If you spend much time on steelhead rivers, you've probably heard someone make the observation that the fly we choose to fish doesn't really matter. That comment is typically followed up with the idea that you just need to put your time in to find a player and stay confident. While there's no doubt our sport takes a healthy dose of patience, practice and persistence, I happen to fall into the fly does matter camp.
I blame my scientific fly approach on two things... First, I’ve spent enough time practicing good old trial and error. I love to experiment with the color of my fly, the amount of flash, the density of the tie, etc. It's fun to see what these fish will or won't eat, -I experiment a lot. If I run a tried and true fly through a bucket and get no response, I'll make a second pass with a different offering, often times its something a little weird. Some of my best flies have come from this approach. Plus, you start to see patterns in the colors and silhouettes that work in specific fishing conditions. Second, while chasing anadromous fish with two-handed rods is my passion, I'm an unapologetic bass fisherman. Living in the Columbia Gorge I have one of the greatest smallmouth fisheries in the world five minutes from my home. Although there are times when fishing flies is possible and effective, the majority of the time the fish are deep and out of reach. It’s a gear show. To get to my point, smallmouth bass are one of the most aggressive fish in freshwater. Despite this fact, there are days when they get so persnickety that they'll crush a watermelon color Senko (plastic worm) with gold flakes but they won't touch the same color worm with red flakes. That being said, as a steelhead angler pursuing a fish that is way less aggressive than a big bronze back and for all practical purposes has no appetite, I have to believe that the color, flash, size and transparency of our fly has a huge impact on our success as steelheaders.
All of this in mind, there are those few magical days where the stars align, the water temps are perfect, the barometric pressure is ideal and you wore your lucky underwear. -Those unlikely days where all the steelhead in the river go on a terror and eat flies with reckless abandon. Days that pad our egos and make us feel like we might actually have a clue when it comes to migratory critters are hard to come by though. I can honestly say on the few times I've been fortunate enough to witness this phenomena, the fly didn't make one bit of difference. As my good friend Jeff Mishler says, "They'll eat a piece of dog crap on a rope if they’re in the mood". From my estimation, this might happen one out of a hundred days. If you spend enough time on the water, hopefully you'll have one of these mind-blowing days in your lifetime.
Excluding what I call the “1% Days”, base your fly choice on the given conditions. Think about the water clarity, the weather, the sun angle and the fishing pressure when you open your fly box. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new flies. When you do find success with a certain fly, remember the conditions. The next time you’re faced with similar circumstances you’ll have a good start on making an informed choice of weapon.