By Glenn K Chen
As a resident of the Great North since the early 2000’s, I’ve endured nearly two decades of long, dark, and frigid winters for those few brief months of fair-weather angling glory. From the onset of the midnight sun in late May through the fierce storms of October, anadromous salmonids are the focus of my annual pursuits in Alaska, and while I savor the opportunity to catch any species from the Pacific salmon clan, it’s the steelhead — among all members of the genus Oncorhynchus — that occupies a most special place in my angling soul.
My fly fishing endeavors were hampered by a debilitating paralysis in my 20’s, which left me with very limited casting abilities using a single hand rod, and I thus angled for “steel fish” with conventional gear during most of the subsequent decades. While I did acquire a Spey outfit along the way, I really struggled with the unfamiliar setup — until I encountered a talented young guide named Trevor Covich. During one of my wilderness Alaska angling adventures, Trevor took me under his tutelage, and patiently helped me to learn the intricacies of both Spey casting and swing fishing. The two-handed rod has thus enabled me to overcome my physical handicap, and to enjoy once again pursuing my favorite species with tackle that I have not been able to use for many years.
The Winston two-handers are the ones I choose whenever I’m chasing Alaska steelhead. These rods have the ideal combination of flex needed to sense proper loading during the cast, followed by terrific power to send the fly to a distant holding lie on the forward stroke. (I also find their actions to be quite forgiving regarding casting faux pas, which is a blessing when my abilities decline after a long day’s effort.) Their outstanding durability is a really big plus as well, especially when you’re fishing in a remote spot where you’re limited with regards to the amount of gear you can bring — and where obtaining a replacement rod is nigh impossible.
Here on the Kenai Peninsula where I reside, the 11’ 6” Winston 6-weight rod is ideal for swing fishing steelies in our local, moderate-sized streams. For the larger and swifter rivers elsewhere in Alaska, I select the 13’ 3” models: rigged with Skagit heads and T8 or T11 sink tips, these longer rods enable me to effectively cover the myriad of angling conditions that are present in such systems.
This October, I was fortunate to once again venture to remote Alaska in pursuit of Oncorhynchus mykiss, and my Winston 13’ 3” 7-weight two-handers were again the rods I fished with on this weeklong adventure. As usual, we encountered both sunshine and light breezes, as well as driving rain with howling winds that nearly toppled me in the water — and these rods handled the adverse conditions with aplomb. Many of the steelhead fought with wild abandon, repeatedly leaping high and running far downstream, and really straining my tackle before surrendering reluctantly to a skillfully wielded net. The Winstons performed flawlessly during the entire trip, and accounted for dozens of out-sized steel fish (with stout girths) up to 35 inches in length
My final hookup resulted in my most memorable catch of the visit. I had just released a chrome-bright 32-inch hen that had jumped 12 times in succession during a lengthy fight that took me repeatedly into my reel’s backing. After releasing her, I continued to cast and wade down the underwater mid-river gravel bar, until I reached a spot where another step would submerge me too deeply. Making sure that my feet were firmly planted, I sent the fly towards the shoreline trees, and lowered the tip of my 13’ 3” Winston 7-weight as it began to swing. The savage strike occurred within seconds, nearly teetering me into the swift current as the unseen fish tore off downstream in a furious run. Fifty, then a hundred and then 200 yards of backing instantly disappeared, and I applied intense pressure in an attempt to halt this mad dash. For a few seconds, the steelhead held fast, angry head shakes telegraphed all the way up into the throbbing rod as it attempted to dislodge the offending hook – then the brief détente ceased, and my reel began screaming again as the remaining backing melted off the big Hardy Bougle.
As I was stranded in the middle of the river and thus unable to follow the fish, I yelled to our guide for assistance. Much to my relief, Garrett quickly arrived with the boat, and I tumbled in with less than 40 yards of backing remaining on the spool. We then chased the swiftly vanishing steelhead, steadily rewinding while keeping a deep bend in the rod, for seemingly endless minutes. When the running line eventually reached the tip top, we beached the boat – only to have my quarry tear off in more astonishing runs far downstream that took away much of my hard won effort.
This amazing steel fish wouldn’t give up, never rolling over as it dashed away repeatedly in spite of Garrett’s extra cautious attempts to approach it again and again with a landing net. He then decided that extreme stealth would be required to outwit the steelhead, so he crouched as low as possible, well below of me, and kept the net outstretched and motionless atop the substrate. After more tense and anxious moments, when the steelie would repeatedly veer away at the last second, I somehow managed to finally lead it gently into the waiting meshes – and whooped in sheer exultation when the 31-inch super hen was captured. Upon release, she immediately dashed away with amazing vigor, seemingly impervious to her lengthy struggle against modern angling technology. Truly, she was a supreme athlete among steelhead, and I hope that her indomitable genes will be forever passed on to future generations.
Glenn K Chen is a Winston enthusiast living in Alaska and enjoys all things two-hand.