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Over 50,000 spring chinook are projected to return to the Willamette River this spring and some will eclipse the 20-pound mark.



Look at your Steelheading career as one long, extended fishing trip, and make it your goal to make correct, confident decisions throughout that trip. by Chris Ellis

Confidence can be a powerful thing for a steelhead fisherman, and there are a lot of ways to gain it. As anglers we acknowledge the role that confidence can play in our efforts — casts fly straighter when we feel good about our tackle and the conditions. We tend to set the hook more confidently when we’re more certain we have a bite and more tentatively when we’re not so certain. Think about the best anglers you know – I bet they’re the ones who act decisively and confidently. So how can an angler gain confidence? 

Unfortunately, you can’t go to a tackle shop and buy a bottle of Confidence to squirt on your lures. It must be earned over time, and not always in ways we’d like it to be. It is also not something that can be forced — it needs to develop organically. If you must convince yourself that you believe something, or if you have to hem and haw between a few different options before choosing one, then you’re not truly acting with confidence. 

At its most basic level, a measure of confidence can be gained through trust if (and this is a big if) there’s an angling mentor or companion whose judgment you accept as solid completely and without question. This is a pretty high standard, and it gets higher the more you yourself learn about angling. If you’re lucky enough to have a fishing companion who you know has a lot of direct knowledge and experience with the exact advice they’re giving you, that should inspire confidence also.

It’s hard to know who else to trust because fishermen can be a lot like politicians – the ones in a hurry to tell you how great they are usually aren’t all that great, or they have a lot more flash than they have substance. If someone tries to over-simplify things to get you to catch a steelhead, that’s usually a red flag. Their favorite possible bait or lure is still never going to be the best choice 100% of the time, and no one hole is best in all possible seasons or conditions. Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t fished in a very diverse set of places and conditions. 

As a person who has mentored and has tried to mentor other anglers, I can tell you that there’s a noticeable difference to me between people who are committed to achieving a measure of success and people who just want a quick fix, and I’m going to give much different advice to the person who I think is committed. If you want to learn from a successful angler, ask the right questions. And the best question is rarely “What did you catch him on?” The actual bait or lure used is rarely even half as important as reading the water, analyzing the conditions, or the presentation. A good question to lead with would be asking where the fish was when it bit. Asking what sort of holding water the fish came from is information that can be carried from place to place given a certain set of circumstances, and would show me that you’re interested in solving the riddle yourself instead of duplicating someone else’s success. And the fallout from asking the right questions and getting better feedback is that you can fish with more confidence after that, because the information you’ve gleaned is more likely to serve you better going forward than just knowing what color of jig someone used, or whether they used eggs or sand shrimp.

Confidence must also come from your own personal history. After you’ve tried something once or twice or several times, you will start to get a sense of its effectiveness. This particular aspect can cut both ways: failure can absolutely create clarity. I drift fished for summer steelhead for many years before I figured out how effective “buggy” colors like black, brown, olive, and gray could be, but I had to fail with the more winter-y orange, pink, red, chartreuse, and similar bright colors for a while first. Once I put the effort into fishing buggy colors with the same frequency and same level of dedication I’d put into the brighter colors, my effectiveness took off. Now almost all of my summer steelhead angling, whether with jigs, flies, spinners, or drift gear, is done with buggy colors.

When building your own personal history, it is important to do so honestly and in good faith. What I mean by that is that if you’re making a change, or if you’re giving some new technique, presentation, hole, or even new river a try, don’t just try it at the end of an otherwise frustrating and fishless day, or after you’ve struck doing what you’re familiar with. Some days, some conditions, and some rivers are just not going to fish well on certain days. 

If you’re going to find out whether something like buggy colors for summer steelhead is going to work, you have to try it in prime summertime conditions, not just for the last dozen casts of a trip after your standards have failed. Ideally, either try them after you’ve established that there are active fish around, or give it a go for a whole day’s fishing. The easiest thing in the world to do is to blame a bad day on whatever the new wrinkle is, but that’s disingenuous. Give new things a legitimate chance, and when they pay off the confidence they’ll instill in you will be unshakable. 

That said, confidence has an evil twin named Superstition. Anglers should occasionally take an honest look inward and make sure that what they’re calling history or experience is not just superstition. It is exceedingly rare that one and only one favorite bait, lure or presentation will catch a steelhead in a given set of circumstances. If you limit yourself to your “favorite” lure or your “favorite” presentation, you may be costing yourself fish. 

Worse still, I know otherwise mature, rational adults who profess belief in a particular hat or shirt or pre-trip store stop for coffee. I mean, there’s no harm in something like this, but don’t make the mistake of putting actual faith in it. I did so when I was a kid, and these things largely just perpetuate themselves. It’s easy to credit whatever the talisman of choice is when it works, but then find something else to blame when it doesn’t. This sort of thinking can get in the way of real analysis and real learning, which can slow down the process of gaining confidence. You’ve been warned …

It’s uncanny how doing a number of things well can improve confidence, and how many such things are completely within our control. Be vigilant about checking hooks for sharpness or about taking time to tie knots correctly. Trust the knowledge and experience you already have, even if you’re just a beginner (you’re enabling a few cheat codes just by reading this magazine) and be attuned to details. If you make a series of tiny improvements, they will pay off in a cumulative way. You won’t hope you can land that hooked fish, you’ll know it.

If you suspect can make a better presentation to a particular piece of holding water by moving a little bit upstream or downstream before firing off a cast, or by using a spinner instead of a jig and float, then do so. Not only are you probably right in your assessment, but actually catching a steelhead as a direct result of this sort of deliberate choice is as big and as real as confidence-boosters get.

Ultimately, what will build the most confidence in a steelheader is the consistent application of correct, experience-based decisions over time. There’s nothing wrong with those you trust giving you useable information or teaching you skills. But that aside, nobody can do the heavy lifting for you. 

Look at your steelheading career as one long, extended fishing trip, and make it your goal to make correct, confident decisions throughout that trip. You cannot allow yourself to be too results oriented; some days you can do everything as well as they can be done, and you’ll still be blanked. On the other hand, some days you’ll fall ass-backwards into fish you have no business catching because you were in the right place at the right time. You didn’t really “deserve” either outcome, but you got them. But those days will balance out and you’ll see that making the correct decisions pays off over time. And once you know you’re making good decisions, and can see the results of those decisions, your confidence will take off like a wildfire burning uphill.  ssj

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