Herzog – Steelhead on the Spey

FORKS – In my last blog, I mentioned briefly the benefits aplenty of having “your own personal JD Love”, meaning then how handy it is to know someone who lives at a steelheading destination for up-to-the-nanosecond, laser-pinpoint information.

Yes, but it is really bitchin’ to have the actual J.D. Love at your service.

For those few who don’t know Mr. Love, he’s been a guide on the Olympic Peninsula for over 20 years, recently concentrating more on the fly than gear. Regular listeners of NW Wild Country know J.D. well: he’s a regular on the show, and easily one of our most informative guests.

But make no mistake, J.D. was (and, for that matter, still is) one of the best steelhead gear fishermen anywhere. Yes, that’s right, I said G-E-A-R. J.D. is one of the originals who brought the now-overused pink worm from BC to the O.P. Do you use a metallic pink plug (Tadpolly, Hot Shot)?

Thank J.D. Love, who was one of the first guides to use it on the famed Sol Duc, a river he knows, quite frankly, better than anyone. And that is what makes him such a successful angler with the fly rod.

On a somewhat related note, the runs this year on the OP are as good as last year’s were doo-doo. Good numbers of native steelhead – still not back to those we enjoyed in the mid 1980s, but still a great sigh of relief from last season’s doom and gloom.

“Those of you who get it, no need to explain. Those who don’t …”
So, early one morning, pre-dawn, Mr. Love and I are standing in his backyard, along the banks of the upper Sol Duc. Sipping coffee, musing about the options for the day.

Warning: the following conversation is between two old steelhead fly fishers, so do not be shocked about content and please refrain from expecting any semblance of sanity …

“Sol Duc’s loaded with fresh native fish, we could put my raft in here, float to the salmon hatchery, swing spoons and toss floats/worms and hook around ten beautiful, native black and whites, without too much effort,” J.D. sais. “What do you think?”

Here is the problem with living right on the banks of the Sol Duc.

I paused for thought, fired back: “Let’s go spey fish the Hoh and maybe we can find one fish!”

“Great idea!”

“Yeah! I just tied up a killer box of big fluffy dead birds!!”

Yep. We left a river getting its best run in 10 years, after a previous winter of meager returns. Snapping steelhead, some pushing 20 pounds. Right there. Dialed in. And we chose to go to unfamiliar water to employ a technique that personifies self handicapping.

Those of you who get it, no need to explain. Those that do not, I cannot explain.

My hope for you who don’t is that someday the light goes on and you do.

Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show (apologies to Neil Diamond)
With blanket closures of Puget Sound streams, the long-rodders are forced to leave behind the perfect swing bars of the Sauk, Skagit and Skykomish. Tough to find spey-friendly water after you cut that list of all-star rivers out.

The Hoh has become, by proxy, the darling of the winter fly-rodder. For good reason: the classic long, scalloped bars, the wide runs that marry the aggressive native steelhead with the standard wet fly swing. At least we have the few rivers on the O.P. left. Like the Skagit of 15 years ago, the Hoh is now the destination of all fur-and-feather clan from southern BC, Washington, Idaho, Oregon and even northern California.

But know this: we are loving this place to death.

With no other options, the Hoh, Bogachiel, Sol Duc and Queets (the only games in town, or, on the west side of the state for that matter) can be irritatingly overloaded with steelhead-starved anglers. Just try to find some open water the first week of April.

I’m not bitching, though. Deal with it, or stay home. Or, even better: Get creative on your times and places. There is still some “solitude”, but you better be willing to go and spend some time exploring to find it. Knowing the water better than the other fellows is where you gain the slight edge.

That is exactly what J.D. and I are planning, as we head south of Forks: to find some “new water” that appears after high water, some hidey-holes that others have not yet clued into. The upper Hoh changes, sometimes in a spectacular morph after a flood event. Holding water disappears and re-appears in jaw-dropping power, courtesy of Ma Nature.

The upper Hoh is dialed in green. I’m out of the SUV in seconds and moving with a purpose across the gravel bars. Not knowing what awaits, could be miles of braided crap water, could be the next Instant Fish Hole. Such is the funnitude of finding new water.

No surprise, the river looks nothing like last year. New water.

Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies …

On the first piece of water, J.D. is standing alongside, watching me struggle a bit with the “new” heavy, compact 25-foot head. My outfit of choice is a 13½-foot 7- weight -an older four-piece Sage – an Islander 4.5 LA, 450-grain line, 13 feet of 7 IPS sinking leader, 15-pound tippet tied to a black/purple/blue configuration of marabou, seal dubbing, pheasant, peacock and ostrich spey hackle wrapped around a 3/0 Alec Jackson hook.

These ‘Skagit’ heads are nothing like the older Windcutter lines. Nothing new on the fly front, these lines have been around for several years, I’ve just been a stubborn little bastard not wanting to change my comfort level. Throwing these fatter, shorter heads requires a slower cast movement, which more fully loads the two-hander. What these heavy, short heads do best is pull a 6-inch fly and 15 feet of sink tip out of the surface film easily and throw it with power and distance.

There’s more pull on the line during the swing, due to the line’s greater thickness, but you get used to it quickly. J.D leaves me alone so he can go work his own water, and I begin the Zen “cast, swing, steps, repeat”, ad infinitum.

J.D. Love, next to Dave (Heavy D) Steinbaugh of Waters West, is the best spey caster I’ve ever seen. I spend most of the morning just watching him and closely mimicking his timing, actions.

It’s a perfect day, no wind, overcast, 52 degrees. The river is green, 43 degrees, 3-plus feet of visibility. Daylight to 3 p.m., hiking many miles of river, hundreds of casts and naturally we have nary a long stare from a steelhead. Such are the ways and days of the winter steelhead fly fisher.

After six hours, I’m finally used to the slow load of the heavy head. I prefer the sun at its present angle, now low in the sky behind the fish. Easier to get them to take when they’re not looking directly into the sun. This is some choice water, bordered by a phalanx of downed trees, table-sized boulders scattered here and there, the fly line rolls and swims slowly across 4-foot deep chop.

Shiite, there has to be a … !!!!!!

3 … 2 … 1 … contact
You’re really never quite ready when the unseen decides to remove the fly from the food chain. The tug is truly the drug. The Islander screams its trademark honk, my fly line is being sucked warp speed into the left side of the run while a black-and-white blows up the pool twice off to my right.

I’m just an observer for the first 5 minutes of this fight.

I chase her through the pool, out of the tail, down the rapid to a grinning J.D. Love hundreds of yards below where it took. H-E-R-E is the reason you leave a river full of fish: To get one this way.

She’s a solid 12, someone else’s 14 pounds, a day, tops, from the ocean. Mercury bright. Big, pointed, clear fins. I’m shaking and squealing like a little girl.

Give me one of these over ten caught with a spoon, drift gear, jig, plug, etc. Not nearly the largest, but still my finest native steelhead in two years.

The new compact head, the new sinking leader, the outsized fly presented closely following J.D.’s tutelage … Lookit the results, kids!

And everyone knows, it’s Brother Love’s show. Hallelujah, honey.

GEARING UP: Brother Love’s cosmic funk winter spey outfit
Knowing the Sol Duc, Hoh and surrounding waters better than anyone on the planet does not go unnoticed, especially by those who make some of the best two-handed rods in the market. J.D. has been a tester and part of the Sage pro staff for some time, much of the inventory Sage offers is a direct result of JD Love’s input.

Here’s the ideal all-around new cosmic funk winter spey outfit, courtesy of Brother Love:

-12 ½ foot, 7 weight Sage TCX (George Cook calls this model rod “The Death Star”)
-25-foot head compact Skagit Flight line by Rio
-Islander 4.5 LA
– 7 feet of T14 (14 grains per foot) of 8 ips sinking leader.

To the end of this, J.D. usually ties some manifestation of dead animal carcass slightly smaller than a tennis shoe.

When we hear “spey rod”, the lengths of 13, 14 or 15 feet come to mind first. JD prefers a shorter rod: 12½ feet.

“You can cover 95% of all rivers plus have complete command and control with a 12-foot rod,” J.D. says matter-of.factly. “And, there’s far less fatigue at the end of the day. There’s plenty of power for fighting even really large fish, and reaching holding lies with just a 12-footer is no problem. The big rods, those 14- and 15-foot 9/10 weights, you rarely need those except on the biggest water.”

QUOTABLE: Classic quotes from Brother Love
One of the many reasons to spend the day on the river with J.D. is not only for the knowledge he passes your way, but for sheer entertainment value. His non-stop ejaculations on life, fishing, etc., are golden. Whenever life force-feeds me crap sandwiches, J.D. is my Pepto Bismol. Unfortunately, the really choice ones I can’t share here! However, here are some “Lovisms” for you to ponder:

On steelhead fishing:“My presentation, regardless of technique, be it fly, float/worm, spoon, plug, is all the same. It’s all fishing. I approach holding water all the same. “

“To categorize or pigeonhole someone is wrong. I just prefer to fish certain ways. To say one way ‘is more fun’, that’s just hard to say.”

“If fishing is interfering with your job, get another job.”

“I love golf. It keeps thousands of ding-dongs from discovering steelheading.”

“A smart steelheader does not need advice but asks for it, a bad one won’t take any and never asks.”

On eating habits:“If it’s juicy, eat it over the sink.”

Life’s philosophy:
“I love what I love, and I like it that way.”

“I’m still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up.”

“The more people I fish with, the more I like Butch, my dog.”

After an evening of far too much wine:
“Who is they say?”

On fishing during winter:
“Every year, I say I won’t fish as much during winter as I do now. But if an angler was to put away his rod until real spring, he would miss some fine days and great fish. If you can pick your days during times of good weather, even better.”

“It’s faith in a technique and enthusiasm for it that makes time on the river during the wet, cold and grey so exciting.”

JD’s key to steelheading success (with the fly):
“Persistence … yeah. It takes a lot of casts to find a fish. Guys spend a good deal of money to come up and fish with me. I fish long days because that is what it takes to find fish. It’s what my clients expect. You just can’t go out, or rarely go out for a few hours and expect success. Steelhead on the fly take time.”

On side drifting/boondogging: (My favorite quote of all time)
“I would rather have all my butt hairs yanked out one at a time, using needle nose pliers, than spend one minute fishing brainlessly dragging baits downriver side drifting.”

If you want to book a day with the Peninsula’s finest, call JD Love at 360-327-3772. He specializes in two-handed fly fishing, but also is a great fan of floats/worms and spoons. Go check out NW Wild Country On Demand for podcasts featuring J.D. Love on our show.

Feathers To The End.