Techniques To Target Winter Steelhead and Trout, Island Angler, Winter 2018-19, page 13


When temperatures hover around zero and precipitation begins falling in the form of slush and snow, winter is upon us, creating ideal conditions in Vancouver Island rivers & streams for chasing rainbows – both sea run (steelhead) and resident trout. Being able to match your presentation to the conditions or find a new way to offer your fly to finicky fish can be the difference between landing the fish of a thousand casts or going home skunked. The importance of presentation is that the more accurately you are able you are to place your fly where a fish is holding, the closer you can get to reaching the strike zone. More important to catching fish than the perfect cast is how your fly performs in the water and there are at least 5 techniques every Island Angler should have in their arsenal.

Dead drifting is the first technique that most of us learned when we started fishing.  The fly is intended to drift naturally with the current followed by the rod tip, and the line is “mended” and stripped in as needed, to maintain an unimpeded drift. Perhaps one of the most neglected parts of the dead drift is the “mend” – that is, turning the fly line over to keep the fly in front of the line to counteract the effects of drag (which occurs when the fly line causes the fly to travel at a different speed than the current), without affecting the natural drift of the fly. This is one of the most versatile presentations, good on all waters, and is effective fished with all flies, from wet to dry as well as both floating & sinking fly lines.

The “Leisenring Lift” can entice a bite when dead drifting a wet fly with the rod tip parallel to the water, then stopping the rod tip partway through the drift, which makes the current lift the fly toward the surface, making it seem alive.

Many presentation techniques for nymphing exist, with many variations in application, dependant on the water flow & conditions. During winter, the majority of a fishes diet is aquatic bugs and nymphing can be used for small bead headed nymphs like copper johns or larger streamers like Wooly Buggers. It works especially well in tailouts, riffles, pocket water and fast, deep water. Personally, I prefer fluorocarbon leaders while nymphing for the sensitivity and sinking properties, and I find that a loop knot at the fly creates freer motion which results in more bites.

One technique for nymphing is dead drifting, or fishing a nymph just as described above. A strike indicator can be attached to the line and increases the catch rate by helping to detect strikes; keeping the nymph from snagging the bottom; and controlling the presentation depth. Occasionally, especially when sight fishing in skinny waters, it pays to forego the indicator to avoid spooking the fish.

A second technique is high-stick nymphing, where a high rod tip position and short line are used to (ideally) keep the leader off the water to maintain a true drift and present in a more vertical position. Although very handy for fishing close to the bank, in faster pocket water and short deep pools, this is only effective when fishing short distances.

There are far too many different styles of nymphing to describe here, with others including: European nymphing (and the sub-techniques of Czech, Polish, French and Spanish nymphing); chironamid fishing; and the classic chuck ‘n duck.

Swinging a fly refers to making a cross stream cast, and letting the line get a slight inward belly which causes the tension of the water to pull on the fly, speeding it up as it comes around, swinging it across the current from one side of the river to the other. Good for all waters, especially wider runs with a maximum 6 foot depth, rock structure, softer holding waters or where fish are moving upstream, and just about any wet or dry fly can be swung effectively. Fly presentation techniques can be combined, and most commonly, a dead drift is combined with a swing before stripping the line back in and re-casting.

Traditional greaselining involves using a floating fly line to present a wet fly broadside and is advantageous on low gradient, low flow streams & rivers. This technique originated with the silk fly lines of the early 1900s (which had to be greased to float) and is still used on modern day attractor & streamer patterns, wet flies and hairwings such as a soft hackle wet fly or the Blue Charm.

Start upstream of your target, cast and drift, continually mending the line while keeping it tight to create as little swing/movement as possible, making the fly drift slowly, broadside and perpendicular to the current into the holding zone. The broadside approach is thought to make the fly more visible to the fish, and I’ve had enough steelhead takes doing this to tend to agree.

A skating presentation is primarily used for dry flies and attractors such as caddis flies & stimulators with a floating fly line, using the rod tip to speed up the drift of the fly so that it skims over the top of the water like an insect. To make your fly skate, cast cross stream and let your fly drift downstream. Raise your rod tip a couple inches to make the fly speed up, then wiggle your rod side to side to make it skitter over the topwater. With this approach, fish usually set the hook themselves when they hit the fly at the surface.

There are far more ways to present a fly than can be described here, and one of the most personal parts of fly fishing is in the technique. To me, presentation comes down to precision, patience, persistence and purpose.

Winter time ideal conditions on the Cowichan River

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