Sage Z-Axis 7136
It was another of those “I’m going fishing without any hopes whatsoever of catching a fish” days. I do that quite a bit.
I live in the once-sleepy little town of Duvall, Washington, and a river runs through it. The Snoqualmie River, that is – a lazy, meandering, silt-laden slough of water with barely any visible current. Twenty or so miles upstream the river spills over Snoqualmie Falls, making its way north past the Tokul Creek fish hatchery and through the town of Fall City. There actually is some current in these upper stretches of the river, and it can hold some steelhead: mostly tight-lipped, dour hatchery brats that afford the angler a false sense of hope. Below Fall City the river snakes its way toward the town of Carnation, losing gradient along the way. The farther north the river flows the less the river actually resembles something that might hold a steelhead or two. Past Carnation and all the way to Duvall and beyond, the Snoqualmie becomes more of a frog water ditch. There are stretches of the river where I actually think the current flows backwards (it’s that slow). It’s like this until it joins the Skykomish to form the Snohomish a few miles farther North. I shouldn’t be too hard on the lazy Sloqualmie, as it does give up the occasional Squawfish (at least two in my experiences).
When the need to fish becomes overwhelming and I don’t have time for a proper day of angling, I’ll drive the 8 short miles toward Carnation where there are a couple runs that have enough current to swing a fly. It’s been reported that a steelhead has been caught in this area but it’s more mythical than anything else. However, I can be there in 15 minutes and if I time it right I can have the water to myself, which is how I prefer it. There’s a good reason I can nearly always have one of these runs to myself: accomplished anglers go where the chances of catching fish are actually somewhat favorable. So now that I’ve wasted your precious time telling you about the sub-standard steelhead fishery that I call my home waters, let’s get right to the matter of actually fishing.
The weather was cloudy and the meteorologists had predicted rain. Looking skyward that morning it didn’t take much convincing for me to grab the Goretex jacket, and I even threw on a pair of lightweight long johns under my waders. I was actually hoping for rain. Jimmy showed up at my house around 9 AM (there’s no reason to be in a hurry when you’re just headed out for some casting practice on a river that rarely gives up fish of any kind). Fifteen minutes later we were parked near the river and gearing up. I grabbed my Sage Z-Axis 7136 Spey rod and the spool containing my floating summer line, a 480 grain Airflo Compact Scandi. The river was low and clear, so I figured I’d swing a small fly just below the surface. No point in dredging for fish rocks with a sink tip. Jimmy grabbed his 5 weight rod – he has not yet succombed to the evil temptress that is the two-handed rod. This is probably best since has 4 daughters and two of them are into horses. Equine endeavors leave little time and even less money for something like the dark side of fly fishing. In fact, so innocent was Jimmy that he’d never seen anyone cast a Spey rod before, and he simply wanted to come along and see how it’s done. I cautioned him that I was not the person to observe if he wanted to see how it’s done, but given no other options my casting would have to suffice. Sorry for that, Jimmy.
We set up along the first run and began plying the water. Jimmy quickly noted the benefits of Spey casting: “It sure looks a hell of a lot more efficient at getting the line out farther.” True that, but I cringed at his words. I did not in any way want to be responsible for the financial downfall of another angler, and the beginning of the end comes when the angler acknowledges first hand the benefits of Spey casting. Jimmy, if you’re reading this, then please read THIS. Let my cautionary essay against Spey casting serve you well. Walk away while you can and say these words: If you don’t Spey, don’t start. Repeat.
It took us less than an hour to fish through to the bottom of the run and being par for the course we didn’t have so much as a bump. We did, however, bump into another Spey casting man who said he’d been up around Fall City earlier in the morning. He noted that there had been someone in every run. This wasn’t surprising for a couple of reasons: First, every steelhead fly angler in the region had been chomping at the bit to catch a fall fish. The weather had recently been warm and dry, and few fish were moving throughout the rivers. That doesn’t ease the need to fish, however, so on this first cloudy day that promised rain, every steelhead angler was out hoping to put another notch in their catch card. Secondly, up around Fall City is where the best water for not catching a steelhead can be found.
That was enough to convince me that we wouldn’t be driving to Fall City, so we headed downstream a short ways to my other favorite spot that doesn’t produce fish. As we hiked in a half mile or so we both commented on how warm it was – almost freakishly warm, and the sun was actually trying to burn through the clouds. So much for the weather forecast and the need for Goretex. Before we started casting I cautioned Jimmy that about all we could hope to catch here would be steelhead parr. It’s not that I go out to target these toddlers intentionally, but they often hit a fly being swung for their adult kin or for sea run cutthroat. There’s only a short section of the river that presents decent swinging water, below which is a large, annoying eddy followed by vast expanses of frog water. I took up residence at the head of the run and fired off my first cast. Midway through the swing, sure enough I was once again a child-molester. The 5 inch fish really had no business hitting the Large Albacore Special (black and blue marabou streamer), but those little fish have piss and vinegar coursing through their cold blooded veins and they attack anything resembling food. It’s this same overachieving spirit that will one day ensure they survive a journey to the ocean and back. Even if they are just hatchery brats, one has to admire their spunk.
After removing the fly from the parr’s face, I cast again, gave a mend and let the fly swing across the current. Suddenly there was a solid hit at the end of my line that I knew came not from a troutlet. In fine steelhead angling fashion I laid the tip of my rod toward shore to let the fish set the hook itself, then held on. The head shaking and thrashing that ensued told me this was no Squawfish, and then the fish turned toward mid-river it took line from the reel in a quick burst. However, I knew it wasn’t a real big fish. Sea run cutthroat (SRC) came to mind, though this wasn’t typical SRC water – too much current and too little structure. Small steelhead was more likely, since I was targeting steelhead after all. Whatever it was, it fought good for its size.
I played the fish to shore and was not expecting what I saw. It had the typical coloring of a rainbow; not of a steelhead fresh out of the salt. The adipose fin was in tact so that indicated it was no hatchery fish, not to mention that it was simply too small to be a West coast steelhead (maybe a Great Lakes fish? Sorry Midwest anglers, I just couldn’t resist). I determined that it was a 15″ resident rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), which is the same species of fish that would have been called a steelhead had it simply left the river for the ocean. Now some of you may be rolling your eyes and thinking, “Hey Unaccomplished Angler – catching a rainbow trout is no big deal, and a 15 inch fish isn’t that impressive. And besides, weren’t you suppose to be fishing for steelhead? What an unaccomplishment, you hack!”
There’s no need for name calling, so let’s address those inquiries. Resident rainbow trout in this river are not only not common, in fact they’re quite uncommon. I’ve heard that they are around, though fairly rare and I’ve never met anyone personally who has ever caught one. Regardless of size, it’s relative rareness made it a very interesting and unexpected catch. And it’s been a long time since I caught a trout over 15 inches in the state of Washington, so I was impressed. And given that there are fewer resident rainbows than steelhead in this river, I’d go so far as to say that this was an angling accomplishment. I just wish I could have played that fish on a 4wt rod instead of m 7 wt Spey, because no matter how game the fish was, it was terribly outgunned. As for being a hack, I’ll not contest that accusation.
The other thing I wish iss that my camera hadn’t been set on macro focus mode. You see, I had just snapped the photo of the steelhead parr from a distance of about 10 inches. When the camera is shut off, it doesn’t default back to the standard focus mode, so when Jimmy snapped the photos of my rare, resident rainbow the results were less than stellar. While I’d like to hold Jimmy at fault, I have to accept the blame for not knowing my camera. The photos were as unexpected as the fish itself, although I wasn’t the least big disappointed with the fish.
As for the rain that was hoped for and predicted? It showed up two days later and fell with such ferocity that it blew the river out.
Note: I’m still nursing a hangover from the One Year Anniversary Party in the back room of the Unaccomplished Angler. Thanks to all who chimed in and helped celebrate this epic accomplishment. And to those late to the party: the banjo player has long since left the building; what remains of the food has grown a green beard and the scent of stale beer emanates from a few half-empty cups. But it’s still not too late to chime in.
My fly fishing self esteem has taken a couple hits lately. First, I took my wife fly fishing with me for her first ever trip, and she out-catched me. Admittedly I have very little pride when it comes to fishing so I was able to move on and put her victory my humiliation the incident behind me. It’s what we anglers do when we face adversity: cinch up our waders and move to the next run- there’s always a fish waiting for us around the next bend, right? The next event that eroded my self worth was something intended to be nothing more than a simple bit of father-son time.
The wounds from the trip with my wife had barely healed when I decided to take my son, Schpanky (the kid who never listens), out for a couple of hours on the local waters of the Snoqualmie River. His job at the golf course kept him busy this summer and we hadn’t had much time to fish. With school starting in a few days, I figured we better share a little time on the water while we had the opportunity. He’s gotten used to not catching fish when he joins me, so the enthusiasm level isn’t always as high as a father might hope for. But to his credit, he continues to stick with humor me. I’d been thinking that one way to make him forget all the troutless outings would be to put him on a steelhead, the fish of 1000 casts. For those in the know, the moment you hook into one of these silver bullets you forget the preceding 999 fruitless casts. At the time of this writing the steelhead fishing is not exactly red-hot near where I live. Yes, there are fish in the system, but what we’d been needing was some rain to start more fish into the rivers, and to make those in the rivers a little less dour. The salmon hadn’t started running yet, and the searun cutthroat never show me the love. What we have right now is some “down time”. But I would like to get him out this fall/winter, and thought a couple hours on a Sunday evening , wetting a line and talking about steelhead tactics would be some good time spent together.
I told the boy there wasn’t much chance of catching anything, but that there’s absolutely no chance if your fly isn’t in/on the water. With that in mind I also wanted to have him try some Spey casting, which is something he hadn’t yet done. Since falling for the Spey temptress myself I’ve found that the 999 casts between fish are quite enjoyable, and just maybe the boy might find that to be the case as well. However I was concerned that he’d find it frustrating like I did at first, and frustration has been known to get in the way of many a good father-son bonding session, particularly when it comes to fly fishing. I told him that Spey casting isn’t easy at first and that overcoming frustration is part of the learning process. My parenting skills have always been questionable so it should come as no surprise that I was looking forward to seeing the boy struggle a bit (in a sadistic way it would make me feel a little better about my own inadequatulence). He agreed to give it a shot.
We drove a few miles toward the Chinook Bend area near Carnation, geared up and walked downstream a short ways. Along the way he mentioned that his toes were cramped in his wading boots. Great, that means a new pair will be needed before he’s ready for winter wading. I pretended not to hear his words. The past few weeks had been rather expensive, starting with a college tuition payment, damage to a particular garage door, and a stolen set of golf clubs (with an iPod and wallet in the bag). The last thing I wanted to think about was spending money on some new wading boots for the boy, and a little fishing would be good for the sole soul. We set up along a stretch of river left that had a favorable current and plenty of room for casting. Because I’m merely a hack Spey caster myself, I was careful to keep it very, very basic: first we started with the single-handed Sage XP and reviewed the basic roll cast so that the general concept was fresh in his mind. Then I grabbed the Sage Z-Axis 7136-4 lined with a 480 grain Airflo Compact Scandi shooting head and demonstrated the basic Single Spey. We talked about the lift, the anchor and the D loop – all elements of the roll cast he’d just done with the single-hander. I told him about keeping his grip relaxed and using the bottom hand as the power hand and to avoid punching forward with the top hand (as I was telling him these things I was also reminding myself). I demonstrated a couple more adequate casts and then handed the rod over to him. “Wow, it’s heavy,” was all he said. “Certainly it’s heavier than a single-hander but with two hands you can cast it all day without getting tired,” I replied. That, to me, is the beauty of Spey casting and not the ability to cast 80-100 feet. That’s also what one says when one can’t cast 80-100 feet.
The wind was light and blowing upstream so conditions were ideal for a little Spey 101. Schpanky set his stance and went through the motions of the Single Spey. His first cast was surprisingly very smooth and relaxed – he let the rod do the work rather than tensing up and trying to power through the cast (like his old man is prone to do). After a few more similarly decent casts, I informed him that it was time to move to the Snap Z (or something resembling one of the “snap” casts). With my hand I drew the counter-clockwise path that the rod would take and explained that this cast was simply an alternative to the Single Spey, just a little more dynamic. “You’ll be doing 999 casts before you hook your first steelhead,” I informed him, “So you’ll want a few different casts in your repertoire to keep things interesting”. I also cautioned of the ramifications that can come from an incorrectly placed anchor, and explained what is meant by the term, “dangerous cast”. He doesn’t always listen to the infinite wisdom I impart upon him on a regular basis, and I hoped that the thought of a grisly ear flossing would get his attention. Then I demonstrated a couple marginal casts. He wouldn’t have known a Snap Z from a Crap T, so for all intents and purposes I’d just impressed him greatly with my casting prowess. I puffed up my chest, strutted over to where he stood and handed him the rod.
“Got that?” I asked. “Yep,” was all I got in return. I backed away a safe distance and with a smug grin on my face thought to myself, ‘This should be interesting’. I watched as he made a slow lift…the accelerated clockwise motion…snap…lift…pause to load the rod…forward cast…presto! His first cast looked pretty darn good. And effortless. My very first attempt at a Snap T/Z/C is still fresh enough in my memory that I recall very different results than what I had just witnessed from the boy. He made a few more casts, and none were dangerous. Only a few didn’t come off as well as intended, and even then he was able to acknowledge where the problem had occurred and addressed the issue on the next cast. Intuitively he even glanced over his shoulder to make sure his D-loop was forming properly (not something I’d told him to do). I was more than a little bit impressed and congratulated him accordingly: “Nobody likes a show-off. You made that look pretty easy. Nice job.” The casts weren’t perfect, but he was laying out the length of the shooting head and a handful of the running line pretty well, and his casting stroke was smooth and fluid. WAY better than I was able to do after an entire first day of instruction. He’s not one to show a lot of emotion or use an excess of words, but he did have a smile on his face when he said, “I like it.” I cringed.
We decided to move down to another spot and we talked as we walked. The evening was cloudy and cool, with some rain in the forecast. The older I get the more I seem to talk about the weather, and I found myself telling him how the summer felt like it had come to a rather abrupt end before it ever really arrived. I noted how the hopper fishing on the Yakima River never materialized like the experts predicted, which may have been due to the weather. Just then he pointed out a grasshopper. “You mean like this one?” he said with a tone of smart assery. It was was the second grasshopper I’d seen all summer during a year when they were supposed to be thick. He tossed it in the river to give some lucky fish a tasty meal, but no fish rose to the offering. A short ways further the boy pointed out a large stonefly that impressed both of us with it’s size. “Son, that’s a golden stonefly,” I said in a scholarly tone. “Hmmm,” he replied before tossing it in the river as well. Again, no fish rose to grab the sizable snack. I proceeded to talk about insect life cycles but stopped in mid sentence when I realized the boy had already moved on several paces ahead of me. So much for sharing my vast entomological wisdom with him.
We came to a section of flat water below a riffle, and several riseforms appeared on the smooth surface. They were just small fish rising, but where there are small fish there are larger fish so I told the boy to wade out a few feet and swing the fly through the bottom of the riffle into the pool. I then walked upstream a ways with the Spey rod. I figured he could have the best water and then I’d come in behind him, and with my superior angling skills pick his pocket. With the single-hander the boy made a couple of false casts complete with a series of nice single hauls and shot out 30 feet of line like an old pro. As the fly swung into the lazy current he gave it a couple strips. Before I knew it he had landed his first steelhead: a 5 inch smolt. Not a bad place to start. Afterall, he’s not quite ready I’m not quite ready for him to take on a real steelhead with the $pey rod just yet.
New wading boots are the least of my worries now. I should have heeded my own advice and kept the kid ignorant.
I recently returned from a trip to British Columbia where I spent two weeks fishing the Skeena system. I hit every river on my BC bucket list, and can now die a happy man. For those not in the know, the Skeena River is the second largest river in BC, and has a list of tributaries that read like a Fantasy Wish List: The Kispiox, Bulkley, Morice, Copper (yes the Copper River – the mere mention of which causes people to drive out of their way and spend ridiculous sums of money when the infamous King salmon from this river hit the Pike Place Market each year). If you’re not familiar with the area, the Skeena system is an all star lineup. Beautiful country, too.
The chance to take a trip like this could be considered the pinnacle of one’s fishing career, and catching a monster steelhead from this river system might well be the ultimate feather in one’s lucky fishing cap. But for a guy like me it was just another few days on just another river, or two, or four: no big deal. I opted to forgo a professional guide, instead saving my pennies for daily filet mignon and 12 year old Scotch and the finest of Cuban cigars, which I enjoyed from the comforts of my brand new Earthroamer XV-LT, which I purchased specifically for this trip. Paid cash, too, since my royalties from book sales are astronomical ever since making Oprah’s Book Club and the New York Times’ Bestseller list. The Earthroamer is capable of going almost anywhere, and its offroad capabilities came in handy because I hit some weather on the drive north.
As one might imagine, this vehicle garners a good bit of attention, and I had many curious folks ask to come aboard for a looksee. While enjoying a beautiful early evening along the banks of the Kispiox, a rig pulled up and a very attractive young lady wearing an Olive the Woolly Bugger t-shirt and Goretex waders emerged from behind the wheel. I assumed she was stopping to eye the river and perhaps do a bit of fishing, but she actually stopped for the sole purpose of asking about the Earthroamer. Now I’m no dirty old man and this young lady was young enough to be my daughter (and Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler is reading this), so I didn’t invite her to stay for long. But since she was already geared up, we decided to fish the run right below camp together. She was struggling a bit, so I gave her some casting and presentation instruction, which resulted in her hooking up with this cute little 17 lb hen. Moments later I humbly landed one of my nicer fish on the Kispiox (a 40.75 lb buck). Before she left, the young lady angler and I exchanged autographs, and I’ll be honest: April Vokey looks even more beautiful in person than she does on the internet. As she drove off I patted the fender of the Earthroamer and thought to myself, “Owning this thing is better than walking a puppy in a park on a summer day.” I’m sure I’ll have to sell it now that Mrs. UA has read this.
I won’t bore you with the details of the fishing, but suffice it to say it was stellar. Actually, it was gluttonous. I quite honestly got sick of catching steelhead: 12 fish days were common, though on one day in particular I lost count after 23. By the end of the trip my hands were heavily calloused and I’d just about worn the cork off my Sage Z-Axis 7136. And speaking of the rod, the best thing of all on this trip was that my Spey casting was flawless – it was as if I was magically transformed into a gifted caster of masterful status. One morning another angler watched me from afar and snapped this photo of me in action. When I’d caught every fish out of that run and was making my way back to camp for a break, he waved me down and showed me the photo, which he later emailed to me. “Don’t I recognize you from somewhere? You’re Mike Kinney, aren’t you?” I chuckled and replied, “No, but I get that a lot.”
Tightlines to all – I hope you’re enjoying this first day of April.