BEFORE THE EARLY 1990s it was impossible to catch steelhead on a fly rod, and certainly not using a floating line and a single-handed rod. We just couldn’t get our small flies deep enough, we couldn’t cast them far enough, and we all just stood there wishing we had a center pin and roe sacks, because flyfishing for steelhead was hopeless.
Then a few Pacific Northwest guys began experimenting with fat lines and short heads. Sure enough, they began catching fish and slowly set about brainwashing the public into believing that the only way to catch a steelhead was with Skagit heads, double-handed rods, heavy tips, and enormous flies. Steelheading would never be the same.
I looked at the new breed of Skagit fishermen, donning flat-brimmed ball caps and neon micro-fleece jackets, and was struck with a terrible sense of inadequacy—standing there, shoulders hunched over, with my hapless nine-footer, floating line, and sparsely dressed fly. The Spey Revolution was upon us! I joined the cult and spent years half-heartedly attempting to satiate its appetite for steelhead.
What I learned early on was that the most important part of the Spey Revolution by far is the cast. The simple goal is to throw line, with pinpoint accuracy, a minimum of 150 feet. A true samurai fishes across entire rivers, sometimes into the next river system, with a look of grim satisfaction as he rips line off the soft surface and catapults his rig over the horizon, mending from one bank to the other, repeatedly creating a swing sooo slow you can watch the trees grow.
The true devotee wades slowly, anchored to his 13-footer, picking off fish hanging deep with methodical one-step efficiency. But every so often it all goes to shit, leading to the inevitable Spey Tantrum— commonly induced by a sudden and inexplicable casting malfunction. The tight loop that only minutes before zinged and snapped, now whistles and lashes lop-sided past the angler’s ear and crashes into the beautiful dancing glide. Often the tantrum is preceded by insecurity about the D-loop, followed by nervous, searching questions about the right set-up and right tip and right fly and right water temp, but mostly about the depth. Oh, and the tip, again.
The tantrum takes on many guises, including the ever-annoying Silent Sulk. The sulk, surprisingly, is often the domain of the experienced angler. Someone you have fished with before. Someone who knows the river and the way things are done. At the start of the day it’s all smiles and talk of fishing dries once “I’ve got a few under my belt.” But as lunch rolls around without a single tug, the casual chitchat dries up. Jaws become clenched, brows furrow, and muttering ensues.
An angler in the depths of a sulk will shut down and ignore all attempts at communication. He will fish intensely, grinding his teeth, staring insanely at the swing. The silent sulk can only be broken by a fish. Or a bear encounter. The latter on some days is preferable. Once a fish has been landed, not just hooked—although that helps—the silent sulk vanishes into thin air. A phenomenon of an overactive imagination.
Recently, while sulking on the bank of some famous river, a man with a single-hand rod stepped into view. I had just fished my way through the run with a sink tip and Intruder and thought he didn’t stand a chance. He approached the head, peeled off eight feet of line, and laid it softly on the water. Another two strips and the fly barely made a ripple. He mended gently and the fly swung seductively. This continued until he was casting 60 feet. One slightly larger mend and just as the fly reached the hang down, he set the hook. After a 15- minute fight, I made my way to the river and offered to tail the fish. The angler accepted and I was struck with a sense of nostalgia as I noticed a Golden Demon stuck in the steelhead’s mouth. I glanced up at the man in his battered waders and realized that I was staring into the face of an endangered species: Was he the last living single-hander?
I know there is no right or wrong way to fish for steelhead, and that having fun and respecting the environment and the fish are the most important elements of this culture we share. There are of course many different styles of Spey fishing and in the hands of the right person it can be elegant and instinctual. There are the benefits of being able to cast up tight against the bank. You can cover more water, cast heavy tips and flies, and there are certainly times when the Skagit dude will catch more fish (especially once the temp has dropped). But when you’re out on the river this season pondering grain weights or battling a tantrum, spare a thought for your single-handed rods wallowing somewhere in your basement, shed, or attic. And perhaps dust them off and give them a shot. You will be rewarded and will be making a fundamental step toward saving single-handers from extinction.
TOBY GILBERT is a (patient, encouraging, helpful) guide at Steelhead Valhalla Lodge on British Columbia’s famed Sustut River.