Oct 9, 2014

Klickitat River Late Season with John Garrett

Jeremy Hull successfully swung up this beauty right after losing one earlier. He totally redeemed himself. You know that feeling of losing a fish after working so hard to get the grab, yeah that feeling! Jeremy was using a Morejohn Bantam when he went from a zero to a hero! There were so many fish in this run, we could have easily went through it a couple more times. The only reason we left was we had 5 more miles of river to fish and it was noon already!


Wow, time is seriously flying by. It seems like I just finished the first and second editions to fishing the Klickitat River. I thought I could take a breather and not have to worry about what to write and here we are, what seems like the next day, and I am writing the final entry for late season steelheading on the Klickitat River. Before we know it, the river will close and we’ll have to wait six months before it re-opens again in June.

Late season on the Klickitat (Oct & Nov) is by far my favorite months of the six month season that it’s open. The crowds start to calm down because the salmon are spawning and will soon die, and the deer and elk hunters are chasing deer and elk and the river’s painted with fall colors. I love fishing for Chinook but if I had to choose between Chinook or Steelhead, the steelhead would win every time, hands down. I just love the acrobatics of a steelhead more than the tug a war of a Chinook. And the steelhead that have been nervous and in hiding the past six weeks start to come out to play.

Our Drift boat takes a break as we swing this beautiful long run that is shaded from the heat of the day…
October: Klickitat River Fall weather can be challenging. Folks need to be prepared for 45 degree mornings and 85 degree afternoons. Just this past Monday I was on the river with good Friends Don Hull and his son Jeremy and it was seriously chilly at daylight and we were talking about how nice it would be when the sun pops out and we could warm up. Eventually the sun did wake up and it quickly heated up to 87 degrees, and we found ourselves talking about how nice some shade would feel. Never satisfied are we? There was a point where Jeremy even reached over the side of the boat to cup some cool Klickitat water and put it on his head and neck. We literally went from shivering to sweating in a matter of a few hours. I’ve been in very few places where warm clothes and sunscreen are a must in the same day.

Before heading to the river check the weather report the night before and dress accordingly. I know weather can change but it’s better to be prepared than not. As far as I’m concerned what you wear this time of year is as important to what you do while on the water. You will want to layer with warm clothes under your waders. If you’re wading and swinging flies for most of the day it can get pretty chilly with the cool water temps and shade. Remember the temperatures are always cooler when you are on the water.

November: Can be brutal. I have seen air temperatures in the low teens and water temps at 31 degrees. Again, stating the obvious you want to be prepared. If you’re boat fishing bring a propane heater to take the edge off when needed. Even if you’re bank fishing put a propane heater in your truck or trunk and do the same. It can make a world of difference in how long you stay out and fish. Have you ever heard of a Jet Boil? If you have one great, bring it, use it. Fresh hot coffee or a hot bowl of soup will revive you like nothing else. If you don’t have one…get one! I don’t personally have one yet, but a buddy of mine does and it is a lifesaver. I have one on my Christmas wish list. Okay, enough on the weather, moving on. Oh wait, one more thing related to weather, when the leaves start to fall you will want to avoid any days that call for windy conditions, especially at the beginning of the leaves falling. The river will absolutely become choked full of the leaves and I’m not just talking about on the surface, leaves will be in every column of the river and it makes it almost impossible to swing a fly without snagging them. The initial few days of the leaves falling make it very tough. Even nymph fishing can be challenging. I believe the fish are so bombarded by the leaves that it distracts them. After that few first days, most of the leaves will be gone.

Wet fly selection (left photo) – Don’t be afraid to fish on a sink tip if low and clear: from top to bottom: Jack O Lantern, Purple GP Spey, Euphoria, Skating Caddis, Boss, Mack’s Canyon, Purple Peril, Purple Green Butt Skunk, Come Back Caddis

A great selection of flies (right photo) to attach to your sink tips when water temperatures drop: MoreJohn’s Bantam, Silvey’s Sylvinator, Hobo Spey in Purple, Blue and Black, Pink & Orange, Mini Pick Yer Pocket, Mini Intruder and the orange GP Spey.

If you’re a dry line junkie and love to swing a skater or a subsurface wet fly (and who isn’t or doesn’t), your days are numbered. With the air temperatures dropping expect the water temps to do the same. Now I’m not saying that you won’t be able to catch a steelhead on a dry line or even with a skater in November…but if you do…you might want to stop at the nearest convenience store on your way home and buy yourself a lottery ticket, the odds could forever be in your favor.

NYMPH FISHING: will remain productive and you may experience that the fish will turn “0ff” of the bead, the trout bead that is. They have gotten to the point that they are sick of em. This is the time to try Copper John’s or Brassie’s with a strong enough hook that you won’t bend them out on a decent steelhead. We all know that the bead is “Money” most of the time, but there can be a time when it just isn’t paying off. Don’t be afraid to get trouty with the steelhead.

STORY TIME: I was sight fishing a bucket once where I could physically see six steelhead in it and I couldn’t get them to take a bead to save my life. I tried different sizes and colors but got no love. Finally out of frustration I just opened my fly box and tied on a couple different sizes of Copper John’s. Needless to say, I proceeded to hook 4 of the steelhead in a short period of time. Unfortunately these were smaller Copper John’s which you would use for trout and the hooks easily bent out. What did I do next? I went home, sat down at my vise and whipped out a couple hundred of them with a heavier hook to finish out my guiding season with.

These were fish that had seen beads to the point they were no longer interested. They had become numb to them. These were fish that had been in the system for a while. And to be honest with you, this was before there were as many folks bead fishing the Klick as there are nowadays. I mean believe it or not, if I ate rib eye steak every day I’d get tired of it. I encourage you to try something creative if and when the bead won’t work. What did I learn? When you know there are fish where you’re fishing and you can’t get them to bite what you’ve been using, try to mix it up and show them something different. Don’t just walk away with your head down.

Sometimes it’s just adjusting the depth of your offering. Now I am a big time believer that if there are just a few fish in the system and you don’t know for sure if there are fish in the run, stick with what you know works, but if there are fish there and you can’t get them to bite try mixing it up. It often pays off. I’m not just addressing nymph fishing here, I do the same if I am swinging. I will adjust sink tips, flies or the angles that I’m presenting the fly. I guess what I’m saying is don’t just wade out, cast and hope something happens. I like to walk away from a run knowing that I gave it my very best shot and if I didn’t hook a fish, I’m okay. Ask anyone in the shop if they have ever heard me say…”Man, I didn’t hook any this morning, but I fished it the best I could”. What more could you ask for. Sometimes the fish, with a brain the size of a green pea wins. That’s just how it is. BOTTOM LINE: NEVER LEAVE FISH TO FIND FISH!

A special fish and a special moment: Past client with his first Swung steelhead and she was a dandy!
ON THE SWING: If swinging is your thing and a tug is your drug, you can continue to have success on the Klickitat even if the water temperatures drop and become cold. Steelhead are like us in that when water temps are cold they can become lethargic, just like I am when I am cold, my hands don’t work very well and they don’t want to move very far to chase a fly, same on the other end of the spectrum, when it is too warm I become lethargic and all I want to do is cool off. What does this mean? It means you can improve your odds by the water you choose to focus on when the river temps drop.

When it is cold and the water temps drop, steelhead will concentrate is the slower sometimes deeper runs. This is where they can conserve energy. I have swung up steelhead when the water temperature was 32 degrees. I had to literally get the fly within inches of the fish with a sink tip and a slow swing. That’s the coldest water temp that I have swung up a steelhead personally. If you are nymph fishing, this can be a golden nugget for you, write this down on your fly box. If you have water temps 38-40 degrees or less, spend more time in the deeper, slower runs. It will pay off huge.

STORY TIME: (This can be confirmed by Travis Duddles, the Gorge Fly Shop Owner and a past client of mine, Ken Rogers, who is a wicked centerpin fisherman)! Sorry, this will read more like another nymphing story but take the info and principles and apply it to swinging and it will work. Two days in a row, the first while fishing my client Ken Rogers and his buddy and the second while fishing Travis and his friend from White Salmon we hooked a mixture of 21 steelhead and Coho in one run on the first day and 17 in the same run on the second day.

I hate to even tell you this because it seems pretty unrealistic, but I promise you it’s true. This run is a deep run, about 12 feet deep and the fish were stacked in there. Now in this situation I approach fishing the run differently than most would. Because I knew the water was cold and that the fish would likely be stacked in this spot and knowing how deep the run was, I set the indicators/bobbers at 9 feet to 10 feet deep. We know that historically steelhead will tend to hug the bottom of the river bed, so it’s a great place to start to see if there are fish there. After fishing at this depth and hooking a number of fish, the bite went off. I know that when I can hook multiple fish in one spot at a certain depth that the chances of more fish being “suspended” in the same run are pretty good.

So, I adjusted the indicators/bobbers a foot shallower. Immediately we began to hook multiple fish, until the bite went off at this depth. Again, we adjusted the indicators/bobbers another foot shallower and again immediately started hooking multiple fish. We did this until our depth was about 4 feet deep. So we went from an indicator depth of about 10’ to start down to 4’ deep. That’s a six foot difference and we hooked fish at every depth. Now imagine how many fish were stacked in that run.

You might ask if they were stacked why start so deep? Why not start shallow and work your way deeper? Well, because I know historically that if there are only a few fish in there that they will be hugging the bottom and I don’t want to waste time getting to the fish going from shallow to deep. But as I said, if I am hooking lots of fish, I know they are stacked and will work my way up until they quit biting. Again, I never leave fish to find fish and if a run has a bunch of fish in it and they are willing to bite, I’m not leaving them. I would rather run to the take out after fishing that run hard and catching fish than fish every run the last three miles of a float to hopefully find a fish.

The second part of this story is on the second day where I took Travis and his buddy and we hooked 17 fish in that very same run. Some of those where no doubt caught the day before. I also want to note that multiple boats were ahead of me, and this is what I meant about a golden nugget. Most guys and guides that I have witnessed fishing the Klick will set their depth and go. They may change the flies but rarely the depth. Another little nugget, when fishing these deep spots and you have determined that the depth is say twelve feet deep, set your indicator/bobber at 10’ to 10 ½’ deep and if the indicator/bobber goes down, I don’t care how slow…it’s a fish! In those deep slow runs the bobber typically is not going to bury like a rocket. These fish are cold and don’t want to move. They simply open their mouth and close it and the line comes into tension under the slow current causing the indicator/bobber to casually dip under the surface. Set the hook, even if it seems like the strike is in slow motion. Again, you can swing fish runs like this just as well. You can adjust your sink tips and systematically cover the water. This is an excellent place to put on your intermediate head because of the speed and depth of some of the runs the intermediate head works very well to get you in the zone. If needed to still get down deeper, you can put on a heavy fly to help get it down. There are spots where the current is slow but the run isn’t deep. This is a place to use your lighter tips and a non-weighted fly. In general, evaluate how deep the run is then adjust your set up accordingly.

Not only do leaves change in colors this time of year, look at this: stunning!
LAST CAST: As I am typing this out, I’m thinking of how little time is left in the season. It’s easy for me to say sweet, we still have a couple of months left before she closes. But in reality, as fast as the rest of the year has gone by, the end of November is like next week. Get out when you can, be prepared, be versatile, and make the most of it. Try a few of these tricks and see if success is your reward. Stop by the Gorge Fly Shop on your way to the water and we will help you with anything you may need. We carry a huge selection of inventory to serve you. If you can’t find it at the Gorge Fly Shop, you don’t need it…

See you out on the river and if you recognize me say hello!

The GFS Team
John Garrett

Be sure to also read - Chapter One:
John Garrett's Guide to Early Season Steelheading on the Klickitat


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