steelhead fishing with a spey rod
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.