Sunday, 29 April 2018

The Case for a Switch Rod

There are three kinds of fly rods: single handed, switch and Spey. Most people begin fly fishing with a single-handed rod. There is good point in this, as learning the basics of a forward cast sets the stage for all other fly casting. While it used to be the case that big water lead to learning Spey casting and the extreme distances the rods can throw, these days there is another path.

Switch rods came on the scene after the move in Spey to the Skagit-style lines and matching 12- to 13-foot Spey rods – rather than the long 14- to 16-foot Speys. The heavy Skagit tip is seldom longer than 30 feet and matches very well with the shorter rods. The line systems became very popular with coastal fly guys who fish for steelhead and salmon. In the former, the issue is reaching a lie, with the latter, the issue is lofting a heavy sinking tip easily. 

And learning Spey casts sets a fly fisher up for switch rods. While the roll cast is the basis of Spey, and one can make a roll cast with a single-handed rod, it is the versatility of the casts that is useful. In both the Single Spey and Double Spey, for which the key word is taking your time and being deliberate in setting up the D-loop behind you, the tip touches the water, and then the forward part of the stroke is last. Other casts like the Snap-T, or Circle-C are really variations on the other casts; still, the key is deliberately letting the D form, before the forward cast.

But the most important thing to remember is that Spey casts are change of direction casts. That may not seem so important until you get the casts down, but it is the key of versatility. Both the single and double Spey begin with retrieving the line at the end of the swing below you, and laying it down close to your body, and then on to the rest of the cast. Then, the important thing is that the cast changes the direction of the cast by 90 degrees, from downstream to laying the line out perpendicular to your body. 

It is that change of direction that leads to versatility. Once you can cast proficiently, you will find endless times in your day where you want to cast 45 degrees or even 120 from where you stand. If you see someone with a single-handed rod who seems to be able to land his/her fly virtually anywhere in front of him/her, you are watching someone who has learned Spey, and then uses it with a single-handed rod.

In the middle of your cast, if you see a fish rise, or wind changes direction, you can use Spey casting to make instant adjustments and place your fly where you want. And one additional thing here: spend your day on the water, trying to put your fly within a foot of where you want it to go. If, for instance, you can cast all the way across the river, and into the forest on the far side, then every cast, try to put your fly within a foot of the opposite bank.

You will lose a lot of flies at first, but then your judgement of cast distance improves. If the cast is going long, if you lift the rod tip, the fly will land short, something that one does all the time when casting dry flies, but rarely in the subsurface fishing we normally do on the coast. Your sensitivity to your circumstances, and practiced, fluent casting, leads to being able to land in front of, beside, just above a surface branch, in a gap and so on.

If you are never willing to go through the period when you lose more flies, you will never be able to count on your fly going where you want it to go. Reconcile yourself during the learning period, making multiple, simple nymphs or marabou creations that are quick, cheap and light enough to make casting them easy.

Now, think of switch rods as short Spey rods. And the single Spey, the easiest of the Spey casts becomes your good buddy. Line systems have moved on to the Skandi system of specific grains, or weights. The other use of switch rods, like Spey, is: not having to do a single-handed back cast, to set up the forward cast; this means you are less likely to catch your fly on bushes behind you. 

As a D is rarely 10 feet behind you, you are far less likely to be chagrined by catching flies. This is particularly useful in winter when rivers are higher and force you back into the forest, as in closer and closer to sticky branches. The other thing to remember is that in a D-loop the fly line hangs vertically behind you rather than horizontal. A vertical line hangs on bushes without getting a hook tangled, and thus, even when your D-lays on vegetation, it seldom gets caught. And the cast goes well.

Moving to a switch rod (though the change was really made by manufacturers to sell more rods), allows you to cast farther than you do with a single-handed rod. And even more importantly, it is far less effort to Spey cast all day than conventional back and forward casting on a single rod.

Add to this that Switch rods allow you to land a fish without breaking the tip off, as happens with longer Spey rods. When you try to ‘surf’ that fish to you – at then end, judge when the fish is tired enough to allow you to get its head out of the water, and ‘surf’ it to you – the closer it gets, the more likely your rod tip, up in the air is bent over double, and if it snaps that could be the end of your day, not to mention Ka-ching. Fly fishers seldom kill a fish, so releasing them unharmed, without having to drop your rod in the drink, or have someone with a net is a bonus offered by most switch rods.

Always, always, take two rods with you when you have a day on the water. If one breaks, you are still fishing. And that versatility thing can help you out in trying conditions. I fish a lot on Johnstone Strait beaches, where the wind is always blowing up to 25 knots over your left shoulder. I am left handed, and simply learned to make a single Spey off my wrong, meaning right, shoulder. So, I don’t hit myself in the side of my face almost every cast, if I had cast off my left shoulder. 

If you watch fly people who can Spey cast, they can, on every type of rod, make instant decisions on what cast will get their fly where they want it with the least amount of energy. Switch rods make great sense because once you get Spey casting down, they easily place that fly anywhere within casting distance. Also, if you watch someone who seems not to be doing a conventional forward/back cast on a single-handed rod, yet their fly is on the money all the time, you are watching someone who has integrated Spey into single handed casting.

Another option is: lay the line out in front of you with a short single Spey, then lift it off the water – surface tension loading the rod – directly behind you and use a haul on the forward cast to reach out your fly. The other advantage is that there is no false casting. Each false cast can lead to a failed cast and having to start over again. Some people will use as many as 10 false casts, each of which could lead to a failed cast. With Spey casts, there is no false casting, and far fewer failed casts. Just be deliberate, making those D-loops, and you will be Spey casting in no time.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

April and Salmon

April is the month when salmon fishing moves from winter patterns to summer patterns for returning fish, particularly chinook. Winter chinook and summer chinook have different habits. In winter, two- to three-year old winter chinook inhabit deeper water layers and are further off shore than summers. They are actively feeding, staying close to lunch and not migrating anywhere. Tide changes are your best bet, before a high tide and after a low tide.

In most areas, fishing is best in 80- to 140-feet depths, using the bottom as structure to find the fish. We are past, for instance, when herring stage off the Victoria breakwater before entering the inner harbour on a spawning run. In areas with needlefish, for example, the Flats, that inhabit the bottom layer of water, bottom bumping is standard practice. 

In water influenced by Puget Sound chinook, they have habits similar to those of Cowichan chinook. The latter circle the Georgia Strait for a year or more, before moving offshore. In October, for example, they have been caught in commercial troll fishery off Nootka and Kyuquot sounds. From Sidney to Sooke, in winter, the predominant fish are the US fish, and as some are three-year olds, this is evidence that they are ‘circling’ Juan de Fuca waters until moving offshore.

This year our fishing will still be affected by the Warm Blob that prevailed in recent years in offshore waters. The phenomenon reduces mixing of water from lower levels with surface levels and thus the stimulus for the food chain – deep water nutrients – has been absent. In part, this has negatively affected returns, and will also do so again this year. The Blob is subsiding and fish leaving rivers to migrate to the high seas this summer will find better ocean conditions and thus return in higher numbers in several future years.

Having said that, Cowichan numbers should be buoyant once again, as 4000 jacks, were reported to came back among the 26,000 returnees last year, evidence of a possible good year in 2018, too. Most of these fish come down Johnstone Strait, and mill the Saanich Inlet, Cowichan river mouth areas in September. In other words, they are not among the spring returning springs.

The summer pattern of mature fish begins in May. The original Columbians start down Juan de Fuca Strait bound for the Fraser River in this month. And Sheringham Point is the traditional first spot in our area to fish. This year, do note the killer whale restricted fishing waters and don’t mistakenly find yourself in closed waters in the Strait.

Summer fish are a whole lot larger than winter fish, being four- to six-year old returning fish, typically starting at 20 pounds, with legitimate 50-pound leviathans in mid- to late-May. Summer chinook, as they are no longer actively feeding, and trying to scent their natal river, typically reside close to shore in shallower water than they did as feeders. 

That they are no longer feeding, is the reason why the crack of dawn becomes the best chinook bite of the day – it represents the longest period that the fish might not eat in a 24-hour day. Along Juan de Fuca, however, the last two hours of the flood can be the best fishing of the day. This is true of Port Renfrew and inside waters of Sooke, Aldridge and Creyke points, for example.

And the Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for salmon in southern waters, sets out the annual plan for stocks and fishing opportunities. Here is the IFMP for southern waters: It is a fat 587-page document. And while they say they want comments by March 13, my understanding is that the deadline has been extended one month.

Stocks of concern in southern areas start on page 102. And specific stocks on page 127. There are different numbers for Cowichan chinook in different parts of this report, however, the 2017 return is listed here as 23,000, of which 400 were taken as brook stock, and 11,800 were jacks, a huge number; this augers well for 2018.

The Fraser Spring 4/2s, Nicola, Bonaparte river area, are in poor shape, once again. 5/2s and 5/2 Summers will also have conservation fishery actions. Interior Fraser River coho came in at 30,000 last year, half way between the conservation goal posts of 20K and 40K. These are low numbers, and while DFO is managing to the numbers, they don’t get to doing freshwater habitat restoration/enhancement, just ratchet down the numbers.

The species and location specific fishing plans start on page 178 and continue, for more than 250 pages to 430. That’s where you look for any place you may want to fish in southern BC. There is a whole other plan for northern BC.

When you go fishing, make sure to look at the retention regs each time: On this page, you can sign up to receive regulation changes by email.

Now, remember that those biggies like slow moving baits, and bait is the best, or an artificial lure with some scent. And in most areas, your main territory of interest is back eddies in falling tides. That is because the girthy ones mosey forth at about 1.5 mph, hence, they don’t make it out of back eddies until the tide changes to flood. An example everyone knows is the west side of Clover Point on the ebb. It gives chinook as much as 6 hours to migrate along the Waterfront to Clover, where the ebb is moving at speed greater than 1.5mph, and thus there the bunch of them gather, until the flood.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Steelhead Flies

I just counted my boxes of flies. To my surprise, I have 20. Most are dedicated to a particular species, season, or both. Some house multiples of ones I use frequently, and thus break off/disintegrate more often, and I load them into specific boxes for use. If I make 50, it may take several years to go through them all, thus I don’t have to make them constantly.

Then there are those that are unusable. When I first started out, I decided to make a box of Muddler Minnows. When I found I could not spin deer hair, I decided the fly didn’t need the deer hair collar. I made 50 and called them Unmuddlers and thought that rather clever. On the other hand, because I found out they didn’t work, I still have a box of 49 that I will never use – and have never made so many ever again. I tie 3 and the fly has to prove itself before I tie several dozen. The trick is to resist using the third one if they prove wildly successful.

One box I use all the time, is labelled: Summer Steelhead. As you can see, there are flies of several types, not simply summer steelhead. I have caught summers in all 12 months of the year, in freshwater, so this box comes with me on most freshwater trips. I add to it from other boxes.

On the right side are summer steelhead patterns, including some skaters, floaters and backup winter steelhead flies. You will note that some have a guinea fowl feather as the last addition. The purpose is to change the profile of the fly, and thus give you another look when your first choice does not work or has been nipped by a steelhead that isn’t going to get fooled by that fly again.

On the coast, we can use generic patterns because anadromous fish, when they come into freshwater do not know what food looks like for some time, and thus, the fly doesn’t have to represent food, just be something that catches their attention. In moving water, the fly zips by the fish quickly, and if a decision has to be made quickly, the fish snaps after the fly and gobbles it up. In, winter, of course, there may be very little natural food in the water, though for some time, there are salmon eggs and salmon flesh.

Some flies work on both summer and winter steelhead, as well as cutthroat trout. An example would be a generic Popsicle-style fly, which I tie with marabou: red over orange over yellow, with medium sized bead chain eyes added last. Tied on a size 2 hook, these flies seldom hook small trout/smolts, but take larger cutthroat, ‘rainbows’ and steelhead.

The left-hand side of the box has multiple patterns for multiple circumstances. Starting at the top, the pink Muddlers are good on beaches for pink salmon. The epoxy minnow patterns are fished in spring when pink and chum fry are passing out of systems, as well as any system that has sockeye. An example of the latter is Woss Lake and down the Nimpkish, a long system so that minnow patterns work longer, sockeye being Juneish, before coho, chinook and steelhead smolts descend.

When passing through Campbell River, I always stop at the River Sportsman and pick up flies. They make the rather famished looking, snipped down Muddlers for pink salmon; however, blue is a good colour for Dolly Varden and they give discounts for buying in bulk. There are many north Van Isle rivers that have Dollies – look for them in saltwater estuaries before going up into the rivers.

The floaters in the second line of flies are the Goddard Caddis and Tom Thumb. The latter is a good bet for Dollies, and as generic a floater as they come. Keep some floatant in your vest for when you want a dry fly. A brown Muddler with a full collar can be made into a floater in a pinch.

The rest of the left side of the box is nymphs of different colours and sizes, size 4 to 10. On a day when you are fishing steelhead in a system with incoming cutthroat, too, these are very useful. You can change colour and size to match what the fish want. If you expect fish in certain spots of rivers you normally fish, but aren’t getting bites, change colour first, then size. The flies here are white, tan, light brown, brown, black, and all have segmentation and wriggly legs.

Most of the bottom line are stonefly nymphs and they are deadly. I think the reason is that they are big, easy to see and look like food. Note that you should always look at the bottom of the river you are fishing to check on the nymph population. Typically, they are gone by September, and last week, in March, I saw very few, the point being that nymphs cease to work for part of the year, when they are not natural food.

Caddis are the most common, through I have seen Mayflies in February. I am sold on white PMDs as visible a floater in size 10, and of course, it is a hoot when the fish whacks the fly. Dry fly fishing is all about watching that fly, keeping it floating rather than skating, and, on a subsequent float, if the fish hasn’t bitten, teasing it with a short skate or two.

The left-hand side of this second box, a winter steelhead one, is mostly bunny flies with bead chain eyes. Bunny is easy to work with, has lots of body and a wide range of colour – use size 2 salmon hooks, with their nice up-turned eye. To make the fly more visible, make tri-colour bunny flies. As ugly as it may be, red over chartreuse over black is the pattern that works best for me. Make sure before fishing them to take them in your fist, put it under water and squeeze the air out of them several times, then test that the fly will sink before casting it.

All of the colour patterns in the box work on winter steelhead. Think pink, purple and black. And note that in winter, after the rain and silt has scoured algae off the rocks, the water is surprisingly luminous. I think that’s why silver is better for eyes. Gold works better in summer. The two blue marabou flies await late November coho in the deepest part of the soft water.