I don’t know if Charles Brooks ever fished steelhead, and at the time I was studying his methods I had no idea that Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout would eventually take me to the banks of British Columbia’s Thompson River and to a strain of wild steelhead that would come to define my fly fishing life.
On the Thompson it was tough not to notice the abundant golden stonefly shucks that adorn most every rock. I’m not sure of the genus of these bugs—my friend and noted aquatic entomologist Rick Haefle could probably give them one look and let me know, but it’s fun just to think of them as golden stones, and so I do.
Coming to steelheading from a trout fishing background, I began to wonder if steelhead would take a golden stone imitation. But the problem with Thompson steelhead is that they are—or sadly were, as the river is now closed to angling—notoriously difficult to catch on a fly. So fishing a pattern for a day, or two, or even three or more might not tell you anything about whether or not these fish would take it. It wasn’t until about seven years into my time on the Thompson that I had a four-fish morning in the same run, finally convincing me that Thompson steelhead liked golden stonefly imitations a lot. And that fly was my Thompson Stone, which owed pretty much everything to the thinking of Charles Brooks.
The Thompson Stone didn’t start out tied in the round. In fact, the first versions were tied on the Partridge Bartleet Supreme Atlantic salmon hooks. When I dropped the original in the currents and watched it drift past, as I held the leader to mimic the effects of a tight line wet fly swing, I noticed it tended to fish either sideways or tipped upside down. It rarely fished as I imagined it would, upright and looking natural. At the time I was experimenting with tube flies, and I wondered if a Thompson Stone tied on a tube might be a solution. Perhaps if I used a heavier hook it might keep the fly oriented as I intended. So I did . . . and had the same problem.
I recalled something about tying in the round as a solution to this turn and tumble of a traditional tie, and so I simplified the pattern and tied it as Brooks might. In the currents the fly now looked the same from every angle, and I stopped worrying about how it was fishing and started actually fishing it.
My presentation owed something to Brooks as well, fishing a sunk fly on a tight line, feeling for the take. Because the Thompson Stone was tied with wire it wanted to sink, so I let it. Then when the line tightened the fly would rise in the currents. Steelhead took the fly most often during the back half of the drift, as the fly rose and then drifted along just under the surface. Years later I learned that none other than the venerable Harry Lemire was fishing a nymph-style fly in a similar fashion as a solution to situations where steelhead were tough to seduce.
The Thompson Stone is an impressionistic tie that looks a little bit like a stonefly and a little bit like a caddis pupa, and enough of each that steelhead seem to find it irresistible no matter where I find them. It’s one of my top steelhead producers, and one of only four steelhead flies you’ll regularly find in my vest.
Nymph fishing for larger fish, whether 20-inchers on a blue-ribbon stream or 20-pounders on a steelhead river, has become the focus of my moving water angling. And even on lakes, where I chase big rainbows spring and fall, I’m adapting the skills Brooks taught and the in-the-round tying method that gives me confidence in my flies during those long fishless days.
Becoming a good nymph fisher is harder than it looks, but you’ll know you have it when you set for no apparent reason and are rewarded with the pulse of life on the line. It’s a long drift from the bottom of the Madison to just subsurface on BC’s greatest steelhead river, but Charles Brooks pushed me off and pointed the way. Seek him out. There’s much to discover while fishing a Brooks Stonefly on a tight line.