There is a special moment in Great Lakes steelhead fishing that sends tingle down the spine of those who pursue these amazingly powerful fish. The moment arrives shortly after the fish transmits its signal from hook to fly rod butt, setting off an increased heart rate. And it occurs shortly after the fish goes on a line-peeling run that will send blood pressure soaring. The moment is generated by a simple head shake. To give the steelhead more credit than it likely deserves, I believe the head shake is the fish's way of saying "no way is this going to work the way you think."
The head shake tells the steelhead pursuer two messages. The hook set did its job, and the hook set is inside the fish's mouth -- not in a boulder or, worse, the fish's tail. The head shake doesn't always come because fishing for steelhead means fishing near the bottom. Hooks drifting along the bottom frequently hook on rocks and logs, not fish. And, particularly during cold weather when steelhead huddle together in tight pods, it is not uncommon for the strike to be nothing more than a fish bumping up into the line or fly. Overly anxious anglers, like me, frequently respond to such taps by setting the hook firmly into the back or tail of fish. Instead of subtle, but angry head shake the angler is greeted with a violent vibration that rattles the rod tip and causes the entire rod to bounce.
On Saturday on Elk Creek there were some nice head shakes as the stacked up steelhead took sucker spawn, ice nymphs and black woolly buggers in the 32-degree water. The flow as good and water was green in the deeper runs. Brandy Run was dropping from 5 to 4 cfs and Walnut was staying steady at 125 cfs. Blustery snow squalls caused the creek to slush up in the morning, but may have helped kept the flow strong.