Northern Exposure

Russ BC Buck

Northern Exposure

by Russ Miller
Sage Pro Manager

I am not sure what it is when you cross over the border from the U.S. into Canada. There is a weight that is lifted, perhaps it’s the knowledge that your phone is no longer in service, and that for the next three days all you have to worry about is which run to step into next.

BC

This morning it was easy to choose what run we would start at for first light. As we fired up the stove at the camp spot for some hot coffee, I could hear the river song playing in the background. It had been the same tune that we fell asleep to every night. Instead of getting in the car, we would fish our home pool at the doorsteps of camp. As we rigged up in the pale blue pre-dawn light, the 14 foot Magnum red METHOD rod glowed a little as I strung it up. This rod was an easy one to fall in love with; it is ultra-light, ultra-powerful, and has the soul of a champion. I was able to hit seams that were out of my previous casting range and keep my fly swimming through water that was untouched.

Contemplating my fly choice for the morning, last night’s drinks still sat heavy in my head and the late night fish stories motivated me to make a change. Rumor had it that black and blue was the ticket. That was all I needed to hear as I had been on a pink fly bender the past two fishless days. Digging through my box I found the one, a black marabou head with a blue prom dress tail. It certainly caught my eye even in the dim glow of my headlamp. Steaming coffee in one hand and rod in the other we made our way from our camp, through the foliage, and out onto the gravel bar. Harry and I sat and watched the river flow, sipping coffee and waiting for the morning to start.

BC Buck

About a third of the way down from the head during another rhythmic swing, my fly got crushed. I didn’t have to worry about my loop or setting the hook, I just had to hang on and enjoy the ride. Minutes later Harry was grabbing the wrist of my first BC buck and I was ecstatic! After celebrating and high fiving, I sat down to re-live the experience and soak the scene in. Harry stepped back in, anxious after feeling and seeing the power of these native fish. I let my nerves calm down for about 15 minutes and stepped back into the head. Three casts later the matching hen came to hand.

When it rains … it feels so good!


A Different Take on a Little Rod

Sage 370-4 Response

A Different Take on a Little Rod

Joe Mahler

Hidden within the SAGE line-up is a gem. The Response 370-4 is a seven-foot three-weight rod that is a true workhorse – ok, a pony. I realize that it is not likely that a rod of this stature will never be the talk of fly tackle shows and expositions, but maybe this one should be.

I have never owned a rod lighter than a four weight, but last spring I was kayak fishing with Steve Gibson in a lake near Sarasota, Florida. It was tough day for sure. Windy, chilly, and the bass, bream, and crappies had a chronic case of lock-jaw. I had a seven and six-weight rod with me, Steve was armed with a two and three-weight. At the end of the day, Steve had caught 17 respectable fish, while I caught only two. We were fishing close to each other, even using the same flies, but Steve, with his diminutive equipment picked the shoreline apart like a micro-surgeon, while I simply blew through some of what proved to be the best spots. Steve explained that the down-sized outfits that he was using somehow changed his view of the shoreline and made him more focused. So, hat in hand, my search for the perfect three-weight began.

When it comes to equipment, “If it’s worth using, it’s worth abusing” definitely applies to me. While terms like “Lifting Power” and “Backbone” aren’t usually tossed about in light rod discussions, I knew that, although I was looking for a small waters rod, I never look for small fish. The rod I chose would need to cover a range of waters– from canals to lakes to backcountry creeks, on foot and by paddle, as well as a variety of species including bream, exotics (oscars, cichlids, and peacock bass), largemouth bass and even small tarpon. Kayak fly-rodders are usually from two different schools of thought on rod length. The first argument is that since the caster is usually seated, therefore closer to the water’s surface, a longer rod is helpful in keeping the back cast from hitting the water and help with distance overall. The other side is that being able to tuck a shorter rod inside the kayak will make it easier to navigate twisty backcountry creeks and, since super-distance casts are seldom necessary in a stealthy kayak, a short rod is a better choice for most situations. I tend to agree with the latter.

The Response 370-4, to me, is very much in line with the popular SAGE Bass series rods. It’s a fast-action rod that will handle more payload than one would expect. I often use flies ranging from #8 cork-bodied poppers, to #4 bucktail streamers on salt water hooks. The key with throwing the larger flies is to use a shorter and heavier leader than is typical. For bass and small tarpon, I use a seven foot 12-15lb. leader with a 20lb. butt section. Initially, I paired the Response 370 up with a 3 weight RIO gold line but found that, for my purposes, a 3 weight RIO Grande helps load the rod better.

In the six months that I have been fishing the 370, I have landed largemouth and Peacock Bass to 18” and baby tarpon to 27”. I have definitely put a bend in the rod, but I’ve not felt under gunned. The four-piece 370 comes in a tube that measures less than 26” in length. It fits in my travel bag, and is always under the seat of my truck. It has become a staple in my casting instruction sessions as an aid to build line-shooting skills, which the Response 370/ RIO Grande combination does beautifully. If you are looking for a little rod with a lot of attitude, take the Response 370 for a test drive.

Joe Mahler is a Sage ambassador, casting instructor, author, illustrator, and experienced kayak angler in Florida. To learn more about Joe, head over to his Facebook page and website.

Skins & Fins

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Fishing Southwest Alaska

Fishing SW Alaska


Sage Technical Service Manager, Chris Andersen, just got back from steelhead fishing Southwest Alaska. After putting some of our gear to the test, check out what he has to say.

Just back from my annual trip to some of my old guide waters in Southwest Alaska fishing with my friend Patricia from Blue Fly B&B. It was truly just like old times, the average fish was from around 26-28 inches with fish into the 30’s…..all chrome bright and as hot as the hottest steelhead I’ve ever fought…only these were native Alaskan trout! If you’re ever planning a trip to the Naknek, Blue Fly has an awesome B&B and a fantastic guide service.

I used the new METHOD 8126-4 with the new Sage 2210 reel and connect core shooting line and the new Skagit Max Short (625 grain). The METHOD spey… what can I say other than amazing, simply amazing. I was fishing some very large, heavy, wind resistant, water soaking flies in the occasional 50 mph wind and that rod delivered the goods despite the demanding situations. The METHOD had tons of soul and it fought fish well without being too overpowering. The new 2200 series reels performed flawlessly. What a great reel for the price! I really like the new RIO non-stretch connect core shooting lines and the new heads to go along. I noticed a huge difference between the standard and non-stretch cores when it comes to feel and sensitivity when fishing the line as well as hook sets and holding the fish once you have them pinned. For the angler who fishes hardcore destinations, be it Alaska or our own Olympic Peninsula rainforest rivers during Winter steelhead season, there’s simply nothing better than this setup.

Chris Andersen, Sage Technical Service Manager

Getting Pop into the Game – Part 2

Getting Pop into the Game

Getting Pop into the Game

Here is part two of Sage ambassador Al Buhr’s guide to popping for Steelhead. Click here to see part one.

Reading a rise can be telling in what to do next. Solid hook-ups are like a free pass, making life simple. However, solid hook-ups only account for 20 to 40 percent of surface rises. A fish rising and missing the fly can be for countless reasons and can be a little mysterious. It can be frustrating to have a fish rise with a tightly closed mouth, content on drowning the fly, but it happens. In contrast, shark attacks and leaping explosions happen, too. The core task is to observe fish rise and decide to either come back with the popper or change to a small wet fly on the next cast. In any technique, surface or wet fly, there are subtle aspects that are mastered with use that make great gains. Use the visual response by the fish to your advantage. Read the rise, judge how the fish is responding and adjust the comeback to get the hook-up.

With a surface fly, observing a short rise is obvious most of the time. In contrast, a wet fly is more difficult to detect a short take, and is easy to pass over, undetected. So, when working a surface fly, plan for the short rises as a part of the game. Accept the likely odds that around 7 out of 10 rises will be short and factor in a preplan. Counter missed rises with a comeback plan to improve the outcome.

My check list in a comeback game plan:

  • To help reduce a possible short take, once the boil initiates (the first appearance of a rise), immediately lower the rod to slack the line, allowing the fly to move with the current. This takes focus to do prior to the fish contacting the bug. Mastering the drop of the rod just as the rise initiates, will distantly lower the number of short takes and up the kill rate.
  • If a fish rises and misses the fly, wait a two-count (two seconds), and give the bug a crisp pop. This can provoke a second attack on this initial swing. If not, resume the beat of skating and popping and then carefully retrieve the bug.
  • After a short rise, wait for one to two minutes before returning a cast to rest the fish, the longer the better.
  • Don’t move from your position or change the line length. The initial rise is the most likely place for the next encounter. If the fish fails to rise on the second attempt, in the next cast shorten the line length four feet, and then follow by extending four feet. Shortening and extending line will search for a fish that may have submerged to a new location.
  • Give some thought as to how the fish came to the fly. Was the fly missed during the attempt or was it a refusal? Judging how a fish boils will help define between a responsive fish missing the fly, from a ‘one-trick-pony’ that only comes once. With experience in observing boils, intuition will become instinctive as to when to move on with the next cast to seek the next fish.
  • Consider changing the fly during a rest period. Change the size or shape of the surface bug or switch to a wet fly.
  • If the second rise is also short, start the process over, rest the fish and consider a fly change. Change the bug size or tie on a wet; or move from a wet back to the surface bug. Shift from popping to ‘walk-the-dog’. Changing tactics or the fly will help foster interest from the fish to come back.
  • Have patience. Some fish can come several to many times, ending either in a hook-up or stop rising.


  • Keeping the fly pattern simple can help improve the odds in getting solid takes. There are many steelhead surface patterns, each having some claim to fame or magical powers. Fly choice is personal; it can be a source of innovation, or ineffective glitter. A skating surface fly can be open to variations, whereas a popping bug has more specific performance needs that dictate pattern construction. Not all surface flies excel at popping. To extract what is function and what is glitter, its best to list some core requirements of a good performing popping bug:

  • The body needs to be buoyant, and remain floating all day.
  • The fly will chug when popped, not dive, sink or act neutral.
  • The fly will skate in all water types, staying up in fast, medium or slow current flows.
  • The fly will skate from either river bank without having to shift the riffle-hitch accordingly.
  • The fly should not have any part (wing, legs, body or tail) in excess that would impede the hook point from sticking.
  • The fly should have a relatively small size. A smaller bug will invoke more multi or repetitive strikes on a given swing or in a comeback situation.


  • In a search for the best functional popping bug, I have consistently found patterns with a tapered cigar or torpedo-shaped body best. A cigar-tapered body has a uniform shape (from all angles) and tends to skate in nearly all water types (fast, medium, slow), even if driven under the surface by the initial cast. The round tapered body will skate from right or left banks without extra care to the side the riffle-hitch is tied. This is not proper riffle-hitch technique, but works and is simple. When using a ‘walk-the-dog’ retrieve, a more blunt-ended torpedo shaped bug can work well without the need of a hitch.

    Moose hair, packed tight when tied, or neoprene foam (weather stripping) will reliably float for an extended time. Moose is very durable and easy to clip the body shape. Foam is simple and quick to tie. A moose hair ‘Buck bug’ is modest and works good for popping. A simple neoprene foam body with legs works well for a ‘walk-the-dog’ approach. Both patterns are simplistic in form and function, with a good reliable performance that lasts all day.

    A trick I use to improve the solid hook-up ratio is to twist the hook bend, tilting the hook point off to the side. Occasionally a hook will break, so this is best done before tying the fly. To twist the hook: grip the hook point parallel with the shank, and then grip the shank (if hook is bare) or fly body. Twist carefully, turning to point about 10 degrees to one side. When fishing the fly, use a riffle-hitch, tying the hitch to the side the hook point cants. This is important; tie the hitch in to align with the hook point. With the hitch tightened, the canted hook point and leader (knotted to the side of the bug) will align (when tensioned). With the hook point and leader in alignment, penetration is easy. Moreover, with the hook point canted, the point is exposed and not concealed under the fly body. By having the hook point canted with the hitch aligning the leader, the fly is lethal. When a fish grabs the fly, it’s hooked. The odds just got better.

    In my observations, popping invokes an instinctive predator reaction. A strike can come from any commotion of the bug; either the initial cast, or as it works across. As a strategic aspect, defining where and how the cast and popping is presented can provoke or compel a strike to happen. The strategic aspect of compelling a fish to strike is one element in the game. A bug chugging across the surface radiates a compulsive and spontaneous attitude, giving a ‘spaghetti western’ spin to the game; anything can happen. What sparks a steelhead to rise also draws other fish to strike. A wide range of fish: trout, smallmouth bass, whitefish and coarse fish, will attack a popping bug. It is an added bonus; anything that swims is fair game.

    To some extent there is a level of expectation and uncertainty in each cast. There is expectation of a rise, yet unclear as to what will rise and how the rise will happen. Expectation, infused with uncertainty, makes popping a compelling obsession. At a minimum, popping will test personal preconceived notions to presenting a fly to steelhead. It’s all good.

    Al is an avid steelhead fly fisher in the Northwest, and associated with Sage for many years. He enjoys teaching fly casting, is a FFF certified Master, certified THCI, and FFF Board of Governor.

    He is an author of two books on fly fishing:
    Two-Handed Fly Casting, Spey Casting Techniques, a comprehensive guide to learning spey casting.
    How to Build Fly Lines, a complete guide to making custom fly lines.

    Getting Pop Into The Game – Part 1

    Getting Pop into the Game

    Getting Pop into the Game

    By Al Buhr

    I started popping for steelhead by chance. I was swinging a wet fly with a twitch, an effective technique for half-pounders. Fishing was good, so a change in tactics was timely. I switched to a surface fly, and without thinking, the ingrained routine of twitching the wet fly automatically engaged. The fly skated and popped a few times, and ‘wham!’, a big surge and steelhead on. At that moment, I realized the fly was skating and popping and soon I became obsessed with this technique. Countless times I have been amazed at the effectiveness of popping. I have had many unbelievable situations and incredible takes with popping. The first photo is one example of many impossible moments. The iced rod guides and ice-coated rocks hint at the below-freezing temperatures that popping is effective in. The fish pictured is the second of three landed in the pool and one of many in extreme conditions.

    Popping a skating fly is a quick and effective way to search for steelhead. The key word is ‘search’, as it is extremely effective in getting a fish to boil, while less effective in actual hook-ups. However, once a fish is located, via the initial rise, a choice can be made to come back with the surface bug or change to a wet fly. Coming back with a wet fly will have higher odds of getting a solid grab. For several years, I have cross-checked popping by following back through with a wet fly. Nearly always, the popper located more fish in the run. When reversing this experiment by having the popper follow after the wet fly, occasionally an additional fish would show. Popping has a few weak points, but is outweighed by its strengths, such as quickly locating fish.

    What is popping all about? This technique combines both skating and popping the fly. The popping technique is more intense and versatile than skating alone, and has a wider angle-of-change, around 45 to 60 degrees. If needed, a wide angle-of-change (as much as 90 degrees) can be made by using a ‘pop-and-strip’ technique. ‘Pop-and-strip’ is done by cracking a pop, and then following with a smooth strip to remove any slack and maintain the fly’s presence on the surface. Creating a presence on the surface is important and defined by some motion to the fly disturbing the surface, even if it is not waking. This presence on the surface, waking or not, will better guide a fish to the fly.

    To visualize the popping technique in another way: imagine you and a friend are in a crowded airport lobby. Needing the friend’s attention, you turn and call ‘hey’. The friend turns back, looking at you. A short, clear call gets the desired attention. Now, in the same setting, you shout ‘HEY!!!’ loudly. The friend and all others move away as security moves in; not good. So, a streaking outburst is not presentable. Visualizing a short attention-getting ‘hey’ is a clear picture to the principle of popping. This technique is about creating spunky pop to make the bug stand out, creating interest. If overdone, the commotion becomes a distraction. When popping, don’t shout; more is not better.

    Popping is a short-line game with an effective distance of around 50 to 60 feet. At distances beyond 70 feet, it can be difficult to make the pops crisp, and consequently it becomes less productive. When working at 40-feet and closer, greater care must be given to the approach and wading. A short-line game requires a level of stealth; often you are working within the comfort zone of holding fish. When working short, extra caution is needed and is well worth the experiences gained with the action happening up close.

    This popping technique is effective in all water types. Pocket water can be searched effectively at various angles. In a classic steelhead run, one can start popping in the riffle, moving non-stop to the end of the tailout. Popping can draw fish from a distance, so a slightly faster pace through the run can be used in comparison to wet flies. The ideal popping water is much like perfect wet fly water; a soft flow of three to six feet deep with good rock.

    Step one in this game is getting the right tool. To effectively twitch a fly, a responsive fast to medium-fast action rod is needed. The key word is responsive; how the rod reacts to a command. Add in the stealth aspect of the short-line game, and spey casting becomes a necessity. The TCX rods have been a good choice. However, the ONE rods have the edge as the perfect steelhead popping rod. The Konnetic graphite construction makes for a more responsive and durable rod shaft. The ONE rod has spunk without the feeling of a stiff stick, providing a sharp pop of the bug with ease. A rod that is more responsive also makes for a better spey casting rod. I used a 691 in tight spots where long casts were needed and this rod performed awesome. The 691 ONE has lifting power too, handling 6 to 9 pound fish without a problem.

    When popping, presentation matters. The ‘pop’ must be short and crisp. It is critical that the bug moves a minimal distance, less than a few inches. In teaching this technique, most attempting to ‘pop’ use their wrist and forearm, resulting in the bug streaking across the surface. Moving the bug three or more inches is less productive. Popping is about creating momentary attention to the bug; not an alarming streak.

    Two variations to this technique: popping and ‘walk-the-dog’. Popping is a short and distinctly crisp movement of the bug, whereas, ‘walk-the-dog’ is a more passive rock or wiggle of the bug. Both methods work well and can substitute for the other. That said, each method will excel in specific situations. A crisp pop can be more effective in pocket water, deep holding lies, riffles and fast water (places where greater awareness of the fly is desired). The more passive method of ‘walk-the-dog’ works well in quiet water, or when close and fish are wary, and with long casts where a pop is not sharp, or when a two-handed rod is used.

    The skinny on how to pop effectively:
    Making a spunky pop without streaking is essential. A sharp pop comes from a flick of the rod shaft. In contrast, most perceive popping as snapping the wrist, which creates a streak to the movement. A streaking or strip movement may work for bait fish patterns, but is far less effective in raising a steelhead.

    A distinct pop is best made with a tightening of the hand-grip in a sharp clinch. Do this by the rod hand relaxing the grip, slightly opening the fingers, and then snapping into a tight clinch. Some twitching of the wrist is included, yet the hand clinching tight is the dominate energy source to a snappy pop. When the hand-grip relaxes, the rod lowers, slightly creating slack and then immediately snaps the line tight, creating a sharp pop while only moving the bug an inch or two.

    Here’s the step-by-step ‘how to’:

    To pop with a single-hand rod or a switch rod:

  • Begin with the fly sweeping or skating across the surface.
  • Slightly open (or relax) the hand-grip, allowing the rod tip to drop around two inches or so. The intentional lowering of the rod tip allows some slack momentarily in the line.
  • As the rod lowers and nears the bottom of the drop, the hand-grip snaps close, flicking the rod upward. This snap of the hand-grip creates a controlled shock of the rod, making a sharp upward flick of the rod tip.
  • The hand snapping tight raises the rod tip, removes the line slack and bumps the line taunt. The hand twitching the rod comes to an abrupt stop as the slack line bumps tight. This creates a sharp pop with minimal travel. Bumping the slack line tight is the key to cracking a sharp pop without traveling the bug. The line slacking is subtle; the fly should continue to skate without detection.
  • The hand grip opening to lower the rod is subtle, while the hand snapping close is quick, sharp, and abrupt, distinctly snapping the slack line tight. The line bumping taunt creates the sharp pop without streaking.
  • Use a 3 or 4-count between pops (3 to 4 seconds) as the fly skates on the surface. Generally, when a fish strikes, it is about 1 or 2 counts after a pop.


  • Popping with a two-handed rod is doable, utilizing a slightly different technique. Because of the length, a two-handed rod responds slower than a single-hand or a switch rod. A sluggish responding rod can be difficult to pop a fly with, via a rod twitch. With a two-handed rod, use the line hand to twitch or tug the fly line, causing the fly to pop. Using a hand twitch may take some practice to get the short and sharp pops in play. A good alternative is the ‘walk-the-dog’ method, using the line hand to work and rock the bug as it skates.

    To pop with a two-handed rod:
    Start with the fly skating across the surface.

  • Hold the rod in one hand; grasp the line in the other (line hand).
  • Create the pop with a sharp tug, using the line hand and wrist. Make it short, a few inches.
  • Be careful not to streak the fly in a stripping fashion (fly moving four inches or more); short pops are key to success.


  • The passive alternative, ‘walk-the-dog’, is effective and easy to do. This method is done similar to popping, and is less intense. It is just a rocking the surface bug as it skates. The rod tugs the line, rocking the bug, rather than causing a sharp pop. In teaching surface fishing techniques, ‘walk-the-dog’ is the easier for most to master.

    To make the bug walk, use a similar method as popping, just soften the hard snap or twitch. When using a single-hand rod, use the rod to rock the bug. With a two-handed rod, use the line-hand to work the fly line, nudging the fly. Make the rock distinctive; the motion is just one notch lower than a pop. Use a 3 or 4 count timing between rocking strokes. In slower moving water, allow the bug to travel around 4 feet between nudges. A ‘pop-and-strip’ technique can be modified to walk a bug across tanky-slow water. When ‘walk’n-the-dog’, try a simple small bug with legs that will pulse with each tug.

    Popping demands focus in working the fly. It is important to see how the fly is coming across the surface. The fly must be on the surface waking between pops. If the bug is submerged under the surface, it’s not likely to raise a fish. When popping, the pops must be short, and ideally spit a little. If using a ‘walk-the-dog’, the bug needs to shake or rock without traveling or streaking. A critical part in maintaining focus is reading the rise when it happens. Reading the rise is a story within itself, and will best guide you in making a good comeback choice.

    To be continued… Look for part two tomorrow!