By Jeff Mishler
Two maniacal steelheaders often share levels of interest, similar equipment, casting styles they’ve developed through trial and error to fit their body type, internal clocks, temperament, and who knows what else. The inevitable relationship dynamic of this sharing is analogous to something I remember from high school math and can be mapped by two complimentary sine waves moving down the X-axis of life, oscillating with amplitude and frequency, driven towards infinity by an energy source. If the source is constant, the amplitude and frequency of an individual sine wave is consistent.
Because humans seek familiarity, or tribes, steelheaders often feed on each other’s energy and this feeding frenzy becomes the source of the sine waves. As similarities are revealed more energy is put into the wave. Before long the two forces, initially traveling down different paths, align so precisely that they become one. Once their steelheader energy enmeshes, separating the energy back to individual signals will become very difficult. The most sophisticated high tech, listening, deciphering filters can’t pull them apart. Girlfriends, wives, non-fishing friends—if that’s possible—stand outside the energy field and wonder, when are these guys gonna stop talking about fishing? Uh. Never. In other words, when two steelheaders think alike, conversations between these two addicts—around the tying table, in the wall tent, at dinner parties, at weddings, or anywhere for that matter—are one-dimensional.
It might begin, “I use a spey rod”. “So do I”
“I like Skagit heads over Scandi Lines” “Me too”
“I prefer a fast action rod for floating lines” “Yeah, I’ve always used my bottom hand more than my top”
“So on that soft outside bend down past the powerlines, I stopped using a type 6 tip and moved to a type three to keep the fly off those big rocks in the middle of the run” “Yeah, in fact I don’t use a weighted fly there cause I’ve had a couple fish move out of the deeper water and take it just as it started to move to the bank.”
But, one thing I know about steelheaders, is that at some point during this trip along the X-axis—the path of all energy—individuality is an overpowering need. We seek solitude with our spey rods and can’t stand pigeon holes, stereotypes, niches or predictability. One of the two will inevitably depart from this symbiotic relationship. As one sets off on a new path, say a straight line to fish for bass with pork rinds, chase tuna with a hand-line, chase elk with a longbow and hand made cedar shaft arrows, or who knows what else, the old friend will respond like a rat whose portions have been cut off from that whole push the bar, get your food, push the bar, get your food, stimulus response thing. Their respective sine wave will increase in frequency and intensity, often climbing off the charts until a realization is made that their monosyllabic relationship with a part time fishing buddy has taken a turn. They’ll stand there like that lab rat addicted to treats, looking at the bar, the food door, the light on the wall, back to the bar and wonder “what the fuck?
And for a while, as the departed fishing buddy is off shaving wild turkey feathers to fletch some Port Orford cedar arrows, wives, girlfriends, non fishing friends, parents and off-spring of the jilted one once again have the power to break through that passion fueled barrier of all non-fishing conversation and reconnect, briefly. They might even feel that their loved one is back in the fold; a part of society; recovered from the addiction; alive and well—that would be incorrect.
To be a proficient steelheader with a two-hander, above everything, takes practice, unless you have the hand eye coordination and physical timing and mastery of Tiger Woods. Years ago Dec Hogan told me a story about Tiger where, during his first day of Spey fishing on the Deschutes, Tiger stood in the river and said, “Okay, show me how to do this”. Dec handed the rod to Tiger and started talking about concepts, hand placement on the grip, D loops and stuff. Tiger interrupted and said, “No, I said show me”. Dec shrugged his shoulders, walked out into the river and made a few long casts. Tiger walked up behind him, took the rod from Dec and said, “Thanks. I think I’ve got it”, and proceeded to make efficient 60 foot Spey casts with no practice and fished the rest of the day without asking for help. “I’d never seen that before”, Dec told me, meaning, out of the hundreds of first time anglers he guided, Tiger was an exception. Most anglers struggle, most need continued instruction and practice. So unless you are Tiger Woods, your interest in two-handers will lead you down a path filled with hours of practice; a discovery process inevitably throwing you smack dab in the middle of a million opinions about what’s right, what’s wrong, how, when and why this and that works or doesn’t. For the most part, most of it will be worthless because, like golf or snow skiing, until you can actually hit the ball squarely on the club face or carve a turn without chattering the tails at the finish, the finer points of spey casting will be lost in the blur of your progression. And that is exactly why we find our tribe during the journey. Without familiarity, we are alone in any quest. Our tribe is our sounding board and support system.
I’m self-taught, but it wasn’t until I found a circle of accomplished anglers that I improved my skills. One buddy notices how my D-loop lacks the compression it usually carries and I realize I’ve stopped accelerating to a stop. Another wonders why my loop is doing that funny little flippy thing just before it turns over and I force myself to quiet down the top hand because the tailing loop with a short Skagit head goes away when I pull hard with the bottom hand at the end of the cast. Your peers always keep you in line.
Which takes me back to the aforementioned buddy recently departed from the circle, rat pushing the food bar thing. Egos are part of any social study. My steelheading friends are not egomaniacs. It feels like they are the mature sort who work hard to quell the silliness of a testosterone eruption when biting sarcasm crosses a line in camp and the potential for hurt feelings rises from the fire pit; that is unless one of the tribe hasn’t reached a camp-wide benchmark of inebriation like the rest of us. A latecomer for example, has some catching up to do before the barrage of caustic sarcasm will bounce off like rainwater on a new wading jacket. And this period of catching up is the iffy part of the night; a time when the clan is cracking fresh beers faster than you can waddle from the cooler through the ankle deep mud hole in the center of camp to the fire. The new guy is unrolling his bed in the back of his truck and we relentlessly ride him about, well, everything. A fresh beer is resting on his tailgate, but it will be ten more minutes before he can join us under the tarp. But in that time, I’m the one who usually says something stupid, in my, can’t-tell-a-joke-for-beans-and-suck-at–sarcasm-without-hurting-feelings–or-starting-a-fight, kind of way. Fortunately for me, the clan knows me well and ignores everything I say. But sometimes something is said and an ego is bruised or worse yet, thrown under the truck. Hence the aforementioned departure. If he makes it to the fire pit ego intact; if we aren’t too drunk; if he’s wearing his armor; he’ll join the bullshitting steelheaders with too much beer in their bellies. At this hearth forces align, strings connecting each of us vibrate with our individual energies ‘till we find common ground and we continue to drink and stare into a sputtering bed of orange-hot coals dying under another February deluge. It is hard to be away from this dynamic for very long.