October 17, 2002 11:00 pm
Fly fisher Dan Bowen of La Grande steelhead fishes on the lower Grande Ronde River. (Submitted photo).
Fly fisher Dan Bowen of La Grande steelhead fishes on the lower Grande Ronde River. (Submitted photo).

Stories by Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Steelhead fly-fishermen enjoy sharing colorful stories.

Their art, however, is not about color.

At least not as much as some believe.

Contrary to popular belief, steelhead anglers do not need a wide variety of colorful flies to be successful. Joe Garoutte, a La Grande fly-fishing instructor, thinks that steelhead anglers often spend too much time searching for the perfect fly.

He believes that fly selection is not a critical component of success when angling for steelhead. Steelhead moving upstream are not particular about the flies they bite because they often do not eat after coming in from the ocean.

When they bite they are acting on aggression and instinct and not really feeding. Garoutte noted that feathers, leaves and sticks are sometimes found in the the stomachs of steelhead.

"They are great samplers,'' Garoutte said.

Steelhead are not interested in feeding when swimming upstream so they are not particular about the type of fly they take.

"Some people want to know about what hot fly they should be using. It really doesn't matter,'' Garoutte said.

He stressed that occasionally there are times when the type of flies used will make a difference.

Garoutte believes that the most important thing is to use a fly you have confidence in.

"Then you will fish longer,'' he said.

Anglers who are always switching their flies will have their line in the water less, decreasing their chances of success.

"The more time your fly spends in the water the better your odds,'' said Garoutte, the manager of Four Seasons Fly Shoppe in Island City.

The fact that fly selection is not crucial to successful steelhead fishing may surprise anglers who have fished for trout with flies and are now moving to steelhead. Many people make this move each fall in Northeast Oregon to take advantage of the region's highly rated fall and spring steelhead fishing opportunities.

Fly anglers moving from trout to steelhead quickly learn that they must play a waiting game. While trout anglers can land several fish an hour. Steelhead fishermen must be willing to put in at least several hours per fish caught.

"The most difficult thing is patience. You are not going to catch as many fish,'' Garoutte said. "You have to make a lot of casts for a fish.''

People fishing for steelhead should use bigger rods because they use bigger flies that need heavier line. The bigger rods make it possible to land steelhead in less time than would be needed if a trout rod were used.

In the spring fishermen can use trout tackle because steelhead have less energy and can be landed in considerably less time. Steelhead begin wearing down in the spring after their fat reserves are drawn down.

"They are more depleted. They don't have the same vim and vigor,'' Garoutte said.

Anglers who plan to release the steelhead they catch are encouraged not to use trout rods in the fall because the steelhead will be worn out by the added time needed to catch them. When released back into a river they will be more exhausted than if they had been caught with a larger rod.

An increasing number of steelhead anglers are using large 12- to 14-foot spey rods to fish for steelhead. The two-handed rods make casting less difficult.

"They are easier on your body,'' Garoutte said.

Spey rods also give fly casters better control of their line.

The instructor cautions people not to start fly-fishing for steelhead unless they have plenty of time needed to devote to the avocation.

"It is so fun that it is addictive,'' Garoutte said. "They probably should have a support group — Steelheaders Anonymous.''

He is exaggerating, but only slightly.

"People have lost marriages and given up jobs just to steelhead fish,'' Garoutte said.

Garoutte will teach a class covering all aspects of steelhead fishing later this year through the Union-Baker Education Service District. For information on the class call the ESD at 963-0920.