Return of the Spey

by Mark Bachmann


Rain comes down, river comes up....
river comes up, fish come up,
fish pulls down, you pull up.
W
e launched my aluminum drift boat into the low, clear river. Then gropingly added our equipment in the pre-dawn gloom. Cameras and clothing went into water proof compartments. Less fragile equipment was left to the elements. Three spey rods were set into holders which many years ago had been installed for back-trolling plugs. "My, my...how things have changed".
It was becoming light enough to fish under a sky filled with brooding dark clouds. Ribbons of white fog hung suspended between the nearly black, conifer covered canyon walls. The air was calm but thick with moisture. It would rain today. The river would rise. Jim elected to stay on the boat ramp side while Patty and I rowed across. It was a great decision on his part, as twenty casts later he was into a bright winter Steelhead. We watched the struggle from across the river. The nice buck finally succumbed to the pressure of Jim's fifteen footer and was held up for display. Then the barbless hook was removed and he was gently released back to his liquid world....a great way to start any morning.
A small crowd of spin fishermen began to accumulate. They gathered around Jim as if he were a prophet, asking about his curious looking tackle and how it worked. He answered all of their questions and enjoyed being the center of attention. They seemed amazed that a Steelhead had been taken on a fly.
It had started raining. We brought the boat back across, picked up Jim and quietly slipped away down the river, into the solitude of the wet canyon. Two more small runs were fished quickly to no avail.
Now the boat was anchored near the beginning of the third run. It is a huge piece of water, over a quarter mile long and in places, a hundred feet wide. At this water level only the top three hundred yards would hold fish. We entered the river about a hundred yards apart, with me at the boat, then Patty where the pool became a riffle on a slight bend and Jim down in the flat. I was in no hurry and took time out to study their technique while changing the sinking tip on my fly line. Being most upstream is the perfect position for observation. The scene was almost mystical, my two experienced friends in their most predatory mode, hunting for Steelhead. For a while I became absorbed in the asymmetrical rhythm of their fly lines slicing through the rain, then focused on my own tackle and had just looked up when Patty yelled. Her line tightened, the rod arched, there was a splash and her fish was gone.
Finally Jim came walking back past the boat explaining that he had worked down to where the current became to slow for Steelhead; no takers. He was going up to a pool we had skipped on the way down.
My piece of water has always been perplexing. It starts on a sharp bend where the river is deflected by a crumbling rock wall, then continues as a deep, narrow, fast gut. During floods, the velocity in this trench reaches fire hose proportions. Grape fruit size and smaller rocks are blown through like confetti in the wind. This rubble falls as the current slows and forms a barrier bar which steeply rises on the near side of the river. This mound of gravel causes back pressure which creates a subtle but very sharp bend in the current. The main channel turns back toward the steep opposite bank. A hard seam forms at a sharp rocky point and slices across this flow. Big under water structures add folded textures to the surface. In the channel the river bed is composed of grey basalt cobble with a number of large, submerged, brown, angular boulders which have fallen from the wall. Overhanging alders prevent fishing from that side. At low flows the pool looks deceptively slick and serene.
It began raining heavily....big, heavy, drops closely spaced. The hard edges melted from the scene. The world around me became only general shapes and colors. It rained even harder with a definite roar, its sound masking all others. Suddenly, I was alone and forgotten in a microcosm with a beautiful clear, rain spattered, boulder strewn river running through it.
Fly casting has never been easy for me and I have learned only through determination. My mind focused on the task; on every cast and presentation, combining senses and experience. Bit-by-bit the body relaxed and let the mind take control. Eventually the fourteen foot rod became light and balanced in my hands. Its personality came alive and bent to my will. On command it stored and released energy in precisely measured bursts. The graphite became magic. The subconscious harmonized with the rhythm of the rod as it launched the bullet shaped loops with pin-point accuracy. Casting became reflex. Reflex became instinct. Casting went subconscious then became unconscious. Casting became easy.
My mind hunted the channels between the boulders and the Big Black fly followed at pre-planned depth and attitude. The currents twisted and turned. Nearly every cast required a slightly different presentation. Few casts had to be repeated. The tactic was to get the fly down close to the cobble and keep it as slow and broad side as possible.
The largest boulder is about half the size of an automobile, but it was barely visible in the driving rain....across the main current....in softer water. From the vantage of a drifting boat I had seen many fish holding around this boulder on previous trips, but never had the skills to fish it properly. Today I was in the groove and could reach it easily.
I stripped line from the reel, made two long coils, executed the double spey, stopped it high....the line landed perfectly straight with the fly ten feet above and beyond the boulder. A mend placed a belly upstream across the faster current tongue, with the tip of the line pointed more steeply downstream in the slower water. The fly would slowly turn to broad-side as it sunk into the groove on the other side of the boulder. It would remain broad-side as it came under tension in the pocket down stream of the boulder then be towed slowly across. The fly would stay deep and then climb with the contour of the gravel bar, being swept along with the ever increasing tension of the line.
Slowly the rod was rotated from upstream to down stream as the fly passed on the other side of the bolder, decreasing the tension thus keeping it deep. The weight of the line increased subtly as the fly entered the pocket below the boulder. It had stopped. I lowered the rod tip and the line became even heavier as it bellied across the billowing current. The weight on the other end of the line surged and the fine spey hook was driven into the jaw with a side-ways stab of the rod. We were connected....firmly!
There was a sudden pause in the rain and the river became slick and clear. The sun broke through a hole in the clouds. Suddenly the river bottom was highly visible; as was the silver and grey fish as it charged around under the surface. It was medium size and only mildly active as one who has been traveling for a long distance, sensing the imminent rise of water level. He had just enough weight and power to pull a little backing a couple of times. It was a deep bodied, nine pound native buck with the faintest red stripe and very long white tipped ventral fins. He was examined for his unique beauty, then released back the river, wrenching free from my grip with a defiant lash of his tail.
Though fishing comfortably for the rest of the day, there wasn't the focus as when cloistered in the deluge. Jim picked my pocket for a nice fish and Patty hooked two more, loosing both....down in the flat where Jim said the current was too soft to hold fish. The rising river was now picking up speed.
I didn't get another touch until just before dark, when a nickel bright Steelhead took the fly very lightly in shallow water.... and after a short slashing fight, came off, throwing showers of spray into the gathering twilight, bringing an exciting end to a perfect day.
Angling is a game that can take on many forms. It can become a game of killing or a search for personal excellence within the angler. A game of traditional form is often judged most pure. Angling with a two handed fly rod is one of those nearly forgotten but purely traditional games; of gentry, even royalty. No purer form of fly angling exists. It was the birth of our sport. It is effective at killing and demands discipline of the body and mind.
No one knows who invented fly fishing. The oldest confirmed records are from very early bronze age China. Some Macedonian Greeks may have been fly fishing during the rein of Alexander the Great. It is likely that Celtic tribes fly fished before the Roman conquest of northern Europe. Whether fly fishing was transported across Eurasia along trade routes or evolved in different places independently is unknown. In China fly fishing was regarded as a contemplative sport 4000 years ago.
The origins of fly fishing are lost in the dust of several hundred generations of anglers....the inventors names scattered by the wind. The first fly rod was probably a cane pole with a line tied to the end of it. The line was slightly shorter than the pole. The longer the pole the further one could cast. Many poles required the use of both hands.
One can imagine how it was in those distant times: It is the golden age of the great Shang Dynasty. There is peace in the Celestial Kingdom. Pu Ho and Laing have stolen away from the prying eyes of the village elders. Even though they have not yet officially come of age they are secretly in love. They can only be gone for short periods of time without being discovered. Through a life time of living in the same village they have established certain rendezvous....secret places where they can meet and express their love to each other.
They pick their hiding places as children do; places that adults would forget. There is the cave in the lime stone cliff, the soft moss under the fallen tree....best loved is the island in the bamboo thicket which borders the river Dabie Shan.
Pu Ho often comes here alone and fishes for the golden carp which feed in the weedy shallow water between the bamboo trees. Today the fishing was so good he ran out of bait. Laing wears a garland of feathers in her hair. She embraces Pu Ho and kisses him on the lips. They make love in the warm sand. A feather falls from her hair and with the inspiration of after-glow Po Hu ties it to his hook with a strand of her shiny black hair.
And thus the game was born of innocence and love....a prologue to the centuries that would follow.
The angling arts migrated to America with the Northern Europeans. By the time of Columbus, fly fishing for trout and possibly salmon was already a past-time in the British Isles. The favored approach was a fly tied on a hook made from a reforged needle, cast on a braided horse hair line with a two-handed rod. By 1800 the British Empire spanned the globe. Home rivers teemed with salmon. Furs, tinsels, silks and exotic feathers from far away places found their way to English, Scottish and Irish rivers as dressing for flies. Most were cast with two-handed rods. In southern England many river banks were landscaped so that the angler needn't worry about snagging his back cast. Salmon were regularly caught off the lawn.
Scottish Rivers on the other hand were larger and wilder with natural vegetation along their banks. Long back casts were out of the question on much of the water. Most notable of these wild Scottish rivers was the Spey. Here anglers devised a change of direction roll cast which became known as the Spey cast.
By the 1800's anglers were using fifteen to eighteen foot two-handed fly rods elaborately carved from Greenhart or the new technological breakthrough; laminated bamboo. Some rods weighed nearly three pounds. Men were men in those days.
This type of tackle has remained very popular in Europe where ever salmon still exist. The first rods used for American Atlantic Salmon were likely made in Europe. The lively Americans were too busy damming, logging and netting their watersheds to develop much of a sporting tradition until their salmon were mostly gone. They did however, retain their interest in trout and pursued them vigorously with light tackle.
Fly fishing had become a popular sport in America by the 1880's. Because of the more mobile American life style and thousands of miles of trout streams open to the general public, lighter single handed rods became the vogue. This tackle was adapted to West Coast rivers as Steelhead fly fishing became popular in the 1930's.
There is little doubt that there was also some experimentation with two handed fly rods during this same period. Rodrick Hague-Brown mentions catching Vancouver Island Steelhead with a spey rod in the 1940's. These early two-handed Steelhead rods were still made of split cane. Some fiber glass spey rods were built from 1950 to 1970 but they were too heavy and sloppy of action to gain much following except by some tournament casters. Graphite changed the two-handed fly rod forever, but it was not until third generation graphite that the spey rod became the versatile, practical, comfortable fishing tool that it is today. Today a fast recovery fourteen foot spey rod may weigh as little as seven ounces. It develops the power and speed to deliver a wide range of fly lines to long distances with little back-cast room. On winter Steelhead rivers these rods allow the angler to cover much more water than a single handed rod, with less fatigue.
In many types of water the modern two-hander can be as efficient as a spinning or casting rod . It does, however, take more river time to master. The spey rod is the great equalizer for fly anglers covering medium and large rivers. It is the superior tool for water that is six feet deep or less. This is the depth most preferred by Steelhead. This is the travel band.
The rebirth of the spey rod has destroyed two highly ingrained myths: Winter Steelhead are easier to catch on bait or lures, and desert river summer Steelhead won't take flies in the middle of the day. In fact they will usually take flies if they are in the taking mood.
The spey rod is great for systematically covering large amounts of water at depth. Variable sink-rate launcher lines are an indispensable part of the tackle system. They are specifically designed for two handed fly rods. Most popular are floating weight forward lines with easily changed sinking tips. The floating belly is comparatively short and is usually two weight sizes larger than the rod is designated for. The basic concept is a line that turns around quickly and builds enough kinetic energy to turn over large heavy flies with a minimum of back loop.
The interchangeable sinking tip sections are looped to the floating launcher. Many types of tips may be used. The highest line speeds are achieved and the best accuracy occurs when the tips are two line sizes smaller than the launcher. These tips actually accelerate as the loop unfolds assuring that the line will land straight and mend easily. The best systems incorporate tips that are the same length and weight, but vary in density so that the casting rhythm doesn't change when different water conditions are encountered. These tips may be carried in a wallet with the appropriate leaders and flies attached for minimum tackle change time.
This fly line design casts comfortably close as well as long, bucks the wind with authority, and facilitates precise control of the sinking portion.
The keys to catching Steelhead are focus and efficiency. Most Steelhead are found in snow melt rivers where water conditions change dramatically in short periods of time. Steelhead are adapted to these fluctual rivers and can migrate long distances quickly. They are always on the move, traveling in scattered populations. Often a lot of water has to be covered to find a few. The spey rod with a launcher system allows the angler to cover large amounts of water efficiently. Out to ranges of eighty feet it is one of the most practical casting tools ever made for fishing moving water of moderate depth. You don't have to reel in line and you don't have to false cast....both acts take the hook out of play. The fly has to be fishing to catch fish.
Most importantly, these long two handed fly rods provide the angler with enough leverage to easily mend line at all distances. Fly speed and proximity to the fish are important factors in producing strikes. Easy prey brings the attention of predators. The closer and slower the fly, the more vulnerable it appears. There is little doubt that Steelhead are more prone to grab a fly that is moving at current speed or slower than one which is traveling faster than the current, and that demands control.
Knowing this, we were some of the first to use two handed fly rods for winter Steelhead on our local rivers. They instantly created a lot of interest. People would actually pull their boats to the side of the river, anchor-up and sit and watch. That was only a few years ago.
Now most spin fishermen take us for granted, unless we're catching fish and they are not. Then everyone pays close attention. This is happening often enough that fly fishing for Steelhead with a two-handed fly rod is a growing sport. It is a sport that will feed on its own catch rate.


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