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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
HAND BUILT BLANKS
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.