spey casting

Steelhead: Fish of a thousand casts. Or, one.

(I’ve been accused – mostly by Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler – of having a tendency, as it were, to employ the excessive use of run-on sentences in my writing, and so to that end I have decided to try something different: To change my ways – please bear with me.)

We pulled up to the gravel bar. We anchored the boat. It was a cool gray (or grey) February morning on the Sauk River. We were just downriver a short ways from Government Bridge. It was probably raining lightly.  I’d never been on the Sauk before. I was in the capable hands of Brian Paige. Brian guides on Pacific Northwest “S” rivers. These include rivers such as the Skagit, Sauk, and Skykomish. I don’t think he’s quite gotten the Sammamish Slough dialed in just yet. He may be working it (insert sarcasm here).

(OK, that’s not working for me, but I tried, and it’s always good to try something new, if only to determine that the old ways were, in fact, better.  Or at least more effective.)

Brian Paige of Steelhead Fly Anglers

Brian Paige, owner of Steelhead Fly Anglers

When he’s not guiding, scouting or fishing for his own peace of mind, Brian can be found doing time behind the counter at All About The Fly in Monroe, WA.  Actually, “doing time” might be a poor choice of words because there’s also a state prison in Monroe, and as far as I can tell, Brian is free to come and go as he pleases. Anyhoo, I’d met Brian the year before when a mutual friend (I’ll call him William Fly – not his real name) introduced us. We stood to mutually benefit from the introduction: Brian needed a logo designed for his guide business, Steelhead Fly Anglers, and I was a freelance graphic designer (still am) interested in learning the ways of the two-handed rod (still interested). Over lunch and a beer it was decided that I’d design hisfa_logo2m a logo in exchange for some time on the water slinging a two-hander. Good trade for both of us, although I’m reasonably sure I got the better end of the deal: Brian was easy to work with, while conversely I think I tested his patience. The month was January when Brian first got me out on the Skykomish River for a day of casting instruction (and the distant hope of a hookup with a winter fish). I’d fished for steelhead enough times with my 8 weight single hander to know that catching was the exception to the rule, and to that end I was not disappointed on this first day out with Brian. The chance encounter with a fish didn’t happen, but l learned more in a day about steelhead, fly presentation and Spey casting than I could have learned in a lifetime of reading books and articles or watching DVDs. I feel compelled to note that I did purchase a copy of Rio’s Modern Spey Casting DVD and have found it to be excellent (I watch it whenever I want to see how it should be done). I also discovered on this first outing that swinging the long rod was an awful lot of fun (and served up with a heaping portion of humble pie). It was obviously going to take me a long while to get used to it, and the fact that I felt reasonably proficient with a normal fly rod didn’t mean squat (see prior post: If you don’t Spey, don’t start)

p4160249And so a few weeks  later I found myself on the banks of the Sauk River with still very little idea as to what I was doing with this long rod gripped tightly with both hands (and therein lies part of the problem – I need to learn to relax and loosen my grip a bit). I was properly rigged with a red and black marabou streamer provided courtesy of Brian (when you fish with Brian, black and red is the go-to combination, with the exception of course being red and black). “Start fishing about 60 feet below the boat, and fish close to shore first,” instructed Brian as we stepped onto the gravel bar. I did as I was told, which worked well for me because I really wasn’t capable of more than a short cast anyway. “Cover the tight water first.” Roger that. The plan was for me to molest the run first and Brian would drop in behind me and pick my pocket. I peeled the length of the Compact Skagit head from the reel, and laid out a very unimpressive switch Spey. I gave it a quick mend and let the fly swing in the current of the reasonably clear waters. It should be noted that the Sauk clouds quickly and easily after a rain, but we hit it on a day when the water was nicely colored with a few feet of visibility. As the fly settled into the “hang down” I pondered how the day might turn out. Word on the street was that it hadn’t been a particularly productive winter steelhead season to date, and these fish were hard to catch regardless. Add to the equation the fact that I was a hack (still am), I stood very little chance and held out virtually no hope of catching a fish. No matter, I was here to practice casting and there would be plenty of that. It was all good.  There’s more to fishing than catch– well, you know the drill.

Standing knee-deep not 10 feet from the water’s edge, the tip of my rod dipped gently and I felt a bit of tension in the line.  Naturally I assumed that my fly had hung up on a rock, but something felt a little different – I’d hung up on rocks enough to sense that this was no rock. Maybe a stick, instead.  Remaining uncharacteristically calm, I laid the tip of my rod toward shore and that’s when it became clear to me that there was a fish on the other end.  I forget precisely the exchange of wordsthat  passed between us, but I seem to recall Brian saying something about “FISH!!!”  I jumped to the assumption that it was a Dolly Varden – common to these waters – until the fish rolled near the surface and presented a dark, olive-colored backside and a flash of silver flank.  “Steelhead!” declared Brian. He was certainly enthusiastic, whereas I remained seemingly calm, in much the same way that a deer in the headlights appears calm (when in all actuality they’re so scared they simply can’t move to save themselves). Sensing the significance of the moment, I pumped myself up with a good pep talk: “Alright, Jackass – do not lose this fish – given your fishing prowess you’ll likely never get another chance like this.” With me, fishing is nearly always about the ill-fated pursuit of elusive fish: I wade often in the shadow of a dark cloud of fishless despair. But as I began playing the fish the clouds parted, figuratively and literally.

p4160253I entered into what seemed in retrospect to be something of a dream state: A dream in which a dime bright wild steelhead, still oozing with salt and harboring sea lice, comes to the stark realization that it’s hooked and immediately freaks out and does it’s very best to put maximum distance between itself and the angler who is also freaking out. The fish takes off downstream, leaping and tail-walking and generally displaying impressive aerobatics. The reel sings and the drag is pushed to its limits. The fish is running as if shot from a cannon and takes the angler deep into their backing: The angler realizes that this is why reels are loaded with a half mile of the stuff – because with a fish like this, the backing is actually needed for more than just filling up the spool and reducing fly line memory. The steelhead angler sprints downstream at breakneck speeds, across ankle-twisting river rocks and wader-shredding fallen trees in an attempt to keep up with the fish. The fish is hell-bent on getting back to the salt and doing so in double time, and if that means dragging a fisherman along for the ride, so be it.

Yeah, well this was not quite how my experience played outsteel. There were no acrobatics or drag-smoking runs, nor did my wading boots see double duty as track shoes. My backing never left the spool, though the fish did take line from the reel at will. Thankfully the drag on the Ross was smooth and proved worthy, and eventually I managed to steer the fish toward the shallows, where Brian was able to tail it and quickly remove the barbless hook. It was a beautiful native hen in the neighborhood of 32 inches and an estimated 14 pounds (these were, by the way, Brian’s estimations and not mine, so if you have an issue with the accuracy, please contact Brian through his website). Chrome bright she was not, but I’d like to think that she hadn’t been in the river for too long. While the fight was perhaps not quite the epic struggle one envisions, I have to give the old girl credit: She bore scars indicative of a close call with a gill net, and she’d likely made a fast run up the Skagit and into the Sauk: Who wouldn’t be a bit tired after all that? She’d beaten the odds in an era when fewer and fewer wild Puget Sound steelhead survive the round trip to the rivers of their birth. As I released her back into the river, a turd-eating grin spread across my face. There would never be another first steelhead – I had lost my innocence. And while I felt just a little bit dirty, I was OK with that.


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It should be noted that after the drama of the first cast, the day turned mostly clear and beautiful. Fishing remained exceptional, but catching returned to what would be considered normal. Thanks to Brian for a great day and ruining my life.

bumpersticker

Click if you want to get one of these bumper stickers.

If you don’t Spey, don’t start.

I saw a bumper sticker once that read, “If you don’t surf, don’t start.” Clearly the tone of the message was that of a territorial surf bum, verbally peeing in the sand to mark his territory because he didn’t want me to take up his sport and crowd his waves. Hang loose, dude–the thought never crossed my mind. The bumper sticker did, however, give me an idea to create a variation of my own, the intent of which is purely noble. If you are thinking of taking up the way of the Spey rod, I have several single words of advice: Stop; Don’t; Flee. 

I assure you, I am not being territorial. Like every other fly angler I’ve met, I love to share my passion with others. Just ask my wife and kids–they’ll tell you I rarely talk about anything without relating it to fly fishing (they are continually impressed with just how deeply the thread of fly fishing can be woven into the fabric of daily life). So even as many good fly-fishing waters have a tendency to get a bit crowded from time to time, I think everyone should partake of this wonderful sport. At least then we’d all have something we can agree on. That is, until arguments broke out about nymphing versus swinging, 4-piece versus 2-piece rods, and felt versus rubber-soled wading boots. No matter their differing opinions, those who are bitten by the fly bug tend to also become stewards of the resource, pumping time and money into much-needed conservation organizations (please see those listed in the sidebar) and projects, so the more the merrier (just don’t low-hole me on my favorite run, please). That being said, why would I want to discourage folks from taking up the way of the two-handed rod? The answer is simple: To spare you the suffering I’ve endured, or rather, am enduring. It may be too late for me, but the lessons I’ve learned could save you a lot of financial and emotional pain.

It all started innocently enough: I was perfectly happy, or at least not horribly dissatisfied with the 8 weight single-hander I’d had for a few years. It had been used rather sparingly on a few steelhead outings, but to be honest I never really hankered to get out more than that. I was becoming convinced that I didn’t enjoy standing in a river in January during a cold, steady rain, fishing in vain for a fish that only existed in the history books. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the thing I didn’t enjoy was standing in a river in January during a cold, steady rain, repeatedly casting a heavy single-handed rod in vain for a fish that only existed in the history books. Question my manhood if you will, but the sporadic tendonitis in my shoulder can be aggravated by repetitive motion such as repeatedly casting a heavy single-handed rod. When the weather is cold and damp, as it is guaranteed to be in January where I live, it only worsens the situation. As they say, ‘ignorance is bliss’ and I was rather content during those innocent years of yore. I wasn’t catching any steelhead, nor was I much bothered by not catching steelhead. I’d heard others speak of the Spey rod, but I could not imagine why I would want to venture into a new relm until I had actually hooked into a fish on my single-hander. I buried my head in the riverbank sand and stubbornly denounced the Spey thing as a foolish frivolity. But as time and steelhead seasons passed, I heard increasingly more folks talking up the merits of casting with a two-handed rod, and I began to ponder what it would be like to take a walk on the dark side of fly-fishing.

My pondering resulted in the realization that first off, one would need another credit card pa280439designated solely for this new endeavor. While your shopping list might be more or less damaging, mine looked something like this: A Sage Z-Axis 7136-4 Spey rod (and apparently they charge by the foot, so the longer the rod, well- you get it); pa280782a Ross Momentum LT reel to hold a half mile of backing, 90 feet of Airflo Ridge .030’ running line, and an Airflo Compact Skagit head, to which is attached any number of various rate sink tips (so that one can search various depths before concluding that there are no fish anywhere in the water column); a spare spool for another half mile of backing, 90 feet of Airflo Ridge .020” running line attached to an Airflo Compact Scandi head (for fishing smaller flies during summer flows when the water is so clear that any fish in the river can see your fly approaching well in advance and make an early decision to avoid it). All said and done it wasn’t so bad, since I was able to sell my very lightly-used 8 weight single-handed setup for about 20% of what I paid for it. That just about covered the sales tax on my new spey outfit. (Note to Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler: I’m grossly over-exaggerating this for the sake of artistic drama).

creditcardsThe unmistakable smell of burning plastic would be your super-heated credit card in the process of a meltdown. With annual interest rates approaching 20%, well, let’s not even go there. There’s more to fly fishing with a Spey rod than catching fish – it’s also about spending a boatload of money, so the financial suffering is just the beginning. Next comes the psychological damage. Now I’ve never professed to be anything but unaccomplished when it comes to fly fishing, but my casting doesn’t totally suck. In fact, there are times when I actually think I can lay out some pretty respectable casts (until one too many double hauls is used trying to push that last few feet of line just a little too hard and it all comes horribly undone). But I digress. When I first wrapped my hands around the double cork of the two-handed rod, everything I thought I knew about fly casting became pretty much worthless information, and any perceived ability I might have had with a single-hander was quickly forgotten. While Spey casting may have it’s origins in Scotland, it was all Greek to me: The language contains daunting terms such as “Bloody L” and “Dangerous Cast”. There are odd techniques that have no place in the vocabulary of the gentleman fly angler such as the “Perry Poke” and the “Snake Roll” (not to mention the “Flying Butt”). There is the “Anchor Point”, which is apparently the point at which one’s heavy “shooting head”, laying in a heap of slack at one’s feet, becomes incapable of being cast because it weighs as much as a drift boat anchor. Then you have the “Kiss” which I believe is when a heavily weighted fly brushes your cheek at 90 miles per hour (this is closely related to the “Dangerous Cast”). My favorite is the “D-Loop” which describes the shape of the arc that the line forms behind the caster and is key in loading the rod for a successful forward stroke. In my case, “D” stands for “Deformed” or “Droopy”. Or “Dork.” The whole thing is quite foreign and intimidating.

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I should also warn you that casting with a two-handed rod is a whole heck of a lot of fun. There are even get togethers where people venturing (and those who have long-since ventured) into the dark world of two-handed rods actually gather on a weekly basis to do just one thing:  Practice (and I assume, commiserate). Check out All About the Fly and River Run Anglers if you’re in the greater Seattle area looking for a local support group. It’s truly a sickness. So far I have avoided these congregations out of respect for the safety of others in attendance. When I feel that I am no longer a threat to anyone other than myself, I will foray into the mix. Until then, I prefer isolation.

Certainly I have always enjoyed casting with a single-handed rod, but rarely do I do so just for practice (although it often feels that way when I’m fishing). What I’ve found with the Spey thing is that I actually enjoy casting for the sake of casting, and I’ll happily hit a stretch of water with nothing on the end of my line but a piece of yarn, running through my repertoire of fine casts. The yarn can be either a measure of safety or compliance: Safety, because without a hook it’s hard to hurt myself (see recent post titled “The hat is lucky…“); compliance, because if I’m practicing on the water out of season it would be illegal to have a hook on the end of my line. Not that I have to worry about catching fish anyway, but it would be just my luck to accidentally tie into a fish out of season while a game agent watches through his binoculars. But the bottom line is that I enjoy Spey casting. As they say, practice makes perfect, or in my case, practice will eventually reduce the level of shame.

So, heed my words of advice:

bumpersticker

Yes, you can actually get one by clicking here.

And now a question(s) intended at get some comments from you, the reader…

With regard to the way of the Spey:

Do you or don’t you?

Will you or won’t you?

Let’s hear from you.