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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Steelhead Edition

by Dave Karczynski

Last week I was out to dinner with a vegetarian friend of mine at a restaurant that didn’t have a very veg-friendly menu. There were one or two options, neither of them particularly appetizing.  As the most omnivorous type of omnivore, I was free to choose from a smorgasborg of options, ultimately going with a belt-straining, heart-stuttering Muenster-stuffed meatloaf with potatoes and braised red cabbage.  No complaints here.  My friend had the veggie burger—a pale, industrial patty of relative flavorlessness.  Later that night, as I tied flies for an upcoming steelhead trip and reveled in the culinary aftermath of far-ranging flavor and texture, I found myself thinking:

Why don’t I fish the way I eat?

When it comes to steelhead, I’m not much of an omnivore. I subsist by a pretty darn strict, even vegan-esque diet. Which is to say I swing, and swing, and then swing some more. I swing on good swinging days and bad swinging days, on swing-friendly rivers and swing-hatin’ rivers. And of course everything in between. Swinging had become a box—a very nice, happy box—that I never thought too far outside of.  Until last weekend.

I was invited to fish my favorite steelhead stream with Steve Cornetet, head guide out of Mike Batcke’s Baldwin Creek Lodge.  Steve’s a young guide known for his omnivorous tendencies and astronomical fish counts. His driftboat (a Michigan-made Stealthcraft) held no fewer than twelve rods. Stepping over the gunwhale, I made myself a promise.

I would fish every rod in the boat.

The river we were fishing gave me good reason to do just that.  I won’t name its name, but it’s full of wild, wary fish and is structured more like a swinger’s nightmare than a dream. By which I mean to say it’s a tough, technical river with plummeting shale ledges, pockets and micropockets, narrow slots, gyring eddies and more wood than water (an exaggeration, sure, but sometimes it feels that way).  This is all to say that if you’re only fishing one presentation, you’re only fishing a fraction of the water.

That day I did it all.  I floated indicators, chucked and ducked, Euro-nymphed, and even (get the children out of the room) had a wack at centerpinning, which I gave up quickly because dialing in my reel hand was just too hard.

The result?  For one, the fishing was a little quicker—actually a lot quicker—than usual.  It’s not often (more specifically: never) that I lose track of how many steelhead my fishing partners and I catch in a day.  But what was more meaningful to me was the fact that I got a chance to know my water better.  Ticking serious weight through the fastest, darkest nether-regions on a tight line gave me my clearest idea to date of what’s going on down there: the size of the cobble, the spread of the sand. Watching how easily my centerpinned float got sucked into the bubble line impressed upon me the degree to which, dragless and left to nature’s devices, everything, but everything, in a river gets sucked into a seam.  Fishing indicators—specifically right after handling the centerpin rig—got me rethinking my choice of nymph line.  Did I want to roll cast more easily or extend my drifts?

mc1I don’t want, or need, to catch every fish in the river.  But I do like to explore as much water as I can, and, after my omnivorous day on the water, I feel like I have a better understanding of water I thought I knew pretty darn well.  Will I swing through it most of the time?  Probably.  But did throwing everything under the kitchen sink—and paying close attention to the way it played in current—help me understand the hydraulics of everything even better than I did before? You bet it did. And, even though my own raft doesn’t hold double digit rods, I’m looking forward to having multiple set-ups on my future trips. Just in case I get a hankering for something different.

In the end, each technique, be it swinging, Indy nymphing or some type of short-line deal (chuck and duck, Polish nymphing, etc.) is going to give you different data on the water, as well as different data on the fish.  Fishing outside of your usual method, if even for a day, can help unpack some of the subtleties that makes fly fishing so interesting: how to best negotiate the mysteries of current with the intricacies of presentation. And I think we can all sink our teeth into that.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Dave Karczynski's writing has appeared in The Flyfish Journal, Fly Rod & Reel, The Drake, Fly Fusion and others. A Robert Traver Award winner, he lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he teaches writing and photography at the University of Michigan.

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  • Brian Kozminski

    Pure Awesome!!

  • Fred Rickson

    I don’t know about the Midwest, although I caught my first steelhead ever on a small, Door County, Wisconsin stream in about 1968, but on the west coast both winter and summer fish like to lie in the soft pocket IN FRONT of a nice sized rock. Therefore, a cast and mend which feeds the fly straight downstream goes right into the fish’s mouth rather than making them move to catch a swinging fly. If the fish is holding tight against the rock, the point of the soft pocket will nudge the fly a little to the side where, I presume, it can be easily seen since it still will not be swinging.

    An added benefit to dropping the fly straight downstream is that, in summer, when the water clears, feeding something dry and noisy like a Gurgler to a rock, you often see a big silver nose come up three or four inches behind the fly and, hopefully, an open mouth. Just a little tip.

  • huttonista dav

    Very interesting, an omnivore sticking to a single, fishing regime. And while I didnt understand very much of the steelhead lingo used in his commentary, the lesson learned is encouraging: break it up and try something different. Thanks

  • ZenDavid

    Nice article…thanks. As a transplanted Michigander (go blue) out here in Washington state, I also prefer to swing. But on the appropriate water, I love to hunt (explore) with my nymph rig also. I get completely immersed in the game no matter which one I play. In the end, I see myself as a fly fisherman. Nymph, dries, spey…all qualify. I reserve my arguments for habitat preservation, and management. It was a nymph that brought my first steelhead to hand. I have expanded my repertoire since, but I still enjoy “dancing to the tune that brought me”.