THE WAY IT USED TO BE
It’s a 45-minute walk to the run, but it’s worth it. You can make it in 35 if you rush, but waders, layers of fleece, the long rod and a pack with morning coffee and afternoon beer put the kibosh on any notions of speed. More likely it will take an hour because it’s dark, because part of the trail washed out above a high bank, and because sometimes you just need to slow down. Naked, ghostly trees line the river, cottonwood and alder adorned in dangling garlands of moss, while further back on the hills Douglas Firs stretch beyond the sightlines. A dusting of snow shrouds the high country, just below a heavy ceiling of clouds.
This run is one of a handful on this river that was given a name long ago. It has history and folklore shoring it up in these days of fewer and fewer fish. Though you’ve swung up more fish in other runs, on other rivers, this one excites you. It has a reputation. It has been fished for decades. Steelhead rivers aren’t often known for constancy like that. They change, shift, favor one bank one season, the other bank the next. A productive run this year might be silted in next winter, thousands of tons of sand and rock spirited away with the floods of spring and autumn.
When you emerge from the upstart willows and alders that have taken over the gravel bar, you stop and watch the water the same way you stared at the campfire last night. The run is long and wide and punctuated by nuance. There are close lies and lies further out, both hidden and obvious. At the top you simply fish. You cast; you step; you stare off at the trees. But when you near the end of the run, once you’ve come even with the exposed roots of that hemlock that’s been threatening to come crashing down on the stillness for 3 winters now, you’ll take a few steps out. Belly deep and then some. Because that’s the only way to drop the fly above the greasy slick mid-river that is so obvious a piece of holding water it should be illegal.
Steelheaders have plied this water with every combination of rod, line, leader and fly possible over the years. Today it’s a spry but soulful two-hander with a line that, for reasons more easily felt than explained, simply makes the rod sing. But there’s something to be said for tradition, and of the few flies you’ve stuck in your hat for the day, none would be described as “up-to-date” technology. They’re tied on long shank hooks with simple fur and feathers in colors found abundantly in nature. They instill confidence because they’re beautiful, but also because they’ve been catching steelhead on this river for half a century, maybe more. Some things don’t need to change.
A couple hours into the morning you start to feel your heart in your ears. Bump, bump…bump, bump. It’s the cold. You make a long cast more from memory than from effort. Bump, bump. The fly drifts and you step down with it, floating over the cobbles in deeper water like Neil Armstrong exiting the moon lander. Bump. You want this fly getting to the deep-down deep down, to that place where the fish feel safest.
Last night, the old timers at the bar in town engaged in their favorite past time—telling stories of how it “used to be.” In the old days, steelhead season brought a pilgrimage here. Trailered boats lined Main Street, the bars were filled to bursting, and every weekend from February to April the campground was booked solid. It didn’t matter if you were first on the water, because even if there was someone there, even if they caught a fish, there was likely to be another waiting to fill the void. There were four, five, six fish days. For better or worse, the steelhead made a name for itself. In the old days, there were fish to go around.
It’s quieter these days. Rarely difficult to find a campsite. You can spend an entire day on the water and only see a few other souls; often, it’s a friend or acquaintance, someone you’ve come to know as you’ve put together the river’s puzzle, piece by piece. There may not be as many fish to go around, but it only takes one and that’s enough to keep you coming back week after week trying to intercept three feet of silvery riverborne lightning.
Bump…bump. The fly comes under tension, starts the swing. Bump. You could close your eyes and describe its attitude as it tracks across-current. Bump…bump. It pauses and pulses behind a submerged boulder midstream. Bump, bump…bump bump. Bump! Bump!
With the take the line rips up away from the water, the heavy head and sink tip suddenly pulled taut as a harp string. There is a bright fish as long as a grown man’s stride, spiting gravity, exploding upward, taking a fair amount of river with it into the sky. That it doesn’t continue skyward seems an affront to nature. Your heart doesn’t beat anymore. It doesn’t thump in your ears with the steady cadence of a drill team on parade. It’s at fever pitch. Humming. A drill sergeant screaming from within. A rush of blood fills your ears with static that you can just make out over the barking and hissing of your reel. The fish doesn’t tire so much as settle in, taking you for a long, stumbling walk downstream. You’d happily follow this fish to the Pacific if it would take you. When you bring it in close it rolls over on its side; one upturned eye glares wildly and the fish circles in a wide arc as you bring the rod around and behind and wrap your frozen fingers over the leader.
You hold it a few moments. The electricity of it brings you back to life. When it finally swims away you think: this is how it always was, and how it always will hopefully be.
WORDS BY: JASON ROLFE
This is a story about Jon Hazlett but really, it’s a story about fish and people. Check out what Jon is up to on the Rogue River in Oregon and the lessons we can learn from the past about the importance of conserving our rivers for future generations to come.
Fall to winter, switch to spey, recommendations from our staff and ambassadors on the perfect two-handed season setups.
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.
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. Rivers like the Clearwater 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.
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.