Almost every client I have at one time or another during the day asks me the same question, was that a pluck or a rock?  My answer is usually something like, well, let's walk back up stream and find out.  

The hunt for steelhead on a swung fly is in itself, an exercise of both the mind and the body.  I think of it as the fly fisherman's version of climbing Mount Everest.  There is so much prep work before we even hit the water.  Then when on the water, we are subjected to the worst elements (rain, snow, wind, hale, and isolation.) We stand waist deep in near freezing water, casting a 2-6inch piece of fur and feathers into glacially tinted water for hours on end, with the hopes that we will be the one that makes it to the summit.  That summit of course being a wild anadromous solitary fish, that is not inclined to move to a fly let alone eat said offering.  

Much like climbing, swinging a fly for steelhead will bring us to some of the most beautiful and pristine environments on earth.  It will test our resolve and it will be unsuccessful for most of us on any given day.  They say that only one in four people that attempt the summit of Everest are successful.  Many come very close only to find that either the environment or their own mind stops them from making those final steps to stand on top of the world.  But all who attempt this feat will be forever part of a very unique fraternity.  One that everyone else looks up to.  One that everyone else thinks is  just a little off for doing.  

When I stand among a group of fishermen at the take-out of any steelhead river, I get these same stares and feelings from those around me.  When I am successful in taking a wild steelhead on a swung fly others look at me like I have somehow done something that transcends everyday existence.  I only have this to say to them.  They too can do this, they just have to set their mind in the right place and prepare themselves for the journey.  Part of the preparation is knowing what to expect and how to react to what may happen.  I see many guys stepping into a run and swinging all day long.  Swing step swing step swing step and so forth.  All day long they react pretty much the same.  They are not successful and the longer they are not successful the more and more careless they become.  A bad cast isn't followed up with a recast to the same spot, instead they take a step downstream and move on.  They feel the umtillionth pluck on their line and they step and move on.  The wind, rain, snow, or frozen fingers gets the best of them and they start becoming complacent, taking 2-6 steps between casts.  Not looking for midstream rocks or other current breaks to swing their fly through.  They have given up.  They have already started back down Everest without even knowing it.

When you ask the guide if that was a pluck or a rock, stop yourself, take a deep breath and remember what you are trying to accomplish.  You are climbing Everest, and now is not the time for a mental mistake.  Take a few steps back up river.  Pull your line in if you have to and check the sharpness of your hook.  Reset your mind.  Get back into a place of control mentally.  That may not have been a fish, but, it may have been one too.  Ask yourself, was my fly not touching bottom the previous casts?  Is there a boulder out there higher than the rest?  Is this a likely place to encounter a fish?  Well the short answer to that last question is yes.  Steelhead can be anywhere from the mouth of the river to the very spot that they are going to spawn, so yes that could have been a fish.

Now that you have yourself in a better frame of mind, let's take another pass at that "fish."  Start back into swinging a short distance up from where we encountered the pluck.  Cast at the same angle and distance we were when we felt it.  This time instead of making our usual steps downstream we are going to half or quarter that distance between casts.  We want to give this fish every opportunity we can to see our fly again.  If when we reach the same spot as before we feel a pluck again or nothing at all, we will re-evaluate what just happened.  But until we swing that water again we will never know if that pluck was a fish or a rock.