Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Swinging Flies on the Muskegon River with a Spey Rod


Many of us have heard about spey fishing from a wide range of sources.  We may read about it, maybe a friend described it to us, we could have watched fishermen doing it, we might have looked at spey equipment at our favorite fly shop or fly fishing catalog, could have seen it on a television show, or many other ways. This broad exposure has given me and probably you a good idea what spey fishing is about.
After my exposure to spey fishing from most of these sources over a number of years I thought I should try it. So in November, 2010 I made arrangements to “Swing Flies with a Spey Rod” on the Muskegon River (located in northwest Michigan) with a guide.
Here is how I selected the guide service, what happened on this trip, and some other stuff.
After my morning coffee is brewed and poured into my favorite coffee cup I generally turn on the computer to check emails, read some news reports, get weather forecasts, etc.  In addition, I frequently check two fishing guide sites to get an update on fishing conditions (hopefully in preparation for a trip, actually it’s usually for morale purposes). One of these sites is produced by Kevin Feenstra (www.feenstraguideservice.com).  Kevin’s “Fishing Report” includes a photo of a client holding a nice steelhead, big trout, or a great bass and a brief comment on fishing conditions on the Muskegon River.  The other site I read is produced by Mat Wagner (www.driftlessangler.com), this one reports on trout fishing conditions in the Driftless Area of SW Wisconsin and Iowa
Kevin Feenstra recently produced a DVD about swinging flies for steelhead with a spey rod that is promoted on his site.  There is a link to the YouTube video trailer of the DVD and instructions on how to purchase it. I bought the DVD and watched it.  After watching it the second time I decided it was time to go spey fishing.
So, I called Kevin and discussed my interest in “Swinging Flies” for steelhead. Told him that my steelhead fishing experience on several NW Michigan rivers (Muskegon, Manistee and Pere Marquette) was limited to the “chuck & duck” technique using egg patterns and nymphs and some streamer fishing on the Milwaukee River. Since I didn’t know how to cast a spey rod and didn’t know if I could learn how, I wanted the option to switch from spey fishing to “chuck & duck” fishing.  Kevin said he would accommodate my fishing skills but was confident that I could learn to cast a spey rod and successfully swing flies. 
With a favorable (that means reasonably comfortable) weather forecast for the next week I asked if he was available on Monday and Tuesday. Kevin said he was scheduled to fish with another customer those days, but one of his guides was available. The guide, Matt Zudweg, fishes the Muskegon River the same way as Kevin and would be able to teach me how to spey cast. Matt’s boat would be equipped with other rods/rigs to ensure that I could fish using other techniques if I wanted to change from spey fishing. Told him I’d be there Monday morning ready to catch some steelhead.
Next I called Cronk’s Oakridge Motel in Newaygo, Michigan and made room reservations. The plan was to drive up on Sunday night and return home on Tuesday night after two days of spey fishing.  Matt would meet me at 7:00 A.M. Monday morning at the motel.
With sunrise at 7:30 A.M. it was still sort of dark out when Matt picked me up. We introduced ourselves and talked about the spey Muskegon River boat launch that Matt had selected.   
Matt’s Power Drifter jet drive boat is perfect for fly fishing and spey casting. It’s spacious and has very few things to tangle up fly lines (generally it’s the motor and the anchor line that create problems if you’re not careful). Matt’s boat is identical, except for a couple of minor modifications, to the one I’ve smallmouth bass fished from with Dave Pinczkowski. So I knew right away that fishing from it would be comfortable. Matt launched the boat and we motored upstream to the first run we would fish that day.
 Matt rigged up the spey rod and started explaining how to do the “double spey cast” and how to “swing flies” for steelhead.  Since it was just after sunrise and the “run” we were fishing had slow water he selected a sculpin pattern for this location from his assortment of flies.

Using all my eye hand coordination skills and concentration I was able to cast and fish the fly after a short time (which really seemed like forever).  I was surprised at my limited success. Spey casting seems to be a high powered roll cast after the necessary pre-cast placement of the fly line and fly.  Not as complicated as it looks, although it does require almost precision placement and timing to produce a good cast.
Fortunately many of the runs we fished were on “river left” (a spey term for the left side of the river when looking downstream), so initially I only needed to learn how to do the double spey cast to fish this side of the river.  It took me a long time to figure out how to do the double spey and fish “river right”. To fish “river right” I used long roll casts.
Swinging flies for steelhead, according to Matt Zudweg, uses a different method of hooking fish than we are accustomed to using.  In most fishing situations we set the hook whenever we feel the fish tug/bite the fly. In swinging flies on a tight line you don’t set the hook until you feel the fish putting pressure on the fly/line. Tugs/pulls are signals that a fish is interested in the fly and it may or may not commit to actually taking the fly and getting hooked. Steelhead may give you one or more tugs/pulls before taking the fly or it may just swim away. Instinct tells you to set the hook as soon as you feel the fish touch the fly, but this doesn’t work. Need to be patient and wait for the fish to actually take the fly and start swimming away. Sometimes you get lucky and the fish takes the fly and immediately hooks itself. Then you set the hook and hang on for a great fight.  Catching that strong fighting steelhead is what it’s all about.
Steelhead catching time is similar in concept to the calculated action time in a professional football game. Even though the entire football game may last three hours the actual playing time is less than fifteen minutes. The rest of the time is preparation and anticipation of action, not unlike steelhead fishing.
The trip was great. I learned how to do a double spey cast, felt the tugs/pulls of several steelhead, hooked some of them, including one that aggressively took the fly and almost simultaneously broke the leader. Afterwords this fish jumped out of the water four or five times trying to get rid of the fly (or maybe to show me its superiority). If you are interested in learning how to fish for steelhead by swinging flies with a spey rod call Matt Zudweg or Kevin Feenstra (231-652-3528) and book a trip.  You’ll learn a lot and really enjoy the trip. 

Dick D.
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