THE WINTER CREW

    The sky is gray and there is snow on the mountains towering in the distance. The temperatures are falling and the rain has arrived. Rivers are rising now that the heat and drought of summer is long past. It’s time to put away the dry line rods and reach for the tackle that can lift and throw lines impregnated with tungsten powder and reels that can slow down a charging four-salt fish before it leaves the pool. It’s time to test and re-tie backing knots; organize flies, sink-tips and spare lines; patch waders and treat seams on porous rain jackets. You obsessively check weather reports and river gauges. Days on the water go on the calendar, even though some will undoubtedly be cancelled at the last minute when storms roll in from the Pacific and blow out every watershed within a day’s drive. It’s time to call the winter crew.

    The winter crew is largely absent from the rest of the year’s fishing schedule. Many of the fair weather trout and bass fishing pals disappear for a few months. Some friends will turn their attention to tropical locations and elaborate crab patterns. Others spend evenings waxing skis and looking toward the mountains each morning for evidence of fresh powder. But a few regulars stick around for the grind and folks you haven’t seen or talked to since early last spring suddenly resurface.

    White roads mean white knuckles—and fewer people in the crew’s favorite runs.

    They eat sandwiches and potato chips soggy from rain and are just as happy with cigars and glasses of scotch as they are with tins of chewing tobacco and cans of IPA. Their season consists of pre-dawn boat launches and riverbank coffee. Cabins warmed by blazing wood stoves are great, but sleeping in truck beds is sometimes necessary and accepted. That program has built-in limits on consecutive fishing days, however, because nothing ever dries in that scenario and frozen wading boots need to be thawed before they can be put on in the morning. That said, beans and kielbasa cooked on tailgates taste amazing and hot food feels even more like a miracle in the cold.

    The winter crew will go rock, paper, scissors to see who gets the first pass through a prime piece of water, unless, of course, someone has touched a fish recently. In that case it is understood that it’s their turn to wait, and probably will be for a while.

    They laugh hard and wear raincoats, waders, wool hats and gloves that smell like mildew. And yet, they will happily wear them late next to a campfire if it means staying up a little longer, despite miserable weather and guarantees of an extra difficult early morning a few hours later.

    Some of the crew spend hours tying meticulous intruders built with layers of ostrich and guinea or leeches composed of stacked composite dubbing loops. Others lash bunny and flashabou to cut shanks and call it good. All have strong opinions about the best running line for cold conditions and have sworn allegiance to particular brands and models of hooks.

    The beginning—or perhaps the end—of a great day.

    The winter crew will tell you when you’re casting over the good holding water just because a spey rod means you can. Some fish steep, slow swings and others swear by broadside presentations with a little speed on the fly. Some seek out the dead water other anglers skip. Others risk drowning by making deep wades to reach the trenches running along high banks.

    Everyone has favorite rivers and favorite pieces of water. The names of the runs are folklore, and may or may not correspond to names given them by other anglers. This makes for confusing conversations when you’re trading notes with new members of the crew about landmarks and waypoints marking confidence water. That is, only if those conversations aren’t entirely lies and efforts to obscure actual locations.

    The winter crew curses dams and ruined estuaries and gill nets. They smoke hatchery fish with alder to keep them from diluting the perfect lineage of wild fish.

    2020 swing season quote

    The winter crew curses dams and ruined estuaries and gill nets. They smoke hatchery fish with alder to keep them from diluting the perfect lineage of wild fish.

    They plunge arms into freezing rivers to tail fish for you, an act both deeply appreciated and deeply fraught. You happily return the favor, though it’s better to remember the net before running down the bank. Your friend is getting torn to pieces by a fish just back in fresh water after prowling the north Pacific for years. The net eases everyone’s mind.

    Mostly, you learn from the winter crew. They are the ones who don’t need an explanation of why it feels so damn good to spend the dark, cold, wet days of winter on rivers connected to the sea, swollen by rain and melting snow. They understand it as a fundamental truth.

    In the end, by the time the sunshine begins to return, there may or may not have been any fish. They don’t come easy and they aren’t guaranteed, now more than ever, sadly. There are broken leaders or hooks bent open or long accumulations of nothing. But there are also sudden explosions of astounding violence or the slow, heavy gathering of weight as the line pulls tight. If there is a fish, it will be perfect. Its eyes will be dark and its fins translucent. Each scale a plate of chrome armor. And it won’t make sense how something so beautiful and so powerful could possibly exist, let alone rest for a moment in your shaking hands.

    WORDS BY: GREGORY FITZ

    ON THE WATER

    Slippery paths and greasy lies make for good steelheading.

    A picture perfect British Columbia steelhead, ready for release.

    Fly tying haberdashery in Vancouver, B.C.

    A common site of fly evolution and analysis: hotel rooms near steelhead rivers.

    Cheap streamside lodging; the views are great, but be sure to bring your own sleeping bag.

    Wild steelhead ascent in British Columbia.

    The winter crew thinking up a good heckle for a buddy in the bucket.

    VIDEO

    While there are a great many appealing and productive steelhead rivers in the world, the argument for Argentina’s mighty Rio Santa Cruz being far and away the most unique is near bulletproof. The reasons are many; its massive size, the harsh and surreal Dali-esque landscape through which it flows, the subtlety of its lies and structure, and the trump card that it is the only true Atlantic steelhead return in the world.

    SWING TOOLS

    Winter skagit to traditional long heads, switch to spey, recommendations from our staff and ambassadors on some perfect two-handed season setups.

    SWITCH

    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
    Rod:
    7110-4 X
    Reel:
    SPECTRUM LT 7/8
    Line:
    500 grain RIO Skagit Max Short / RIO Switch Chucker #7


    WINTER STEELHEAD

    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
    Rod:
    8130-4 X
    Reel:
    SPEY 7/8/9
    Line:
    550/575 Grain RIO Skagit Max


    TRADITIONAL

    After spending winter and spring fishing sinktips on coastal rivers, it’s a pleasure to swing a waker or unweighted traditional on one of the Northwest’s many desert rivers. Not only are the fish more willing to take a fly higher in the water column, many of the larger desert rivers offer the perfect opportunity to reach out and present flies at a distance. Long rods and long belly lines are incredibly efficient for this style of fishing because they allow an angler to present the fly without having to strip in line between casts. Big rivers are ideal for long belly lines because they offer plenty of room for a large D-loop and have enormous riffles to work through. Long rods are the norm there; some anglers are using rods as long as 17’. I find that the 9140-4 IGNITER offers plenty of length and power to punch a tight loop into the distance while still feeling sporty with a midsized steelhead on your line. I like to fish RIO’s 8/9 Long Head Spey taper and a 12’ hand-tied fluorocarbon leader with a long butt section starting at .025” in diameter. With a density that’s nearly twice that of nylon monofilament, a hefty fluorocarbon leader will provide a little bit of depth to a swung unweighted fly.

    — Peter Knox, Sage R&D
    Rod:
    9140-4 IGNITER
    Reel:
    SPEY 7/8/9
    Line:
    690 Grain RIO InTouch Long Head Spey


    HANDCRAFTED IN THE USA

    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.

    Aaron Goodis

    Photographer Aaron Goodis is a freelance photographer based in Vancouver, BC. When not out capturing British Columbia's vast landscapes with his camera he can often be found chasing Steelhead on the fly. His images have been used commercially as well as being published in many of the fly fishing magazines.

    Gregory Fitz

    Writer Gregory Fitz is a writer and angler based in Seattle, WA. Originally from Minnesota, he cut his teeth on the lake run rainbow trout of the Great Lakes, but now spends as many days as possible swinging flies on rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Aside from his work with the Wild Steelhead Coalition, his essays and stories have been featured in The Flyfish Journal, The Steelhead Journal, The Drake and This is Fly. He has written for American Rivers, a number of fly fishing outfitters and travel companies, performed his work during the Writers on the Fly tour and been featured on the The Fly Tapes podcast.

    RC Cone

    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.

    Los Plateados with Tres Amigos

    Want to learn more about fishing the Rio Santa Cruz with Claudio, Juan Manuel and Pollo at Tres Amigos Outfitters? Check out the link below for full details.