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Fishing the Little Big Sticks

Peter Morse

I guess in all the corners of the world where Sage’s little Trout Spey rods have ended up, fishermen are doing different things with them, searching for niches that might require unfamiliar or even new techniques. Some of that fishing might not fit in with how these rods were first envisioned, and that’s fly fishing evolution in action – it’s all part of adapting new tackle to local environments.

My own approach to these ‘little big sticks’ was simple and I had it in mind even before I got one. I simply wanted to fish the rod as a miniaturized version of a 14-foot Spey rod, but with everything scaled down: lines, flies, leaders, distances and, of course, fish. I wasn’t going to use it when rivers were low and clear, fly life abundant, and the fish were chomping their heads off – to me, that was pointless. If it can be done with a 9-footer then I’ll do it with a 9-footer. But there are some things a little 2-hander can do very simply and effectively that a 9-footer can’t; and of course there’s just the simple pleasure of using a 2-hander and learning something different.

I don’t like missing any fishing days when I’m on a trip (you know you’re not going to get them back) so I prefer to make the most of what’s in front of me. I had two particular scenarios in mind when I got myself a Trout Spey rod. After a visit to Australia by Spey wizard Simon Gawesworth, I settled on the smallest of the switch sticks available at the time, an 11’6” 4-weight; the range of Trout Spey rods had not yet been released.

The first scenario I envisaged was dirty weather days in rivers that are high and slightly discolored with cold water; when the fish aren’t visible and they aren’t going to be rising, but they’ll probably still be feeding. In this scenario, I set out to cover as much water as possible with a ‘string’, or ‘team’ of flies. I’ve found that the Trout Spey rods make this very easy to do and also very effective.

The second scenario is a little different. I like to walk medium-sized rivers in New Zealand (where I do most of my trout fishing) and can walk upstream a lot of kilometers in a day. The water in front of me and the activity of the fish determine what approach I’ll take during the course of the day and both can change often. Consequently, large stretches of reasonably good-looking water gets walked past as I tend to focus on hot spots, rising fish, or fish I can see.

But as I walk upstream I’ll take note of the stretches I’ve not fished. Late in the day, on the walk back downstream when the hatches are over and the light is low, I’ll string up the Trout Spey and go to work on those stretches one step at a time, just as I would fish big water with a 13- or 14-footer. Both these scenarios are fished in relatively low light and are fished during periods of low fish activity. I guess I’m looking to add more value to my day, or to extract some joy from a day that might otherwise be otherwise, if you know what I mean.

The Trout Spey rods come into their own in both of these situations. Rather than tying on streamers, I’ve chosen to use smaller, delicate flies on these fine little rods. I use a similar rig and similar flies in both scenarios, but will admit that in spite of good success, I feel my fly selection certainly needs work, especially the point fly. I’m looking for flies that will work as dead drift patterns, but can be equally as deadly on the lift and swing.

My first mission was to find a fly line that suited what I wanted to do. When Simon Gawesworth first introduced me to these rods he was using a Scandi head, but I didn’t want to get into the line management issues common with a thin, monofilament running line, so on a whim I tried a RIO Switch Chucker.

Fishing the Little Big Sticks

I think of the rod I use, the 4116-4 ONE, and the other mini Spey rods, as fine rapiers...

At first it was clunky and I figured it needed some taming so I added a 7.5 ft floating VersiLeader to the front of it. This worked OK, but I still wanted it to land at the front with a little more delicacy. I replaced it with a 10ft floating VersiLeader and hallelujah, we started to sing off the same song sheet in the same language.

I think of the rod I use, the 4116-4 ONE, and the other mini Spey rods, as fine rapiers, and chucking heavy flies on short fat chunky lines on these rods is like using them as a blunt instrument, and for me that seems to not enter into the spirit of the things. There are certainly times when I’ll tie on small, weighted rabbit strip flies, or mini-intruders, or even woolly buggers, but much of the time I’ll use some basic, small, sub-surface patterns because I’m fishing them during hatch season and want to go close to what the fish are feeding on. Post-hatch season however, I have no problem swinging bigger streamers.

I’ve had a fascination with traditional soft hackled flies for a number of years. They’re a branch of fly tying and fly fishing that’s as old as the sport itself, but the snobbery of “dry fly only old chap” has always pushed them into a dark corner in some kind of fly-fishing underground movement. Soft hackle flies seem to be an arcane branch of the sport with a strong, but quiet group of adherents. There’s plenty of good literature available and there are still plenty of tiers who create and fish some superb patterns. Many of these are fished upstream in the meniscus or just sub-surface.

Three teams of soft hackles; point flies on bottom.
Three teams of soft hackles; point flies on bottom.

I have a small book by Phillip Bailey, an Aussie now residing in the north of England, the epicenter of this style of fly, and he poses the question, “What is a soft hackled fly?" He then gives the descriptive, “They can either be a complete fly representing an emerging insect, a drowned dun, or a nymph (depending on where the fish sees it), or an emerging caddis or stonefly and they are very deadly in the hands of an experienced ‘spider’ fisherman, yet they are an extremely simply fly”. In the US they’re known as soft hackled flies and there are a few excellent books on the subject by Sylvester Nemes and Dave Hughes on tying and fishing this style of fly.

What I like about them so much for the small 2-handers is that they can be fished at all angles and depths, upstream, down deep, and swung across the current. Until I looked into it, I thought they were all swung, but not so, most are fished upstream as a very low-floating or suspended dry. To me they represent almost nothing, but they just have that magical “something edible” look about them.

My 2-hander rig consists of a point fly that’s well weighted, usually a nymph pattern, but I’m still searching for point flies that will present well on the sink, drift, lift, and swing. Above the point fly, on droppers, I fish two soft hackled wets, the lower one a bulkier thorax style tie of the US school, and the top fly a sparse traditional pattern of the UK spider school. The beauty of this spread is that I’m fishing right through the cast: from when the flies first touch down, all the way to the dangle.

For a leader I’ll use a six-foot tapered leader ending in 3X. (In an ideal world you’d use an un-tapered/knotted leader, and that’s what you should be aiming to use once you learn to use this system, because this will sink a lot quicker than a full tapered leader.) Off the end of this I’ll have a total length of six to seven feet of tippet in 4X and 5X, with two droppers. There are several different methods for adding droppers and perhaps you already use them, but the simplest to set up is to use RIO’s Tippet Rings and to run your droppers off these.

The rings are spaced two feet apart, so the first would be two feet down from where the tippet connects with the tapered leader; the next, another two feet down. Then there’s the final tippet section for the point fly. Keep the droppers to less than 15 inches long and use 5X for these, and then two to three feet of 5X off the bottom tippet ring for the point fly. The spacing, length and size tippet used for these droppers will of course depend on the water color, flow speed, depth and the size of fish that might be encountered, but use this formula as a good starting point. Check your local regulations to see how many flies you can legally fish, but I generally run three. See below for a diagram of this leader system.

I cast across the current at 45 degrees upstream to the flow. The most important part of this presentation is getting a drag-free sink and dead drift. To this end I used to put a small wool indicator on the tip of the fly line so I could monitor whether or not drag was affecting the sink. That indicator also worked to tell me if a fish had eaten the fly on this sink and drift phase.

Then I realized that at times, especially during the swing phase, the indicator was probably swinging across the current over fish that I might be fishing for, and possibly putting them off. So I stopped using it and now just keep a close eye on the end of the line. Any time I get a good clean drag free sink and drift phase, I’m very confident of getting a bite, but it takes a lot of concentration and some good mending. One of the GREAT advantages of long rods of course is the amount of line you can comfortably mend and hold high.

On rivers with huge riffles and long, seemingly featureless runs, this method is deadly because you can cover so much water. Fish it like you would fish a big river with a bigger rod. Don’t throw super long casts, because remaining in control and contact with the flies is critical. Most bites come at the end of the dead drift on the first of the lift and they can come on any of the three flies. Be warned, you’ll miss a lot of fish because they’re usually taking the fly from behind (from a personal perspective overcoming these misses needs work).

When the wind allows, I’ll mostly use a Snake Roll or a Snap-C cast, because I do try to go from the dangle to 45 degrees upstream, or even more, to set up those super long drifts. It will certainly test your change of direction skills. Keep your loops wide (hence the Snap-C, not Snap-T) as well to avoid those droppers tangling.

So that’s how I fish these little big sticks and it has given me many hours of fun and pleasure. Not only in the fishing, because I feel like I’ve wrung more hours out of the day, but also because it often allows me to fish rivers in conditions that are not their best. Then there’s been the great pleasure derived from working it out, taking on something new - and ultimately because I guess Spey fishing, even in this mini form, is just so much fun.

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Peter Morse is a Sage Ambassador residing in Australia.  He is the author of two books, "Saltwater Fly Fishing Fundamentals" and "A Few Great Flies... And How to Fish Them", and is also an FFI Master Casting Instructor.  For more information on Peter, see www.wildfish.au