Hatcheries: Time for a Policy AdjustmentFebruary 1, 2022
10,000 HoursApril 1, 2022
Mastering Your Presentation
The buck was barely visible, finning almost motionlessly below the broken surface of the eddy behind the exposed boulder. The water was low, clear and cold on this small coastal stream, but the pocket this buck had staked out was one of the best few chunks of holding water for a hundred yards in any direction. His size (big!) and the sweet piece of cover he claimed made me think that if I could get a presentation to him, he’d attack it rather than leave his spot.
The way the hole was laid out, drift gear was out of the question, and float tackle wouldn’t be much better as the pocket he was in was a couple of feet deeper than the surrounding water. With my choice narrowed down to either a spinner or a spoon, and having read the compulsory Bill Herzog spoon treatises several times each, I tied on a silver 2/5 ounce BC Steel. I knew it would have to be a wonky presentation, but one that could be managed if I did my part.
In order to reach the top of the pocket, I’d have to position myself slightly upstream, over-cast the lie, lift my mainline over the exposed tip of the boulder, then drop the spoon so the eddy could suck it in tight to the downstream end of the boulder before I could begin my retrieve. I assumed that I’d get one shot at the fish, and that he’d either grab it on the first pass or not at all.
My cast went where it was supposed to. I let the spoon wobble down and across stream on a tight line until it was parallel with the boulder. I gave it a slight upstream tug from a high rod position to start it in the right direction, and once it was alongside the boulder, I dropped the rod tip from vertical to about 2 o’clock to allow the spoon to flutter straight down into the pocket. I tightened the line, and had barely begun the retrieve before the buck smacked the spoon like it owed him money. After a long game of tug-o-war, I brought him in. He stretched the tape to 34 inches, well above average for this river.
Not every steelhead is caught from a piece of holding water that requires this sort of precision to fish effectively. Most come from areas that are not too tough to read, and often come from known holes that have a primary, effective and obvious method that works best. But experienced and versatile steelheaders know that not every situation they’ll encounter can be effectively fished in a straightforward, textbook manner. In these one-off conditions, they’re able and willing to try many things that casual steelheaders may not be. These anglers are masters of controlling their presentations.
The best steelheaders don’t do things by accident. They make intentional casts to specific, targeted areas, and present their tackle in a purposeful way. They’re not only concerned with getting their gear down to where the steelhead are, they also make sure to present it in the most attractive and effective way once it gets there.
Control can be exerted over one’s presentations in several different ways. The first is simply in the choice of what tackle to use. This can be as generic as choosing a jig and float instead of hardware, or as detailed as selecting a size 5 spinner instead of a size 4, or an oval spoon instead of a teardrop-shaped spoon.
In the case of the fish described earlier in this article, I wouldn’t have been able to control where a drift bobber and hook would go, and frankly I didn’t trust drift gear to cause a sufficient ruckus to excite the fish. A jig fished deeply enough to probe the pocket the fish was in would’ve either had to plop right on top of him, or would have snagged up in the shallows before it reached him. I chose a spoon instead of a spinner because whatever I presented would have to plummet pretty much straight down when it reached the right spot, and spoons do that better than spinners do. I chose a BC Steel instead of a Stee-Lee because, being oval, I knew it would sink faster. I chose silver over gold because the water was clear and there was a little sunlight.
Having selected the best lure to present, the next step was to figure out how to get it where it needed to be. Casting upstream from the pocket gave the spoon time to sink, and kept it far enough away from the steelhead upon splashdown so as not to spook it. Following the spoon with my rod tip once it was in the water allowed me to slow down the presentation place it alongside the boulder with a fair degree of precision.
Spoons are controlled by line tension and by rod position. Controlling rod position allows one to determine not only where the spoon goes, but what it does when it gets there. Slack line will make a spoon sink, whereas a tight line causes the spoon to rise slightly and come alive in the current. Knowing this, I gave the spoon some slack when it got close to the pocket and then tightened to give it some action after it had been pulled in.
Similar known factors and qualities can dictate your lure selection and presentation no matter what sort of tackle you favor, or no matter what conditions you face. What is important is that you have a good idea of what your gear can and will do, and that you have the skill to influence it. This skill only comes with experience and experimentation.
Based on what I see, even in more typical holding water, many steelheaders have not completely figured out how to control their float-fishing presentations effectively. The key to controlling a float fishing presentation is controlling the line running from the tip of your rod to the float. Aside from setting the depth, an angler really doesn’t have much influence over what goes on under the float. The jig or any other lure will generally follow obediently along wherever the float takes it. This makes it crucial that the angler exercise direct control over the float.
Floats are best presented on a dead drift — not pulled downstream by the river’s current acting on the mainline, and not held unnaturally against the current. If the mainline is pulled downstream ahead of the float, the current will drag the float downstream too fast. And if the drift has continued downstream to the point that the float is tilted upstream toward the angler, the drift has effectively ended.
Keeping the mainline straight between the rod tip and the float is crucial to the dead drift presentation. Anglers using floats often cast upstream. Obviously, when they do so, the mainline closer to the rod tip is farther downstream than the float is. Therefore, unless the angler compensates by reeling in slowly as the float drifts toward him or by lifting or mending his line, the current will almost certainly ruin the dead drift by pulling the mainline downstream into a belly ahead of the float. Even if the angler does get a takedown on such a presentation, solid hooksets with a lot of line downstream from the float are rare.
As has been float-fishing scripture for many years, this is why experienced float fishermen often prefer high-visibility braided mainline. These lines float, and can be more easily mended into position to control the float’s path. High-visibility lines allow the angler to visually follow his line, no matter where it is. Invisible quirks in the surface’s currents between him and his float can ruin a presentation, and an observant angler corrects these. Braided lines sag less than monofilament lines between the rod tip and the float due to their minimal stretch, keeping more of the mainline off the river’s surface.
Control is more than what an angler does after his rig is in the water. It is also making the necessary adjustments before a cast is even made. A tenet often applied to military operations states that one must “never let tactical limitations dictate strategic decisions.” Similarly, you don’t want to find yourself tactically limited to the point that you only know one method to catch a steelhead, and that method is a poor match to the conditions you face. As a versatile steelheader, you should strive to be accomplished in several different methods, and be practiced enough in each to refine and control your presentations to match the conditions you face.
What will not serve you well over time is to cast, hope and hold on. Actively control your presentations, and make them with a specific goal in mind. Make your lure or bait do what you want it to do, where you want it to do it. Controlling your presentations will control the number of fish you can catch a lot more than you might think. ssj