Every year I try to introduce someone new to the wonders of Steelhead Alley. Some are new to fishing altogether, and some are just new to fly fishing. All of them would benefit from the following tips:
1. Shades are more than a fashion statement. Fishing without polarized sunglasses is sort of like fishing blind. Reading water is a prerequisite to catching fish and reading the water requires the angler to look below the surface to see the pockets, runs, chutes and holes that hold fish. More often than not the fish themselves cannot be seen, but polarized sunglasses help the angler cut through sun glare and see the different shades of water colors and current breaks that hint of fish below. In addition, a pair of sunglasses can protect the eyes from a wayward fly -- a not so uncommon occurrence with newbies.
2. Leave the cotton behind. Steelheading is a cold weather activity done in water. Water, cold and cotton definitely don't go together. If you want to be comfortable buy yourself some UnderArmor-style long underwear and fleece pants and pull over. And don't forget a waterproof shell to keep the wind and rain at bay. Staying warm is job one while steelheading, so dress the part.
3. Look before you fish. We are all in a hurry to start fishing, but taking 10 minutes to check out the river will pay dividends, particularly if you remembered those sunglasses. Also, remember that steelhead often hold tight to the bank and your best off starting your fishing from the bank rather than wading in and spooking a few fish.
4. Flip don't cast. The words "fly fishing" conjure up images of dry flies and false casts. And invariably new steelheaders (whether they have fly fishing experience or not) want to do it like they saw on TV... They are disappointed when they are told that such effort is not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive. False casting only results in tangled lines or shattered rods -- split shot crimped to the end of the line has a way of smashing into the rod tip. Instead, all the angler needs to do is flip the rod quickly in a way that allows slack line to shoot out of the rod. Most steelhead casts are less than 5 yards, so a simple flip will do the trick. It's not pretty, but fishing isn't about fashion.
5. It's all about line control. Moving water means the fishing line is always moving. New steelheaders can be easily overwhelmed by this simple fact. The current pushes or pulls the line and therefore fly in all sorts of ways -- most of them bad. An angler needs to be able to control the line so that the fly drifts as naturally as possible through the river. Instead of trying to make longer cast, the newbie needs to practice controlling the line. Only when the line is under control can you feel the subtle take of a steelhead and be in a position to effectively set the hook.