Aug 21, 2014

John Garrett's Guide to Early Season Steelheading on the Klickitat

John Garret: Klickitat Steelhead River Canyon
The scenery in the upper Klickitat Canyon is without a doubt stunning.
One only needs to experience its breathtaking beauty to agree.



In Washington State there’s a river that is somewhat unique in that it’s not open on a year round basis, it’s actually only open from June 1st until the end of November for steelhead fishing. Another unique thing about the Klickitat is that it’s a glacier fed river and what that means is that it will commonly run with color in it. When you have a string of days where the temperature is in the 90’s and it stays warm in the evenings, the river will cycle and if it continues for too long, blow out. These variables make it hard to “dial in” the Klickitat River. Keeping that in mind, often times folks will remark that the Klickitat is out of shape or unfishable. Well that’s true, but to a degree. In other words, until there is less than ten inches of visibility (and I have hooked steelhead on the swing with a Scandi line with only 10” of visibility) it is totally fishable.

Fishable? What’s that mean? We typically look down into the river and gauge “visibility” on how deep into the water we can see something, whether it’s a fly, the toe of you wading boots, or an actual measuring stick. Often times this is a great way to have an accurate measurement from our view point, but it’s totally inaccurate on the fishes viewpoint. We are looking down into the colored water and against the dark backdrop of the river bottom whereas the fish are looking upward into the light from the sun, which intensifies the silhouette of your fly. Their visibility (I would guess) is possibly double, if not more, of what ours would be. I can’t back that by science but I can back it by logic and underwater video footage. If you would like visual reference to this information, take a look at the DVD Skagit Master 3 if you haven’t already done so, if you need a copy you can pick one up from the Gorge Fly Shop. You can get a quick visual of what I’m talking about in the YouTube clip below. There’s lots of underwater footage of what flies look like under different river conditions. Not only will you learn about a fish’s point of view but you will also learn some valuable insight on fly selections under those conditions, helping to set your mind at ease when it comes to choosing which fly to swing and deciding on weather a river is fishable or not.


One thing I hate as a steelhead fisherman is fly anxiety. For those of you who have never heard of fly anxiety, it’s the condition (sickness, disease, affliction) of having too many flies to choose from and not being able to decide which one to use, therefor your stressed out about it and fish with no confidence. I get this similar feeling when my wife sends me to the medicine isle at Safeway and ask me to pick up some cough and fever medicine for one of the kids! I stand there like a deer in the head lights because I have too many choices. Why can’t we create one medicine to cover that?

Now we could debate lots of things, but I am for certain, that presentation combined with the right color fly choice under the current river conditions will greatly enhance your chances of success. Even more so than trying to choose the perfect fly pattern. Case in point, last fall on the Klickitat River I was swinging this run and I got to the sweet spot and as my fly swung right in front of this boulder, I got a tug. Dang it! I love the tug, but he didn’t turn on it and give me a chance to hook him. So, I walked back upstream a half a dozen steps, tied on a different fly, all the while never reeling any line in or letting anymore out. I made the same cast at the same distance, working my way down and right as the second fly swung right in front of that same boulder, yank, another tug, same outcome. I again walked back up stream and repeated the process all over again. When I swung that fly right in front of the boulder for the third time, HE YANKED ME AGAIN! I’m bummed to say, same results. At this point, as you’d expect, I am jacked up and shaking so bad I can barely tie on the fourth fly, determined not to give up until either I hook him or he quits playing cat and mouse with me.

To shorten this story a bit, I ended up repeating this process and changing my fly five times and finally he quit wanting to play. For nearly 45 minutes that steelhead and I engaged with each other, playing cat and mouse, even though I didn’t actually hook him, it was an awesome experience that I will never forget. It also confirmed what I already knew and that is that the fly pattern itself may not be that critical in coaxing a grab. I mean I changed my fly five times and each time the fish was interested. What was consistent during those 45 minutes? It wasn’t the fly; it was the distance and speed of my swing. Each time swinging my fly in front of that rock, I tried my best to mimic the speed and distance of the very first swing I got the tug on. So, I say all that to say, worry less about which particular pattern to choose and focus more on the water conditions, the colors to use and your presentation.

I want to talk about confidence for a second. Main reason is that it is SUPER IMPORTANT for success. Many things can contribute to confidence. Confidence in the fly you’ve chose under certain river conditions and confidence in your swinging or nymphing technique is CRUCIAL. If I have confidence in my choice of fly and swinging technique, I automatically fish better than if I don’t. Nothing builds confidence in either one of these choices more than the solid hook up from a steelhead. That’s obvious. Ask anyone what their favorite fly is and I’m 100% positive that it’s their favorite because they’ve had success with it and because of that success their confidence in that fly builds and builds.

But what do you do when you’re fishing a new river, especially a river like the Klickitat if you’ve never fished a glacier fed river and faced the challenges? You can focus on a few things to help in choosing the best possible fly for the current conditions. Number one thing to look at is river conditions. For this article I am going to focus mainly on just water clarity and not go into detail all of the other conditions that could influence success or failure. Such as water temperatures, and river levels to name a few.

Let me state this up front before diving into what I truly want to talk about. The Klickitat River was made for nymph fishing. You could be standing knee deep in a beautiful run, scratching your head and wondering why the heck you haven’t hooked a steelhead. There has to be a steelhead in this run. It’s too beautiful a run not to have fish in it. Trust me I’ve mentally said this to myself more times than I would like to admit. The Klickitat typically runs cold, colder than the average summer run river due to the glacial run off and because of this the fish sometimes (depending on water temps) the fish just won’t or don’t want to chase a fly down and grab it. This is why nymphing is such an effective technique on the Klick. Plus, in that beautiful run we just talked about, in reality there could be a number of “buckets” that will hold the fish and if you know where those buckets are, you’re ahead of the game. If your fishing the swing and you know where those buckets are, you can carry a loop in your hand and when you’re entering the bucket zone, drop the loop to cause your fly to flutter a bit in front of the bucket and then come swinging out of it and just that few seconds of having that fly in front of the fish can make a difference and entice a grab.

Guide Travis Wallace: Klickitat River
Klickitat River Guide Travis Wallace of Western Waters Guide Service is busy rowing
while I take in the upper canyon and all its glory!
So, how do you know where the buckets are? Well, my best advice is time on the water and or hiring a guide who knows the river well. If you really want to learn the Klickitat I recommend that you start keeping a journal. I mean a detailed journal with every possible bit of information you can log. I would take river temps, visibility measurements, cloud cover, no cloud cover, I mean every piece of info you can think of. Then after a while, you will start to see patterns of success. When I first started fishing the Klickitat in the late 70’s I did just that. For several years I kept a detailed log and eventually didn’t need to do it anymore. It became ingrained in my mind. Now, I enjoy swinging success on a consistent basis. I have become very comfortable fishing water that most fly fisherman would simply call unfishable. I have enjoyed success in as little as 8” of visibility. Now, that being said, it definitely helps when you know where the fish should be under this condition and can place the fly right in their face. I also want to state that I have had many days where I’ve fished in less than a foot of visibility and hooked nothing. But I’ve also had some days in this extreme condition that I have caught fish. Fish, that if I hadn't fished in those conditions I wouldn't have caught.

I’ve always said that if you can swing up steelhead on the Klickitat River, you can pretty much swing them up on any other river. I know there are folks out there who will debate that last statement. The Klickitat fine tunes you. It forces you to experiment, it forces you to have patience, and it forces you to think about what you’re doing. You can cast and swing and hope something happens. I mean you could get lucky every once in a while and that does happen. But to consistently hook fish on the Klick, you’re going to have to be ready to pay attention and think about what you are doing. You’re going to have to choose your fly with purpose, especially when you’ve only got 10” of visibility to work with.

I’m trying to build your confidence in swinging the Klickitat for steelhead. It can be a tough river, yes, will you work for them? Yes. Will it totally be worth it? Yes! The Klick will fine tune your swinging techniques. Two summers ago, I hooked up about 80 percent of the time I swung the Klickitat. Those are extraordinary odds, but then again, we had a better run that year and having guided it for 23 years, I know the Klick intimately and where the fish are in any given condition. The following fall my success rate dropped considerably and it wasn’t that I changed my choices of flies or needed to change my swinging techniques from the fall before, but because we had far less steelhead in the system. When you are chasing anadromous fish, it’s staggering how many variables can come into play when it comes to success and I don’t care which variable you want to dissect but the variable of having more fish than less fish always…I say always plays in your favor.

When it comes to fishing the Klickitat, you just gotta fish it. You can’t always wait for “perfect” conditions. The river is only open six months out of the year (June – Nov) and out of those six months I’ve seen years where 2 months were what I would call legitly un-fishable. The season goes by so fast. And just like becoming a better Spey caster you have to cast in all conditions. If you want to be a better caster in the wind, you gotta cast in the wind. If you want to be a better fisherman under tough conditions, you gotta fish in tough conditions. That’s a fact you can deposit in the bank. You will NEVER be a better caster in windy conditions if you never fish when its windy and you will NEVER be a better fisherman in touch conditions like the Klickitat can give you unless you fish in these conditions. What have you got to lose? What have you got to gain? Ok, enough of this…I hope you’re getting the idea.

Fly Selections:

Now, let’s talk about fly selection under a few conditions. I hope you will take my advice and check out the Skagit Master 3 DVD. When you see the underwater footage of what certain flies look like under different conditions, you’ll understand what I am trying to say. I am a visual guy and I can learn more by having someone show me something one time rather than reading a story about it. 

Before I dive into my favorite flies for the Klickitat let me give you a list of effective flies that put steelhead on the beach:
  • Hobo Spey
  • Foxee Dog
  • Larimer’s Purple Green Butt Skunk
  • Larimer’s Brazillion
  • Larimer’s Loop Leach (Black, Purple or Pink)
  • Larimer’s Dirty Socks (ok, that’s just a joke, but it would probably get a grab)
  • Larimer’s Reverse Marabou (ok, I’m not obsessed with Tom, he’s a friend of mine and you can’t argue with success…his flies work…period!)
  • Purple Muddler Minnow
  • Jeff Hickman’s Fish Taco
  • Lady Caroline
  • Silvey’s Pool Cleaner (I love that name for a fly…wish I would have thought of it)
  • Garrett’s Mojo (not available yet, but soon will be, pictures to follow, sorry for the self promotion)

DISCLAIMER: In no way is a complete list of flies that would take fish on the Klickitat River. They’re ones that I have come to use on more occasions than not, and I fish them with total confidence.

Look closely at the list. You will notice I basically have two styles of flies listed. Smaller wet flies for the right conditions and larger, bigger silhouetted, flies for their right conditions. I’ve been known to swing a purple Muddler Minnow on a Rio Mow T-8 or Airflo Flo T-7 Sink tips in low clear water, in late November. But when you only have a foot of visibility, I want a fly with some profile to it, I want a fly that is easy to cast, that will push some water and that can be seen by the fish when clarity is an issue. I’m talking flies that will range from 3 to sometimes 5 inches long. For Pete’s sakes, I have caught steelhead while fishing for Chinook with a K-16 Kwikfish. Have you guys seen how big a K-16 Kwikfish is? They are hurkin big, see photo below. So, I have no problem launching a 4 or 5 inch fly in “off colored” water for steelhead.
Hurkin big Kwikfish…Steelhead are not afraid of big!

I mean this is not Steelhead revelation kind of stuff here. My basic rule is this: The more colored the water, the darker my fly. I wouldn’t pick a pink Hobo Spey when I only have a foot of visibility or less, BUT I would definitely pick the Black and Blue Hobo Spey because in high off colored water the dark color will stand out better. Why do I like the Hobo so much? Well, it produces a big silhouette and I like the fact that it isn’t weighted. I can get the fly down with my sink tips and on the Klickitat for the most part, the Klick is not a very deep river and I don’t need a fly that is heavy. I want my fly to continue to swing all the way into the bank. Often times if you’re using a fly that has large dumbbell eyes and is too heavy, it will simply die in the swing when you run out of enough current to keep it up off the bottom.

There are runs on the Klick that next to the bank are almost like frog water, and incidentally that’s a perfect place for a high, off colored water steelhead to be, and I hate it when my fly dies when it gets there because it’s too heavy. The Hobo Spey will continue to swing and fish that slower almost slack water next to the bank if you simply lift and mend your line ever so slightly towards the bank. I have literally hooked steelhead a foot off the bank on the Klickitat.

There is one run that comes to mind as I type this scenario out. The run is about waist deep just a few feet off the bank. The head of the run is classic, small choppy water with the right speed. As your fly swings through this run it comes to the slack water about 15 feet from the bank and your fly just comes to a screeching halt. The main current seam and the slack water meet and it just grabs your line and stops it. Most anglers I’ve guided in this spot in the past, start to strip in as soon as that happens and they quickly hear me encouraging them not to strip. I have them pause their swing for a few seconds right where it stopped just in case a steelhead has followed their fly and might grab it on the hang down. If after a few seconds the grab doesn’t come, I will very gently lift my rod tip or have them lift their rod tip and begin to bring it in towards the bank and about 2 seconds after doing that something magical happens. The secondary current that is almost un-noticeable grabs your Spey line and begins to slowly swing it into the bank. It is within this last fifteen feet of water that your world will erupt. I can’t tell you how many fish I have taken over the years in this spot in this same manner. Almost always, every client or friend I have ever fished this spot with, comments on how they wouldn’t have let the fly continue to swing all the way into the bank, because they thought the swing was over fifteen feet ago. This is one of the buckets we were talking about earlier.

Another thing to think about when the water is off colored is the speed of your swing. I normally love the classic swing speed that mesmerizes the mind, causing anxiety attacks and builds the anticipation to the point I can hardly stand it. But when the visibility is less than desirable, let’s say it’s at ten inches or even a foot, I will tend to slow my swing down. It makes no sense to me to have my fly ripping across the run when visibility is limited. I want to give the fish a bit longer to look at it or to be able to follow it. This is the very reason I am choosing a bigger fly in the first place, so the fish can see it. I mean when I’m driving in foggy conditions, and visibility is low, I tend to slow down so I can see better. In my opinion if my swing is coming across too fast, a steelhead may not react to it because he can’t see it. I have had so many takes that are what I would call “Plucks” from steelhead in low visibility conditions. Even though trout and steelhead have excellent eye sight and can pick up even the smallest of nymphs in fast choppy water, history has taught me that in off colored water where visibility is questionable, I MUST slow down my fly for better success. That being said, the speed of my swing can be determined on how off colored the water is.

Remember, what I call ten inches or a foot of visibility, to the steelhead is more likely twenty inches to two feet of visibility. I think that if folks would log this little golden nugget of information in their minds and in their journals they would start fishing under these “challenging conditions” more. I also think that they would be pleasantly surprised. I honestly would rather fish colored water than gin clear water any day and I think most would agree with that. Now, there does come a point where rivers like the Klickitat are just unfishable. I kinda draw the line at what I would call 8” of visibility. In my experience, especially for the guy swinging a fly, success comes rarely between six inches to eight inches of visibility. But it’s amazing the difference between eight inches and ten inches of visibility. I have caught fish in six inches of visibility, but only a few and I would admit that some luck and strategy was involved. I have caught way more at ten inches or better. Here are a few shots of what the Klickitat can look like. (Photos by Rolf of the Klickitat Trader.)

[ Un-Fishable zero vis ] [ Un-Fishable 4” vis ] [ Un-Fishable 6” vis ] [ Fishable 1’ vis ] [  Fishable 2’ + ]
I just thought of a great example of fishing in off colored water where a bit of luck was involved. Working for the Gorge Fly Shop, we have manufacture reps that will come in and often will leave a rod or a reel for us to try out before sending it back to them. Well one of our reps left an 8wt switch rod that he wanted us to take a look at. Travis, the shop owner told me to take the rod down to the Hood River and play around with it and let him know what I think. I said…”Do I have to?!” with a smile on my face. So, I grab the rod, take it down to the river the next morning to get a feel for it and the visibility of the water by measuring the toes of my wading boots was about ten inches. So here I am with this 8 wt switch rod, lined up with a Rio Scandi head, ten feet of floating Airflo Polyleader, three feet of 10 pound tippet to my fly (which just happened to be a Larimer’s Bazillion) and I commence just having a big time casting this rod and getting a feel for it. Not even trying to catch a steelhead. I am just there to give Travis a report when I get back to the shop.

Seriously, about my twelfth or fourteenth cast I got spanked. Now would I typically choose a Scandi style line under these conditions to effectively fish for steelhead? NO! It doesn’t make sense to use a floating line, on the surface when there is only ten inches of visibility in the water. The point I want to make is the simple fact that the steelhead saw and chased that little wet fly and ate it in muddy water. You just gotta believe that they can see it. Had I seriously gone down there to try to catch a steelhead, I would have strung up my Skagit Head and a sink tip and tied on one of my Mojo’s or a Hobo Spey without even giving it a second thought. Again, in my opinion catching that fish, under those conditions, there was a bit of luck involved, especially with a floating line. But it proved to me that these magnificent fish can see better than we can or think they can in off colored water.
Steelhead/Salmon Flies
Mojo steelhead and salmon fly combinations
Shown here above are just a couple of color combinations of my Mojo steelhead and salmon fly. This fly is extremely effective not only in clearer water conditions but also in off colored water conditions that often come with fishing rivers like the Klickitat. My favorite color combos are the Orange, Red and Black, the Purple and Black, the Blue and Black, the Pink, Purple and Black for steelhead and for salmon the Blue, Chartreuse and Black. If you put a gun to my head and told me I could only choose one for all conditions it would be an easy choice for me! I would choose the Orange, Red and Black shown above in the left photo in a heartbeat.

So, my intention as I said before was to encourage you to fish the Klickitat when you might think it may not be fishable and to experiment with bigger darker fly patterns and to slow your swing down when needed. I will try to follow up with informative Klickitat articles targeting other variables that will help improve your odds. I know that there are a few of you that already know about all this information, you’ve maybe even talked with me in the shop and this all seems to be a repeat of what we talked about. But there are those out there that are still scratching their heads wondering why they struggle on the Klickitat and this could be the first time they have heard it.

Even after all the years and countless hours that I’ve spent guiding and fishing the Klick, I still have days or even a string of days where I never get a grab. That’s swinging for steelhead with a Spey rod. That’s a fish that continues to draw me in and fuels my addiction for more. To me, in freshwater, there is no equal. I think about them all the time. I’ve spent most of my adult life pursuing them and when I’m not swinging for them, I’m tying flies for them. I’ve always said that I can handle not catching a fish, but I can’t handle not fishing. In the future when faced with less than prime water conditions think about what you’ve read here today and take a steelheads point of view and after a while you will enjoy success. I hate to harp on the guiding part, but I had to make a living, I had to learn how to effectively catch fish in all but the most extreme conditions or my family would have gone hungry. Trust me, success breeds success and if you begin to apply these tips, you will begin to increase your confidence and in turn your success. Get out there, don’t wait for a fishing report…be a fishing report!

Fall Chinook
A bright Fall Chinook couldn’t resist the Orange, Red and Black Mojo!

Helpful Klickitat Information

Additions added August 26th, 2014

Shuttle Services/Licenses/Fuel/Fishing Reports and more:

Klickitat Canyon Market, Carl Coolidge @ 509.369.4400 or 541.399.2470.

Klickitat Trader, Rolf @ 509.369.3601 . He has an awesome website with current river conditions and clarity that you can check out at: This is a great place to see what the river looks like that day.

Current Water Conditions:

Places to Stay:

Klickitat River Lodging:  A website with vacation rentals for a couple properties listed:  and

Place to eat:
Huntington’s Steakhouse, famous for their steaks and considered some of the best in the Columbia River Gorge.  It’s a restaurant in the middle of nowhere (Klickitat, WA) and folks from Portland have been known to drive to Klickitat just for the steak.  Ph:  509. 369.4371

Guide Service:

Travis Wallace of Western Waters Guide Service @ 509.850.5125 or on the web at (He also has some lodging available.)

The GFS Team
John Garrett

Be sure to also read - Chapter Two:
Klickitat River Mid Season with John Garrett


"Fly Fish the World with Us"


  1. Excellent article John. Way to inflate life back into my impotent steelhead frustrated sinking line. Presentation and water color is key. Thanks for the links.

  2. Great article. Thanks for taking the time. I'm getting out there tomorrow. woohoo


Stay up to date: Free Newsletter Sign Up

  © 'and' Mike Prine 2009-2014

Back to TOP