Two-Handed Hell

WHEN I STARTED FLY-FISHING on Washington’s west coast and farther north in Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago, I was all about angling tradition and the proper way to approach our subjects.

In those days I read a lot of Haig-Brown, Steve Raymond, and Enos Bradner, guys who appreciated fish, often let them go, and always promoted a fair attitude toward fellow anglers, even if it meant sharing a prime run.
I inherited that mindset and carried it to Montana, where I found the trout and the people who fished for them to be pleasantly refreshing. Still, during those college years in Missoula I’d race home for the summers to revisit my coastal fishing roots and chase sea-run fish. Unfortunately, the 1980s and early 1990s tore up western Washington as Microsoft flourished and the small, isolated towns, such as Snohomish, Marysville, Mount Vernon, and Monroe, grew into formidable sprawl. That those towns rested on or near the banks of Washington’s greatest salmon and steelhead rivers was a shame. Just reaching those towns involved two-hours of fend-for-your life driving and I was often worn out and bitter before ever reaching the water. Still, we fished.

During one summer visit, my father and I drove an hour north from his home in Richmond Beach and stepped into the North Fork Stilliguamish River. We’d just started fishing a nice run containing some rolling salmon and, perhaps, a steelhead or two when some guy broke through the brush, stepped in 8-yards from my father and started casting his fly to the middle of the river. As his fly swung downstream it would pass my father’s position and encroach on his water.

I noted that action, told my dad to hold his ground, and started launching casts across the “Stilly,” right over that dude’s line and within inches of his boots. It didn’t take long before he came unglued.
In true anger, our nemesis waded across the river and fished the water below me — an angling crime. Soon, our lines tangled and he was chastising me for holding the water too long. I told him, in terms my mother probably wouldn’t support, to take a hike and grow some integrity. He was in the wrong, big-time, and I’ll never waver from that opinion. That I walked away from that man as he stuck his chest out and approached is something I’ll always regret and, at once, something my father will continue to endorse.

After that experience, I pretty much wrote off western Washington as a viable angling destination. Too many people in a confined area with average lives and aggressive tendencies. Style and tradition had been thrown out the window replaced by aggression and bravado. I silently wondered how that social decline had come about, whether it was a reversible trend? I arrived quickly at an answer and returned to Montana, never to look back, mostly content with so many wild trout and room to roam. However, the steelhead bug is strong and I really did miss the opportunity to cast toward fish that once swam in an ocean before returning to their natal rivers as 10 to 20-pound brutes.

It wasn’t that those fish didn’t exist in the Rockies. They live in Idaho’s Salmon, Snake and Clearwater rivers, among a few others, and they can be found in far southeastern Washington’s Grande Ronde River. During college, however, I couldn’t afford non-resident licenses, let alone the gas to reach those steelhead waters. Truth is, my smoke-spewing Nova wasn’t capable of making a long trip from Missoula. A successful foray in that car meant driving from my apartment to the grocery store and back without having to mooch a tow.

After college, in the early 90s, I found some money and my trips to steelhead water bloomed. As always, I’d fish ocean-run rainbows with a single-handed, 9-foot, 8 or 9-weight fly rod. Even on the broad Clearwater that rod sufficed and to this day I’ve never been skunked while fishing that stream. I’ve taken plenty of fish on the Ronde, too, although I must admit a string of steady defeats on the Salmon.

Sometime in the early 1990s I heard about people fishing two-handed rods for steelhead and suggesting that fishing for them with any other gear was a mistake. I was vaguely aware that those rods were invented in Scotland a couple centuries ago and that they were commonly used, with the spey-style cast, to catch Atlantic salmon across Europe and even in eastern Canada. They’d arrived on the West Coast steelhead scene in the 1980s and their presence had steadily grown since that time. Today, on Northwest steelhead rivers, it’s safe to say that 50 percent or more of the anglers who fly-fish for anadromous rainbows and salmon throw two-handed rods. But, to me, the idea of fishing those “sticks” for Pacific salmon and steelhead seemed preposterous. When I heard about a few “new pioneers” doing so on Washington’s coastal rivers, and a few also doing so on Idaho’s Snake and Clearwater, I couldn’t help but ask, Why?

My rationale was this: why throw a 14-foot 10-weight rod, which must have felt like a telephone pole in an angler’s hands, when most steelhead could be taken with a single-hand 9-foot 8-weight? Using the shorter, lighter rod, to me, meant easier casting and the opportunity to feel a fish fight once it was hooked. I imagined that hooking a steelhead on a telephone pole wouldn’t amount to much of a fight and I declared that doing so was a crime against one of the most entertaining gamefish on the planet.

To bolster that opinion, in the late 1990s I dated a girl whose father was an avid and somewhat noted steelheader. He fished Oregon’s Deschutes and Idaho’s Snake often. He showed me photos of all the 20-pounders he’d caught. And then he produced a photo of a 30-pound steelhead he’d taken on British Columbia’s fabled Kispiox River. He added, “I just bought a cabin up there, so this fall I’ll spend at least a month fishing the Kispiox for steelhead.” The Kispiox, understand, is widely regarded as the best steelhead stream in the world, especially when considering a shot at metalheads ranging between 30 to 40 pounds.

I considered briefly his daughter’s strange side, those meltdowns and her reliance on parents’ money. I wondered how a freelance writer who focuses on fly-fishing and a freelance photographer who focused on nothing could make a go of it. I was about to say maybe not, but then I thought about bunking in that Kispiox cabin with 30-pound steelhead finning off the deck. Fishing is not a good sport for those with limited willpower.

One evening I entertained that girl’s father on two-handed rods. He said, “They’re absolute crap. We see people casting them on the Kispiox and Snake, more knuckleheads all the time. The thing is, 90 percent of the steelhead I catch are right on the bank. You don’t have to cast far to catch steelhead. They’re all reachable with a single-hand rod. And the fight?” he agreed. “How does a fish fight against one of those behemoth rods?”
My bias against two-handed rods was complete until I went fishing on Washington’s Grande Ronde with Will Casella. Casella and I exist as friends who have nothing nice to say to each other. We’re ruthless to the point of separation.

I took the brunt of it on that trip. Casella employed a Winston Boron II, a 14-foot 8-weight meat stick and proceeded to slay the steelhead. We were fishing without tradition. No steelhead swing for us. The water was ice-cold, literally part ice, and the steelhead were stuck to the bottom in deep runs. To have swung flies would have been angling suicide. Instead, we hucked giant indicators and size-4 Babine Specials, complete with a couple cannonball split shot attached to our leaders. Fishing a fast-action, single-hand, 9-foot 8-weight (a meaty stick) I ducked with each forward cast. Mostly I lobbed all that junk into the river and hoped for the best. Even with heavy setups, Casella pounded 80-foot casts across the river to likely runs. Covering more water than myself and doing so with less effort and more style, Casella hung fish after fish until I admitted inferiority and questioned my rod choice.

As we drove away from the Ronde and its steelhead, Casella said, “Buy that Winston and join me in Russia this year. We’ll fish the Ponoi for Atlantic salmon and we’ll do it right.”
Suddenly I was gripped with spey fever. I got the rod, waded into my local river, the Madison, and practiced casting just above Varney Bridge. Each time a truck passed I saw two necks cocked, eyes practically asking, What the hell? And each time I wanted to raise a sign saying, “Headed to Russia.” I felt like a damned fool.

Fact is, I never mastered the spey cast and ended up on the banks of Russia’s Ponoi River with no skills. That first night at Ponoi River Company’s Ryabaga camp, a friend, Dan Summerfield, and I joined some of the world’s most experienced two-handed anglers for dinner. Across from our seats sat two older gents from England, Jasper Clutterbuck and Ivan Straker.

As an opener, Straker said, “The thing I don’t get about you Americans is that you always want to wave those single-handed rods around your head instead of fishing the two-handed rod and keeping your fly in the water.”
Simultaneously, in defense of ourselves and our country, we shouted, “We’re fishing two-handed rods!”

Straker raised arms, turned to Clutterbuck and said, “Jasper, did you hear that. The Montanans are going to spey cast.” Turning to us, Straker added, “Splendid. You’ll find it to be lovely sport.”

The following day, in a 10-hour downpour I found nothing lovely about spey casting although Summerfield and I did master some short strokes and each of us headed back to camp that day with a couple Atlantic salmon under our belts. Ditto for the next day. Then, on day-three, everything went to hell because Casella joined us on the water.

For most of that day Casella berated me on my casting stroke and I blamed that inefficiency on a crummy fly line. He was saying things foreign to me, like snap-t and d-loop, double spey and snake roll.

When Casella continued his assault I told him he was to blame, that arriving at my tent the previous evening with a bottle of Jameson was a big mistake. Cobwebs influencing the cast, I defended.

As Casella’s assault continued, I wallowed in self-pity, wondering why I’d visited Russia in the first place and, most of all, why I’d chosen to throw a two-handed monster-rod when I’d also brought a single-handed 9-weight. Dan complained about shoulder pain. I felt like someone was pounding a spike into my neck. And this was supposed to be fun?

Still, the following day, I was on the Ponoi again, 14-foot meat-stick in my arms. I didn’t have much hope for a fish, let alone a good cast, and was silently embracing the half-way point of the trip, looking forward to seeing my family and throwing 9-foot 4-weight rods for Montana’s trout. The sun was out, the river was calm and I hadn’t garnered a strike in a day. I was nearly asleep when someone shot off what I believed to be a cannon. Actually, what we heard was a deafening sonic boom, courtesy of some Russian fighter jet flying maneuvers.

As if by magic, as if started upstream by that blast, a push of bright Atlantic salmon rounded a bend in the river and were delivered to our laps. Dan landed four good fish. I missed a couple strikes. More importantly, cause was delivered to my cast and, almost instantaneously, everything came together. Suddenly, the casting stroke became natural, the repetition mindless. I said, “Dan, watch this,” and promptly sent 90 feet of line toward the bank. My fly landed 2 inches from the rocks and a salmon hammered that fly on the first trip, a foot off the bank.

I fought that fish at length, the big rod bent fast. My arms grew tired and the guide took the boat to the bank. Several minutes later that guide, a Swede named Per, cradled a 16-pounder that changed my opinion on two-handed rods.

Between Summerfield and myself, we landed 50 Atlantic salmon that week, all on the two-handed rods, much to the glee of our camp guests. By the end of the trip I had in no way mastered spey casting, but I was launching solid casts and fishing well with each throw, covering water, which is all you can do when fishing anadromous fish, whether casting bombs in Russia or throwing tight loops in Idaho. And I was thinking: this rod is going to be a blast on the Salmon and the Clearwater. Full steam ahead to Idaho.

After that trip to Russia, I guess you could say I’ve been converted. Certainly, an angler casting two-handed rod cast more line, with less effort than they could with a single-hand rod and that means covering more water and, perhaps, landing more fish. Then again, two-handed rods are bulky and, in some cases, pure overkill for the smaller Northwest rivers. But I think back to the camaraderie that our guests in Russia displayed and the respect they showed for each other’s water. They were rooting for the Montanans not against us and we, in return, toasted their success.

On the flight home, all 18 hours of it, I considered this possibility: perhaps, over time, as populations increased in the Northwest and our rivers became crowded, tradition and courtesy were thrown right out the window alongside copies of Haig-Brown, Raymond and Bradner. Maybe what separates those Brits and Scots from the typical American angler is a stronger grasp of angling history and tradition. Maybe they throw the two-handed rod because that’s what they’ve always done, not because it’s always the best choice. If that’s true, I questioned, is the two-handed rod and the spey cast the bind that holds them together? If so, let the two-hander live in the Northwest and allow a new community of anglers to rise, deadly efficient two-handers with a common thread — spey community, angling tradition, and a level of respect.

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