Big Sticks in the Salt

I’ve had this weird fetish for two-handed fly rods for quite a while now. I first encountered a double hander in my early thirties when fishing the remote rivers of Labrador for Atlantic salmon. I was in the process of having an 11½-foot switch rod built when the salmon season began. With the rod only partially made, the builder kindly lent me his own 14-foot spey rod. It was like a circus attraction for all of us accustomed to the standard 8½ or 9 foot fly rods. Even a switch rod was an oddity for this part of the world. While completely inept at the classic spey casting, I was astonished how much line I could get out with a normal overhead cast. It also proved to be an efficient method of casting, allowing for long days without fatigue. One downfall in my mind was that big rods need big fish — hooking a 4 lb grilse was like plucking a 30 cm trout out of the river. Step ahead a few years, after transitioning into saltwater fly fishing and getting punished by big saltwater fish in Exmouth (FL#78 & #80) and the WA salmon in Perth (FL#89), my mind wandered to the potential of using a two-handed fly rod for shore-based options. The thought of getting that extra distance beyond the surf and using that extra rod length to keep the fly line out of the reach of crashing waves was indeed intriguing. CLOSET TWO-HANDERS Finally, I got my hands on a Loop Opti Power Spey 10/11-weight 15-footer. It simmered in my man cave for a while until I broke it out during the Saltwater Flyrodders casting days and got the standard circus treatment — “WTF is that?” But I also got some interest and found a small band of closet two-handers! There was enough interest for us to organise a day’s casting tuition with Gunter Feuerstein when he was passing through WA in October 2016. We managed to get seven double-handers for the day and it was quite nice when an anchor was set and a spey cast was delivered effortlessly. This was the rarity rather than the norm and I was lucky if I got one good cast in twenty! There is still plenty to learn, and I think that may be part of the attraction as well. It is still a difficult beast to utilise properly without the appropriate skills. It doesn’t lend itself particularly well to small boats, especially when landing a fish may require standing in the bow to retrieve a fish from the stern. But these are obstacles that can be overcome; we just need to try. After a few attempts using the two-hander in the surf on the nearby beaches I realised that the number one problem was line management. The more line you cast, the more you have down around your feet as you strip. Because I’ve found it hard to use a stripping basket, this has hampered my two-handed development in the salt. Combine this with a reduced WA salmon run in 2017, and the two-handed rod didn’t get the attention it deserved. Then came the game changer for me — Anaa Atoll in French Polynesia. I did get booed off the flats, supposedly scaring everything in sight with a 15 foot rod (I still think it has its place here too!) but it stood its ground on the reef edge where absolute monstrosities of the bluewater realm scratch their backs on the edge of the colourful overhanging coral platforms. The reef edge did require a steep learning curve and a few sessions using standard 12-weight single-handers before the jitters subsided enough to brave the two-hander in this extreme fly fishing setting. SINGLE HANDED COMBAT Early on, the big trevally and Bohar snapper completely owned us, snapping 80 and 100 lb line against the reef, everything said and done in less than five seconds! This is really an adrenaline pumping, hand-to-hand battle with a two person to one rod pairing critical to a successful outcome. One person casts while the other helps manage line, keeping it free from the ubiquitous coral protrusions or the big sea urchins, which somehow attract your fly line at the most inopportune time. The take from these bluewater fish was generally lightning quick with an immediate hook-up! But sometimes the fish would have a prolonged figure eight love-making session with your fly and miraculously not eat it! That’s okay; you may get a second or even third chance at these fish if they are really fired up. Finally, you get the eat! Resisting all temptation to ‘trout strike’ is paramount, as the force is still strong for the fly fishers born in the fresh. It still happens, especially when you get a follow to your feet and there is nowhere else to go but up. But I must commend my three Canadian fishing buddies (Chris, J and Rick) who came half way around the world to fish this atoll. They were considerably adept at the strip strike and even better at resisting the serious potential for high-sticking on these brutes of fish (again, the force is strong). Reels with a punishing drag system were required, but sometimes you get them on the strip strike and that is where you try to keep them. And then your rod and your body provide the cushioning effects of the massive surges imposed by the fish, and you work the waves to advantage, slowly bringing the fish in on top of the reef, preventing it at all costs from any plunges into the deep blue. TIME FOR THE TWO-HANDER This method of fly fishing is like nothing I’ve experienced before and is not for the faint of heart. This keeps you on the very edge of your toes and it took at least three reef sessions before the two-hander was even considered. But when I finally broke it out, its benefits for this type of fishing were blatantly obvious. The ease of casting these massive flies was incredible, especially compared to some of the blue-water broom handles we were using. Even a gentle roll cast could get your fly into the attack zone of a deep blue hole or crevice in the reef. Combine this with a sweeping retrieve and you’re in the money. The moment of truth finally came on day four of our week-long trip when we worked the largest reef pass separating two motus (islands), adjacent to the main village on the atoll. Chris and J were standing on the reef edge with guides Gregory and Gannanui and the local fish biologist/translator, Alex, trying to scrap together enough 80 and 100 lb test line to fashion up new business ends to their 12-weights — thanks for the 130 lb Alex! — when I went in with the 10-weight 15-footer. In the blink of an eye, I was onto a beast of a Bohar snapper! Holding on for dear life, I had that two-hand rod buckled to the core! The leverage that you can put on the fish with these rods is quite impressive. Then came one of those slow-motion moments when the snapper was held in the window of a breaking wave for what seemed like an eternity, and then suddenly everything recoiled like a gunshot. Convinced the line had snapped, Alex came forward to check. To his surprise the line did not break and the hook did not fail, it just pulled out. As it was nearing the end of the day, everybody else headed back to the waiting boat, but Chris and I couldn’t pull ourselves away and had to check the next hole along the edge of the reef. This turned out to be one of the biggest run-outs for this part of the reef and water was flowing out to sea like a massive river. First cast and some massive shadows stirred from the depths, sending schools of smaller reef fish in all directions. Next cast two GTs pounced! Just as they were about to inhale the fly, a snapper split the pair and took the prize. This is when the two-hander really stood out in the ensuing fight. The length of the rod was instrumental in absorbing the strong runs but also in guiding the fish into open water, away from coral edges. Plus the fighting butt and two-hand grip meant you could really lean into it when applying pressure, and so the snapper finally came to hand after a fairly quick fight. Fishing the reef edges of Anaa Atoll was a real eye-opener. I think the two-hander will definitely be a big part of my fly fishing repertoire in the future and I hope other people will pick it up and join me in discovering the benefits of using the big stick in the salt.

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