Spinning at Large

On some big waters, the best place for a fly rod is in your car.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Brian O'Keefe wants to make sure I have both hat and head on straight before we launch the pontoon raft on a 15-mile stretch of a summer steelhead stream. "We'll be out here 10 hours. I'll row. Your job is to catch one steelhead. I've had days when I hooked as many as eight. But one is the goal. You may not get him until the last cast. If you do, you'll be begging me to go back up and do it again."

That was two hours and 150 casts ago. We blast through an icy standing wave that soaks me (and leaves him bone dry) and survey the water below. It's a deep, fast riffle of bottle green darkening into a pool. This is barrel-chested water, snowmelt from the surrounding mountains that can't get to the sea fast enough to suit it. The river flows one way, the returning steelhead--some of them 16 pounds and long as a man's leg-the other.

We get out of the raft and begin casting quarter-ounce Bangtail spinners on light spinning outfits with eight-pound-test monofilament. A two-foot fluorocarbon leader adds some abrasion resistance and is invisible to the fish. The deal is to let the current seductively tick the lure along just above the rocks until it shows up in the steelie's face, then hang on long enough to tire the fish out.

I wade out thigh-deep, cast up and a little across the current, give a little jerk with the rod tip to activate the blade, and start reeling. There's a belly in my line, but that's okay. The "soft" presentation is just what you want when fishing upstream in this or any kind of fast trout water. The belly means my lure is sinking to the strike zone and swimming in the current like something that actually belongs there instead of charging cross-current like a Humvee. And there's still enough contact to feel every revolution of the blade. If that belly straightens out, somebody's at the door. You don't want to make him knock twice.

O'Keefe has the drags adjusted tight for hookups. "Pop him once hard, then loosen it a couple of turns. These guys need a little running room." I cast again and again, trying to follow the twinkling lure as it braids the current in and out of the shadows. Then comes a cast when the twinkling stops. An invisible man yanks hard on the rod. Then my reel squeals like a little pig tied to a big rocket. I shout and sputter things, then recover long enough to ease off on the drag and let the fish do the driving for a while. It heads into the muscle of the current and holds, moves up to the head of the pool, then turns and runs straight at me. When it sees my legs shuffling for a grip on the rock, it resorts to broken-field running. My line is scribbling something in the water, but I'm too busy to read it. Twice I almost lead it into O'Keefe's net, but each time it decides captivity is not it's all cracked up to be and sends my reel back into falsetto mode. At last we bring it into the shallows and the net. This anadromous rainbow trout is the same as any other, only three times bigger, a speckled torpedo of a fish. Get two of these babies, train them, and you could ski on their backs up and down the river like a Sea World attraction. O'Keefe pegs it at eight pounds and a "two salt" fish, meaning that after two years of ocean living, it is returning to spawn. It's fin-clipped, a hatchery fish, and therefore headed for a rendezvous with lemon, fresh pepper, and a 325-degree oven. We bonk its head on a rock and cut it into thirds to fit it into the cooler.

"So," O'Keefe asks, "trout on a spinning rod sporting enough for you?" Judging from my hands, which are shaking so hard it takes me a full minute to retie the lure, I'd have to say yes.

We pick up a number of resident rainbows in the 10- to 13-inch range as the day wears on but don't catch any more steelhead. The river, however, has its own sense of justice. An hour after giving up arize, it inverts the boat in a hydraulic--one O'Keefe has run hundreds of times--to have a closer look at us. I pass a good 15 seconds wondering why the boat won't let me up before I pop free. When I get to shore, my face is covered in blood from a cut on my forehead. We have lost our hats, eyeglasses, and a spinning outfit. But it's okay. We saved the fish. By the time we make it to the takeout, I'm ready to call it a day.

The Sport of Spinning
Brian O'Keefe has landed everything from bluegills to 180-pound tarpon on a fly rod. He drives around Oregon in a van with the logo of his employer, a premier fly rod manufacturer, on its side. He could probably pick the lock on your car door in a stiff breeze from 40 yards with a Hare's Ear nymph. But he seldom leaves home without a spinning rod in the van. And he doesn't hesitate to put down an $800 fly rod outfit and pick up the short rod if that's what it takes to get a fish on.

"To me, fishing boils down to three questions," says O'Keefe. "Is it fun? Is it productive? Is it sporting? If the answer is yes to all three, then what's wrong with it?"

In the kind of water we were just fishing, O'Keefe notes, there were several reasons spinning made more sense than its tweedy cousin. The water was so cold, the fish were real slow to strike. The big fish--the ones some of us unapologetically love to catch--were deeper than you could reliably reach with a fly line. Further, to persuade one to hit, you had to put something out there with enough flash and wobble to get the fish's attention, then be able to retrieve it fast enough to give it action. "Sounds like spinning gear to me," O'Keefe says. "And I don't buy that 'all spinning is the same' jazz. A skilled spin-fisherman will outfish a beginner five or 10 to one."

O'Keefe expands these ideas the next day. We meet two guide friends of his at a campground boat ramp in the pre-dawn darkness and blast up Class IV rapids in a jetboat with a Corvette engine to fly fish the river's prime spot, an area that drift boats can reach only via a three-day trip from upriver. We cast for five hours in 40-mile-an-hour winds. O'Keefe takes a four-pound wild steelhead, which, by law and personal inclination, he releases. I take on water in my waders when I stumble, then catch and release three alder branches. After returning to the ramp and bidding our hosts goodbye, O'Keefe and I trade conspiratorial looks, break the spinning rods out of the van, and hike up the river trail from the campground. "We'll fish the edge of the main river and the Don King Islands," he announces. The Don Kings are aptly named, little fright wigs of bright green grass that shoot up three and four feet.

Within a 15-minute walk from the parking lot, the river is void of anglers. O'Keefe stands next to me as we survey the landscape--a wonderland of currents, tiny pools, rocks, and islands. "For me, it's really not practical to drift a fly line through this," he says. "With all these rocks and different currents, you just get swept all over the place. You can't really control your drift speed or depth. With a spinning rod, I can hit each slot."

O'Keefe starts fan-casting methodically, throwing first to the 12 o'clock position in front of him. He works his way to four o'clock, then back to 12 and over to eight. He makes two casts to each spot--one shallow, one deep. He fishes each area, even those that don't look fishy to me, with equal care. It may seem like checking the coin slot on a phone machine for change, but he knows better. O'Keefe probes the pillow of water on the upstream side of rocks and the oily slick of calmer stuff below. He likes the Bang Tail because the blade clicks in easy on an upstream cast. But sometimes the fish prefer the slimmer blade of a Rooster Tail, even though you have to reel faster on the drift to keep the blade from collapsing. For down-and-across work, he uses a variety of spoons, which need the strong current of a downstream presentation to get them wobbling but are great for swinging over downstream boulders and holes. He holds the spoon in place, pulls it back up six feet to let it drift through a second time, then swings it over to another trough. He fishes as if every square inch of liquid is precious. Within half an hour he's nailed a two-and-a-half-pound rainbow and a chunky smallmouth.

Defying Tradition

These spin-rod tactics work anywhere Bob Gooch, who wrote the book Spinning for Trout, has fished all over the U.S. and Canada, though these days he does most of his fishing close to home in Virginia. "I love to fly fish," he says, "but when it comes to fast, rocky water, I switch over to spinning. The thin mono is easy to control and sinks fast, getting my lure down to where the fish are." Gooch prefers a five-foot Fenwick and a six- or seven-ounce reel spooled with two- and four-pound-test line. On heavier waters, he goes to a six-foot rod, nine- to 12-ounce reel and six-pound line.

Gooch ends the first chapter of his book with this line: "Even the most dedicated fly fisherman will find good use for spinning tackle on trout waters today."

I'm standing behind a small Don King and surveying what's above: a small flat, two boulders, a sweet spot where the water runs dark and deeply still. I make myself hit the flat in front of me first, but I'm not really paying attention until after the dark shadow hits the lure 10 feet away and boils upstream. I ease off the drag and listen to the music of my reel. It's the steelie's show for four minutes as he shakes and seethes. He's six pounds, fin-clipped--a hatchery fish, another keeper.

There's no feeling like the pleasant soreness in your arm from carrying a heavy fish back to the vehicle. As we're pulling out, two guys attracted by the logo on the van come over to talk fish. O'Keefe directs them to the place we just were and asks what they're using. "Spinners," the first guy says sheepishly, admitting that he really wants one of those hatchery fish for the grill. "But don't tell anybody, okay?"

O'Keefe grins. "Your secret's safe with me." In the van, I rub my arm.aster on the drift to keep the blade from collapsing. For down-and-across work, he uses a variety of spoons, which need the strong current of a downstream presentation to get them wobbling but are great for swinging over downstream boulders and holes. He holds the spoon in place, pulls it back up six feet to let it drift through a second time, then swings it over to another trough. He fishes as if every square inch of liquid is precious. Within half an hour he's nailed a two-and-a-half-pound rainbow and a chunky smallmouth.

Defying Tradition

These spin-rod tactics work anywhere Bob Gooch, who wrote the book Spinning for Trout, has fished all over the U.S. and Canada, though these days he does most of his fishing close to home in Virginia. "I love to fly fish," he says, "but when it comes to fast, rocky water, I switch over to spinning. The thin mono is easy to control and sinks fast, getting my lure down to where the fish are." Gooch prefers a five-foot Fenwick and a six- or seven-ounce reel spooled with two- and four-pound-test line. On heavier waters, he goes to a six-foot rod, nine- to 12-ounce reel and six-pound line.

Gooch ends the first chapter of his book with this line: "Even the most dedicated fly fisherman will find good use for spinning tackle on trout waters today."

I'm standing behind a small Don King and surveying what's above: a small flat, two boulders, a sweet spot where the water runs dark and deeply still. I make myself hit the flat in front of me first, but I'm not really paying attention until after the dark shadow hits the lure 10 feet away and boils upstream. I ease off the drag and listen to the music of my reel. It's the steelie's show for four minutes as he shakes and seethes. He's six pounds, fin-clipped--a hatchery fish, another keeper.

There's no feeling like the pleasant soreness in your arm from carrying a heavy fish back to the vehicle. As we're pulling out, two guys attracted by the logo on the van come over to talk fish. O'Keefe directs them to the place we just were and asks what they're using. "Spinners," the first guy says sheepishly, admitting that he really wants one of those hatchery fish for the grill. "But don't tell anybody, okay?"

O'Keefe grins. "Your secret's safe with me." In the van, I rub my arm.