BIG STICK STEELHEADING
My greatest passion is for steelhead fly fishing.
Steelhead are the epitome of grace, beauty and wild freedom.
Near my home there are a number of steelhead rivers.
Here steelhead return year-round.
Summer steelhead are fairly easy to catch with a fly.
However, a lot of steelhead return in the winter when the water
is high and cold. These
are not prime conditions for using a singly-handed fly rod.
For many years I switch hit, using a fly rod in the summer and
a drift rod in the winter. I
did catch some winter steelhead every year with my fly rod, but had to
work a lot harder for my fish than I did with my drift rod techniques.
What I always wanted in my tackle was the deadly efficiency of
the drift rod combined with the sensuality of a fly rod.
In many situations the two-handed fly rod or Spey rod is the
The two-handed fly rod has been a
popular tool in Europe for salmon fishing for several hundred years.
These rods have been used by a few traditionalists on the west
coast of North America since 1950, but because of their heavy weight
they never gained much popularity.
A combination of construction material advancements and design
changes has recently made two-handed fly rods more appealing.
In about 1990 my buddy Jim Barlow
became infatuated by the subject.
We bought a 15 foot graphite blank ad built a rod on it.
It had slow action and was heavy.
I lost interest in a hurry.
Jim continued to experiment and caught several steelhead and a
Chinook with it. This
kept my curiosity alive.
In 1992 Steve Kruse returned from
a summer at Katmai Lodge with a brand new Sage 9140-4 RPL two-handed
fly rod. He showed me how
to cast it. Instantly I
could see its merits in range and control.
I ordered one. It
has landed a couple of hundred fish and is still my favorite rod for
the widest range of conditions.
That same year Trey Combs epic
book Steelhead Fly Fishing,
came off the press. It
chronicled the history of two-handed rods used for steelhead and
provided technical information as well as capturing the heart and soul
of the sport. It is
serious reading for serious steelheaders of any persuasion.
Since my introduction to the
two-handed fly rod it has become my favorite fishing tool.
With it I have captured steelhead from floodwater where
visibility was as little as one foot.
It has also been successful when the water was icy cold and gin
clear. Water temperatures
have varied from 38 too 68 degrees.
Like most tackle it works best when the conditions are in
between these extremes. My
methods have varied from waking flies in the fall to presentations
made eight feet deep when ice has rimmed every stream-side stone.
For the wading angler who fishes medium
to large size rivers, nothing surpasses the two-handed fly rod for
with good presentational skills, the two-handed fly rod will compete
favorably with drift tackle when steelhead are holding in flows less
than six feet deep.
to Properly Cast and Present Flies
There are many kinds of casts, which can be made with a
two-handed fly rod. Both
over head casts and roll casts are easily accomplished.
The most useful casts for steelhead fishing are change of
direction roll casts called Spey casts.
The fly is picked from the water at the end of the swing and
cast across the current in one motion.
This is the most efficient of all tackle techniques for keeping
the hook in the water. Turn
around time is minimal. This
efficiency allows the most water to be covered in a given length of
time. The angler who puts
his hook in front of the most fish will usually get the most hookups.
For average size people, fly rods
longer than 10 feet are hard to control with one hand.
The most popular lengths for two-handed fly rods are from 13 to
15 feet. These lengths
are easy to time while casting and have the leverage and energy
storage capacity to control long lines.
There are a number of valid approaches to
casting with two handed fly rods.
I prefer the “reverse hand” technique.
With this approach the hands are moved in opposite directions
rather than swinging the rod like an ax.
This grip incorporates the bottom hand as the major power
source. The top hand
serves as a pivot, moves only slightly and stops the rod at the end of
To position your hands, place the
rod butt cap against your naval.
Position your top hand on the fore grip so that the rod is
level. When the thumb and
forefinger of your bottom hand encircles the butt just in front the
cap, your hands are the proper distance apart for most casts.
The further apart your hands are, the more leverage you will
have to power the rod.
Grip the rod gently.
To get the best out of your rod, you must let it do all of the
The rod is a spring, which stores
energy to cast the fly line and fly.
This is accomplished by accelerating the tip of the rod against
the weight of the fly line. The
rod bends and stores energy. When
the rod is stopped at the end of the stroke, the rod recoils, and
launches the fly line, which extends itself in a rolling loop.
The line has enough weight to load
the fly rod only when all of the slack has been eliminated from it.
For this reason long casts can be most easily accomplished when
the back cast stroke starts with the rod tip at water level.
This allows the longest stroke possible to eliminate slack and
set up the cast. Remember
the line doesn’t move or the rod does not load before all of the
slack has been eliminated.
A new presentation is began when the
entire fly line, leader and fly are moved from their downstream
position and cast across the current.
This is most easily accomplished in one motion when the fly
line is not in the air on the back cast.
Instead the fly, leader and the tip of the fly line are allowed
to touch the water as the line is thrown in an underhand loop behind
the angler. This touching
the line tip and fly is called stick
or anchor point.
The stick provides
the cohesion to anchor the tip of the fly line to the water to
establish a pivot point for the loop to roll around and reposition the
plane of the cast. This
cohesion anchors the line so that the loop will remain slack-free and
full of energy.
Where the fly is allowed to touch
the water in relation to the position of the angler is very important.
It establishes the plane of the cast.
The closer the stick is
to the angler and the plane of the cast, the more the energy will be
concentrated I one direction. This
will result in higher line speed.
However, if the stick
is positioned too close to the angler and anything goes wrong it can
result in some nasty bruises.
The plane of the forward delivery
should be half of the distance of the anchor
point from the angler. A
reasonable anchor point is
six to ten feet from the angler.
The forward cast is made when six to ten feet of line is stuck
to the water.
The back loop must remain live
without any slack. This
is accomplished with one smooth motion.
If the rod tip stops as the back loop is formed, the loop will
collapse and the resulting slack will kill the energy in the forward
cast. All of the slack
can only be eliminated if the back loop cast is thrown underhand and
the forward cast is thrown overhand.
The stick is always positioned
outside the forward casting plane.
As the stick is accomplished the rod tip is rotated away from
the angler as the back loop is formed.
As the rod tip passes behind the anglers shoulder the rod is
then moved back toward the angler and the rod is brought to near
vertical as the forward cast is delivered.
The rod tip rises through the entire process.
The centrifugal force of the rod tip traveling in this complex
arc keeps the line tight. The
most energy efficient casts result when the tip of the rod accelerates
smoothly around the entire arc. This
motion when performed properly, will result in just the right amount
of energy being stored to harmonize with the length of fly line being
The rod tip is then stopped
smoothly but abruptly. The
resulting burst of energy separates the line tip from the water.
This results in a sling-shot effect which will propel the fly
to amazing distances with little back-cast room.
Efficient Spey casts can be accomplished from either side of
the body from either side of the river.
Spey casting tackle, as well as casting techniques are rapidly
evolving. There is
something new to learn nearly every day.
Rod size selection is based on the size of flies you will cast
most often and the average size of the fish you are most likely to
encounter. Two-handed fly
rods used for steelhead in the Northwest range in length from 11 to 16
feet. The most versatile
and thus the most popular size is a 14 foot rod for a 9/10 line.
This size of rod is easy for most people to cast for long
periods and fits our average six to twenty pound fish.
Size/Use - Comfort Range Chart:
11’ to 14’ - #6 to #8 wt.
Floating line, #8 to #2 unweighted flies, 3 to 12 lb fish
13’ to 15’ - #8 to #9 wt.
Floating/sinking line, #8 to #1 unweighted flies, 4 to 15 lb fish
14’ to 15’ - #9 to #10 wt.
Floating/sinking line, #8 to #2/0 all flies, 6 to 20 lb fish
15’ to 16’ - #10
to #11 wt. Floating/sinking line, all flies up to 6 inches, 10
to 40 lb fish
reel should balance the rod level when the dominant hand is in place
on the fore grip. this
will make the outfit not only comfortable to cast with, but also most
comfortable to fish with. Your
reel should hold a minimum of 150 yards of backing with your bulkiest
fly line and still have plenty of clearance between the line and the
frame. Nothing plays a
larger part in landing big steelhead than how smoothly your reel
seems to be nearly as many magic fly line formulas as there are
experienced two-hand fly rod anglers.
Launcher or Wind Cutter fly lines with interchangeable tips are
most versatile for the widest range of conditions, but one piece
floating lines are smoothest for near surface presentations.
All manner of flies may be fished with a two-handed fly rod.
One advantage in using a two-handed fly rod is that you can
cast big flies comfortably. Obviously
big flies are visible to the fish at longer range.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that a steelhead will come
farther to take the fly, but that it will see the fly for a longer
period of time before it gets in the strike zone.
This allows time for aggression to build.
Flies from two to three inches long are easily cast with a 14
foot 9/10 weight rod.
Motion is a key element in the
design of new age steelhead flies.
Flies incorporating long flowing
materials are very popular with both anglers and steelhead.
Long webby hackle, marabou and rabbit strip provide a lot of
wiggle when saturated in flowing water.
When applied to the hook properly they also retain a lot of
In cold winter flows a fly becomes
more effective when it is presented at the fish’s holding level.
This often means get the fly deep.
Flies weighted with lead wraps or metal beads or eyes are often
New age fly tiers have placed less
emphasis on traditional human eye appeal and more emphasis on
functional design. Here
are a few of the more popular patterns.
TMC 7999, #2/0
6/0 to match color of front hackle
Three strands of Flashabou tied in the middle so that the six
ends are spread, trim
slightly longer than rear hackle
Small, finished a leader diameter back from the eye of the hook
Spiders are most easily tied if the marabou is wetted and all of the fibers are pulled to one side of the stem. The feather is tied in butt first and the tip is grasped with a hackle pliers and wrapped around the hook. Select plumes with fine stems. Stems become less brittle if the feather is soaked in warm water. A few turns of saddle hackle in front of the marabou will break the current and make the fly retain a larger diameter silhouette.
Favorite Color Combinations
Hackle: hot orange
Hackle: Red marabou
Hackle: Red saddle hackle
Hackle: Black marabou
Hackle: black marabou
Hackle: fluorescent blue
hackle: Hot pink marabou
Hackle: Purple marabou
Hackle: Purple saddle
TMC 9394, #2
3/16” brass bead
210 denier flat waxed
Rabbit strip palmered
The nickel plated hook showing through between the wraps of
Crimp the barb and slide the bead to the eye of the hook.
Place the hook in the vice.
Secure the thread at the bend of the hook with a few wraps.
Add Flexament to the wraps.
Part the hair on a 3/16 inch wide rabbit strip and secure the
leather to the hook over the glue coated thread wraps.
Wind the thread forward to the bead.
Use four turns. Secure
the thread being the bead. Coat
the entire hook shank with Flexament.
Evenly space four turns of rabbit strip to the bead covering
the thread wraps. Make
one extra turn behind the bead and tie off.
bead, red/gold bead, purple/silver bead
TMC 9934, #2
3/0 to match the body
Extra large black plastic barbell eyes
golden pheasant tippet wound as hackle
Rabbit strip, palmered
golden pheasant tippet wound as hackle
golden pheasant flank feather laid flat on top of body
Back: Natural G.P. flank
Dyed red G.P. tippet
Back: dyed black G.P.
Dyed hot pink G.P. tippet
Back: dyed purple G.P.
TMC 9394, #2
210 denier flat waxed to match head color
Nickel plated lead eyes
Two marabou plumes
Small chenille figure-eight wrapped around eyes
Hot pink and orange mixed
The Fly Fishing Shop, Welches, OR
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