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As fly lines evolve and technology advances, manufacturers are capturing new steelhead anglers with shorter, easier-to-cast fly lines.
By Pat Hoglund, SSJ Editor
It wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to fly fish for steelhead using a two-handed rod the learning curve was steep. How steep? So steep that most rational people attempted, failed, and gave up. Or if they were dedicated it took them months, sometimes years, to master casting a 90- to 100-foot long belly line.
I remember the first time I fished with someone casting a long belly line. I was mesmerized by the beauty of his long casts. He had been fishing a long belly for several years and he was a graceful caster. I couldn’t help but want to try. He handed me the rod and gave me a quick lesson. I flailed and failed and quickly lost interest and went back to my single-hander with a weight-forward floating line. It wasn’t until Skagit and Scandi fly lines were introduced that I fully embraced fly fishing with a two-handed rod. They are shorter, heavier and much easier to cast. Both Skagit and Scandi fly lines gave the fly fishing industry a needed shot in the arm, and today more anglers are casting farther with greater ease thanks to those lines. And no surprise, two-handed fly rod sales continue to trend upward.
In the ever-evolving fly fishing industry, a handful of fly line manufacturers have introduced Skagit style lines that are even shorter, and dare I say it, easier to cast. These shorter lines are usually shorter than 20 feet. By comparison, a typical Skagit or Scandi line is 23- to 30-feet long. What you have is a heavy, powerful fly line that will carry a tip, leader and fly, a surprisingly long distance. And the best part is you won’t have to spend an entire season mastering Spey casting.
Full disclosure: I’m not the best Spey caster to walk the banks of a river. My casting is serviceable at best. And I’m OK with that. I have too many other interests to fully devote my time to casting a two-handed rod. I love to catch salmon on a cut-plug herring, or drop a gob of eggs into a deep, swirly hole and wait for a salmon to chomp on it. I thoroughly enjoy float fishing and side-drifting for steelhead. I love to catch chums on a fly rod. Bucktailing flies in the salt for coho is a kick in the ass. Point being, my calendar gets pretty dang full and to fully devote my time to one discipline. I liken it to eating pizza for the rest of your life. I love a good slice of pie, but the thought of eating it for the rest of my life, and passing up a plate of brisket or a juicy cheeseburger, sounds like purgatory to me. And that doesn’t even speak to my other hobbies: hunting and golf. All that being equal, I absolutely love to catch steelhead on a swung fly. In fact, it’s probably one of my favorite things to do in the fall. But I go back to my time is limited and my fishing interests too varied to fully devote it to two-handed Spey casting.
This is where these shorter heads come into play. Now, when I use the term shorter heads it’s your fly line. More on that later.
This past fall I was preparing for a week-long steelhead trip to Alaska. There to write a story for Steelheader’s Journal, and take part in a short film, I needed to fine-tune my casting. So, for a couple days each week I’d peel away from the office and hit the Sandy River, which is about a 20-minute drive from my home office. One of the two-handed rods I was taking to Alaska was a 13-foot, 9-inch C.F. Burkheimer. A thing of beauty, it’s a longer rod that requires some patience when casting. According to rod builder Kerry Burkheimer, that rod was best paired with a 600-grain Skagit head and a 560-grain Scandi head.
For those unfamiliar with the terms Skagit and Scandi, here’s a quick explanation. Skagit heads are heavier fly lines. They can cast heavier flies and tips, which almost always have some sort of sink rate. Most anglers use a standard leader with Skagit heads. Scandi heads, meanwhile, are most often used when swinging flies under or on the surface. You can also attach a variety of tips to them, and a leader. I personally like to use a slow-sinking tip followed by a polyleader, which is nothing more than a long leader that sinks at a very slow rate. Think of Scandi heads as dry fly lines and Skagit heads as sinking lines. That’s a really basic way of explaining it, but it gets the point across.
With my fly lines in tow, I stepped into the Sandy River and started to relearn my two-handed casting stroke. It didn’t take too long before my casting was again serviceable. But it wasn’t pretty and I wasn’t content. And my departure date was fast-approaching. That’s when I reached out to the folks at Olympic Peninsula Skagit Tactics, a fly line company out of Tukwila, Wash. that specializes in designing fly lines that are different than what most people are used to. OPST designed a series of Commando Heads, which are short Skagit style lines that are used with a water-loaded cast. Like most two-handed casts, the rod loads with the weight of the fly line on the water, and the load is maintained throughout the casting stroke. As you stop your casting stroke, the weight of the head shoots across the river and your tip, leader, fly and running line follow. As with any fly line system, your reel should have a couple hundred yards of running line.
Because most of OPST’s Commando heads range from 13- to 20-feet long, your casting stroke needs to be short and compact. And OPST is not the only fly line manufacturer to offer this type of shooting head. Companies like, Airflo, Next Cast and RIO all also have integrated these short, punchy lines into their options of available fly lines.
By nature I’m an over-packer, and with a seven-day steelhead trip to the Aleutian Islands I brought four fly rods, enough reels to anchor a drift boat, and every fly line, tip, and leader spool imaginable. Arriving at camp I unpacked my gear, and strung up my Burkie with an OPST 450 grain Commando Head. I added Riffle Series tip, a 7-foot, 20-pound leader and a god-awful looking fly. High praise to the Dali Lama! Within minutes I was into my first steelhead. For the remainder of the trip I never once switched out my head or my tip and caught steelhead for a week straight. So much for over packing.
To further accentuate my point on how easy these lines are to cast, we traveled to Alaska with a film crew from The Narrative Group in Portland. Both Tyler Warren and Nate Wilson had never caught a steelhead, let alone cast a two-handed rod. After about an hour of instruction and practice, both Tyler and Nate landed their first steelhead.
Yeah, they’re that easy.