That's what I'm accustomed to when Steelhead fishing on the swing. In fact, I have only had a handful of recognized strikes since picking up the spey rod and I've only made good on a few suicidal salmon from those chances. Needless to say, I've been desperate to catch a Steelhead on the swing.
That all changed when this happened last week.
The Cowlitz River on the last Sunday of September... A day so ugly out, that the normal hum and drone of jet boats running up and down the river was practically non-existent. I fished with my friend and guide Mike Sturza of Lost Creek Fly Shop, and it quickly became a day that I'd never forget.
We began by targeting Sea Run Cutthroat on the swing with a two handed rod. Mike worked with me on my casting and, more importantly, my hook set. I've suspected that I've had more than the few handful of swung fly strikes that I have made count, and I knew that my hook set/perception of strikes was a major weak point in my swing fishing game. Having over a dozen early strikes from Sea Runs and receiving coaching on what to do when these strikes happen was a HUGE help.
Sure, I may have missed two dozen fish over the course of the day, but the dozen plus that I hooked went a long way in improving my confidence and angling abilities. Mike and I couldn't stop laughing every time I reverted to my old bad habits, but they gradually faded as the day went on. One of my few good qualities is my ability to laugh at myself and on this rainy day, I was laughing with nearly the same frequency as the relentless rain.
The first Cutthroat was special, and with each fish I grew more and more confident in my abilities. I hooked one Cutthroat so large (and aggressive in it's take) that we thought it was initially a Steelhead. The day was rapidly becoming something special and the Sea Run fishery on the Cowlitz had me on cloud nine.
After moving spots a few more times, I was still throwing long casts with the two-hander hoping for a big tug instead of the Cutthroat that were so kind to us. Mike began fishing with a 6 wt Scott single hander for Cutthroat at the head of a run that I had worked through already. Within minutes he had 3 feisty Cutthroat on the bank and he implored me to try swinging the single-hander for these eager trout.
I obliged and began to catch Cutthroat almost immediately. After observing October Caddis in the bellies of our catch we switched to an October Caddis pupae pattern and I made three casts which resulted in hook ups each time. Mid swing on my fourth cast, I had another strike which felt similar to every Cutthroat that I had landed. But after the strike, something was different. This fish was taking line!
Odd I thought... until it rolled.
"Steelhead! It's a Steelhead," Mike hollered.
He then told me that the rod was rigged with 5x tippet (5.3lb Stroft Mono to be exact) on the end of the line as there are few Steelhead in the river at this point. We were out-gunned for sure.
I was in for a heck of a battle... It took nearly 10 minutes and overcoming some serious self doubt to land the 27" Steelhead. When Mike was able to net the fish on the first attempt, I was whooping and hollering in absolute joy on the bank. Our day in miserable weather had turned out to be better than I could've ever hoped for.
I had landed a Steelhead on a swung fly... on a single hander and 5x tippet no less!
It was a day that I'll never forget... the weather, the education, the first Sea-Run on the fly, the laughter, and the best surprise that I've had in a long while. That Steelhead isn't the biggest that I've caught, but it sure holds a very special place in my mind.
The lessons and experience that I took from my day fishing with Mike will hopefully lead me to more hookups in the season ahead. Besides, there always seems to be something to check-off on the fly fishing bucket list. Now that I've caught my first Steelhead on the swing, I need to get one on a two-hander!
If you're interested in fishing with Mike on the Cowlitz River (an extremely underrated spey fishery) check out the Lost Creek Fly Shop webpage here.