Are Lightweight Steelhead Spey Rods Practical?

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Are Lightweight Steelhead Spey Rods Practical?

Mark Bachmann landed this bright Sandy River wither steelhead with a Sage 5119-4 TCX five weight Spey rod.

No matter the answer, small rods are a lot of fun, especially when larger fish are involved. Light weight and heavy weight are kind of like small and large. None of those words stand for any quantitative measure. Instead they designate where something stands in the gauge of normal. If the accepted rod size is a fourteen foot nine weight, everything smaller is regarded as light weight. If the most popular rod size is a thirteen seven weight, then everything larger is regarded as heavy weight. That is about how it is today. Your current 30-06 Spey gun is a thirteen foot seven weight. That size will be both fun and functional for most steelhead rivers and most steelhead throughout their entire range.

In the 1990’s the median steelhead Spey Outfit was a fourteen foot nine-weight. The fish haven’t changed, but rod and line technologies have. Similar transitions happened in the 1950’s when anglers switched from casting reels to spinning reels. Tackle got lighter in weight and easier to use.

Mark Bachmann with a steelhead landed in 1971 from the Sandy River on a six fot five weight fly rod.

Mark Bachmann with a winter steelhead landed in 1971 with a six foot five weight fiberglass fly rod.

Light weight tackle has always been popular. When television was still black and white, I watched The American Sportsman and Lee Wulff landed a very large Atlantic salmon with a six foot long fly rod. It fired my imagination to the point that five years later I built a six foot five weight fiberglass fly rod and finally landed a winter steel head with it that weighed about eleven pounds. I fished the short rod for a lot of hours on private water and only hooked that one fish with it, then never used it for steelhead again. It was a huge amount of work for one fish. My regular steelhead fly rod was also fiberglass but it was a nine foot eight weight. The extra length and line weight were a huge advantages when fishing for steelhead. Seven/eight weight rods of nine and one half to ten feet long single-hand graphite rods were popular on both side of the Cascades when Spey rods came to the Pacific Northwest and changed everything. Suddenly single-handers disappeared.

But before that happened a couple of events influenced my light rod exploration. The first was that the steelhead run in 1974 was so bad that the Deschutes was shut down to steelhead fishing but was still open for trout.  So, I went trout fishing with an eight foot three inch five weight. Late one evening while sitting by the river watching the twilight fade, I observed an October Caddis Pupa hatch into an adult at my feet. My next move was to tie a large pumpkin colored soft hackle wet fly. It didn’t account for many trout, but all the steelhead in the river were well rested and very grabby. It was amazing how many steelhead were within range of the small rod when no one had been stomping around in the river for months.

In about 1985 I built a seven and a half foot two/three weight rod for fishing little flies for trout. It was a hoot when encountering average size redsides. One afternoon I cut the leader back and added three feet of fifteen pound test steelhead tippet and a size six low water steelhead fly. Under incredible circumstances, in a few casts a steelhead took nearly all the backing off the reel but was finally landed. The hardest part of the fight was the last ten feet and it seemed to go on forever. It took about half an hour to revive the fish and it finally swam away with vigor. I never used that little rod again for steelhead. It was just too hard on the fish.

In the early 1990’s I acquired three two handers in quick succession. The first was a G. Loomis prototype fifteen foot eight/nine weight three piece. That got mated up with a long belly Royal Wullf Triangle Taper Spey line that came with a seventy foot long head. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t cast it. Someone advised that part of the front taper should be trimmed off. Finally, after trimming two feet at a time, the line became manageable after twelve feet had been cut off.  It is hard to imagine that such a rod and line were actually used for steelhead that averaged five to eight pounds. It is true and it was fun. But that was when I was younger and stronger.

The next Spey Rod was a Sage 9140-4 fourteen foot nine/ten weight. It was a great rod to cast, but way too stiff for little Deschutes Steelhead. The next rod was a Sage 7136-4 thirteen foot six inch seven weight rod with a parabolic action. It was about the right size but talk about slow and sloppy. I had a love/hate relationship with that model. It was great in the early morning, but after the wind came up it became nearly useless. I got disgusted with the first one and sold it, then immediately had regrets and bought another one. There were no other seven weights at the time. The second 7136-6 went by by after I used a 7130-3 T&T rod, which had a perfectly modern fast action. 

Then around the year 2000 there was an explosion in two-hand models of fly rods. As smaller rods started to become available, they started showing up in our steelhead camps. Even though seven weight had become the median, by 2009 nearly everyone that came to our Deschutes Spey camps had a six weight with them also. It was around this time that my own attention turned to smaller rods again. Then in 2011 I got into a real five weight habit for both summer and wither steelhead. That was the year that I got my Sage 5119-4TCX an eleven foot nine inch five weight fast action rod.

Two things happened. Now I had a lightweight rod that could deliver normal size flies and it took my casting to a whole new level. I still think it is one of the most practical rods I have ever used for steelhead, and of course Sage discontinued it. Several rods have come close to filling that niche, the Beulah Opal 5124-4 is a dandy light weight rod and the G. Loomis IMXPro 41114 Short Spey is in the same game. I Have caught steelhead with all three of these small rods and still own all three. They throw slightly different fly lines, but they cover all the different bases for both Scandi and Skagit. It is hard to beat the IMX Pro as a Skagit rod or the Opal as a Scandi rod.But the TCX is still better all around.

I also have a couple of three weight Spey rods, but haven’t landed a steelhead with any of them. So far, the only anadromous fish that I have landed with a three weight Spey rod is a fall Chinook Jack. It was the size of a large trout. Three weights are pretty light for steelhead. But time will tell if my attitude changes.

Fish long & prosper!

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