Though big rivers in big places dominate the media's depictions of steelheading, you and I know that steelhead live in a diverse array of watersheds, from the enormous rivers like the Thompson to minute trickles that pass under Highway 101 without even the ceremony of a bridge. Similarly, big spey rods — thirteen to fourteen footers — dominate the spey rod industry's line-ups, giving a guy the sense that steelheading requires such a big stick. And in some places it does. But I've come to believe that those places are fewer and farther between than most of us would care to admit.
Take a large river like the Deschutes. Many of the runs on the Big D, especially those on an inside bend, are extraordinarily wide. A couple come to mind where a proficient caster could throw past his backing and still not be covering the far edge. Such runs give us a sense that we need to go long to properly cover the holding water.
But steelhead — especially on big rivers — are predominately shore creatures; they follow the soft water on the edge of the river, relishing the shade and the protection the bank offers. Sure they do hold in the middle of the river, but I believe they hold in the middle far less often than they hold within twenty feet of the shore. And let me ask you this: when you throw a hundred feet of line, how does your fly swing through that inside twenty feet?
When you've thrown long on most runs, your fly goes dead just as it enters the fishiest part of the swing, the part close to shore. So you pick it up, take a step down, and throw another bomb, out where the fish are fewer.
The more I swing flies for steelhead, the more I find myself fishing shorter spey rods, and sending shorter casts — at least on my first pass through a run. After I've covered the inside shore, often with casts under thirty feet, then I bring out the big stick and cover that outer edge.
So what spey rods does a steelheader need? What follows is a list of the spey rod-types I see pro steelheaders fishing when the cameras aren't out. (Disclaimer: the folks I fish with rarely throw long-belly lines. They're fishing mid-bellies, Scandinavians, and Skagits 95% of the time).
The 11 foot wonder-stick: Sometimes advertised as a switch rod, sometimes as a short two-hander, the 11 footer is a mainstay of the steelheader's quiver. My personal favorite is an 11'6" six/seven weight, one that will throw a 400-450 grain compact Scandi head and a 450-500 grain compact Skagit with equal ease. It will fish those close casts with precision, and it will load where shoreside limbs hang low. Personally, my 11 footer seems to out-catch my longer rods day in and day out, even on huge rivers.
The 12 foot go-to: An eleven foot rod fishes inside perfectly, but it has trouble steering casts outside sixty feet. For that mid-range situation--and most runs are mid-range situations--a 12 foot rod is the ideal choice. It offers the perfect balance between easy loading when against a forested bank and precision line control.
The 13 foot big gun: When a run requires casts over eighty feet — or casts fifty to eighty feet that demand technical mending — a thirteen foot rod excels. What you lose in close-quarters casting, you gain in long-range control. A lot of guys will argue that a fourteen or even fifteen foot rod is a necessity on a bigger river — and probably it is if you're fishing long-belly lines — but most folks can't cast a fourteen or fifteen foot rod all day everyday without gimping their shoulders. What good is a fifteen foot rod if your arms are too tired to fish it properly? The 13 footer, I think, is the right balance point between tactical advantage and long-term fishing endurance. An opinion supported by the quivers of the folks I fish with.
In the coming months, I'll be reviewing a half-dozen of the finest spey rods in each category, 13', 12', and 11'. I'm currently in the field-testing phase with the 13 footers. Expect to see those reviews very soon. In the meantime, you might borrow a friend's 11 footer and give that close edge the swing it deserves.