Many years ago, I was on the Dean River in British Columbia. It’s an amazing place which at the time provided the kind of Steelhead fishing one usually only dreams of. It was a trip where none of my fishing partners were able to join me, so I went by myself for eight days of fishing solo.
There were other anglers there I knew, which was very fortunate, as early in the trip a black bear came into my camp during the middle of the day while I was out fishing. He had been through three other camps before arriving at mine. Where the other camps had been occupied by people who were able to scare him off, he found mine to be empty and proceeded to shimmy up a tree, slide out the pole that served as a crossbeam to hang my food from, and played pinata with it until he was able to knock it down and devour most of my week's supply of food.
I arrived back at camp in time to discover him finishing up my Jelly Bellies. Concerned that the bear might end up with a cavity and I might starve, I grabbed a rock and drilled him in the hind quarters with a fastball left over from my pitching days as a youth. He ran away, only to return that evening while I slept, find the new tree I had managed to hang the remainder of my food from, and finish off the rest of it. Discovering this when I got up the next morning, I was faced with the dilemma of what to do.
Fortunately, Doug Brutocao and Jeff Bolander were camping across the river and came to my aide with granola bars. Word of my situation quickly spread, and the lodges located at the mouth of the river were kind enough to send up some canned food to get me through the rest of my week. If you knew Doug and Jeff then you know each of them is capable of finding steelhead in a duck pond, as they are two of the best Spey anglers I’ve ever encountered. They were literally lifesavers on that trip, and I am forever grateful for the kindness they showed me.
Luckily the jelly bean-fattened bear disappeared after that, and I was able to focus on fishing for the rest of the week, as I learned some important lessons on the trip.
It was on this trip where I learned the multiple pass-through a pool strategy I still use today. I had four rods strung up with everything from a full floating line on a 7 weight Spey rod up to a 15 foot sink tip made from 550 grain Deep Water Express on my 15 foot 10 weight.
I awoke one morning to find another angler who I was unfamiliar with already fishing in my home pool. I watched as he waded chest-deep on his way down river while casting all the way across to the far side of the river. He was a very good caster, but I had a different plan in mind. The afternoon before, I had been standing knee-deep in the glacial-tinted water at the head of the run, only to look down and discover a Steelhead using me as a current break. With that fresh in my memory, I grabbed my 7136 Sage 7 weight Brownie that was loaded up with a floating line and a 15 feet of tapered leader with a Purple Peril on the business end. Waiting until the other angler had moved downstream, I waded out to ankle-deep and casted to where he had been standing and swung my fly into the bank and “OH YEAH” there it was! After the acrobatics were over and the 12 pound wild summer Steelhead had been safely released, I stepped in and resumed fishing.
As the other angler worked his way down the run, I followed. Along the way, I hooked and landed two more Steelhead with my short casts, whereas the other angler finally managed to hook one way down in the tail-out of the 200 yard long run after which he left. Upon finishing my first pass down the run, I walked back up to the head of the pool and traded rods for my 8150 Sage Brownie. Yes, this was quite a few years ago, and the old Sages were state-of-the-art back then. I had it loaded up with a Rio Windcutter, a 15 foot type 6 sink tip, and a plastic tube fly. On this pass, I waded out to knee-deep and casted just past half way across the river, made a Z-mend to sink my fly and proceeded to hook five more Steelhead on that pass down the run. After stopping for a quick bite of a granola bar (Thanks guys!), I grabbed my 15 foot 10 weight with the Deep Water Express sink tip and a plastic tube fly.. I used the heavy tip to keep my line tight in the boil-filled run, keeping my fly swinging at a steady speed rather than to fish deep. Wading out a little deeper, I casted to the far side of the river at a downstream angle that got my fly fishing quickly and started to swing my way down the pool for the third time. Five fish later, I was done with the run having hooked thirteen fish in three passes, and had solidified the way I would fish to this day.
I know it feels good to break out that Spey rod and watch as the line sails across the river, but it's often counterproductive as the fish can be laying in close to you. A shorter cast will give you better line control and usually results in fish that are well-hooked, giving you a much greater chance of landing them. By breaking down each pool you fish into sections and setting up your tackle to fish each section, you will catch more Steelhead. When fishing with a friend on a river that's carrying some color, a little teamwork can go a long way towards achieving success. Take turns with whoever goes first wading knee-deep or less while fishing light, making sure their fly swings all the way in below them where that fresh, chrome-bright Steelhead might be laying in the calm water. The second person should wade out a little further, along with fishing deeper, to cover the fish that are holding out in the main current. If fishing by yourself, given how heavily some rivers are fished, you may not have the opportunity to make multiple passes and will need to adjust by deciding to fish the most likely holding area. I still use my same philosophy by choosing the setup that will fish a particular area most effectively. I'll talk more about how to read holding water in a future blog post.
When guiding, I always have four Spey rods rigged up and ready to go, all set up with different line options, making it easy to just grab the right rod for the run we are fishing. This saves time usually spent changing out lines and sink tips, which gives us more time spent on the water fishing effectively, and that means more hookups in the long run. Next time you’re on the water, give the multiple pass strategy a try - hopefully, it will work as well for you as it has for me!