If you could step into a steelhead time machine, you would probably end up fishing some of the greatest runs in history and have them all to yourself. The one thing that would surprise you as you stepped out of the time machine all wadered up is that your spey rod would have turned back in time as well and is now a single-hand rod.
Now, single-hand rods have seen a major resurgence in the steelhead game due to some great companies like OPST and others that have designed excellent lines. Fishing a shorter line consistently all day with a nice light-sensitive rod offers many advantages. To this day, anytime we have a single-hander late in the season throwing a 24-foot, 200-grain sink tip line, they consistently out-fish everyone. The swings of a single-hand rod are very controlled, and line control on a shorter cast is far superior to an 80-foot spey cast. Although all of us spey fisherman love that grab from the far reaches of the river shortly after our fly lands, the reality is most of the fish come from within 20 feet of the shoreline. This is particularly true in morning and evening when fish are moving. When boats and pressure move fish offshore, the game is changed.
Working the water well close to shore or where you are wading is an extremely productive way to fish, and there is no better way than with a single-hand rod or small switch. Try trading in the 45 degree, 80-foot bomb casts and fish the 'river within the river' along the bank with casting angles altering to the depth. This is particularly true for sink-tip fishing where fly depth can make all the difference.
If you step through a run with long casts, you will be fishing the water close to the shore at relatively the same depth every single swing. This is not effective as you are covering too many current types at once. No matter how much mending you do when the fly lands, by the time the fly approaches the crucial 15ñ30-foot zone from shore, the currents will have marginalized the fly depth. Working through that same stretch with a short line and a short rod, you will notice your swings are much more in tune with the changing water depths.
The most important factor of a swing when fish are hunkered down is the ìfliesí deepest depthî (FDD) on a swing. The FDD usually comes after the mend when the fly has had a bit of time to dead drift and sink. Just before the line tightens, you have typically reached your FDD. After that, your fly will start to rise often quickly until it reaches the tight-line swing depth. By fishing a short line, you will be putting the FDD in a much more productive part of the river thus allowing more depth and control through very productive water. With a single-hand rod and shorter casts, you have far greater control in sinking the fly into structure and soft current seams.
With skagit lines, we all admit they are very uncomfortable to fish short and certainly not graceful. This is why we usually pull out a bullwhip to make sure our anglers start with a mere 10-foot or less (just the sink tip) swing when stepping into the head of a run. Everyone wants to strip out the entire head for the first cast and pull off another 5 feet for the second cast. Short-line fishing takes a lot of self-control. Itís like trying not to eat that entire pizza you brought home. But if you can moderate your pizza intake and pick up that small rod for short-line fishing, you will feel much better and be far more productive on the river. Give it a try!