Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why Steelhead?

In a post a few months ago I asserted, unequivocally that steelhead were the finest sport fish on the planet. As might be expected, that assertion raised some eyebrows and elicited this response from my buddy Matt Klara,

"I roll my eyes so hard that it gives me a headache. :) Of course you are completely entitled to your opinion. Just my personal opinion, but variety is the spice of the fishing life. Steelhead are great fish, but the approach to catching them, while relaxing and sexy, can get pretty damned boring. I think it all comes from the fact that they aren't actually feeding. The approach to trout and salt is completely different because the fish are feeding. You have to think at a higher level in my opinion. Sure steelhead rivers are beautiful, but so are the Rockies, Patagonia, the Bahamas, the Delta Marsh, Cape Cod, and on and on. The flats (especially pressured flats) are probably the most challenging fishing environment there is when all possible fishign skills are taken into account. Pounding out casts down and across is certainly no comparison to sight casting for fast moving, ultra spooky fish. And, because of my passion for variety, I find myself (stupidly) offended by your bold claim about steelhead. How many species of fish have you actually experienced in order to make said claim? While I admire those anglers who choose to devot their entire angling life to one species, it just isn't for me."

Granted hombre. I respect your passion for variaty (even for Carp fishing I think), and frankly I shouldnt be trying to convince other people how great steelhead are. In fact I should just shut my mouth, stay off the internet and go on fishing like a singleminded lunatic, BUT....

maybe I didnt explain myself entirely. Your criticism in part hinges on the fact that other types of fishing are far more challenging than steelheading, the presentation more exact, the fish spooky and feeding. Of course those situations demand a type of precision, knowledge of foraging habits and the ability to hang on tight when a gigantic tarpon or permit starts screaming at 15 knots. That said, I think steelheading is a lot more difficult than many believe.

Making the fly swing across the surface of the water isn't hard in and of itself. However, a good presentation in moving water, with variable depth, structure, speed, etc can be very difficult. How many dudes fish all day without presenting the fly properly and never even know it? Fishing the flats for bones you can instantly tell when you've made a poor presentation, the fish spook, turn the other way and the game is over, however given the lack of feedback in steelheading alot of it comes from feel. Understanding the depth and speed at which your fly is swinging, and the likelihood that the fly is fishing well comes from a feel for presentation which I believe can only come from countless hours on the water. that and a little bit of black magic, juju and fishwhisperness. I for one don't consider myself an expert, and the more I fish, the more this is apparent.

Another factor which your critique missed is the challenge of reading water, knowing which buckets, runs, reaches will hold fish throughout the season. Conditions are highly variable for steelheaders and the most successful angler considers the conditions carefully in their decision of where and how to fish. Again, this comes from hours and hours on the river, and is the type of intimacy that cannot be learned by traveling. Anglers who catch the most fish, have a few home rivers they know well for summer and winter. I cant say I know much about the migratory behavior of bonefish, tarpon, carp, and other species but what I do know about steelhead is that are highly migratory, ghostlike apparitions with a remarkable ability to be here one day, gone the next. As a consequence, understanding the interplay between environmental conditions, migratory behavior and all the angling variables described above is what a successful steelheader must strive for.

Steelheading is a percentage game and with only so many swings in a day, increasing the likelihood that your fly is in front of a fresh, rested fish is the only way to ensure consistent success. So Matt, you make alot of good points, and I understand the reaction to the standard issue steelhead bravado BS but, if steelheading were easy it would be called trout fishing. and that shits boring.

Then again, steelheading is crowded, boring, and there are no fish...anywhere. dont go steelheading, stay off the rivers, and go to rocky ford. Its very challenging and rewarding!

Matt Klara is a water resources engineer and writes for sexy loops. his work can be found here: http://www.sexyloops.com/matts/index.shtml
Matt's Weds Column
Despite his trout and carp fishing tendencies he is an excellent steelheader and caster of one and two handed rods.


  1. It is hard to find Matt in the summer because he is glued to steelhead when not at work, however the time in between he follows the path of the well balanced angler in pursuit of various species including carp. Badass fish on the fly! Though unbalanced like most obsessed fly fishers, Matt evens himself out challenging himself in all areas of the sport and that with the work he does on the conservation front makes him a true sportsman.

  2. Great piece man. Might I add the incredible life history of steelhead. No fish compares...