Monday, March 9, 2015

Chuck-n-Duck Gravel - There is More to Steelheading


Time for some ranting and rambling from atop my high horse. While fishing this past weekend I witnessed a guy attempting to chuck-n-duck gravel (the water was 33-34 degrees) with a Sage Z-Axis switch rod and a Hardy reel - COME ON!  I am confident I know how this scene came to be, let me tell you what happened.  The following is a hypothetical.  Guy likes fly fishing for trout and bass here in the Midwest and wants to try steelhead - you go get some Guy.  Guy goes on the Internet, googles steelhead fly fishing rod and reel, and up pops a beautiful two-hander and a classic click-pawl reel - great, that was easy and Guy is nearly set.  Guy goes to Fly Shop and buys the best two-hander in the store and that sweet Hardy reel.  Fly Shop is very happy ($$$$) and Guy is equally happy but confused - now what!?  Maybe Guy talks to Fly Shop about how to use the rod and reel but more likely, Guy goes to Friend.  Friend has been "steelheading" for years, and every March and April he returns with stories of days of huge numbers and pictures of big dark green steelhead with deep red gill plates, and awesome bold red stripes. Some fish are bright silver but most look like giant toothy rainbows that remind Guy of the eight to twelve inch rainbows from Guy's local trout stream.  So, naturally, Guy goes to Friend for advice.  Wise and experienced Friend, shows Guy how to fish for steelhead using a chuck-n-duck technique. Perhaps, Guy thinks about the technique and wonders why this technique is so different than the fly fishing Guy knows and loves but who is Guy to argue.  So, Guy goes out and loads that Hardy with Zip Line (a thin running line), buys a bunch of slinkies, lead, swivels, glo-bugs, and purple egg-sucking woolly buggers.  That April, Friend takes Guy to some revered steelhead grounds.  Friend points to a shallow riffle.  Beneath the surface, Guy sees a massive pod of fish that appear to be jockeying for position.  Loaded with lead weight and egg fly patterns, Guy and Friend start wailing on that pod of fish.  Sure, some of the fish Friend and Guy land are hooked in the tail, the back, or on the gill plate but some are hooked in the corner of the mouth.  And oh the fight! That Hardy reel is screaming with every fish as the fish thrashes and rolls on the surface heading down stream with the current.  There appear to be so many fish, Guy and Friend even take home a few.  Another Midwest steelheader is born.

What is wrong with this hypothetical?  First and foremost, Guy and Friend were fishing for actively spawning steelhead on gravel.  Steelhead spawn on gravel beds.  Most strains spawn when the water temperatures are around 40 degrees.  When fish are on gravel they are easy to see and since they are interested in spawning the fish don't spook easily so anglers can fish for them tirelessly.  In predominantly wild rivers, those fish are creating the next generation of steelhead in a fragile ecosystem and should be left alone.  In stocked fisheries this is less of a problem.  Second, they are using a chuck-n-duck technique, which is, as explained below, at best quasi-fly fishing.  Third, the steelhead, exhausted from spawning, is hardly at its peak fighting form and the "reel screaming" runs result from  an improperly used click-pawl reel, which relies on the angler's hand to apply drag in combination with the rivers heavy spring flows rather than the fishes strength.  Plus, fighting a spawning fish puts unnecessary stress on the animal - steelhead can be repeat spawners if we let them.  Fourth, keeping a fish obviously kills the fish and snagging a fish may kill it as well.  Finally, the nature of the chuck-n-duck technique ends up leaving a ton of snagged monofilament and hooks on the river bottom and in the trees in the riparian zone.  This waste inadvertently kills a lot of other fish and wildlife.  While Guy and Friend may have caught a lot of fish, if they were irresponsible and disrespectful they may have done a lot of damage as well and employed few skills other than perhaps good vision.  Nevertheless, they have lots of trophies.

The chuck-n-duck technique involves a fly rod/reel rigged with a thin running line attached directly to the leader (or even straight monofilament like conventional tackle).  Heavy lead weight is attached to the leader and one or two flies, typically eggs, trail behind the lead.  The rig is cast by "chucking" the weight overhead which propels the flies to the target.  The heavy weight gets the flies to the bottom in a hurry and keeps them there in deep and or heavy current.  How is this considered fly fishing?  I say it is not.  In simplest terms, fly fishing uses the weight of the line to flex the rod and propel the fly because the fly doesn't have enough weight to do so on its own.  Your spinning rod relies on the weight of the terminal tackle or lure to generate enough flex in the rod to propel the lure to the target.  While the typical chuck-n-duck rig uses a fly rod and reel and flies, the rod is cast and fished just like a spinning rod.  At best you can call chuck-n-duck a hybrid between fly fishing and conventional tackle but it is not fly fishing.  Plus, people typically use this technique to fish actively spawning fish on gravel (giving rise to the local term "raking the gravel").  This is bad for the fish because the angler often ends up either snagging the fish or lining the fish. Lining the fish occurs when the line drifts into a fishes mouth and the fly is pulled into the side of the fish's face rather than the fish eating the fly and becoming hooked inside of the mouth.  Lining is an unacceptable form of fishing; it is dressed up snagging and should not be done.

My understanding is that this technique was developed in the Midwest as an effective way to present flies to fish in deep, heavy, and often swirling currents, which are common in Midwest waters.  Fly fishermen borrowed techniques from bait fishermen and an efficient technique was born.  Is it fly fishing? Is using a fly rod to cast a worm under a bobber a form of fly fishing?  No one cared because  chuck-n-duck caught fish, especially fish on spawning gravel. While fishing the gravel an angler can "sight fish" for steelhead but the angler ends up lining or snagging as many fish as he or she fairly hooks.   Next time you go fishing in the spring find the spawning gravel and observe.  There will be crowds of people and lots of action but most of the action is not legitimate.  There may be a time and place for the technique but only in extreme circumstances.  People overuse the technique and thereby limit themselves, their growth as anglers, their understanding of the water, and their understand of the fish and they litter the river in the process.

Hopping off my high horse, I am a fisherman first and a fly fisherman second and if the water is extremely high and fast when I have the opportunity to be on the water I will choose to fish over staying at home.  So, if the water is extremely high, dirty, and fast a fisherman has no choice but to chuck-n-duck.  I will use the technique, the technique is far and away the most effective if not the only way to catch a steelhead with flies in high, fast, muddy water, and like all pleasurable wrongs I feel guilty and dirty afterwards.  If I had more time to fish, I would have the luxury of being a purist.  I have the potential to be the most arrogant purist on the water but I'm not because I can't be.

All that said, the chuck-n-duck method is a great way to get your hands on a steelhead if you are getting into the sport.  It is not complicated, it doesn't require expensive equipment, and it will catch you boat loads of fish.  But remember the chuck-n-duck is just the beginning of a steelheaders growth.   Use it, get some fish under your belt, fall in love with steelhead and move on.  Trust me when I say the first steelhead that chases and hammers your swung fly, a fly which you tied with the intent that it will swim in a particular way, and elicit a strike.  When you refine your casting and mending, and your ability to read and cover the entire river.  When you can find and anticipate where a steelhead might be once it enters a river.  When all that happens and you get that beautiful chrome steelhead on the swing, a steelhead that you had planned for, a steelhead that is yours, you will never want to go anywhere near that gravel again.

Tight Lines

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