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Summer failed to happen. We didn’t have much of a fall. Now winter’s here and it appears that it will be long and full of snow. Still, there is no reason to put the rod away.
Few men go fishing in the winter. Fewer still go out when the snow is deep or when the temperature plummets. Fewer still head for the rivers after the fish of the winter, steelhead and char, with a fly rod, but it is possible and the rewards more than repay the exertion.
When I began prowling rivers in winter I read of the comings and goings of other anglers and saw impressions of their exploits in the snow. On the Kalum, the tracks of winter fishers led often to a forked stick next the bank. More often than not, the snow around the stick would be flattened and garnished with bits of salmon roe and blood spots marking a kill.
It was a long time before I saw another fisherman and then it was only a distant glimpse of a man through a curtain of snow tramping into the bush with a rod in his hand and a pack on his back. The rod was armed with a casting reel, an Ambassdeur, I guessed, since they were the reel of choice then. In all my winter outings since that time, I’ve seen more moose than anglers – a measure of angler abundance and testimony to how few pursue the sport.
Back then, fly fishing in Skeena for steelhead at any time of year was rare. Fred Hall was one of the earliest practitioners. After Fred, there was Ted Rawlins, then the Chapplow and the Benoit brothers, Finlay Ferguson, and Ray Tank. None of these pioneers fished much after the first snow fall. When I first began doing it, I doubt that anyone else was, and for good reason. Winters were generally colder then. Fly lines are thicker than monofilament nylon and the guides on a fly rod are smaller in diameter than those on a casting rod. Because casting a fly requires waving a rod in the cold air and shooting the thick wet line through the narrow guides, freezing was an ever present annoyance.
Winter water is low clear water, which would normally benefit a fly fisher, but steelhead are always hovering close to the bottom of the river and are increasingly reluctant to move as the water nears the freezing point. The fast sinking fly lines of four decades ago sank slowly by today’s measure. Dolly Varden and the hope of catching a steelhead kept me interested and helped me endure the trials of winter fishing.
In 1980, I began reading books on Atlantic Salmon fishing in Britain. British anglers, I learned, favoured long rods, some as long as 16 feet, which they manipulated with both hands. I ordered a fifteen footer from the House of Hardy through Dave Elkins, who was then the proprietor of the North West Sportsman. When the rod arrived, I quickly learned how to cast it overhand, but the plates in the books I’d been reading showed Brits in the act of casting with large loops of line behind them, and text was filled with references to Spey casting. Art Lingren, who had recently acquired a long rod made by Bruce & Walker, sent me a video tape of the famous English salmon fisher, Hugh Faulkus, spey casting.
As I watched Faulkus cast the traditional way, I noticed that no line was being shot through the many guides of his 15 foot rod. Once he had 60 or more feet of fly line on the water, he picked up the whole lot, repositioned it and sent it out again. Here was an answer to my icing woes. Additionally, I learned that the Brits fished in winter using brass tubes and fully sinking fly lines. I wasn’t interested in casting tubes, but the long rod meant I could cast a heavier fly and sink it deeper, thanks to the additional line control conferred by the long rod.
In a series of articles published in the Totem Topics, the magazine of the Totem Flyfishers, Art Lingren described how the long rod enabled him to cast faster sinking tips that he simply affixed to the end of a 40 yard double tapered floating fly line. Convinced of the utility of Art’s discoveries for winter fishing, I put together a series of heads by cutting up a thirty foot ultra fast sinking line that Scientific Anglers began marketing at the time into 15, 10 and 5 foot lengths respectively.
My flies were tiny in comparison to the feathered jigs favoured by the Intruder Generation of today, but they were, and still are, those patterns dressed on size 1 and 2 salmon hooks, big by my standards.
My adventures with the long rod began in the Spring. By winter, I could make a decent Spey cast most of the time. That winter my studies and practice began to pay off. I began hooking steelhead regularly: one a day, sometimes two or three.
More on winter angling next week...