Sunday, May 9, 2010


Ever since I started writing a screenplay about the grown son of a legendary steelhead fisherman, I’ve been able to convince myself that a daily trip to the river to swing a run or two is essential research. During this winter’s steelhead spawning run I found myself doing more research than writing, though, and I realized that I needed to pick up the pace—on the writing side of the equation.

Whether it was some Muse with a twisted sense of humor or a literal Freudian slip, I managed to tweak everything below my shinbone while tele-skiing on the last weekend in March. As a result, April was my most productive month of writing since Thanksgiving—when the first of the winter-run fish start swimming upstream toward Sacramento, and I start going down to the river to greet them.

Despite being sidelined, April still had its fair share of research-related activities. I reread my dog-eared copy of Dec Hogan’s A Passion for Steelhead (Wild Rivers Press) and, while conducting research at my local fly shop, I saw an announcement for a one-day, on-river, steelhead-fishing seminar taped to the cash register. Taught by Dec Hogan himself.

Dec Hogan qualifies as a legendary steelhead fisherman. Among his many innovations, he pioneered two-handed casting techniques during a fourteen-year career guiding Pacific Northwest rivers. The price of the seminar seemed more than reasonable when I thought about how important this research would be for writing my story. I could tune my ear for dialogue while hearing, first-hand, Hogan’s stories about the Pacific Northwest’s epic steelhead rivers.

As it turned out, Hogan is every bit as gracious and gregarious as the fictional character I’d created for my story. And a gifted teacher. There were two things, in particular, that he explained, and demonstrated, that improved my casting technique immediately—and significantly. The first, and most important, is slow down. The other is: things that start bad, end bad.

If you’ve read Hogan’s book you already know “slow down” is the most likely solution to any casting problem. This advice applies not only to casting but also to presenting the fly to the fish. While Hogan offers this advice again and again in his book, there’s nothing like a hands-on experience to truly get the message.

In my case, hands-on came in the form of a head wind. A head wind so strong that I thought it might undermine the value of the class. Instead, it made the day even more valuable for me. Hogan convinced me that I could use the headwind to help form my D-loop and load my spey rod. Which it did.

He also convinced me I could make a normal forward stroke. I didn’t have to add additional speed or muscle to the forward cast to account for the wind. Instead, the basic principles of the forward cast applied more than ever. Accelerate to a stop, activating the lower hand—like you would a double-haul—at just the right moment. The result was a tight loop that cut through the wind. I am a believer.

Hogan’s second adage—things that start bad, end bad—solved a problem I was having with my single-spey cast. My D-loop wasn’t forming well and I was muscling my forward cast. Hogan worked the problem backwards with me. He said the problem is usually in the step before what appears to be the problem.

In my case, the problem wasn’t with my secondary lift, or anything associated with forming the D-loop. The problem was in the previous step—I was initiating my cast too fast (see “slow down,” above). Hogan asked me to make my initial lift of the rod tip as slowly as possible, and to raise the rod tip a little bit higher and toward the riverbank. My “D-Loop problem” was solved.

If you get a chance to spend a day on a river with Dec Hogan, take it. It will be some of the best research you’ve ever conducted.