As the oldest flyfishing stream in the country, The North Fork of the Stilly is steeped in tradition, known for its wild summer steelhead of Deer Creek. This is a passionate subject for me. Not only was I fortunate enough to fish this river as a youth, my first job out of college was that of a fisheries biologist working back on my home river. I have certainly seen my share of this little wild steelhead, and I am thankful for every one. There is also the hatchery fish that swim these waters.
I am not about to climb on my soapbox and expound the hype-surrounding wild versus hatchery steelhead. Instead, I am going address my remarks to poor Joe who simply doesn’t have the means to spend his time in Russia or British Columbia. He does enjoy a pretty stream with a decent chance at swimming a steelhead. Simply put, if we didn’t have a hatchery program on the Stilly, we wouldn’t have a summer fishery. Period. But I am not here to talk about that. I am going to explain where, when, and how to catch them.
Where: Just for landmarks, I will break up the river into four sections.
Confluence upstream to Deer Creek. This is actually a two-day float. Deer Creek down to Cisero and Cisero down to Arlington. Migrational Timing: I will catch new 3 salt summer runs as early as April but June is the migrational timing these fish are primarily passing through the lower river. With many of the pools filled in from sediment produced from Deer Creek, these fish do not linger but swim directly for their natal stream, Fortson Creek. Though not quite as aggressive to the fly as a wild fish, they have a tremendous amount of stored energy to last for their year’s stay in fresh water. They are as “hot” as any fish that swims in the Stilly. Rocks are a real premium in the lower river. Pools with any boulders and logs in this section will pull steelhead in like a magnet. Fish the same flies and lines you do for the winter steelhead.
Deer Creek to Cisero has some of the best water. I like to fish this river section anytime Deer Creek allows 2 feet of visibility in the North Fork. The bulk of the Stilly steelhead run 7-12 pound 2 salt summer steelhead. July 4th is the traditional time to start looking for fish in good numbers, but the fishing can be great one day and zero the next. Summer water temperatures are coming up and fish will move to both sinking and floating line techniques. By the way, I have maintained for years that the Deer Creek fish actually prefer surface flies to wets. These lower river fish are not fussy, find the fish and get it in front of him. Bright, dark, big, small, just fish your fly right in the surface or right near the bottom. Mid water presentations are worthless.
Hazel to Deer Creek: I do not believe I have ever caught a wild summer run above Hazel. The first pulse of hatchery fish head directly for Fortson, the mid July two salt fish will start to slow up as they reach the mid river. By August 1, the hatchery fish are settling into imprinting locations. The first arrivals are very susceptible to the usual techniques. As they start getting fished on heavily, they become more reluctant to come to the surface, then to sinktips.
Hazel to Fortson: Same thing applies here, but the upper river gets pretty skinny and fish work their way up to the few deep prominent pools. Fortson has its own fishery. The angler who would not dream of walking in downstream of another angler in the lower river doesn’t hesitate to do so at Fortson. By the same token, nobody bothers to keep stepping down through the pool either. Advantages of Fortson Hole? Fish. I swear I don’t think there is a week in the year there isn’t a fish or two in Fortson. I won’t mention how many there can be. These poor fish are chased around by legitimate flyfishers all-day and snagged by poachers at night. The Deer Creek flyboys have such a disdain for this fishery, they have a point system set up. For example, A Deer Creek and anywhere downstream fish is worth 5 points, a Fortson fish, only one. You get the idea.
Fishing Strategy: I like to get out and poke around to find few fish here, a pod of fish there. I would rather fish over three rested steelhead then fifty hard hat fish, but I will do that too, if I think its the only game in town.
“Show them something different” The one vulnerability of a summer steelhead is he can be a sucker for a change-up. A story will illustrate the point. One day I was fishing a couple good ole boys from the mid-west. The summer water at French Creek was very low and clear and the steelhead had seen about everything. We were fishing small brown nymphs on floating lines and long leaders. We were having little success. Don decides he has had enough of that, so he says he is headed downstream around the corner. I said we would be down in a few minutes. We finally decided the steelhead in front of us were not going to bite and were just coming around the corner, and here comes Don carrying a grin the size of the steelhead in his hand. He proceeded to tell me the first thing he did was lose his fly and a good portion of his leader to a sunken log. He said he was tired of fishing that little sh##t anyway. I tried not to flinch. He went on to explain he pulls out HIS box of bass flies and ties on a 1/0 black zonker. It was heavily weighted and when it splashed down, this big steelhead was all over it! Needless to say, Don wasn’t fishing any small flies for the rest of that day!
Summer time is a great time to use your trout techniques. The same steelhead that refuses to come to the surface, and is bored to tears dodging another greenbutt skunk on a sinktip, can be a real sucker for a dead drifted dark nymph. (until they have seen all those too.) Do not be afraid to experiment. Sometimes dead drifting a woolly bugger right in front of a steelhead’s nose and strip it away, like you do at Rocky Ford, can be killer!
Fall becomes a transitional time, and many of the Stilly’s hatchery steelhead holding in the lower river, start migrating for home. This October fishery is a great time to fish. If I wasn’t chasing the best rising steelhead in the pacific Northwest on the Grande Ronde River, I would be there, myself.
“Moving fish are taking fish”. Stories are told and retold about hitting the right pool when the fall migration is moving through. My biggest day anytime anywhere (Alaska doesn’t count) was hooking an even 20 steelhead and landing thirteen, on this fall migration.
Summer time is a lovely time to fish and remember not all the fish are at Fortson. Not until the late fall, anyway.