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First Printed in Salmon Trout Steelheader Magazine (April-May 1997 Issue).

             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 answer.

            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 versatility.  Combined 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.

 How 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 the stroke.

            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 work.

            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 employed.

            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:  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.


Rod 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:  The 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 works.


Line:  There 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 bulk.

            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 preferable.

            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.


Hook:  TMC 7999, #2/0

Thread:  6/0 to match color of front hackle

Tail:  None

Body:  None

Rear Hackle:  Marabou plume

Flash:  Three strands of Flashabou tied in the middle so that the six ends are spread, trim          slightly longer than rear hackle

Middle Hackle:  Marabou plume

Front Hackle: Saddle hackle

Head:  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

 Thread:  Red

Rear Hackle:  hot orange marabou

Flash:  Gold Flashabou

Middle Hackle:  Red marabou

Front Hackle:  Red saddle hackle

Thread:  Black

Rear Hackle:  Black marabou

Flash:  Rainbow Flashabou

Middle Hackle:  black marabou

Front Hackle:  fluorescent blue saddle hackle 

Thread:  Purple

Rear hackle:  Hot pink marabou

Flash:  Purple Flashabou

Middle Hackle:  Purple marabou

Front Hackle:  Purple saddle hackle 


 Hook:  TMC 9394, #2

Weight:  3/16” brass bead

Thread:  210 denier flat waxed

Tail.:  Rabbit strip

Body:  Rabbit strip palmered

Rib:  The nickel plated hook showing through between the wraps of rabbit

             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.

 Favorite Colors:  Black/silver bead, red/gold bead, purple/silver bead


 Hook:  TMC 9934, #2

Thread:  3/0 to match the body

Feelers:  Super hair

Eyes:  Extra large black plastic barbell eyes

Front Legs:  golden pheasant tippet wound as hackle

Body:  Rabbit strip, palmered

Rear Legs:  golden pheasant tippet wound as hackle

Shell Back:  golden pheasant flank feather laid flat on top of body 

Favorite Color Combinations

Feelers:  Red

Legs:  Natural G.P.tippet

Body:  Orange

Shell Back:  Natural G.P. flank

 Feelers:  Red

Legs:  Dyed red G.P. tippet

Body:  Black

Shell Back:  dyed black G.P. flank


Feelers:  Pink

Legs:  Dyed hot pink G.P. tippet

Body:  Purple

Shell Back:  dyed purple G.P. flank


Hook:  TMC 9394, #2

Thread:  210 denier flat waxed to match head color

Eyes:  Nickel plated lead eyes

Tail:  Two marabou plumes

Flash:  Krystal flash

Collar:  Schlappen

Head:  Small chenille figure-eight wrapped around eyes 

Favorite Color Combinations

Tail:  Shell pink

Flash:  Gold

Collar:  Hot pink and orange mixed

Head:  Fluorescent orange

 Tail:  Red

Flash:  Red

Collar:  Black

Head:  Black

Tail:  Hot pink

Flash:  Silver

Collar:  Purple

Head:  Purple


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