Coming Out

“What we have not dared, we certainly lost” 

Oscar Wilde

Fly fishing and reasoning about it are closer to philosophical disputes than technical dissertations. We are divided into factions. Lovers of bamboo or graphite. Those who prefer fishing on the surface and those who use leaded nymphs and bobbers. The silk line Taliban versus the polymer technocrats and between salmon fly tiers using blind eye hooks and modern-day metallurgists looking for whatever material has the highest atomic number for flies that plow the bottom with every swing.

Although the functional approach is the one favored by the fortunately thinking mass of followers of Dame Juliana Berners – that is, using the most suitable equipment to achieve the goal of catching a fish with fly tackle in a given fishing situation– I have always found a certain degree of revulsion for various techniques. 

Even if I have to admit those solutions are often far more effective than the ones I might be using.

One of those idiosyncrasies developed by the author was aimed at fishing with Skagit lines, consisting of a very short shooting head, generally floating, to which a sinking tip and leader is attached.

Photo: Alessandro Belluscio

A Need-based Technique?

Skagit tactics were developed (by name, at least) on the West Coast of the USA in response to the needs of fishing for steelhead and Pacific salmon; often persuaded to take flies shaving the bottom.

The first necessity is that of casting a fly of not exactly minute dimensions a reasonable distance and making it start fishing quickly, even in the presence of strong currents and challenging riverbeds.

The second, arguably, is ensuring fishermen, even those not particularly well-versed in casting, can pick up the athletic gesture in a short time, fast and relatively safely.

In the United States, the boom years of Skagit coincided with the development and use of the double-handed rod and all-but replaced the use of single-handed rods for heavy sinking shooting heads, for which significant skill is mandatory.

To trivialize it, with the Skagit technique, it is generally sufficient to draw the line close to the caster and perform a two-step movement that allows the sinking rig to “anchor” in the water before making the forward cast. The short, heavy line and long rod help to correct most of the errors.

15′ rods are not essential. Much more manageable 11’-13′ rods are sufficient, and secondly, it is simply not necessary to possess the refined level of coordination between body rotation, loop formation and forward thrust required by casts such as the Single Spey for which it is vital to be able to keep a good portion of the line in the air and to make only the tip of the line and the leader touch the water to create the right amount of friction to load the rod.

Of necessity, virtue

It was the American guide whom got me hooked on the beauty of the Spey technique in the first place (which, in my opinion, gives off a feeling of halieutic grace in and of itself), that confided in me that most of his clients have very approximate casting knowledge and that he only needs to “fish” a client for half an hour of instruction before even the worst of his students can make a decent cast on a balanced Skagit rig.

This was supported by a particularly venomous Anglo-Saxon friend of mine who mocks his overseas colleagues, arguing that they had invented the Skagit cast because they are unable to cast with the Spey technique. He adds to the dose that if the Spey-O-Rama of San Francisco wants to see someone capable of making a decent cast, they wait for the Europeans.

The snobbery of Spey at all costs (completed with Scandinavian variations with a multitude of long shooting heads, purchased in all weights and sinking degrees available), captivated me for a long time. I have always had faith in fishing with Spey lines, possibly long-belly or at the limit shooting heads, patiently covering the river with repeated swings.

The turning point

My previously unshakeable conviction eventually collapsed like the walls of Jericho; the trumpet that triggered the prodigy blown by a friend with whom I’d shared a few days of salmon fishing in Norway.

It was a typical end-of-season situation. A day with low levels in which fishing with the Spey technique: long casts and very little noise to not make suspicious salmon even more suspicious, was interspersed with a beautiful day, fish starting to run up the river and beginning to manifest with some sporadic takes.

Having fished together in a portion of the river suitable for fishing with single Spey (and having hooked and released some nice fish), we moved to another portion of the river where the current has some really inviting sections, including an interesting spot looming before our eyes with a sturdy boulder in the middle of the river below a rapid, offering shelter to salmon that have started their ascent and intend to rest before moving on to the next obstacle.

I see my friend Umberto tinkering with a Skagit line and a tungsten and potentially depleted uranium leader, tying on the usual salmon fly and approaching the position with the necessary circumspection. Extending the cast just enough, depositing the rig just close to the boulder and letting it sink, the floating portion began to descend downstream, dragged by the surface current that is always faster than the deeper one, before forming a short arc of line that suddenly stops to transmits the take signal.

After a furious struggle and a chase for a few hundred meters – completed with perilous pirouettes on the boulders of the bank and athletic passages under the trunks of fallen trees – a female salmon of about ninety centimeters lets herself be lifted for the ritual photo before being delicately put back into the water and returned on her ascent with an experience to tell her suitors.

Literally amazed by what I saw, I checked which outfit had done the magic: a “hybrid” Skagit line – specifically an Airflo Rage Compact combined with a sinking leader.

Hybrid profile lines

The hybrid line shows an intermediate profile between a stocky Skagit and a Scandi and manages to sweeten the aggressiveness of the first with the delicacy of the second, resulting in a casting tool capable of projecting a robust sinking leader, but also a light 15′ conical monofilament leader or a polyleader.

It is a very versatile system that allows you to reach an acceptable balance between the two worlds and even to use touch-and-go casting if the need be.

Amazed by this performance, I went home, got some hybrid lines and used them on our waters, trying to take advantage of the experience gained in Nordic rivers.

After a few break-in sessions, I managed to find the right balance between rod, line and leader and realized with increasing satisfaction that these lines are really versatile because they allow the use of a vast arsenal of leaders and above all they allow an anglers to use the type of casting most suited to the occasion.

Do you like single Spey? Extend the leader and it’s done. Do you prefer the Skagit technique? Find the correct weight leader and your line will fly towards the destination as lightly as if it were a long belly.

I experienced the most satisfying use in the closing days of the past trout fishing season, when, simply equipped with a hybrid rig and a couple of sinking leaders, I managed to work a stretch of river both with floating flies, wet flies and a big streamer, convincing a fair number of trout to bite at each pass.

A few days after this interesting result, I used the same equipment in a stretch of slow and deep river and – where I have never seen or hooked a fish before – I had the good fortune of hooking and bringing a nice barbel ashore. Finding the right weight and matching the right depth proved the ticket.

As in all uses of the double-handed rods, identifying the correct line weight to match the rod is an important factor. Manufacturers of modern rods state their rods’ line weight tolerance. From my personal experience, I have always found it good to choose the lower weight for Scandi type lines (i.e. longer and with a delicate profile). For hybrids, I am able to ascertain that the higher weight is generally more suitable because it “loads” the rod better and is able to make it express its propulsive thrust.

This is an absolutely subjective evaluation, although it has been corroborated by many friends using this line profile.

The leaders to be coupled to the hybrid profile line deserve a separate discussion. Again in principle, if you want to obtain a delicate presentation with small-sized flies, such as for salmon fishing at the end of the season or for trout in local waters where you do not have to fish the flies along the bottom, it will suffice to have a long conical leader to which possibly add a further tip section, should the leader’s water resistance be too low to load your rod properly for the forward cast. Having found the right length, the casts will be successful and beautiful to watch, too.

The polyleader family is king and here it is a matter of rod length and current speed. Longer rods or speedier will make it possible to lift and cast increasingly longer rigs. In general, 8’-10′ polyleaders are handled well, but even 12’-15′ are not infrequent and when well matched they are very castable.

The dark side of the Force is represented by the real Skagit tippets, i.e. those directly made with “T” material (7, 10, 14, 18 but also 20, where the number indicates the weight in grains – 1 grain is about 1/15 of gram – per foot of leader length). Also in this case the best solution is to test in the field which length and weight best fits the characteristics of your equipment, the river where you fish and your casting habits. Once the length has been decided, you are done. Normally these leaders are available in different weights and degrees of sinking and often also offered in packages that include the whole series: It is better to have a good range of alternatives to fine-tune your offer, according to the needs of the moment.

Coming out

I am starting to think that my innate single speyophile snobbery has precluded me from a series of possible successes because I stubbornly continued to use traditional equipment and did not open to innovative techniques.

On the other hand, I go fishing to have fun, enjoy the landscape and nature, spend a few hours in peace and serenity and that happiness is not measured in the number of fish caught.

However, some nice fish do not hurt, so why not take advantage of these less “classic” techniques, as well?

I really have to come out and admit that I have been wrong in the past, even if – like Fonzie from Happy Days – I find it very difficult even to pronounce these words.

Not that bad. Fonzie – born Henry Winkler – is also a brave fly fisherman.