Swing Season


    You know the look. Try explaining your steelhead jones to someone—a relative, coworker, or better yet, a potential spouse—and there it is: disdain, or worse, real concern. The less polite often feel a need to summarize, as if they didn’t quite hear you or, more likely, to emphasize their disbelief, “Wait, so you stand in freezing water up to your waist, in brutal weather, casting over and over…and most of the time you don’t even catch anything? Um…wow.” Then the look. The one that says you belong in a mental facility.

    And now here you are again, standing in freezing water up to your waist, in brutal weather, getting ready to cast over and over, each time expecting a different result. (Yes, you are acquainted with the pop-culture definition of insanity, thank you very much.) This, after four fishless, dawn-to-dark days, fueled by gas-station coffee, candy bars and pepperoni sticks. Days so bleak that at times you wondered if these fish actually exist, or if you only imagined them.

    A slurry of wet snow driven by a ferocious downstream wind pelts your face and stings your fingers. Dense, gray cloud cover, vaguely lightened by an invisible sun, obscures the surrounding mountains and fills the river valley. Pale, leafless alders jut from the bank behind you, bare branches waving overhead in the stronger gusts. Spring, or what passes for it, on the Olympic Peninsula.

    You come around with your loop, wait for it to line up, and launch for the far side. There’s a subtle trough over there, tight to the bank, where the tumbling riffle falls away into deep, soft water. It takes a big mend and a downstream step or two to get the fly to fish. But if there’s a steelhead in the river, that’s where it’ll hold.

    This year, like too many of recent memory, the steelhead run is down. You lived through the precipitous decline on your Puget Sound home rivers, and this season on the OP dredges up old worries. Solduc, Bogie, Hoh, Queets, same story everywhere. Your mind roils with the work that needs to be done to save these fish. And yet, as your cast settles, you are still stoked, still holding your breath, knees shaking with anticipation. Or maybe it’s the weather sapping heat from your core. Or insanity.

    Your line catches fast water and the fly rockets across The Bucket accelerating downstream. Nope. Need a bigger mend. Maybe two. You fight your way back upstream, into the heavy current, and carefully inch out a little deeper to sharpen the angle of attack. Pebbles wash out from underfoot, joining the turbulent wake streaming out below your legs.

    Another cast, a huge mend, another mend, and three sliding, bouncing steps downstream. The kind of steps where you aren’t really sure if you’ll be able to stop, or if you’re going swimming. The line gradually gains tension, this time in a wide, open arc, with the fly swimming gently cross current.

    Then: Simultaneous explosions detonate in your brain, your heart, the surface of the river. Line peels off the reel in a furious blur, shooting away downstream. A hundred feet out and upstream, a fish vaults into the air. Your fish. Synapses fire, adrenaline pulses into veins, line slices through current, trying to catch up. The fish greyhounds away, blowing a new hole in the river while the previous hole is still open. Heat surges out of your chest and down your arms, tingling frozen fingers.

    Then: Simultaneous explosions

    Then: Simultaneous explosions detonate in your brain, your heart, the surface of the river. Line peels off the reel in a furious blur, shooting away downstream.

    A sudden sharp turn back downstream, a brief loss of tension—you heart stutters—then a long screaming run, punctuated by a cartwheeling leap that will remain frozen in your memory forever: A radiant slash of silver suspended in a halo of water drops, illuminating the gray half light.

    The fish makes two more slower, shorter runs, then veers in close, yielding to pressure now, its body curved into the S-shape of waning resistance. As it passes beneath a slick in the current, a window opens, revealing a shadow as long as your arm. Your heart thumps. A series of short, writhing turns and it glides into the shallows at your feet. You grip the broad wrist ahead of its tail, slip the hook out, and hold this incredible, luminous fish for a brief moment of wonder. When you let go, it shoots away like a torpedo, tail churning water, and disappears into the opaque green river.

    You are not cold, even though you are. You are not tired, even though you are. You are not hungry, even though you are. You feel better than you’ve felt in a long time, maybe ever. Insanity? If that’s what this is, you’ll take it. Try explaining that.

    WORDS BY: Dylan Tomine

    On The Water

    A handful of un-fished home ties ready to be swum, and hopefully eaten. Fly tying can be a therapeutic activity and helps fill the long winter nights and short winter days when rains have the rivers too high to fish.

    Photo Credit: Copi Vojta

    Under favorable conditions, Jason Rolfe (l) and Bobby Foster (r) lead the foggy way toward juicy water, and if they're lucky, a fish.

    Photo Credit: Copi Vojta

    Evan Slater puts the wood to a wild hen on a clear, cold winter morning on a wonderful steelhead river.

    Photo Credit: Copi Vojta

    What a paddle. John McMillan tails a wild winter buck, likely propelled thousands of miles by instinct and a huge tail.

    Photo Credit: Copi Vojta

    The multi-talented Jason Rolfe (r) chefs it up during a midday lunch stop, while Evan Slater (l) plans his next move, likely starting with a riverside BBQ pork sandwich.

    Photo Credit: Copi Vojta

    Speyship ready for launch.

    Photo Credit: Sage Brown

    While long shadows darken the Skagit River early in the day, ice builds up on snake guides. Evan Slater keeps his flies swimming, its the only way to do it.

    Photo Credit: Copi Vojta


    As passionate fly fishermen, we are equally as passionate about conserving the fisheries we use and love. Check out what our friend, and Sage ambassador, Gray Struznik is up to on Washington's Olympic Peninsula; and please support your local conservation organizations. Through the support of healthy fisheries comes better fishing for all.

    Perfect Setups

    Fall to winter, switch to spey, recommendations from our reps and ambassadors on the perfect two-handed season setups.


    The beauty of a seven-weight switch stick is that it's big enough for steelhead, sea run dollies, sea run browns and all the salmon species (other than Kingy), yet not so big to completely blow past the western trout game in the Rockies and beyond.

    — George Cook, Northwest Sage Rep
    7110-4 X
    SPECTRUM LT - 7/8
    500 grain RIO Skagit Max Short / RIO Switch Chucker #7


    I like a setup that’s versatile and summer/fall steelhead often demand mixed techniques, depending on conditions. A Skagit line on the 6-weight MOD offers me the flexibility to fish MOW Tips with various sinking sections or, with a full-floating MOW, I can fish dryline-style. The rod’s powerful enough for small intruders and coneheads but has finesse and delicacy to fish classic wets as well.

    — Jesse Robbins, Sage Community Manager
    6130-4 MOD
    SPECTRUM LT - 9/10
    425 Grain RIO Skagit Max


    When picking a good winter setup I think it’s important to find a rod that suits what water you normally fish. For instance, I normally fish deeper runs where getting a fly into the strike zone to trigger a reaction is very important. The 8130-4 X is the 'DO ANYTHING ROD'. It bends deep into the cork and has enough power to throw 15' of T-20 along with a huge Musky fly if you wanted it to.

    — Gray Struznik, Sage Ambassador
    8130-4 X
    SPECTRUM MAX - 9/10
    550/575 Grain RIO Skagit Max / 550/575 RIO Skagit iFlight

    Handcrafted In The USA


    Measure twice, roll once, and bake one by one, always by hand. Bainbridge Island’s climate is a geographic sweet spot—not too hot in the summer, nor too cold in the winter—for building fly rods, and our proximity to the aerospace industry gives us access to better graphite and materials than we could get if our factory was overseas. It’s the perfect recipe for handcrafting—slowly and with intention—the most high-performance fly rods on the planet.

    Writing / Photography / Video


    Writer Dylan Tomine is a father, conservation advocate, writer and recovering sink-tip addict. He is the author of Closer to the Ground: An Outdoor Family’s Year on the Water, in the Woods and at the Table, and his stories and essays have appeared in The Flyfish Journal, The Drake, Fly Fisherman, Golfweek, The New York Times and numerous other publications. Dylan serves as a Fly Fishing Ambassador for Patagonia, and a trustee with the Wild Steelhead Coalition. He lives with his two kids, Skyla and Weston, on an island in Puget Sound.


    Photographer Copi Vojta hails from the high-and-dry ponderosa pine forests of Northern Arizona via Eastern Oregon, where he learned to stare at water and attempt to catch fish. Leaving Arizona for the trout infested waters of Colorado provided ample opportunity to forego regular adult responsibilities and live among rivers and mountains. A photographer, and Photo Editor for The Flyfish Journal, he now resides in Bellingham, Washington where he is slightly more responsible and can be found chasing all sorts of beautiful things. You can find more of his work at www.cbvphotographics.com and www.illcentrifugal.com.


    Videographer RC moved from the flatlands to the big sky country when he was 18. Graduating from the University of Montana with a degree in Environmental Studies and a concentration in Photojournalism profoundly shaped his worldview and sense of aesthetic. Working with amazing companies such as Patagonia, Sage, and Howler Bros on a collection of adventure documentaries cemented RC’s love for outdoor cinema and the connections it creates. He and his camera have traveled around four continents and dream everyday of new adventures.