By Jerry Bush
I am not suggesting fly-fishing Lake Erie’s tributaries this time of year while buck naked. It is much too cold for that. Dedicated fly-fishers are more interested in having steelhead notice their offerings.
Stripping is a common fly-fishing tactic involving retrieval of an imitation without using the reel.
For better or worse, we fly-fishermen tend to get caught in ruts, especially if we enjoy a moderate amount of success. We repeatedly approach tributary steelhead the same way.
We cast slightly upstream, allow our nymphs, Woolly Buggers, or egg imitations to drift downstream, expecting a big “chromer” will devour it as it passes by. While that method often works, there are periods when that standard tactic falls short of expectations.
Stripping offers a simple, viable alternative. Well maybe not so simple! The act of holding the rod in one hand and pulling the fly-line toward you with the opposite hand below the rod seems easy enough, but there are a host of variables to consider.
Should you strip line in short, quick bursts, or longer, slower movements? Maybe you should mix movements; offering a few short, quick bursts intermingled with long, lazy pulls? At times, continually lazy movements are key, but at other times 3-foot, quick dashes and pauses are what the fish desire.
What if the fish desire a fly that hesitates for a few seconds at the bottom before it suddenly dashes for the surface? As you can see, stripping line is not so simple after all!
Relax and accept there will never be a single way to enjoy success every single time on the water. The real measure of skill is to be armed with as many tactics as possible to be able to try something different when success is fleeting.
In my humble opinion, stripping is a tactic reserved for use with streamers and Woolly Buggers. Unlike emergers, nymphs, and fish eggs, which imitate food sources always carried downstream by the current, streamers and Woolly Buggers represent live bait able to resist a stream’s current. Examples include protein-rich leaches, minnows, and other small fish.
A favored approach is to access the upper third of a hole believed to hold steelhead. Cast upstream and allow the imitation to drift into the hole as a fly-fisher would normally do while drifting a sucker spawn or nymph.
This is especially true if a waterfall empties into the pool. There are nearly always fish under the energized water that can’t be seen, and they should never be ignored. The stripping tactic takes place next.
Instead of moving downstream, move upstream and cast across the creek where any waterfall empties into a pool and strip the imitation back toward you, letting it run parallel to the falls. Before moving downstream, stay in place and cast downstream.
Immediately strip the streamer or Woolly Bugger back toward your torso with various motions. For example, short, quick bursts before trying long, steady strips.
Do not overlook the “countdown” tactic if fish fail to strike. Counting down is simply allowing a lure to sink deeper or shallower before retrieval.
Assuming the water’s current will allow it, a streamer or bugger will sink deeper if the fly-fisher waits two seconds instead of one second to retrieve, or three seconds instead of two, or four instead of three, and so on. All members of the trout family have a propensity to attack rising baits.
Slow, steady movement is one of the most difficult stripping actions to maintain. This is where a tactic taught to me by an Alaskan guide is effective. He called it “finger cradling,” which is simply pinching the line between the thumb and index finger, and slowly rotating the wrist while passing the line and pinching it to the little finger before the index finger and wrist repeats the action.
I doubted my guide, believing I’d need to practice that action sometime when I wasn’t paying for his services, but I tried it anyway and found the dexterity of our hands is truly a marvel. Cold fingers can make cradling difficult, but I found it is easy to cheat by passing the line to the index finger of the hand holding the rod, which easily pinches the line against the rod between wrist rotations.
All fish are not always in the deepest portion of a pool. Bear in mind, when stripping streamers and buggers, you are imitating baitfish and leach type critters that are often found huddled in shallow water to suck up the sun’s rays.
Therefore do not hesitate to present a few random casts just off the opposite shoreline, with the mindset that a hefty steelhead will occasionally leave the protective depths of a pool to make a sweep in hopes of picking up some protein that strayed just a bit farther from the shallow confines than it should have.
Even if a strike does not occur, the imitation will drift downstream anyway, and can be retrieved through the main current at the deepest portion of the pool. As the saying goes: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained!”
The next time you encounter steelhead ignoring nymphs, sucker spawn and salmon egg imitations, try stripping to get their attention.