- Trey Combs, Steelhead Fly Fishing Each year, a sturdy population of tiny, but energetic, steelhead fry grows a bit larger and begins the journey of a lifetime, a watery trek that will take them from their sleepy home tributaries to the raging mouth of the Pacific Ocean and ultimately to the other end of the world.Each collection of migrating fish will grow from fry to adult steelhead, aided by the bounty of their new surroundings. Eventually these hearty fish will tire of grazing the vast open waters and will begin to find their way home. Driven now by the raw and instinctual urge to spawn, these quite large and commanding adult steelhead swim stoically to their natal stream to procreate and begin the odyssey anew.Each fall, as these great wild fish begin to make their return trip, fly anglers across the reaches of the Pacific Northwest from California to British Columbia, within the volcanic confines of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, and throughout the Great Lakes regions of North America flock to large, fast, tree-lined rivers and their myriad tributaries to “chase chrome.”Naming the Steelhead Steelhead are complicated and compelling creatures, worthy of great reams of literature, intense study, and much fireside mythology. These powerful, steel-grey fish have given biologists and ichthyologists fits and have driven generations of fly fishers crazy. Fly anglers who have plied waters for and caught steelhead generally develop an obsessive connection to these fish and for good reason; steelhead are some of the most striking, strongest and most aggressive fighters in freshwater, and a great deal of knowledge and attention to detail are absolutely necessary to catching a steelhead. These beautiful and brilliant fish have also been dubbed “the fish of 1,000 casts” and there’s nothing quite like some good old-fashioned perseverance when fly fishing for steelhead.Part of the steelhead’s unique complexity stems from the species’ somewhat confusing naming history. For all intents and purposes, steelhead are migratory or non-resident rainbow trout. This has not always been the contention. When initially named, these fish were thought to be more closely and generically related to Atlantic salmon populations, and accordingly, the species’ initial classification was Salmo gairdeneri. The publisher, In 1836, Sir John Richardson, included this new classification in Fauna Boreali Americana based on information provided by a doctor by the name of Gairdner who was working on the broad banks of the Columbia River with the Hudsons Bay Company at Fort Vancouver. Nineteen years later, the rainbow trout was classified as Salmo irideus by the founder of the California Academy of Sciences, Dr. William P. Gibbons. It was later established that Gibbon’s “new” species was not new at all as his observations were based on a pre-migratory steelhead specimen taken from San Leandro Creek (a beautiful creek located in Leland’s back yard and home to what is possibly California’s largest population of rainbow trout). In an instant, steelhead became anadromous rainbow trout and rainbow trout became non-migratory steelhead.The separate, but equal classification of rainbow trout as Salmo irideus and steelhead as Salmo gairdeneri survived until 1989 when the Committee on Names of Fishes assembled by the American Fisheries Society threw a knuckleball at all who knew and understood the species of migratory rainbow trout as cousins of the Atlantic salmon population. The committee announced that all species of trout native to western North America would be re-assigned the generic name Oncorhynchus, linking the trout of western North America to the Pacific salmon.Once established as a Pacific species, more than the Salmo designation needed alteration. In 1792, the prolific German taxonomist, Johann Julius Walbaum classified several species of Pacific salmon as well as the Dolly Varden char, and the rainbow trout of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. It became clear that the steelhead was a more likely cousin of Walbaum’s Kamchatkan rainbows (Salmo mykiss) and, according to the strictures of scientific naming conventions, the populations of steelhead native to western North America should take Walbaum’s earlier species classification of mykiss. In a flash, steelhead morphed, at least in the land of nomenclature, from Salmo gairdeneri to Oncorhynchus mykiss. Such is the steelhead’s complexity.An Anadromous AdventurerLike their genetic counterparts, rainbow trout, steelhead are born in freshwater and are known among fly fishers for their aggressive jumps and long runs. Steelhead will spend anywhere from six months to three years in their home rivers and tributaries before riding the strong outgoing currents and migrating to the Pacific Ocean or to one of the Great Lakes of North America (the species was successfully transplanted to the Great Lakes region during several stocking campaigns during the mid-1800s).Once in their new, larger (and, for some, saltier) homes, these fish feed hungrily on a fat smorgasbord of baitfish, squid, and crustaceans. Here, the species trades its pink band for a new set of chrome silver sides and translucent fins. The fish will retain its deep green back and dorsal spots as well. Steelhead will spend one to five years “a sea” and, like ocean-going salmon, will utilize their strong sense of smell to sniff out the unique chemistry of their native waters and return exactly home, sometimes hundreds of miles upstream to spawn. These fish don’t just get close to home, tagged steelhead have been observed returning to precisely the same spawning bed from which they were born, actually closing the loop on an incredible journey.The most famous runs of steelhead occur in the late summer months and continue throughout the fall to November. However, steelhead can be caught year-round and, since the early 1900s, winter steelhead fly fishing has steadily increased in popularity among fly anglers, especially in California, Oregon, British Columbia and the Great Lakes region of North America. When on the spawn these fish will slowly regain their pinkish banding and will begin to look more like the resident or non-migratory rainbow trout.Step, Cast, Mend … Step, Cast, Mend … Perhaps the most important and most difficult task to master in fly fishing for steelhead lies in understanding how to read steelhead water. Gaining such understanding takes fly anglers years to acquire and is truly a life-long pursuit. This is not to say that steelhead cannot be caught on a fly by a novice angler, but experience in steelheading makes a big difference in an angler’s ability to secure hookups and land fish. During their upstream migration, steelhead are most interested in conserving their energy, and this is especially true of steelhead returning to streams located farther inland. Idaho steelhead populations, for example, must pass several dams and cross high mountainous regions, while battling fierce currents along the journey of several hundred miles. In this effort to conserve energy, steelhead will often make short, powerful upstream runs, separated by longer periods of rest out of the main current. The virulent upstream runs can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days and rest periods can range from a single night of quiet to several long days of relief. Fly anglers enjoy their best chances at steelhead while they are at rest. During these times, fish will sit singly or in pairs along the river banks, in shallow pools, in broad tailouts, and along current seams where the moving water provides travel weary fish with much needed and appreciated pockets of lesser resistance. Learning to find and fish these parts of a river and types of water is invaluable in the steelhead game.Unlike their bull-headed counterparts, the Atlantic salmon, steelhead are ultimately smart about how they use water to their advantage. Rather than simply charging through the main channel, steelhead will choose the optimal pathway up a river, bobbing and weaving from slow current seam to slow current seam until they reach their destination. This quite brilliant behavior is difficult on even the most accomplished fly fishers because the optimal pathway upriver may not always mean the steelhead in front of you is holding in the slowest current in front of you; the fish may have determined that holding in a slightly faster current at an angler’s position in the river will optimize the aggregate journey. Again, such are steelhead.Due to the wide variety of water in which steelhead can be found as well as the wide size range steelhead take on (steelhead can be as small as a foot long like the Klamath River “half-pounders” or as large as twenty pounds in British Columbia’s famous Kispiox River), a host of methods for chasing steelhead with a fly fishing rod have been productive throughout fly fishing’s history. When chasing steelhead, many fly anglers utilize and swear only by a classic approach of swinging dry flies on floating lines. Techniques within this category include pure “greased-lining” and “skating” steelhead bomber and skater fly patterns. Recently, a small group of more adventuresome traditionalists have discovered success in “chugging” their steelhead bugs to imitate the rhythmic motion of hatching caddis. Other steelhead anglers employ trout nymphing strategy with indicators and floating lines, while other fly anglers borrow equipment and flies from Atlantic salmon fly fishing traditions to catch their steelhead. In larger rivers, two-handed Spey casting techniques are employed to efficently cover the vast amounts of water required for success in steelheading. Steelhead fly fishing rods can range from small 4-weight single-handed trout rods for smaller steelhead to large 10- and 11-weight Spey rods of 14 or 15 feet in length for the largest, and usually British Columbian, members of the species. Despite the tremendous variation in tackle and technique, the preferred steelhead rod today is a 7-weight two hand rod, running from 12 to 13 feet in length. By far, our favorite steelhead fly rod is Loop's Cross S1 7120-4. This rod bridges the gap between summer and winter run fish. It elegantly delivers topwater flies, yet can still turn over heaver flies and fast-sinking tips.The complexity of the steelhead game continues as there is a great deal of observed but poorly understood behavioral traits occurring in populations of steelhead from river to river. To this end, how a fly fisher presents the fly to a holding steelhead at a particular location on a particular river, is an equally important component that must be considered rigorously before even the very first cast is made. Ask around about and read up on how local steelhead behave in the river you’re going to fish. Knowing even a small amount about how aggressively the steelhead you’re after takes (or leaves) a well-presented fly or if they are more apt to take a deeply-dredged nymph along the bottom of a pool than rise to a properly swung dry fly at the surface can be a skeleton key for hooking a steelhead on your trip. When practicing reading steelhead water, it is important to clearly define where each pocket, tailout, seamline, and pool are located. A good pair of polarized sunglasses with copper or yellow photochromatic lenses will ease the strain of this challenge. Make sure you look for well-defined water features where fish may hold and cast to these areas. It may take a couple of passes through a run or pool to learn at which depth in the water column the fish are stacking and how aggressive or non-aggressive the fish may be, but only with patience, experience, and experimentation, are steelhead caught. What’s on the Menu? Hardcore steelheaders can easily spend more time thinking about what their beloved quarry eats and what flies to tie than actually casting to fish. This outwitting of fish is not uncommon in fly fishing and is perhaps the sport’s most enduring trait, but steelheaders take it to an extreme that others in the sport do not frequent. Subsequently, there are three leading and competing theories about how steelhead feed. There is no consensus on which theory should rise to the fore of the debate, but it’s most likely that none of the theories are wrong and that steelhead use some combination of the three when choosing what to eat.Some steelheaders are convinced that the chromers they’re after feed off of surface bugs most like the caddis they ate when they were smolts. These anglers will often cast only caddis patterns and more recently chugging bugs. These fly patterns are thought to imitate most closely the movement and appearance of the juvenile steelhead’s earliest diet. The thought is that once the fish are back in their native waters, they will revert to their very first feeding patterns and habits.Another camp is of mind that steelhead feed instinctively when in the open ocean and that only movement and profile should be presented to a fish holding in a river. These modern steelhead fly anglers believe that these fish develop an almost purely instinctual feeding response while maturing and feeding in the ocean environment. This instinct-driven feeding pattern is thought to follow the fish back to their home water, and fly fishers of this ilk and belief will confidently say that size, movement, and profile are the three most important characteristics in creating a successful steelhead fly.The last group believe that the most realistic patterns should be fished at all times – the trick is to imitate closely what was in the ocean from whence the fresh steelhead came or to mimic precisely what bugs are in the river as the fish work their way upstream. These steelhead anglers choose to cast more realistic flies and within this camp there are anglers who favor baitfish, squid, and crustaceans (staples of the ocean-going steelhead’s diet) over the freshwater nymphs, shrimp, and dry fly patterns touted by still other hardcore steelheaders.The debate on the best steelhead flies rages on and the result is an incredibly creative and prolific catalog of successfully tied and fished steelhead flies.Flies commonly used to catch steelhead range from standard trout patterns to streamers and baitfish patterns to the most modern and innovative tube flies and marabou recipes. Spey and Atlantic salmon flies have also proven to be successful choices, especially on the large rivers of the western United States and British Columbia. The Green Butt Skunk and the General Practitioner are more traditional flies that will work well in the Pacific Northwest. Lage marabou flies like the Marabou Spey or the Popsicle will raise steelhead in Alaska and British Columbia and really wild marabou patterns (usually tied as tube flies) and large sculpin patterns will be productive on Russia’s pristine steelhead waters. Leland’s Keith Westra has tied and fished successfully his favorite marabou pattern with a bunny strip tail for British Columbian steelhead and Leland’s Proprietor Josh Frazier loves the action produced on the famed North Umpqua by Scott Howell’s Ska Hopper, a newer deer hair and foam chugging bug.Steelhead are haunting creatures. They enter a fly fisher’s life suddenly and with the powerful burst of a rumbling freight train. No matter how hard an obsessive fly angler prepares for each steelhead trip, or how an experienced steelheader expertly tries to reach the edge of a distant and promising pool, or how well a practiced and polished Spey caster mends line in anticipation of a long, smooth swing, the strike of a fresh steelhead is always unexpected. Steelheading’s seductive draw lies in this unexpectedness, this uncertainty, and it is with this stinking irony that the steelhead has been quietly humbling the generations of fly fishers who have chased her. The suddenness of a fly angler’s connection with a wild steelhead is compounded by its brevity and finality. Legendary steelheader, Trey Combs, writes of this feeling eloquently, and it’s this feeling and understanding, that an angler is just a single signpost on the steelhead’s long journey, that keeps serious steelheaders dreaming of the next sweet cast, unexpected take, and boundless run.
Specifications• Line Sizes: 6 to 16 weight• Rod Lengths: 8' to 9.5' • Sections: all 4 piece models • Handles: Portuguese cork - Full-wells saltwater grip• Reel Seats: Black anodized aluminum uplock w/ cork fighting butt • Actions: Fast
Saltwater fly rods have a difficult set of criteria to live up to. They need to be powerful, and have a relatively fast action to throw tighter loops when distance is required, and to battle wind with large flies. Yet, just as often, these rods are called upon to load quickly for very short casts, with just one backcast, when jumping fish from the deck of a boat, or in poor visibility conditions. Hmmmm... that sounds like a difficult design parameter to me. In a similar vein, we’re battling some pretty big, muscular fish here, sometimes longer than we would want to, so the fly rod has to be built strong enough to take that punishment, plus the added abuse of getting knocked around in a boat. But on the other hand, we may have to cast this beast of a rod for hours at a time, so if it’s overly heavy, or unresponsive, it could wipe us out of the game when if we’re unable to raise our arms any more. Such are the dilemmas of the Saltwater fly angler. Awhile back, the Sage Rod Company started experimenting with a graphite fly rod construction process which they thought would lead them to the next level in overall fly rod performance. In a nutshell, they were right on. After three years of extensive testing, Sage’s new Generation 5 Graphite Technology process was unveiled for the 2004 season in the form of an impressive new series of high performance saltwater fly fishing rods, the Xi2. This construction process has proven so successful, Sage has incorporated the same G5 Technology into the moderate action/light line ZXL Series, the all-around fast action Z-Axis Series, and most recently, for 2008, the featherweight TXL ultra-light series.
All of these new Sage rod Series are impressive performers in their own right, but let’s get back to the Sage Xi2s. The Xi2 rod has a fast action, yet is extremely smooth, and can readily generate high line speeds for longer saltwater casts, even though it has a finer tip and weighs about a half an ounce less than its popular predecessor, the Sage RPLXi. When I recently used the Xi2 12 weight on a Tarpon trip to the Keys, we ran into a lot of overcast conditions. Sometimes we didn’t see these monsters until they were just about on top of us. Then the guide was yelling, “Get it out there, NOW!” The Xi2 responded fairly quickly and accurately in these short line situations. Sage says that their Modulus Positioning System (MPS) in the Xi2 allows a precise lay-up of longitudinal fibers not only to create the smoothest action possible, but also “to provide a startling level of "line feel" throughout the casting stroke. This enhanced ability to feel the rod load allows you to apply power more efficiently.” I’d agree with that, considering that the Xi2 is a fast action rod. “Fast” in saltwater lexicon usually means “really stiff”. The Xi2 seemed to give me more feedback than the heavier saltwater sticks I’d used in the past. Long casts or short casts, the Xi2 seemed to make my casting easier. I should note that my casting style is suited, and my preferences are biased, toward faster action rods. But G5 Technology looks to make even fast rods more “castable” for everyone, so I would even recommend these rods to beginning casters, some of who may benefit by starting out with a fly line one size heavier than the rod weight.
There are thirteen of these dark blue-colored, four-piece bad boys, and they cover all the line weights, ranging from a 9’ six weight for spooky bones, specks, and reds, all the way up to an 8 foot long, sixteen (yes, 16) weight rod for landing god-knows-what kinda huge fish. The Sage Xi2 9 foot 8 weight, 10 weight, and 12 weight rods remain the salt water workhorses for flats, reefs and offshore and are the most popular sizes for all-around saltwater fly fishing.
Sage replaced a very successful saltwater rod series, the RPLXi with the Xi2. The Xi2 weighs significantly less, easily generates more power, but most importantly, has a more responsive, lively feel when compared to previous saltwater rods. The significance lies in the differing technologies used in building the rod blanks themselves. Instead of a typical fiberglass “scrim” or mesh that is rolled around the steel mandrel and binds the longitudinal graphite fibers together, the Z-Axis utilizes what Sage calls their Generation 5 technology. In this process, the scrim is replaced by a lighter layer of graphite cloth that is rolled at a 90º angle to the separate layer of longitudinal graphite rolled over it. The result is a rod with greater “hoop” strength with less weight. When a fly fishing rod bends, its circular cross section becomes an oval, with the greatest stress occurring in the compression element at the inside of the bend. This phenomenon is typically what causes graphite rods to shatter when they’re overstressed (aside from car doors, dog teeth, and nicks from weighted flies). These graphite “hoops” offer far greater stability than their heavier fiberglass counterparts used in past generations of graphite fly rods. In addition, when the G5 layers are compressed with tape and baked in an oven, as all synthetic rods are, the epoxy resin fuses the layers together more effectively than it would with scrim, and uses less resin in the process. G5 tech has been proven with the Xi2 Salt Water rods, and has lead to the production of new, higher performance freshwater Sage fly rods, as well. Not only that, but in the four plus years since their introduction, the Sage Xi2s have proven their extreme ruggedness in tough saltwater situations. So; lighter, stronger, faster, more versatile, and more durable, to boot? If you took a poll of veteran Saltwater fly anglers, it would be no surprise that they would rate the Sage Xi2 as the top saltwater rods available today.
The sanded surface blank of the Xi2 is painted a blue color with blue thread wraps over English Hopkins and Holloway heavy-duty oversized snake guides, oversized round tip top, and two stripping guides, with three stripping guides on 11 weight rods, and heavier. The grips are turned smoothly from the finest individual Portuguese cork rings and are complimented with a black, salt-safe, heavy duty anodized aluminum uplocking reel seat with a cork fighting butt. Due to several layers of inspection during the manufacturing process, the fit and finish of the Xi2 is nearly flawless and what one would, and should, expect on a top of the line rod. The rod comes in a cloth sock with fold over tie down and a substantial, blue colored aluminum tube with a solid screw cap. • Sage G5 technology graphite construction • Very light in hand (for salt water fly rods) • Fast and crisp, yet smooth, rod tapers for high line speed, accuracy, and comfortable casting, near or far • Oversized, low profile English Hopkins and Holloway guides and round tip top • Hand-turned Full Wells cork grip • Black uplocking salt-safe big game reel seat with cork fighting butt • Cloth sack and aluminum rod case • Limited lifetime warranty
Sage was founded in 1979 by Don Green, an experienced rod blank builder and one of the architects of the modern fishing rod, as owner of the Grizzly Fiberglass Company, which later partnered with Fenwick. It was originally called Winslow Manufacturing (after the city of Winslow on Bainbridge Island, Washington) but within a year had changed its name to Sage. Emphasizing high quality fly rods sold only through specialty stores, Sage rode the crest of the fly-fishing boom in the post “A River Runs Through It” years. Today, although there is no industry repository for exact numbers, Sage is probably the world’s largest producer of premium fly rods and employs over 100 workers in their manufacturing facility. So, has being the 800-pound gorilla affected the quality of their product as it has with so many other companies in the outdoor industry? Although challenged by industry wide flat sales, the growth of the Internet, and increasingly higher quality Asian imports, my impression is no, for several reasons. Sage has continued to retain talented people and spend money on research and development. The proximity of Bainbridge to the Boeing Aircraft manufacturing plants near Seattle and Toray Composites in Tacoma provides access to a wealth of knowledge from the aerospace industry, the primary end users of graphite fiber. More importantly, aside from a few casting and spinning rod models over the years, Sage has pretty much stuck to their original intention, building very good fly rods. The Xi2 has a limited lifetime warranty for the original owner. If you damage or break your rod, you are responsible for the shipping charges and insurance to send ALL of the pieces to Sage in the original tube, or a PVC tube, plus a $50 handling fee, to cover return shipping and insurance within the U. S. or Canada. International owners are charged the actual shipping and insurance fees. Not a bad deal for an expensive, relatively fragile tool. The other five or six top US makers offer similar rod warranties, but not all provide the same level of service. I’ve seen some customers wait 3 or 4 months, or longer, to get their rods back. Sort of puts the damper on the fishing season. Sage’s lead time for repairs is usually about 2 to 3 weeks during their busy summer, and shortens to about 1 ½ to 2 weeks in the winter.
The Sage Xi2, from many standpoints, deserves its reputation as the best all around salt water rod series, and would be my first choice in all line weights that I would most often use in saltwater. If I could suggest one ‘dream’ change, however, it would be for Sage to adopt some new, innovative technology that’s recently become available; Recoil nickel/titanium guides and stripping guides. These amazing, lightweight guides are nearly crush-proof, usually snapping back to their original shape after being deformed. Recoils, as I’ve heard from some saltwater pros, have superior corrosion resistance over traditional plated steel wire guides, particularly when exposed to a constant marine environment. I don’t live on the ocean and I’m an occasional salt water fly angler, so I clean and rinse my gear (as I’ve been told to do over the years), after every salt exposure, and I clean it again, more thoroughly, when I get home from a trip. So, for me, as well as most anglers, both types of guides will work fine and most likely will give me long years of service. Sage competitor, G. Loomis has had good success with the Recoil guides on their GLX CrossCurrent saltwater fly rods. The CrossCurrents also cast very, very well and I would rate them a close second to the Xi2 and, perhaps, a first choice for someone who keeps their rods onboard most of the time.
Generation 5 Technology all-graphite layup from Sage builds noticeably lighter, stronger and faster line speed saltwater fly rods that can still load readily over a wide range of casting distances for ultimate versatility. Thirteen rod models from 6 to 16 weights to cover everything from small reds to giant billfish. Heavy-duty reel seats. Limited lifetime warranty.
$670 to $745 price tag is a little steep for some, but in line with other top saltwater fly rod makers. Traditional chromed steel guides, while sturdy, sometimes do not hold up as well to constant, or unmaintained salt water corrosion as the newer nickel/titanium Recoil guides.
A combination of recent technological advances and superb tapers, the Sage Xi2 has established a higher casting and fish fighting standard in saltwater fly fishing rods. Fast, smooth, ‘lively’ and powerful with proven strength and durability from the world’s most successful premier fly rod manufacturer.
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