I recently took up spey casting, and in doing so I learned a great deal about why fly fishing is important to me. The ideas manifested in this article have been swimming around in my mind for a while now, finally developing into a single cognizant flow during a recent steelhead trip to the Hoh river which proved to me that simply catching a lot of fish is highly overrated. Achieving a true appreciation of the sport of fly fishing and experiencing the awesome level of fulfillment it can add to one’s life involves a depth of understanding that goes far beyond feeling a fish throb at the end of your line, dragging it onto the bank and snapping a few photos to show your buddies.
Before I get any deeper into this, let me start from the beginning…
I learned to fish for steelhead with a single handed rod using a strike indicator and a team of nymphs. In my mind this setup will forever be known as a set of training wheels. There are several reasons why a person might choose to bobber fish for steelhead, and very few of them have anything to do with mastering the art of fly fishing. I utilized this tactic because I wanted to catch steelhead. I was already well aquainted with nymphing for trout so there was almost no transition at all. Apart from reading water to find steelhead holding lies as opposed to feeding lies that trout prefer, there is no difference between nymphing for trout and steelhead.
Is it an effective way to steelhead fish? Damn straight!
But I digress, even though my new set of training wheels allowed me to catch many large, hard fighting fish I was left feeling empty, like my success had been unearned. I didn’t feel like a “real” steelhead fisherman, just a guy who caught a lot of steelhead.
When I think about images synonymous with fly fishing for steelhead I picture a frostbitten sunrise on a sprawling river like the Skagit. I imagine wading deep into the river’s flow feeling for purchase on the cobble rocks with numb feet. I can hear the line rip free from its anchor point on the waters surface as I swing the thirteen foot double handed rod wide to form a D-loop, and then up and out over the river. I make a big mend to let the sink tip do its work and then tighten on the line. The fly swings across the current searching for a fish. Nothing. Cast, mend, swing, step, repeat…
A steelhead fisherman covers water while searching out his quarry. Patience, persistence and meticulous attention to detail are his key virtues. Countless hours spent on the water have given him a keen sense of his surroundings. He is aware of the subtle changes in current speed caused by variations in the river bottom. He has faced the disappointment of arriving to a raging torrent of a river after a fresh winter rain and the challenge of tempting a large silvery fish from the bottom of a crystal clear pool under the midday august sun.
This is the depth I was lacking, and in learning to fish with a two handed rod I was taking my first step to becoming a “real” steelhead fisherman.
This idea was driven home for me when Ted and I drove out to the Hoh river to fish it one final time before it closed for the season. Like any fishing trip it began with high hopes and giddy, sleepless nights in anticipation of that electric surge when a fish is peeling drag off of your reel.
Within ten seconds of arriving at the river and wetting my line I knew I would not be experiencing that feeling on this particular trip! My casts were awkward and disjointed. On each successive attempt my line would appear to die right in front of me, leaving me feeling quite impotent as an angler. To make matters worse, boat after boat drifted by us with gear fishermen raving about how many fish they were catching. We even observed one set of anglers cleaning two beautiful chrome bright wild fish at the edge of the river, a saddening and frustrating sight on a number of different levels.
One might think that feeling the intense frustration of not being able to fish effectively while numerous others were enjoying success would cause me to throw down the spey rod and grab the glow bugs and strike indicator. To be honest, there were a few moments when the only thing keeping me from launching the thirteen foot contraption clear across the river like a javelin, knowing full well I could throw it further than I could cast at that moment, was the fact that it had the name Dave McCoy engraved on the butt section just above the cork. However, I never once thought about switching back to the training wheels. My resolve was set, and my desire to learn to spey cast greatly exceeded my desire to land a steelhead.
Luckily I was not alone in my struggles, and I had some lessons from Dave, who is a phenomenal teacher, to fall back on. So I started with the fundamentals I had learned while casting on green lake during my initial spey lesson, and along with a few helpful tips from Ted McDermott that fixed some hitches in my cast I eventually got to the point where casting turned into fishing.
Slowly the moves became ingrained and my casting turned into a rhythm. Cast, mend, swing, step, repeat. My numb feet dug into the cobble rocks and held fast as I stood thigh deep in the powerful current of the river. I relished in feeling the “snap” in my snap-t and smiled at the satisfying sound of my anchor tearing from the water as I swung the rod wide to form a d-loop and sent the line sailing out over the river. My frustrations were carried away in the flowing current and I was able to look upon the place I was in with new eyes.
Bald eagles soared overhead. The afternoon sun warmed the back of my neck. As the power and beauty of the Olympic Peninsula soaked in I reflected that Ted and I had it pretty good.
On day 2 Ted got himself a fish. And we were able to explore a beautiful section of the upper river.
We met up with some fellow guides, Dylan Rose and Ryan Smith who were drifting the upper river in Dylan’s raft. Together we enjoyed a beer and some laughs. Ryan was gracious enough to allow me to cast his CF Burkheimer double hander with a Skagit Line, a staggering difference from the old Sage VT2 and Delta line I had been heaving for the past two days. I was reminded of yet another reason other than catching fish that I enjoy fly fishing. Sharing my experiences with friends.
To be clear, I do enjoy catching fish and I have nothing against nymph fishing. In fact I still firmly believe that it is an effective tool for catching fish under certain circumstances. If catching fish is the only goal you have during your trip, if that is your sole purpose for taking time off work and away from your loved ones and traveling all the way out to some gorgeous river in the middle of nowhere, then go ahead and nymph, you will catch fish. However, If you are anything like me, then you might get to thinking that maybe in this crazy world of fish porn and internet forums, where competition is high and one-upping the last guy with more pictures of bigger fish has become the norm, maybe we should re-evaluate why we began fishing in the first place. To get back to our roots. To satisfy an urge to explore the unknown. To get in touch with ourselves and our primal human instincts. To master an ancient art form. To become part of a worldly culture and recognize the importance of an energy greater than our own. These are the reasons why I chose fly fishing as a path for my life.
No more training wheels for me!
(special thanks to Dylan and Ted for some of the great photos!)