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What is a Steelhead
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
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detdesc::Oncorhynchus mykiss

Johann Julius Walbaum, 1792

“We met because she crossed thousands of ocean miles to negotiate
this narrow corridor of freshwater currents … These few minutes become
our first and only meeting, and I always find in that bittersweet fact
the ultimate wildness of these remarkable creatures. Once you have
caught a steelhead you can’t go back to the river and say, ‘This is
where my steelhead lives,’ for the fish of your memory may be ten miles
upstream or thousands of miles offshore, near lands you’ll never know.”

- 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 Adventurer
Like 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.


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What is a Redfish
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Redfish

Try Topside for Redfish

by Dr. Aaron Adams

photos by Aaron Adams

Floating Flies for Redfish

Gurgler Fly

AS THE TIDE TURNED and began to flood, I poled the boat across a shallow grass flat, just inside the sandbar that separated the flat from the Intracoastal Waterway. Many of the large boats that blasted past reminded me of Rodney Dangerfield’s short, destructive, ill-fated yacht voyage in the movie Caddyshack. So when I muttered ‘what a couple of Rodneys’ when two boats passing in opposite directions neglected to slow down, and slammed loudly into each other’s massive wakes, my fishing buddy Doug Hedges knew exactly what I was talking about. It was amazing — we were close enough to the chaos of the ICW that we could read the registration numbers on the sides of passing boat hulls, and we were stalking tailing redfish. Except for us, these redfish were unmolested.

You have to give Doug credit, he seems ready to try something new at least once. And on the bow, he stood ready to cast to the next tailer that came into range — with, of all things, a gurgler tied to his tippet. Some folks know this is a good technique, but when I suggest they try a surface fly for tough tailing redfish, most anglers show a look of disbelief, even suspicion. But not Doug, he was all for a new approach.

Why a Gurgler?

A topwater fly is farthest from many angler’s minds when they are casting to tailing redfish. The fish are, after all, digging their noses in the bottom for shrimp, crabs, worms, or small bottom-dwelling fish like gobies and blennies. Why on earth would an angler in their right mind choose a surface pattern? After all, redfish don’t eat with their tails. A topwater fly can be a good choice for three reasons.

Redfish in Grass

First, a redfish intent on digging out prey buried in the bottom is often so focused that it doesn’t see it’s surroundings. This is one reason it is possible to pole a boat right up to a tailing redfish without being noticed until the boat almost overtakes the feeding fish. On numerous occasions I’ve been able to wade close enough to a tailing redfish to touch it with my rod tip. Actively tailing redfish can also stir up enough bottom that visibility in their immediate surroundings drops to zero, obscuring any fly in the murk. In either case, even the most perfectly placed fly might not be noticed.

Second, even tailing redfish pick their heads up out of the bottom every once in a while as they move on in search of more prey. There is a good chance that a redfish moving in search of more food will see the motion at the surface and investigate. And it’s not uncommon for a bottom grubbing redfish to scare up small prey that make a break for it. So that same redfish that was so engrossed in digging for a mud crab that it never saw the perfectly presented fly might see the surface commotion of a gurgler, and mistake the fly for an escaping prey. Many times I’ve watched small shrimp and fish squirt from the water as they try to avoid a feeding redfish. And I’ve seen redfish that were lackadaisically tailing suddenly erupt at the surface to grab these would-be escapees.

Third, in many of the flats where anglers fish for tailing redfish, the seagrass is thick and tall. The densely packed seagrass blades can act as a barrier, preventing a tailing fish from seeing a fly only inches away. And at a very low tide, the upper portions of the grass blades lay across the surface, and the tips reach to the surface at a medium tide, making it tough to get a sinking fly to the bottom. A weedless gurgler helps get around both of these challenges and puts the fly in an area where it can be seen by a redfish.

A gurgler is my surface fly of choice because it is light, so is easy to cast long distances and lands on the water lightly. Both characteristics are necessary when fishing to tailing redfish on shallow flats. The gurgler is also versatile in how it can be fished — loudly, so it makes a lot of commotion, or softly, so it barely ripples the surface. So it’s easy to imitate different prey — soft and slow for shrimp and loud and fast for the finger mullet that can be abundant in fall — and the changing moods of redfish.

When

I first started using gurglers for tailing redfish, in part, out of frustration. My favorite flats for tailing redfish are covered with lush turtle grass and shoal grass. It can be wearing to make good cast after good cast to a tailing fish and get no response because it never saw the fly among the many grass blades. My strategy when fishing for tailing reds is pretty simple — get the fly into the fish’s sight zone and make sure the fish sees it. I know the fish has seen the fly when it changes it’s behavior — it either reacts positively, by following or taking the fly, or negatively, by avoiding the fly or suddenly swimming in the other direction. Often, redfish feeding in thick seagrass don’t react at all, so likely never see the fly.

Redfish with Gurgler

An unweighted fly that sinks very slowly is a good choice in these situations because the fly spends more time in mid-water, where it is more visible, while a weighted fly that sinks straight to the bottom is quickly lost. However, even an unweighted fly that hovers mid-water can remain unseen by a redfish feeding in thick grass. If I can get the gurgler in front of the redfish, it’s a good bet the fish will see the fly.

Another good situation for using a gurgler is when there are a lot of redfish around, but they aren’t staying put long enough to stalk and cast to any particular fish. The first time I tried a gurgler in frustration was on a day when the flat was full of tailing fish. Well, fish were tailing everywhere but where I was. Fish weren’t feeding very long in a spot, but instead would tail for a few seconds and then move on. There was really no point in stalking, so I drifted across the flat blind-casting a gurgler. This can be an especially successful strategy in late summer and fall when juvenile mullet (aka finger mullet) are often common on the flats, and a favorite food of the larger redfish that invade the flats in fall.

My favorite situation for using a gurgler is casting to redfish that are pushing a bow-wake as they slowly cruise from one eating spot to the next. I’ll often see these fish tail some distance away, then right themselves and slowly head off in search of more prey. Sometimes, the dorsal and upper tail fins of these fish will be out of the water. These fish move slowly and deliberately enough that I can guess their course and put myself in the best location to make a good cast. I like to lead these fish by a healthy enough distance that they can’t see the fly or fly line in the air, and let the fly sit until they are within a few feet before beginning my retrieve.

Strategies

When casting a gurgler to a tailing or cruising redfish, I use a leader of 10 - 12 feet or more, with 12 lb. fluorocarbon tippet. For tailers I use a long leader because I try to cast past the fish, to the side the head is pointing. I then bring the fly back over the fish. If the fish continues to tail, I’ll make the fly pop to get the fish’s attention. If the fish is not tailing, I continue retrieving the fly in short strips. Using this strategy, a shorter leader would cause the fly line to land over the fish, likely spooking the fish and ruining my chances for a hookup.

For blind-casting, a longer leader means I have less chance of accidentally lining a fish with the fly line during a cast. The longer leader also provides better separation between the fly line and fly, so there is less chance a redfish coming to check out the fly’s commotion will intersect the fly line.

Cruisers are swimming near the surface, with their cone of vision pointing forward and upward. A longer leader helps me keep the fly line out of this cone of vision during the cast. I use 12 lb rather than 20 lb leader because heavier leader tends to pull the gurgler down. And I find that fluorocarbon tippets make a difference because the waters I fish tend to be clear.

Long casts are usually best, because even redfish that attack the gurgler aggressively tend to miss the fly a few times before they get it in their mouth. With their mouth on the underside of their snout, redfish have to either raise their head out of the water so they come down on the fly, or turn sideways to get a better angle on the fly from below. When a redfish brings its head out of the water to get over the fly, its eyes come above the water surface, so they can spot an angler that is close by. And less aggressive redfish will often follow a gurgler for an excruciatingly long distance, so a long cast gives the fish more time to decide to take the fly.

When a redfish strikes a gurgler, it is usually an exciting show — often an explosion on the fly. The temptation is to rear back and set the hook. In most circumstances, this will result in a fish circling in confusion as it searches for the fly that you just launched past your ear. Remember, they’ll often miss the fly the first time. It takes some control, but keep stripping the fly in the same manner that induced the redfish into attacking it, and strip strike when you feel tension on the line. Don’t lift the rod until you’re sure the fish is hooked. Easier said than done.

Success

Back to the fishing.

Getting in range of a tailing redfish was the biggest challenge. For a while, it seemed that every fish we saw would tail aggressively until we were just into casting range, and then suddenly disappear, only to reappear a few minutes later just a little farther away: a frustrating pattern that redfish seem to follow frequently.

Doug got decent casts to a couple fish, one of which ignored the fly as it moved off to another spot, and a second that looked at the fly and suddenly bolted when Doug stripped the fly ever so slightly. The eruption caused by the second fish was entertainment in itself.

Doug made a couple casts that had been ignored by a third tailer, as the fish alternately tailed and moved, tailed and moved. When the fish had not shown itself for a minute or so, I began to scan the flat for more action. Then Doug let out a "WHOOP." I turned to see his rod doubled over and fly line jumping off the deck and through the guides in pursuit of a surprised redfish. A few minutes later, we had the fish boatside, and Doug had his first redfish on a gurgler. We were able to get one more fish before the tailing action died down, the sun dipped low, and we made the run back to the boat ramp.

Would a standard fly pattern for tailing redfish have worked? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t have been as exciting or visual a take. And we didn’t have to worry about making the perfect cast and keeping the fly snag-free.

Tying the Gurgler

The gurgler is an easy fly to tie, and is surprisingly durable for being made mostly of soft foam.

I use pliable closed cell foam in either tan or white. Tan is good for imitating shrimp and some of the small fish that live on the flats. White is good for imitating finger mullet and is easier to see at dusk, one of my favorite times for fishing for tailing redfish. I use a long shank hook — either for tying a longer, shrimp-like body, or to tie a keel-hook style weedless version. For the standard, long-bodied pattern, I tie in a mono weedguard just behind the hook eye. For the keel-hook style fly, I use pliers to bend the hook backwards, the bend at approximately 2/3 the length of the shank behind the hook eye. The foam body is then tied on the same side of the hook as the hook bend. This fly will ride with the hook point up, making it weedless. I originally began tying the keel-style fly because so many redfish were striking the fly without getting hooked. The theory is that since redfish so often come down on the fly from above, an upward pointing hook should have a better hookup ratio. The jury is still out on this, but the hookup rate is certainly no less than the standard pattern. This clearly means that more research is needed.

Materials

Hook: Mustad 34011, size 4

Tail: bucktail, color to match foam body

Body: closed cell foam, double the length of the hook shank – half tied to the shank, half folded over (from hook bend to eye) as the back

Legs: hackle colored to match the foam body, attached at the rear of the hook bend and palmered to the hook eye

Thread: Danville flat waxed nylon, color to match the foam body

Weedguard: 40 lb mono

Aaron Adams is the author of Fisherman's Coast: An Angler's Guide to Marine Warm-Water Gamefish and Their Habitats (Stackpole Books, January 2004) and the co-author, with Chico Fernandez, of Fly-Fishing for Bonefish (Stackpole Books, October 2004). Dr. Adams is program manager of the Fisheries Habitat Ecology Program, Center for Fisheries Enhancement, for Mote Marine Laboratory in Charlotte Harbor, Florida. Copyright © 2004 Aaron J. Adams and Stackpole Books.

~Ref: Aaron Adams, http://www.midcurrent.com, Aug 2010
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Sage Xi2 Saltwater Fly Rod Review
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Sage Xi2 Big Game Saltwater Fly Fishing Rods Review


 


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




What’s the word...?



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.



Action...



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.


Features. . .



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.


Materials. . . Reliability and Durability. . .


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.


Fit and Finish. .


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



Customer Support. . . . Company profile.



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.


Overall Rating - 4 ½ STARS


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.


Pros


 
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.


Cons



$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.


Bottom Line



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.

Check out the best fly rod models.

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