Lift, sweep, cast… My line pops out just downstream of my position splashing my fly along the edge of a nice seam. It’s September and there is a small caddis hatch on but I don’t have a caddis pattern on my line; I’ve opted to bring out the streamers to see if the Browns are starting to look for the big-ticket meals. I start to throw a quick upstream mend into the line but get interrupted by a slashing attack on the Muddler. Apparently, the splashy landing brought some quick attention to the fly. The weight of the line in the water is enough to set the hook on the fish as it turns on the streamer and heads out into the current. After a quick battle I get the fish to hand; I’m a little surprised that the brown is only around 17″. Why surprised? The initial run had line peeling off the reel – I thought these spey rods were meant for Steelhead?
Over the course of the evening I saw a number of attacks on the Muddler that were similar in fashion – the fly lands and is quickly smacked. Often enough the fish would be gone before I even had a chance to react but there were exceptions. I came to the conclusion that those hits were a reaction to the fly imitating a stonefly rather than a ‘streamer’ but, in the end I’m not really concerned as long as it’s working [While writing this I just realized how cool this will be in July when the stoneflies start hatching – stay tuned]. The strikes would come on the swing too. Was I was making two different impressions with one cast? Is the Muddler minnow the best fly ever? Both are great questions worthy of their own discussion. I’ll leave it at this for now: I like the Muddler minnow!
That evening sparked a new season for me on the Bow River – streamer season. More importantly, it also inspired me to take the spey rod out as often as I could. I’ll admit that early on I was spending time with the spey rig for two main reasons: novelty and practice. Novelty: I’d spent all summer tempting fish on dries and emergers and I’d reached the point where I was looking for variety; having the opportunity to get out and do something a little different was great. Practice: as with any new technique, spending time on the water practicing can make a huge difference in skill. I was planning a few trips out to the coastal waters and I wanted to have my technique a little more honed. What transpired was a change in the way I looked at the Bow River and how I fish it.
Black Bunny Muddler Leech – tube fly style
It was the practice part of the fishing that made the change. With classic steelhead water in mind I would head out to the water and look for areas on the Bow that had similar features. Fishing these areas would allow me to practice controlling the swing and getting the fly down in the water column. With so many opportunities to sight fish I hadn’t spent much time working other water. The fact is, most of the year you can fish the first 10’ to 15’ from shore and be very successful. The Browns love to orient themselves around the banks; something many fly fishers tend to ignore (likely, a universal truth as I know this was the situation on the Grand as well). What you may be expecting me to say here is that I was now finding fish 85’ out into the river. Not quite; I certainly hit a few fish out in the current but that wasn’t the main benefit. What I gained was the ability to probe a large area searching for aggressive fish. Moreover, I was able to do it in an efficient manner. There were a number of areas that I overlooked that I was able to begin to explore and understand. Adding these areas to my selection certainly increases the options and opportunities to catch fish when the normal spots aren’t producing.
No doubt, I can now work flies further out from shore than I would be able to with a single hand rod. The main difference being that a simple spey cast can effectively cover a great distance using minimal backcast room. The amount of room is dictated only by the size of your D-Loop (the rear loop formed to load your rod in a spey cast). I’ve been casting the Loop Goran Andersson Signature Series rod utilizing an underhand style cast with a Scandinavian head for my line. The Scandinavian lines (and Skagit lines) require less room for the D-loop than a mid-belly or long-belly line. While I do aim to cover water further out from shore I always allow the fly to swing fully below my position as close to the bank as possible. To get the fly close to shore I need to be casting in tight to the banks – many sections have close brush or high banks making that tight D-Loop desirable.
A D-Loop forming to load the rod - photo by Bill Bulek
As with most streamer fishing the fish will respond to a variety of retrieves. Sometimes fast strips will get a response and other times it’s the slow steady swing. Experimenting with different retrieves while you’re starting out on the water is important to find what the fish are looking for. One of the retrieves I’ll start out with will be a very fast stripping motion pulling the fly straight across the current. This will show off the location of aggressive fish. While it can be hard to get a hookup this way it will allow you to get a fly into that zone with a slower presentation along with the knowledge that a hungry fish is waiting.
Over the course of the fall I employed a number of different presentations using the spey rod. Experimenting with line selection and fly choice I started to observe numerous areas on the river that I’d previously walked past without paying much attention. Early in the fall the occasional hatch would come off while I was out on the water. Not being one to pass up a good opportunity I found that a dry line (full floating) with a long leader was the ideal setup. The Scandinavian line setup utilizes a longer leader (typically over 15’) to form the anchor for your cast. This length was suitable to allow streamers to get down deeper with the proper mends when needed. What I’ve failed to mention thus far is that one is not relegated to just streamers on a spey rod. With the hatches coming off I found myself changing up flies, trading in the streamer for a sparkle pupa. The long leader provided a clean presentation. As a side note – casting a nice light fly instead of a streamer will make you feel like a hero while spey casting; keeping tight loops and getting a good turnover on the fly is simplified immensely. During an emergence on certain runs you can observe fish rising all over the place. My habit (especially with a lighter single hand rod) is to target a specific fish often leading me to pass up opportunities to swing flies.
With a spey rod in hand, while not impossible, the shorter presentations become a little less than ideal. Namely, casting isn’t easy, as the rod doesn’t load with shorter amounts of line outside of the rod tip. Line and leader selection have a definite impact on this – as does rod weight and length. Though, in the example of the fall hatches this can be a nice detail. I’ve noticed an annoying trout habit when I’m stalking individual fish; maybe you’ve experienced it too. Here’s the situation: you’ve been a ninja getting into casting position for a fish you’ve been watching but just as you’re getting ready to cast you notice the absence of said fish. Usually, I find at this point a fish will start rising somewhere else. Not being impatient I’ll stay in position and wait for the fish to come back up. Occasionally, that fish might come back up but, by now, I think you’re with me and would also move down to that fish that is gorging itself a little ways down. Invariably, that new fish will stop feeding when you’re in range and sure enough the previous fish will show his snout. Here’s the beauty in my spey approach, I don’t really worry about those up tight presentations and instead focus on the areas in the sweet spot of my casting range. With caddis I’ll cast out along a seam or riffle where fish are rising and then allow the fly to dead-drift for a while and then perform a complete arc to a point downstream of my position – timing my drift and swing to target locations I’ve seen activity. It’s not exactly sight fishing, but it’s not purely speculation either. With the shorter Scandinavian heads combined with a good running line you can almost fish the shooting head like gear (or like an indicator) allowing it to dead-drift by feeding out the running line. It allows very long drifts.
The additional leverage provided by longer spey rods can help turn fish around on a run – but it can also turn a hook into a straight wire. It took me some time to get to know the power of a longer rod and how to properly apply it. Once that was settled I really enjoyed presenting emergers to the Bow River trout.
As the season progresses hatches become less frequent and streamer fishing becomes more dominant. In Calgary the winter can be quick in coming but it is often intermixed with great warm Chinook conditions allowing anglers to get out on the water. The colder water in the winter season requires anglers to get the fly down in front of the fish. Using a line with a sink tip can greatly assist that process. I switch my line to a shooting head with a looped tip that will take different line tips (10’, intermediate to fast sinking tips). Using a line that is designed to cast sink tips will make your job easier. In spey casting the weight and taper of the fly line is important in forming a proper cast; an unbalanced line will make it hard to present the fly (as is the case with overhead casting).
Watching the line as a streamer slowly makes it’s way across the current - photo by Bill Bulek
Early in the winter fish are still active and willing to chase the fly a bit. By the time the new year rolls around and water temps are getting down to their lows I find you really need to slow down the presentation - give the fish as much time as possible to get the fly. Casting the fly across the current and throwing an upstream mend will give the fly a chance to get down in the water column. Depending on the depth you’re fishing a weighted fly may also be an asset. Ideally, as the fly reaches the depth you’re targeting the fly will begin to swing under tension from the current and line. Typically, as the fly swings the current will create a concave bow in towards shore that leads to an accelerated swing if unchecked. Using the rod tip and controlled small mends in the line you can eliminate the bow in the line and create an incredibly fish-temptingly-slow™ swing. I experience the most hits during this stage of the drift. You can almost feel it when you get it perfect: Having done a few micro mends you can feel that perfect presentation, the fly is slowly, very slowly, inching its way towards the shore when all of a sudden you’re pulled away from your thoughts of how perfectly the fly is moving - a fat brown just hammered the fly! Sometimes it’s a sharp tug; other times the fly just stops moving. In either case the ensuing battle is always a pleasure.
Winter fishing on the Bow River often seems to translate into indi-fishing with some midsized fly (hares ear, pheasant tail, etc), midge patterns, and for many the San Juan worm. I’ll typically opt for the single hand rod if I’m out nymphing as I’m usually just trying to thoroughly cover off small areas of water. Typical streamers are black or white/pink bunny leeches. The white and pink seems to tap into the steelhead side of Bow River Rainbows. If you’re looking for something a little different I’d encourage you to get out and try out some spey tactics. With nymphing it can be easy (and effective) to get in and work a small stretch of water thoroughly. An unfortunate byproduct of this is the habit for many anglers to work the same holes and runs day in/day out. While you could do the same thing with a streamer setup, I think a spey outfit will give you the opportunity to become more mobile and continually move and work new water efficiently. It’s helped me learn the water better than I could have imagined, I hope it might do the same for you.