Tales of Oregon

Steelhead : 18

Friday, March 30th, 2018 - 4:17 PM

The ocean refuses to settle down, and the rivers are flooded, so just a little No Kayaks Involved report to let everyone knows we’re still trying to fish whenever and wherever we can down here.

There are quite literally hundreds of different fly lines out there. Floating lines and sinking lines, floating lines with sinking tips, lines that sink only so far then hover… There are lines for freshwater and lines for saltwater, lines for cold water and for warm water. Hundreds of fly lines, and we’re just talking about fly lines for classic fly fishing, ignoring lines for that weird spey casting stuff.

Unless you’re me of course. I learned that I can use spey-casting lines on my not-spey-fishing rods and save a whole bundle of cash. I’m a tightwad.

All fly lines have a “running” line – a section of the fly line that’s just there for its length. The work is done by the thirty-foot long “head” of a line where all the weight is concentrated – that’s the part of the line we cast. In a classic or “integrated” fly line, the running line and the head are joined together as a single fly line.

Still with me?

In spey casting, the running line and the head are separated into individual parts. That means I can buy a spey casting running line for forty bucks – and that’s like fifty bucks less than what an integrated fly line costs – and buy either sinking or floating heads to attach to the running line for twenty bucks each. So, for fifty or sixty dollars, I have a perfectly functional, albeit non-classical, fly line. And if I want to stop fishing deep underwater and start fishing for trout with dainty floating flies, it only costs me twenty bucks for the different head instead of ninety bucks for an entire classic fly line. Clever – and frugal.

Fly fishing is expensive enough without keeping dozens of hundred-dollar fly lines around in the unlikely event that I need one of them.

Using integrated fly lines can get even more insane because some people – not me, but some people – will go fishing with several different spools for their fly reels, each one loaded up with a different fly line. Spools cost hundreds of dollars, the lines cost ninety dollars each, and that means you can see people standing knee deep in a river with a couple thousand dollars worth of spools and fly lines stuffed into their fanny packs.

That’s madness, as you can plainly see. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why someone as cheap as me invented spey casting. And why a clever fellow – say, someone like me – can use spey lines to fish all day, any day, any way I want, using one rod, one reel, one spool, and less than a hundred bucks of fishing line.

You don’t spey-cast quite the same way you cast a classic fly line – the motions are a bit different – so yesterday, after I put one of my old integrated lines on a reel, I started practice-casting on the front lawn, just in case I wanted to try to catch striped bass.

Yes, yes, I can use a spey casting line to catch stripers, but in this case, there’s a slight but real advantage to using one of the integrated lines I already own. It’s one of those hovering lines – the whole line sinks at about 1 inch per second (in freshwater) and since I haven’t figured-out how to get a spey line to do that, I decided to have one reel spooled up with hovering line. Just in case the bite was near the surface, but not on the surface.

Stripers, it seems, like to charge up from the deep to grab a tasty morsel near the surface of the water, so keeping a fly up near the surface is a good tactic. In the ocean, I could just use a floating line, but in a river, the ripples a floating line makes when retrieving the fly would spook the fish, thus, keeping the line just under the surface is also a clever tactic.

Casting on the lawn is not like casting into water because a line drags in the water and that changes everything… so, after I’d adjusted my casts, I decided to run down to a deep pool in the river and make a few more casts into water and make sure I wouldn’t hook the back of my head. I’m not a fan of doing that.

I told you all of that just to tell you this part, so I hope you’re still with me on this.

When casting from my kayak, I make two or three “water hauls” – which simply means I let the fly touch the water on the forward cast before I start the back cast. The fly drags in the water, making the rod bend, and each successive false cast carries the fly further and further. One can make prodigious casts using water hauls, and yesterday was no exception. My fly was just zipping way, way out there, and I was wondering why I’d never before been clever enough to make water hauls from the river bank.

“Why this is ever so much gentler on my shoulder, it’s fun because it takes precision timing, and I know those folks driving over the bridge are simply in awe of…”

And that’s when I hooked a steelhead.

It wasn’t a trophy steelhead, but it was a genuine steelhead of goodly size, and I surprised myself by not letting it immediately shake out the hook. A first!  And a sign of Good Things to come.

It darted downstream a ways, then leaped completely out of the water, then ran back at me – which is usually when I lose a steelhead, but not yesterday. Because I’ve been watching YouTube videos of people catching stripers, I did what they do and tucked the rod under my arm so I could use both hands to retrieve the line – and without the slack I normally let into the line, this steelhead was losing the fight.

Leap, leap, leap, run hither and yon, zigzag around for a while, go deep, and then start over. It was fabulous. Better than I’d imagined – and I’d imagined it quite colorfully. I even managed to keep my head on well enough to slowly back out of the water and up onto the bank so a tricky fish – and this one had an impressive bag of tricks – couldn’t zip behind me, cause me to spin around to follow it, surely losing my balance and ending up sitting in the water – thus ending all the “Ooo’s” and “Ahh’s” I was sure the folks in the passing cars were blurting out.

I was a fly-fishing god!

Hours later in my time, but maybe six minutes in clock time, as the fish started to get nearly as tired as I was, I started thinking I might just catch a steelhead instead of simply hooking up with a steelhead, so I started thinking about how to land it. I’m sure you already know what I didn’t have, right? I didn’t have a net. Why bring a net? I’m only practice-casting.

“No problem!” I told myself, “just pull it onto that sandy patch of river bank and grab it! You’ve grabbed fish before now!” Which is true, except the fish I’ve grabbed were fish other people had caught, and I’ve always had two hands free to dedicate to fish-grabbing. “New plan! Pull it a bit further up on the sand, tuck the fly rod under your arm again, and snatch that fish..!” which is what I was thinking exactly when I needed to start snatching.

It was a good plan but it would have been better if I’d had a bit more time to think it through and had tucked my rod under my arm facing behind me, because a nine-foot long 10wt fly rod makes a great prop if you don’t want to fall face-first into the sand. “Put the rod down, fool!” was my second new plan, but I don’t put fly rods and reels down into sand, so, “Throw your hat down and put the reel on that!” became New Plan 2 Sub B – and it would have solved all the problems if I’d just dropped my hat instead of throwing it five feet to my right.

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s when the steelhead decided to stop cooperating and start flopping around, and in a stroke of misfortune – you know those things the Universe tosses in our path every so often just to keep it interesting – that was the same time the tiny trout fly flew out of its lip, leaving a loose fish on the bank.

“Grab it, grab it!  It’s on sand, you fool!  Just dive on it!  Wait!  Put the rod down first!” and while I ran back-and-forth towards the fish then towards my hat, the fish flopped back into the water, and that, folks, was that.

As I dried my tears I thought, first, that the traffic on the bridge had thinned out considerably and I doubted anyone saw the spectacle I’d just put on, and second, I’d finally made it more than halfway through catching a steelhead. Sure, it would have been nicer to have made it all the way through catching one, but one has to take the small victories as graciously as the big victories or else one would break all of one’s fly rods over one’s knee.

And third, I’m still a mere mortal, and by my count, that was only steelhead cast number 791. I still have to make 209 more casts before the Lords of Fishing will give me a steelhead. Yesterday was just their way of keeping me involved in the game.

And they need to make it mighty interesting because the score stands at Steelhead – 18 : Me – 0.

I’m not going back to try to catch that fish again today. Once a week is quite enough of that, thank you.