers attempting to split hairs.
The steelhead swing versus nymph/indicators is no different, Mr. Zech simply sets the stage for another round of debate for those choosing to jump in and attack. Both techniques are popular, require varied skill levels and at times are remarkably effective. Yet, each supports a definitive preference or position among fly fishers.
Captivated by steelhead flyfishing at a very young age, I have been a devoted traditional swing steelheader for over 30 years. The depth, mystic, heritage, excitement and pleasure, and high levels of accomplishment all blend together to make steelhead swing techniques so effective, desirable and ultimately satisfying. It is what steelhead fly fishing means to me.
When compared to traditional swing techniques, steelhead nymph fishing with indicators is relatively new, yet the use of bobbers/floats has been around since God knows when, and has been modified and popularized a growing number of new and younger up and coming group of steelhead anglers.
Much of the controversy that I have experienced regarding nymph/indicator steelhead fishing is not so much the technique itself but rather the bad habits that have evolved with and stem from the technique by some of the anglers who fish it. Up front, most noticeable and disappointing:
1). Non-rotation fishing–increasing numbers of nymph/indicator anglers unwilling to make a pass or fish through a run. Preferring instead to “park-it,” dominating known popular waters for extended periods of time–hours even days?thus preventing others the opportunity to fish. (Umpqua's “Boundry Pool” is a prime example of water subjected to such harassment).
2). Getting cut off/snaked–Nymph/indicator techniques when used from drift boats or other floating devices, especially by aggressive guides, fished in front of and below wading anglers working a run.
3). Hole-hogging–Anchoring in known popular steelhead waters for extended periods of time, pounding the hell out of the water and preventing others the opportunity to fish.
What to do? What not to do? Should anything be done? Certainly! The question is how to keep peace, make friends, and preserve the magic? Simple?respect fellow anglers. Demonstrate proper stream/boating ethics. Treat other anglers the way you would like to be treated. Our fisheries are for everyone, regardless of fly fishing technique. No one technique is better than the other, although there are a few twisted egos that may feel otherwise. But who really cares? What does steelhead flyfishing mean to you?
Over twenty five years ago, when Dave Hickson and I, along with a few other Bay Area flyfishing friends, created and started to develop right angle nymphing with yarn indicators, little did we imagine that this technique would eventually become so popular in the flyfishing community, nor the controversy it would arouse.
We invented yarn indicators as a means of problem solving; to present small nymphs in a realistic dead drift manner in deeper weed channels to huge selective brown trout on the Trinity River in northern California. Unbeknownst to many fly anglers today, The Trinity, back in the 70's, was probably one of the finest brown trout fisheries in North America. It was not uncommon to see 12 to 15 pounders, or larger, on any given day. Since then, gross mismanagement by both state and federal government agencies, in my opinion, doomed this incredible brown trout fishery to mediocrity. I still fish it, however, for it is a decent steelhead river, and I love flyfishing for steelhead.
If I had been born, swaddled, and raised in the classic steelhead traditions of the Northwest, I would probably have a much different outlook on the flyfishing methods I currently enjoy and employ. But I wasn’t. And I don’t.
I grew up fishing for trout since the age of four. When I moved west in my early twenties and started flyfishing for steelhead, I simply thought of them as trout; beautiful, bigger perhaps, more explosive, but trout nonetheless. At first, I learned to fish for them in the traditional manner, mostly on the coast in the winter. However, after refining our indicator methods, Dave and I saw no “conflict” in applying this technique in our steelheading, just another problem solving exercise, which, to me is the most enjoyable aspect of flyfishing.
We couldn’t fish this way in a traditional coastal steelhead line up, as it would interfere with other anglers. So we walked upstream where few would go, or went to less popular rivers. We had heard about the beauty of North Umpqua and its quality fishery. It took me two or three trips there, I recall, before I hooked my first fish; on the swing. Soaking wet, I landed that fish after stumbling and swimming from Station down to Upper Boat Pool, but I was jacked! What I liked most about the Umpqua, aside from the physical attributes, was the etiquette that was traditionally practiced there. If a car was already parked at a roadside turnout, you went somewhere else. If you came downstream on another angler, you would give them wide berth and not reenter the river until a full pool below, or farther. If you were fishing in a pool that held several steelhead, and you were lucky enough to hook one or two, you did not spend all day there trying to catch the rest. You'd reel up and move on and give another angler an opportunity. Flyfishing, to me, is not a team sport, and I love the solitude of this immersion in nature by myself or with a friend. The etiquette on the Umpqua provided this experience and I would rarely encounter another angler on the river because of it.
Dave and I began indicator fishing on the Umpqua and we landed large numbers of steelhead. Resident fly anglers began hearing about this new method and the success we were having. Some were curious, some didn’t care, and many were openly hostile. The angry ones perceived us as outsiders that were catching THEIR fish using unfair techniques. We were accused of having bad manners, snagging fish, and fighting fish till they were exhausted. We, in their minds, were no better than the bait fisherman who, through the efforts of the active local fly club, had been historically excluded from this river section, a rarity in Oregon, or anywhere else. I was glad that bait fishing was not allowed for the obvious conservation reasons. I was upset at the accusations from fellow flyfishermen, however, after fishing hundreds of days on the Umpqua and hooking probably over a thousand steelhead there, my experiences were the opposite; I witnessed a higher degree of foul hooking from swing fishermen using fast sinking lines. I saw swing fishermen apply so little pressure to hooked fish that they finally landed them when they turned belly up and I watched near dead fish float by me as they drifted downstream. I saw steelhead killed day after day by experienced fly anglers because they were “hatchery fish” (even though Umpqua hatchery fish are supposedly biotypical) or they only took “one or two” wild fish a year for that special dinner to impress their friends. And as far as etiquette on the Umpqua, I experienced boorish behavior and poor etiquette primarily from traditionalists. It is incredibly arrogant for an angler to approach another angler fishing legally onstream and then proceed to tell them how they should be fishing. When I fish on my favorite brown trout river and see a couple of guys fishing spinning rods, big jigs and plastic grubs, do I like it? Not at all, but as long as those guys aren't breaking the law, such as stuffing bloody dead fish into their daypacks, it would be inappropriate for me to comment. Do I dislike swing fishermen or swing fishing because of this? No, these were acts of individuals who didn't know better or didn't care. I like to fish dries, subsurface greased line, and swing deep for steelhead even more now than in my younger days.
Here’s the deal. Did we indicator guys, by sticking large numbers of steelhead, make it more difficult for the average traditionalist to hook fish in the same water, even if we observed local etiquette, and, in fact, usually fished mid day when most were off the water? Most certainly! It’s a selfish act, its not a team sport, and fishing pressure is fishing pressure. Steelhead, like all trout, become more selective. Did I expect the traditionalists to like this and embrace us for it? Hell no. If I put myself in their position, I wouldn’t like it either, just like the spin fishers on my brown trout stream. But proper etiquette suggests that one refrains from comments and goes about one's own business. Did we damage the resource, i. e. the viability of steelhead trout populations in the North Umpqua by fishing indicators? No, no more than any other fly techniques. I've had the opportunity to fish with many of the local professional guides and experts from the Umpqua over the years. My experience tells me that regardless of what fly techniques they use; dry, damp, drowned, they can all catch numbers of fish with surprising regularity because they wade well, cast well, spot fish well, know the water like the back of their hand, and spend more time fishing and less time whining.
Although flyfishing is categorized by law as “sportfishing,” it's not a sport to me, it's an art. Art allows a participant to express ones personality, likes and dislikes, to suit oneself. What’s better, oil painting or watercolors? Art changes and evolves as does fishing. I like indicator fishing because it gives me the greatest satisfaction in terms of skills; tackle selection and design, casting, aerial mending, depth control, and fly selection. In my mind, when done well, it is the most difficult form of fishing to master. But hey, that's just my opinion.
I have little time to discuss these matters these days. When an all knowing sage approaches me, rudely uninvited, on the river and starts to inform me about the error of my ways, I inform him or her that I have a fishing license, that I am fishing legally, and thank them for their interest, but that they are probably under a misconception. He or she usually blinks and asks what that might be. I look them in the eye and reply “I'm not out here to please you. I'm out here to please myself.”
Viva le difference! Viva G.E.M. Skues!
Ralph Cutter, photographer, writer, and operator of California School of Flyfishing.
It wasn’t too many years ago we had a presidential race. The Green candidate had his style for preserving our natural resources and the Democratic candidate had his style. They spent so much time arguing over style, they both lost to a Republican who is now doing his best to turn steelhead habitat into rows of subsidized cotton.
The argument regarding the relative merits and faults of steelhead swingers versus bobicaters is ludicrous and picayune. Despite some pretty lame arguments to the contrary, the issue isn’t one of ethics, morality, or resource conservation; it is one of style.
If we can’t see the forest through the trees and start fighting for the resource as a body rather than squabbling amongst themselves over esoteric fishing techniques, there won’t be any steelhead left to argue over. Maybe we just don’t deserve steelhead; they certainly don’t deserve us.
Ultimately, Ralph is right, much to the disgust of his wife. No steelhead, no argument.
Written by Jim Zech
Published in California Fly Fisher