Since I’ve got nothing better to do right now in Texas, here’s my advice on LEARNING it. Keep in mind that this is based upon my OPINION. Keep in mind that there are EXCEPTIONS – this is general in nature. Keep in mind that this is from a WEST COAST PERSPECTIVE, but may offer some value to all venues.
#1 – Learn to cast WELL. Flyfishing steelhead is a CASTER’s game because steelhead flyfishing is all about LINE CONTROL and line control starts with casts that lay out straight with consistency because straight landing casts allow for precise mends. Precise mends are what enables the fly to swing at the proper speed and depth in various conditions of current to entice a steelhead. Hooked casts, piled-up casts, collapsed casts, all introduce slack into the line which then degrades the effectiveness of mends. Inferior mends produce inferior fly/line control and the best fly on the best equipment fished over the most prolific steelhead run in the world will not overcome crappy line control… it’s literally that simple. So, use whatever casting style suits your fancy… just learn to do it well. The faster one can get to effective casting, the quicker will be the attainment of steelhead swinging goals. Nowadays there’s a plethora of routes towards becoming an effective caster: books, DVD’s, classes, instructors, guides… use them. But bear in mind that the use of the best available resources is worthless without a commitment to PRACTICE.
#2 – Narrow the focus, part 1. It makes for a long, slow road of learning if one constantly changes the variables in the equation. As regards steelheading, nature introduces enough of her own for a novice steelheader to have to contend with. The best “we” can do is try to limit our own. Starting with water, while it is fun and adventuresome to jump from river to river chasing the “hot” reports, it’s fairly guaranteed in steelheading that by the time one “hears” of it, the window of opportunity has usually passed. Even though there are incidences of a traveling angler “lucking” into the right conditions here and there, in the end it is the local fisher that is able to fish their water on a FREQUENT basis that chalks up the most opportunity. Nothing beats local time on the water. The “extra” time burned driving to “destination waters” is time that could be spent on the water locally promoting the process of learning. Also, lucking into fish on abbreviated trips to “new” waters does not TEACH one much of anything as regards the habits of steelhead because without the knowledge of the “particulars” of that new water, one sure as heck can’t make much of a relative conclusion about the “why”! It is far better to fish local water and thus maximize fishing time and opportunity.
#3 – Narrow the focus, part 2. Having to do with water again, but in an even more specific scope. On the local water, find two to three readily accessible, long runs or pools having a “band” of walking speed water running for the majority of their length that is 3′ to 6′ in depth and having a gradual sloping bar on one or both sides of the river. These runs should also be ones known to put out steelhead and somewhat popular with local anglers. Sounds like a tall order, yes, but with a bit of research – shops, guides, other anglers – it should be do-able on many West Coast rivers. The “readily accessible” is so that one can fish them AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE, even if that means for only an hour after work. “Long” is so that one can MAXIMIZE fly IN the WATER TIME without burning it by having to run around to other spots. “Walking speed” is for the high odds it provides to a fly swinger because it is not only attractive to steelhead, but also promotes the circumstance that said flyswinger’s fly will be swinging at a viable “taking” speed EVEN while EMPLOYING the most BASIC of SWINGING SKILLS and knowledge. The “3′ to 6′” is, like “walking speed”, highly CONDUCIVE FOR FLYFISHING. “Gradually sloping bar/s” is characteristic of runs that will FISH WELL THROUGH THE WIDEST VARIETY OF WATER HEIGHTS. “Known to put out steelhead” speaks for itself. “Somewhat popular” goes against the grain of what most anglers seek out on the river, BUT IN A LEARNING SITUATION, being able to observe other anglers tactics and results, and being able to exchange info with them is invaluable.
#4 – Narrow the focus, part 3. One sinktip. If you prefer to fish/cast unweighted flies, make it a 15′ Type 4. If you like fishing/casting weighted flies, go with ten feet of whatever T-type (T-8, T-11, T-14, etc.) material best matches up with your rod/line. These two tip systems will cover the aforementioned type of water with very good effectiveness. Using just one tip in the described water type is a focus tactic that will “force” one to become a better caster due to consistency in the equipment, force one to become very familiar with that tips fishing parameters, force one to develop “trust” in a very “tried and true” fishing system and also minimize the fiddling-faddling wasting of time changing through different tips due to inexperienced “second-guessing” of equipment.
#5 – Narrow the focus, part 4. Two spools of tippet – one 10# Maxima Ultragreen for clear water, one 12# for everything else, or a brand/make of equivalent characteristics. Any lighter and the odds of fish break offs increases exponentially. Any heavier and the upward planing tendencies of mono becomes a fairly significant factor. Eliminate any heavy leader butts and instead put some type of loop onto the end of the sinktips to facilitate the tying of the tippet STRAIGHT ONTO that loop. Heavy leader butts are a liability on sunk fly rigs. For most conditions, 3′ to 3 1/2′ of tippet is good. It can be shortened to 2′ for dirty water, or extended to 4′-5′ for very clear water. This rigging minimizes frequent knot tying to only two – leader to sinktip loop and leader to fly. The less knot tying, the less chance for knot failure.
#6 – Narrow the focus, part 5. Three flies. One orange, one black, one purple, 1 1/2″ to 2″ long, tied either wound marabou collar style or in the egg sucking leech style. If in ESL, use a red egg “head” on the black and a chartreuse head on the purple. These three colors in the size described have caught steelhead under all water viz conditions and on, I’d be willing to wager, every river on the west coast that has been angled much for winter steelhead. The simplicity of fly selection is once again, a focus tactic to keep the angler locked onto the learning and away from being sidetracked by all the frilly little accoutrements that often accompany fly fishing… there will be lots of opportunity for that later.
#7 – Read Roderick Haig-Brown, Trey Combs, and Dec Hogan. There is an incredible, invaluable wealth of info in their writings, some as direct as actual illustrations/diagrams on “how to swing”, others of it woven into stories and anecdotes of personal river experiences. Do it!
#8 – Take the aforementioned rigging, couple it with the info from the suggested authors, then use it to fish the selected water as OFTEN AS POSSIBLE, during every fishable condition possible. Fish it at high water, low water, and everything in between… 18″ of viz, three feet of viz, 100 feet of viz. You WILL cross paths with steelhead using this “system” if there are in fact a decent number of fish running the river. Each connection earned WILL provide a circumstance of learning… watch for it. What were the observed factors – water height, water viz, fly speed, guesstimated depth, where in the run, proximity to structure, etc., etc. The more connections made, the more that correlations between observed factors should begin to make themselves apparent. Then, that’s how it starts… the path to purposeful, confident swinging! Each subsequent fish caught yields yet another tidbit of info that then leads to the next fish and so on and so on and so on! One thus establishes a growing base of self-experienced and self-confirmed knowledge that can then be CONFIDENTLY applied to similar circumstances on other waters as well as towards expanding one’s angling repertoire via other riggings and/or flies. Have fun!