Tuesday Tip: Gearing Up for PNW Steelhead

Written by: Leland Miyawaki, Fishing Manager at Orvis Bellevue (WA)

Leland Miyawaki Steelhead

The author with a beautiful, bright Pacific Northwest steelhead.

photo courtesy Leland Miyawaki

Skagit, Hoh, Sol Duc, Grande Ronde, Clearwater, Dean, Thompson, Skeena—all names that conjure up visions of big, bright, chrome steelhead.

Big fish caught on the swing: Nothing comes close to releasing a fly fisher’s adrenaline as ‘the grab” on a tight line. Swinging flies has been the Northwest tradition since Roderick Haig-Brown, Enos Bradner, Syd Glasso, and Walt Johnson first swung their sparsely dressed steelhead Speys under greased silk lines and split-cane rods.

Our seasons begin with the winter hatchery steel that come into the rivers in November and are followed by wild monsters in the late winter/early spring that are more easily measured in feet and double-digit poundage. Our summer steelhead enter the Puget Sound rivers and Columbia tributaries in June and are caught well into December and January.

Northwestern steelheaders saw the two-handed rod in Europe and found it to be the perfect tool for our tree-lined, massively wide rivers that would hold steelhead well beyond a single-hander’s casting range. Flash forward and add some good ol’ American ingenuity and technology, and you have not only Orvis Spey rods from 13 feet, but also shorter 11-foot switch rods, all of which are lighter and definitely more powerful than most single-handed rods.

Leland Miyawaki Steelhead

Bigger winter fish demand stouter tackle and bigger flies.

photo courtesy Leland Miyawaki

Not content with introducing the two-handed rod to our rivers, Northwestern steelheaders looked into cutting, splicing, and welding fly lines to solve specific presentation problems. Terms such as Scandi, long-belly, mid-spey, short head, poly leader, T-14, and Skagit entered the lexicon of lines and casting styles.

Choices, choices, choices. What kind of tackle do we use up here? For the local summer brats hiding in our low summer waters, break out an 11-foot, 6- or 7-weight switch rod. Scandi dry lines, long leaders, and low-water wet flies or riffle-hitched dries are the perfect summer weaponry. As we get into fall and move on to the bigger Columbia tributaries, it’s time for 13-foot 6-inch 8-weights, 14-foot 9-weights, or 15-foot 10-weights. Our winter arsenal is composed of 13 – to 14-foot, 8- to 10-weight rods with enough backbone to slingshot heavy Skagit lines with 10-foot T-14 tips and short, heavy leaders while turning over heavy Intruder style flies or giant pink or purple worms.

Scandi and Skagit lines are fat, so reel choice is easy. Mirage or Hydros IV or V wide-arbor reels are the only way to go.

When the phrase “steelhead are the fish of a thousand casts” was coined, we were fishing single-handers, and 75 percent of the casts were false. Well guess what? Spey rods and Spey casts make every cast count and “dark days, dark flies – bright days, bright flies” is still a good place to start when choosing flies. Always remember that it’s the grab that counts.

Leland Miyawaki is the Fishing Manager at Orvis Bellevue.

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