Fly Fishing For Steelhead On The American River

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Fly Fishing For Steelhead On The American River

Water temperatures are beginning to rise alongside the current as runoff and more water are released in the Lower American River. Over the past couple of weeks, I have continued to spend countless hours chasing steelhead from the numerous access points located in Sacramento and Rancho Cordova that flow into the American River. With such an amazing urban fishery right at our fingertips, I encourage everyone to get out and explore this amazing stretch of water. With huge chrome steelhead swimming close enough to see it can be hard to figure out what you need to do in order to hook up with one of these amazing fish, and that is exactly the type of challenge that lights a fire in my stomach strong enough to get me up early before the sun, in the pouring rain and gusty wind throwing varieties of flies drifting through rough patches of water. 

With my many years of fly fishing for trout that ultimately build up my fly fishing foundation, the transition to steelhead fly fishing has been quite the learning curve. Sometimes it might seem like you have to be fishing on just the right day, in the just-right spot, with the right gear, and flies to land a steelhead on a fly rod or just a lot of luck. I beg to differ. It is no doubt a challenging task but it shouldn’t be a daunting one. And for some reason, the challenge is what keeps bringing me back and I’m sure other anglers that enjoy fishing for steelhead will say the same. 

Being primarily a shore angler that has certain target spots along the river, another fire was lit when I began to fly fish from a drift boat along the American. It is an amazing experience to have an elevated view into the blueish and green currents that I had never been able to fully appreciate standing in waist-deep water. Never have I had such a clear view of my swing, which is a shame because there’s a special kind of pleasure in watching a fly swim through fishy-looking water. Only then I realized when you’re waist-deep you don’t see how a fish acted before it ate or what precisely about your swing prompted the fish to chase in the first place, all of the small details that help refine your ability to get your hands on one of these beasts! Although we all may never understand all of the intricacies and variables that attract and ultimately dictate where a steelhead calls home to a given section of water, and what the factors are leading to a successful hook-up, the following information will hopefully give you some ideas and strategies to add to your own knowledge base as well as something to ponder as you grab the car keys and head out the door with your flies, waders, and fly rod in hand. 

As I mentioned in my previous article steelhead fishing is not a sport for the faint at heart or the angler looking for a fishing experience involving a lawn chair and cold beverage. Over the years they have earned themself the nickname the “Fish of A Thousand Casts” for a reason. In the previous article I touched on different locations to go, and the best gear and tackle for these spring steelhead in Lower American. Here, I will touch on learning how to read the water you are fishing, and my personal go-to technique and tactic, swinging.

The first step of all types of fishing is finding the right water or finding where the fish you are targeting is most likely to be in any given circumstance. When looking for ideal steelhead water you are looking for water in the three to six-foot depth range that flows at around the average pace of a fast walk, this can also be referred to as a glide. Steelhead will generally be held in and around areas where there is broken water especially areas where there is a break or change in the current is key. Steelhead that are willing to bite your fly will not be running up the rapids, or in the flat stagnant water. It is key to remember each and every one of these steelheads at some point have made the marathon from the Pacific Ocean, and with water pressure rising over the past couple of weeks these fish are now more than ever looking for a spot where they can get a break from the current while also being able to get significant calorie intake from goodies floating by. The ultimate rule of steelhead during this time of the year is to remember they are looking for maximum calorie intake, with minimum energy used. Keeping this in mind when identifying where to drift your fly will help you make sure you are putting your fly in the best possible section of water to get a bite. It can also be useful to target large objects that are causing an obvious break in the water such as large rocks or obstructions in the river that can cause this same effect. This is not always easy to see since the obstructions are below the surface, but this will constantly continue to be ‘fishy areas’. To be able to really understand what section you plan to fish, the fool-proof way to identifying these high target areas is to either fish the water to find these select buckets and breaks or watch other anglers from afar to see how they are approaching that section If both prove unsuccessful it might be time to bite the bullet and pay a guide to take you out and help you identify good bodies of water to start targeting. 

Swinging for flies has time and time again proven successful and will most likely be the technique being used by all other fly fishermen on the water other than an indicator rig. The indicator rig is a proven technique that also provides an amazing presentation to steelhead, but my heart and soul have fallen in love with the swing. I have numerous reasons for why this has become my personal favorite, but the all drafting factor being it is a method that once done successfully gives you the ability to imitate what they are used to feeding on, in an exact manner they are used to feeding on them in. On top of that, there is no adrenaline rush quite like a 10+ pound chromer coming up and absolutely crushing your fly at the end of your swing. I personally only use a wet fly swing on the Lower American for steelhead, and this is done by making a cast downstream and across the river at roughly a 45-degree angle. After making the cast it is key to mend your line in order to keep your fly drifting down the river at the same speed as the tip of your fly rod. This will do a couple of things that could ultimately be the deciding factor to a steelhead biting or not. It will help ensure you are giving a proper presentation and allow you to have your fly drifting at the proper speed. Mending your line as it drifts through your target area will also help you to be able to keep tension in the line so that when that big chrome fish does come and hammer your fly, it will not have time to spit it out before you react to set the hook yourself. As the fly swings across the water, it is important to keep your rod tip low and follow the fly until your fly swings directly downstream, after this step allow your fly to sit there for a few seconds as fish will sometimes strike when the fly slows down. After I have waited a couple of seconds I will generally do a couple of quick strips to hopefully entice a reaction bite or convince a fish that is on the way that their meal is getting away. It is important to “rinse and repeat this” process and keep in mind the fish ‘of a thousand casts’ was not caught on the first, second, tenth, and sadly sometimes even last cast, but to stay at it and thoroughly work your targeted water. I always strive to keep in mind that as an angler it is key to my success to stay adaptable. At the end of the day, none of these techniques, presentations, and strategies are 100% effective, and it is key to try new things to find what works best for you. Hopefully this article has added some new pieces of knowledge that you can apply to your own fishing skill set and allow you to catch one of the biggest, most beautiful, and strongest fighting fish in the Lower American River.

Written By: Tyler Andersen