While Ambrose Bierce is best known (among the six of us who
were once English literature majors) for his short story An
Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, he also wrote a book called
The Devil's Dictionary. Had he been inclined to
write The Fly Fisherman's Dictionary, and were you
to look up the word obsession there, I have no doubt that the
definition would include "attempting to take steelhead on a fly."
After a lifetime of intermittent fishing, I finally took to the
fly. And if you're wondering if "a lifetime of intermittent
fishing" means fishing occasionally or occasionally catching fish,
I must plead the fifth (and don't get me started on fishing and
fifths either). Is it just me, or have you also noticed that
English is a language slippery as a fish?
In any event, four years ago I began fly-fishing, for steelhead,
obsessively. I proceeded to spend two years learning to cast
well enough with a single handed rod to be capable of tying
nine different kinds of knots in my leaders, including a Bimini,
without using my hands (except to wave the rod about). I like
to think of my single-handed casting as 'adequate' - adequate
enough to catch fish, that is. In steelheading, that generally
means being able to efficiently aerialize a heavy shooting head
a minimum of 70 feet.
As it's generally too cold to stand around waving your rod
to make multiple false casts, the preferred technique involves
using a Double Spey cast to, on the first false case, get the
line both in the air and 90 degrees from where you started and
then with one double haul shoot the remaining line. And as
soon as you can do that, attaining an additional 10-20 feet
becomes something of a Holy Grail. The world is filled with
casters who will never achieve casting an entire 90 foot line,
and I am one of them. That was when I began to rationalize the
cost of a two-handed rod.
Let me give you the bad news right now: spey casting involves
becoming skilled in a minimum of four different casts. While
single-handed casting can be done quartering down, across, or
upstream, river right or left, all using the same cast, the
same cannot be said for spey casting. A Single Spey cast is
used for quartering downstream, but doesn't allow for a
significant change of direction to enable it to be used for
an across or upstream cast. The Double-Spey cast is an
across or upstream cast; however, wind conditions can dictate
that you use one or the other, regardless of whether it was the one
you really wanted to use. So then you have learn other spey
casts. I now use around five different spey casts (times two for both
banks). Did I mention that learning each of these cast, right or
left, is like learning an entirely new cast so that learning a
single cast involves learning two casts, one from each side?
Just so you're not too put off, let me also say my first discovery
in learning spey casting was that even my bad spey casts achieved
more distance than I deserved: that's to say, they went almost as
far as a respectable one-handed cast. The second piece of good
news was that once you learn the Single and Double Spey casts,
the rest are easily learned variations. Need more good new? OK,
you get to accumulate more very cool gear, and since I'm not your
wife you can forget trying to deny the attraction of new gear.
Like catching fish? Two of the best attributes of long two-handed
rods is they (1) allow you to really work the fly slowly as it
swings down and across and (2) you can often catch fish by
being able to cast where others can't.
On a hike-in trip to the Deschutes this past summer I found
myself at a bend in the river that is typically fished from
the inside, the shore opposite where I was, as evidenced by two
fishermen arriving on the heels of a jet-sled leaving that spot.
I could see from my side that they were fishing to a shelf
mid-river where the fish held. Walking upstream to the head of
the pool, I started my wade downstream. In no time at all I
went from ankle to wader top deep, and then, only if I stayed
within 10 feet of shore. To my back were tall trees. The
other guys, fishing single hand rods, were on a gravel bar
and were waist deep sending their flies quartering 65 feet
downstream. They fished their way downstream in front of me,
covering their water well, and never touching a single fish.
After fishing some of the same water they had, I hooked two
steelhead and landed one. I concluded their flies were
coming out into the deeper water for just a brief time
before swinging up onto the shallower shelf. This gave the
fish little time to make up their minds about grabbing the
fly before they probably turned around, feeling more exposed
as they got into the shallower water. By being able to lay out
100 foot casts from the 'wrong side' I was reaching the same
shelf and then dropping into deeper water for the remainder
of the swing. While I was a bit more challenged by drag
issues having to fish the faster water on the inside of my
swing, the long rod made it a lot easier to deal with, and
the result was my fly 'fished' a lot longer.
Now here comes the best part: let me tell you about The Club.
The next morning, after releasing a couple of nice fish, I was
heading upstream to try a likely looking hole I had seen on my
hike in the day before (by the way, lest you think this was
'just another day at the office' - hooking five steelhead, missing
another two, and while getting to hold three in an evening and
morning of fishing, was not just abnormal, it was phenomenal).
Turing the bend I saw another fisherman headed towards me, picking
his way through the boulders and streamside brush. As we
sized each other up from a distance, the first thing I noticed
was his long two-handed rod. No doubt he saw mine too. We
greeted another, exchanging names and pleasantries while slyly
eyeballing the other's reel, and ever more surreptitiously
scoping out each other's flies. In no time at all, we were
talking like old boys at the club. Happily for me, Tim turned
out be be a long-time local who was quite free with his hard won
insights as, after all, we both belonged to the Two-Handed Club.
History, fishing tips, flies, holes - he gave me lots of info
I've stored away for my next trip. And I'll let you in on a
secret. Those of us in the club naturally assume that anyone
throwing a two-handed well is better than pretty good fly-fisher
. . .and I'll not go out of my way of disabusing my fellow club
members of that belief. It could work for you too . . .care to
join? Minimum dues are only a couple of years of obsession!
~ Bob Margulis