Saturday, April 3, 2010


(Photo: Jennifer Simpson)

Like so many good plans this one was hatched over Spanish reds and tapas. Most Tuesday nights, I talk poetry and fly fishing with my friend, and fellow fisher-poet, Danyen Powell. Jennifer tends the bar and introduces us to combinations of wine and food that fuel our imaginations. Before the night is over, someone comes up with a good idea.

The winter steelhead run was coming to a close and that night’s good idea was to get out and swing a few runs. I’d regaled Dan and Jennifer about the pleasures of swinging streamers for steelhead and the reward that comes from a well-presented fly. “The grab,” as people call it. And the smash and grab that it sometimes is.

I wanted Dan to have the best possible experience so I touched bases with my friend Adrian Psuty. He runs Anchor Point Fly Fishing and is the person responsible for teaching me how to swing for steelhead. Adrian and his wife, Teresa, are avid fly fishers and spey casters. Between the two of them they were able to make a decent spey caster out of me, too. It’s been months since I’ve hooked myself in an ear lobe.

My big question for Adrian was how to rig Dan’s rod. He recommended a Scandi head, a slow-sinking polyleader, and eighteen inches or so of tippet attached to a relatively-light fly. Dan would be two-handed casting with my switch rod so Adrian suggested the river-left run below the Sunrise footbridge to allow ample room for backcasting—while Dan got the hang of it—then jump in the truck and move downstream to a river-right run that’s always offered productive fishing for us. The slow-sinking polyleader would be perfect for the tailout on that run.

Dan swung by my house in the early morning dark and we were in the river at first light. I couldn’t have ordered up a better scenario: fog on the water, honking geese, and a flow that allowed Dan to really get the feel of a fly swung under tension. A conversion experience was in the making.

Dan immediately liked this style of fishing—for the same reasons I do. There’s a rhythm in the casting, mending, swinging, stripping in line, stepping downstream, and casting again. Swinging requires—and allows—a relaxed attentiveness that let’s the fly-fisher enjoy the smell of nervous water, the first rays of light angling through the water column, the blue heron on the gravel bar that holds his wings open wide to dry in that cool breeze that blows east to west every morning. When Dan looked upstream and gave me a thumbs-up I wished I’d remembered my camera.

We finished swinging our first run right about the time other fisherman were showing up so we hoofed it back to the truck and drove to a downstream access point. This is one of the delightful aspects of fishing our urban river. Driving across town in wet waders. And I always enjoy leap-frogging the drift boat that floated right on top of the run I was fishing upstream.

Backcasting on the next run was tricky so I coached Dan through the C spey so he could move his anchor point upstream, then forward cast right-handed over his left shoulder—cack-handed. He picked it up almost immediately and a learning theory took form in my mind. Dan logged hours in a martial arts dojo while he was growing up and there’s a way of learning a dojo teaches. Students watch their instructor demonstrate a movement and then they try to imitate it. Dan had been picking up the basics of the C spey and forming a D-loop during our first run—just by watching me out of the corner of his eye.

All of which led to Dan casting well, mending well, and swinging well as we approached the sweet spot of the run. Since I was fishing with a heavier sink tip and fly than he was, I fished the deeper, upper section of the run and warned Dan not to set the hook when a steelhead grabs. “You need to be patient,” I was jabbering, when a fish hit my fly, turned, and ran. Dan and I both hooted in surprise. Then I raised my rod too soon—proving the point I had just been making. My steelhead was gone.

Dan waded out into the run to swing the tailout. I climbed up on the riverbank to watch for the tell-tale white flash of a steelhead opening its mouth. Dan had already found his rhythm: Casting, mending, swinging, letting the fly dangle at the end of the swing, stripping in line, stepping downstream, and casting again. I couldn’t help but think about how cool it would be if Dan connected with a fish as his fly swung slow and sweet into the sweetest spot of the run.

“Hey, Shawn,” Dan said. “I have a fish on.” Dan landed that steelhead.

The next Tuesday night Jennifer listened to our story and introduced us to a new red just in from Spain and a duck-and-spinach tapa that was, perhaps, the best-tasting tapa I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. We were on the verge of another brilliant idea. “Wagner would love swinging for steelhead,” Dan said. “He likes being on the move.” The three of us fished for trout on the Little Truckee and the Truckee last summer and had one hell of a good time.

Time was running out on the winter steelhead run so I hauled out my pocket calendar while Dan consulted the electronic calendar on his iPhone. We found a couple of mornings that could work for us and Dan called Wagner from the bar. Another fine plan was hatched.