Being won over by a two handed cuss

Story and Illustrations by Loucas Raptis

Last winter I convinced myself that I was in desperate need of a double-handed rod. The truth of the matter is, of course, that I simply wanted one and had to produce the arguments to justify the expense. The purchase of a new rod is something of a poor compromise without the purchase of a matching new reel. Furthermore, in the case of a double-handed rod, a new line is implied without question. And once you’ve gone through all this trouble, a spey line with multiple tips is, of course, the wisest choice.

By the time I had finished putting the parts together, I was staring at a price tag that demanded some serious explaining. From my brief exposure to double-handed rods without even having touched one I was convinced that, at least in theory, this was the outfit to address my winter steelhead problem on a river named Cowichan that had me stumped for nearly eight years. If I had indeed nailed the solution, the price would have been a bargain. During the previous summer, as a guest of the Totem Fly Fishers, the oldest fly fishing club in British Columbia, I had watched two of the club’s venerable members, Art Lingren and Pete Broomhall, gracefully swing 15-foot long spey rods and effortlessly fling their lines across the glacial waters of the Dean River.

Surprisingly, in a river such as the Dean one does not need to cast long lengths of line. The summer-run steelhead of the river follow the banks quite closely, well within reach of a moderate single-handed cast and knee-deep wading. Nor is there any need to worry about one’s backcast. The river’s expansive gravel bars can be as wide as the river.

Under the right conditions, a large river with summer-run steelhead offers many opportunities for the single-handed rod, and under the wrong conditions both single- and double-handed outfits can be at an equal disadvantage. During my last day of the two-week trip, I decided to fish only the waters that my single-handed outfit could fish most pleasantly. With a size 2 Black G. P. (originated by Art Lingren) and a light sink-tip on my floating line, I hooked a fish in every run I covered five altogether and landed my largest steelhead on a fly a 34-inch male, that I chased for a hundred yards downstream and then brought back behind another hundred yards of backing.

A steelhead river in its winter rage is a different matter altogether. A river like the Cowichan can be cruelly unforgiving. Its waters run fast and deep, pressing the angler against an impervious wall of willows and overhanging branches. For the better part of winter, when trying to cover the best holding water from the bank, the use of a single-handed rod is nothing short of self-inflicted punishment. The habits of the winter steelhead are no fun either. The word at the Totems’ camp, five miles from the mouth of the river, is that a summer-run steelhead would race to take your fly all the way from the estuary if it could only see it. The word along the Cowichan is that you have to hit a steelhead over the head with your fly first and awaken it from its winter stupor before you even start to fish for it. And this in no pedantic wisecrack.

Despite my new-found confidence, courtesy of the Totems and the Dean River, I still viewed the prospect of winter steelheading on the Cowichan with burning fear and loathing. But now I was holding a new weapon in my hands: a seven-weight, 14-foot-long double-handed rod, powerful enough to pick up a heavy sink tip from the water, and without a hint of a back cast, shoot it across the whole darn Cowichan, and then, with easy mending and gentle coaxing of the line, bring the fly face to face with any steelhead, anytime, anywhere.

Obviously, the casting was still at the mental stage. I had to learn to spey cast first and to that end I set up a quick and comprehensive two-step program. First, I watched a couple of spey casting videos and then I decided to go out and just do it. I picked a February weekday for my trip, not so much to avoid competition on the river, as to avoid being seen and laughed at.
I had decided to try my usual spots in the fly fishing section with the farfetched notion of simulating a real life, real fishing situation. I wouldn’t even think of walking with an assembled 14-foot rod down the narrow, overgrown trail, so I put the rod together by the banks of the Spring Pool. Casting right-handed, I had the side of the river calling for the single spey cast. Upon picking up the line directly from downstream, I had to bring the fly in light touch with the water just in front and upstream of my position before I would load the rod with the D-loop and finish the cast with a snap of the rod tip.

Right. I consider myself fortunate I went through my first couple of hours of spey casting without shattering the rod to a thousand pieces. The fly invariably refused to even touch the water, the D-loop kept twisting into a B-loop, and several times the gentle snap of the rod tip brought the whole 14 feet of graphite in full slamming contact with the raging river. But this is my preferred way of learning, alone and self-absorbed, teetering on the brink of catastrophe.

Yet, slowly and steadily, I pressed on with my spey casting comedy all the way down the pool, pretending to cover the water methodically. When I finished with the Spring Pool, thankfully undetected, I hiked further down the trail to the Beaver Pool. Here, amazingly, my timing seemed noticeably improved, but then I realized that my fly had long since broken off my tippet. But I enjoyed the improvement in my casting so much that I didn’t bother tying on another fly until the next stretch of water.

When my eyes first fell upon the water of the Cabin Pool, all tomfoolery suddenly vanished. I was completely captivated by the flow, speed, and direction of the water, and from my Dean River experience I could read ‚ steelhead‚ all over it. I opened my fly box and pulled out a fly I had put together by the banks of the Dean River. I had named this fly pattern the‚ Dean River Cuss, after Pete Broomhall’s expression‚ good natured cuss, repeated throughout his irreverent story telling. In John Wayne’s western movie vernacular the word means a‚ fellow, but of course the word also means a curse a perfect double meaning for a fly: an enticing-looking object with the singular purpose of causing trouble.

The Dean River Cuss had claimed the largest fish of the trip, a 38.5-inch male steelhead caught by my third companion in the Totem’s Camp, Rob Williams. The very minute I stepped into the water, I lost all interest in exploratory moves and learning possibilities. I now wanted to fish, and fish properly, with a plan and clear expectations. I could distance myself by only three feet or so from the tangle of willows behind me and I was going to get that fly out there any way I could, no matter how clumsy it might look.

On a floating spey line, I had looped a home-made sink tip, 250 grains heavy and ten feet long, and the Cuss was hanging from the other end on a six-foot straight 14-lb leader. I picked about thirty feet of line from downstream and hesitantly rolled it down and across the main current. I threw a quick mend and the river took the fly and slowly swept it across the main current and then held it steadily just inside the slow water of the seam. It was pure heaven. I could literally feel my fly swimming, glittering, and undulating enticingly right off the bottom. I picked it up and sent it out again with another roll-cast. It was clumsy work all the way to the bottom of the pool and many times I had to backtrack and send the line downstream on purpose so I could lift it off the water and load the rod again. Soon enough I was closing in on the tailout of the pool, which leaves one with a finite number of remaining casts, but also with the best, most enjoyable drifts a pool can offer.

Here, the right water makes few demands of the angler. It moves the line in a straight sweeping path, and all one has to do is point the rod at the fly. Even when the current seems to move things too fast and the fly is at the edge of spilling over to the next pool or about to be swallowed by the rapids, there is always hope and the realistic expectation that a steelhead will show up out of nowhere and take one’s fly in the nick of time. It was during one of those perfectly geometrical sweeps that the line, without stopping, was pulled gently away from my rod tip. I lifted the rod to free the line from what I thought was the bottom, and in a sudden panic the fish set the hook all by itself. It took off downstream and just before the lip of the pool into the fast water it jumped what looked like a mile up in the air. It was a large steelhead as bright as the day. I had dreamt of this moment for eight whole years and never got even close to how it really felt. The steelhead turned around and went crazy back and forth within the pool, exploding into a half dozen magnificent jumps. I broke out into hysterical laughter.

I was in no condition to play a fish properly. All I could manage to do was keep some tension on the line. I laughed and kept tension. The fish exhausted itself jumping. It was determined to throw that hook while in the air, but the hook was not going anywhere. Even without a barb, it was stuck firmly at the tip of the fish’s tongue and even I had difficulty removing it. The steelhead, a buck of about ten pounds, was at first uncertain of its freedom and held quietly near the bank just upstream from where I sat. But then suddenly it darted into the current and vanished. I was still sitting on the bottom of the river, slapping the water and laughing. I could never and will never try to understand, not to mention justify, the kind of profound joy that I come upon when I go fly fishing. But it is this very joy, circumstantial as it invariably is, that gives me my one and only, good enough reason to own my double-handed rods. Oh yes, I forgot to mention, or rather confess, that I actually bought two double-handed outfits. A second, nine-weight 15-foot long, double-handed rod was expeditiously procured to tame another, even more inclement winter river, somewhere on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

END NOTE: Loucas Raptis, an ardent naturalist and fly fisherman, is a professional artist who lives in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. He calls himself a simple illustrator, but we beg to differ, and regard him as one of our sports emerging great artists. He can be contacted at: benrap@islandnet.com