The Kelp of August

Kelp Under Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Fly fishing in Puget Sound in August often means high temperatures (as has been true the past weeks) and hazy skies from distant forest fires (as was true last year). But there is another consistent issue in parts of Puget Sound in August and that is the kelp forests that often cause casting from the beach to become a source of frustration due to frequent hookups of the bull kelp floats.

For some time, I had been thinking a sinktip line would work from the beach in the deeper waters under the Tacoma Narrows bridges during the high and low slack periods. I wanted to get the fly down to fish that might be lurking several feet down in the slack waters.

I had looked at a number of sinking and sinktip lines and bought the Rio Intouch 24 Foot Sinktip in 200 grains (for a six-weight rod). The line has a 35 foot head with a 24-foot sinking section. I thought the line would work both here and as a streamer line in Montana. In comparison to other lines, once I started casting it in the backyard I recognized it was also easy casting. But casting in an actual fishing situation is really the only way to see how a line works.

Wednesday mid morning there was an extra low slack on the ebb, meaning I could get out before the day turned hot. I brought my net along just in case some fish – hopefully a coho salmon – decided to jump on whatever fly I was using.

As expected, there were fields of bull kelp along the majority of the beach up to and past the Narrows Bridges. But I was there and I decided to look for places I could cast between patches of the kelp under the bridges.

The line worked perfectly. I found none of the kick I’d found in other lines. With the heavy sinking head, shooting line was effortless. About the only problem, as is typical of Rio lines, was the running line tangled. I had brought my stripping basket, so that might have eliminated at least some of the tangles. Unfortunately, there were no fish – well at least none that were interested in my chartreuse and pink woolly buggers.

Then as I started working my way back to Narrows Park I found no patches of clear water and decided to call it a day. Along the way I did catch one empty plastic water bottle (with cap on) that was floating in the tidal current. Someone must have been careless. I tossed it into a trash can.

As I looked back down the beach, I knew it would have been a good deal more fun if the kelp hadn’t been there.

But then I remembered reading an article about how bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) in Puget Sound is in decline. Scientists are concerned because the kelp provides habitat for juvenile salmon, rockfish, sea urchins and other species. It is an annual plant – meaning it starts fresh every year. Starting as a microscopic plant in spring, bull kelp can grow to 30 to 40 feet tall by mid summer. The bull kelp then begin to decline and disappear in early to late autumn.

The causes for its decline are the same many of the other threatened species in Puget Sound – warming water temperatures and toxic pollution. In addition, changes to the shoreline and sedimentation are also suspected.

The bull kelp is another reminder that the chain from microorganisms to humans is long and complex. Disturbing the kelp imperils the salmon, which as can be seen in local news, imperils the resident Orca population.

Ultimately, it will be humanity that pays the price for its actions.

You can read more about efforts to restore bull kelp here.

Fly Line AFTMA Standard Explained

Fly lines

Fly lines are one of the biggest sources of confusion and debate in fly fishing.

Confusion is not just limited to beginners. Walk into any fly shop and there can be a bewildering number of choices. Fly fishing forums often have lengthy debates on various lines and arguments about one-half weight differences. And it’s true that many fly rods seem to cast better with some lines than others.

So where to begin to break through the confusion?

I think it’s understanding the terms and reference points. Rio has a great video that explains the standard and grain weights.

In addition, to breaking down the differences between grain weights and line ratings, the video discusses the effect that even subtle differences in grains, head lengths, or line diameter have on line ratings. And, you’ll not think about a business card the same way again.

You can see the video here.

Backing Color and Line Weights

Hatch Reel Spools

Have you ever had problems trying to identify what line size you have on a spool?

You may know the situation.

Over time you’ve collected fly lines you like in different weights and spooled them up. Then one day you open your drawer (or wherever you keep them), and while you may recognize the fly line – you can’t recall what line weight it is. This is particularly an issue where you have one reel serving up different weight lines and where you have many spools to fit the reel.

I have a solution that works for me.

Given I use a relatively small number of fly lines (Rio Outbound – both short and regular) and line weights for saltwater, I use different color backing for different weight lines.

For my 5-weight lines, I use 20-pound chartreuse.

For my 6-weight lines, I use 20-pound orange.

And for my 8-weight lines, I use white Hatch Premium 65-pound backing.

This is a simple system that tells me instantly with a quick glance what weight line I have on any reel. Even with different reel sizes it makes it easy.

I think it’s superior to either putting dots and dashes on line (no need to unwind the front end of a fly line) or the line information some fly-line manufacturers are starting to put on their lines (no need to pull out the magnifying glass to read the information).

Give it a try. It might work for you too.

The Alchemy of Fly Rods and Fly Lines: Rethinking the BIII-SX

I’ve been out in my backyard over the last few days to do some practice casting and continue my evaluation of a few fly lines. It’s been sunny and relatively warm (high 50s), something that’s not going to last, with rain and wind coming tomorrow.

This time out has reminded me that much like ancient alchemists, we seek our own philosopher’s stone of mixing rod and reel to create fly fishing gold. Unfortunately, sometimes we wind up with lead.

I’ve been using my Winston BIII-SX (9’ 6” 6 weight) for this practice. In addition, I’m using the time to decide if I should keep it or sell it on eBay. I’ve had mixed feelings about the Winston BIII-SX since I got it.

It was my second Winston (my first was a 9’ 5 weight BIIIX). The BIIIX was, and is, a joy to cast. But after moving over here to Gig Harbor, I decided to spend more time focused on beach fishing for sea-run cutthroat trout and resident Coho. That meant a 6-weight in 9’ 6”. And I chose the BIII-SX as I thought it’d give me a bit of heft for the bigger Coho’s as well as being a stronger performer than the BIIIX on the steeper beaches in wind.

Initially I was excited with the BIII-SX as it was a Winston. The line choice recommended by the Gig Harbor Fly Shop was a great match: the Airflo 40+ Floating/Intermediate. Initial casting was somewhat easy and fun (if by no means as fun as with the BIIIX). The rod weight was more noticeable and at shorter line lengths it did feel more like a club than a fly rod. I’ll confess and say I hadn’t cast it before I bought it – dumb me.

So I might have just consoled myself that it was a Winston and kept on using the AirFlo 40+, except for two things.

The first was that I wanted to go with floating lines for casting some beach poppers, and that’s when I started to see the BIII-SX had some major issues with its dependency on lines. I first got a Rio Outbound (OB) Floating in 6 weight. I figured the 37.5 foot head would cast approximately like the the Airflo with its 35-foot head (though the Airflo is heavier at 261 grains versus 240).

It did take some practice to get my casting down with the OB, but once I did I was hitting around the 70 foot mark as with the Airflo. Shorter casts were doable – but as with the Airflo – without any feel. For both lines it seems I needed to have at least 30 feet of line out – making approximately a 50 foot cast the minimum for the BIII-SX.

I then got the Outbound Short (OBS) Floating in 6-weight and put that on. I thought the compact head (30 feet versus 37.5 for the OB) would load the rod better. The OBS was almost as heavy as the full length OB (235 versus 240 grains).

But all the theory was irrelevant. The rod never really seemed to come alive; heavy and unresponsive. I have a sense a 7 weight OBS might work better. But that points to the problem with the BIII-SX series: I they are all actually at least one rod weight higher.

Late last year I had also tried casting the BIII-SX in 8 weight with an 8 weight OB and it was like casting a broom stick. The rod wouldn’t load at all. Even when putting a 9 weight OB on it was not much better. I’m guessing it’s at least 1.5 – 2 weights heavier than stated. Winston blew it with this series.

Then there is the other thing – how the BIII-SX compared to casting other rods. I’ve had the chance to cast the Orvis Helios 2 Tip Flex, Sage One, and the Scott Radian.

They were all superior to the BIII-SX, at least for me. I didn’t like the Sage One in a 9-foot as it’s too stiff too, but it was still better than the BIII-SX (and much lighter).

The Scott was definitely a fast rod, but I was able to feel it at distances less than 30 feet, while at longer distances I could feel the power and speed of the rod. It was a different casting experience than a Winston and while it’s a very fine rod, the thicker grip was something that felt uncomfortable. A person’s muscle memory sure plays a part in evaluating a new rod. If I had a couple of weeks to cast it to get used to the grip I might change my mind. Adding it to the list for future consideration.

The Helios 2 was the best of three as far as I was concerned on this day of testing – easy to cast at all distances. Feel wasn’t great at short distances; it was sort of there but not as noticeable as the Radian. At longer distances, there was feel and control. The only problem I noticed was that with longer casts, I had to work a bit – more than with the Radian. So not perfect, but very close. It’s definite candidate to replace the BIII-SX.

After all of the above, I’ve come to see the BIII-SX is a much more specialized rod than an all-around rod. Maybe that’s what Winston intended it for – heavy flies in heavy winds at distance where feel and easy casting are not part of the equation. That narrow use may make it a standby rod, but not the first choice for many trips around here where sea runs and Coho are closer to the beach.

Maybe eBay will be getting a listing soon. But I think I’ll get some time on a BIIIX first. I may have just made a bad decision based on moving away from a rod series I like a great deal. And maybe take another look at both the Helios 2 and the Radian.

Floating Fly Line Comparison: Ambush versus Outbound Short

I’m always looking for ways to reduce the amount of gear I have to take beach fishing.  I moved from a vest to a sling pack several years ago; take only a few flies in a small case; and carry only one or two sizes of tippet material (typically 1X and 2X).  So I’ve been intrigued by the idea of using only one fly line along with poly leaders to cover most of the fishing situations encountered on the beach.

My favorite and primary fly line for beach fishing with my six-weight Winston  is an Airflo 40+ Floating/Intermediate line. Its 35-foot transparent slow intermediate head settles nicely beneath the water surface. And it nicely loads my 9’ 6” rod and allows me to easily cast out to 50 feet with no hauling.

Still, there are times when I’d like to cast surface flies (e.g., popper) with a floating line. I’d carried a spare spool loaded with floating line for those low-tide low-water situations in which a surface fly excels.

Consistent with my goal of reducing what I carry, I’ve been considering the use of floating lines with poly leaders as a one-spool solution for my fishing needs. Given that poly leaders come in a number of densities (from floating to fast sinking), I thought that might be all I’d need.

Yesterday I went to my local beach on a falling tide (and no wind) and brought along two six-weight fly lines: a Royal Wulff Ambush and a Rio Outbound (OB) Short Floating.  The Ambush has a 235 grain weight 18 foot head; the OB Short has a 265 grain weight 30 foot head.  I also carried an Airflo Slow Intermediate 10-foot poly leader.

First up was the Ambush. I used the poly leader along with a five foot length of 1X tippet (the fly was a tube fly with a size 4 hook).

The Ambush roll cast very nicely. It provide a nice D-loop and gave a nice crisp cast.

It did also work in overhead casting. With one or two false casts, I was able to shoot line with no problem.

But there was something about it that wasn’t clicking with me. It may be that the line itself is very large and it felt clunky. And I found that if I did a poor cast the line would collapse.

I switched over to the OB Short, including the poly leader / tippet combination described above. Roll casting was near that of the Ambush, but I think the Ambush was slightly better.

Overhead casting was no comparison. The OB Short was a much easier casting line for me. If I made a bad cast, the line still performed and didn’t collapse. I also had the sense the line moved through the rod guides a good deal smoother than the Ambush. I easily was able to get out to 40-50 feet with no effort. In that regard it felt a lot like casting my Airflo 40+ line.

So have I found a one-line solution for the majority of my beach fishing with my 6-weight rod?  I’d have to say not yet.

I know if I was dealing with a high tide condition with no room for a back cast I’d want to use the Ambush.

For most of my beach fishing where there’s some wind and surface chop (and I know I’ll not be doing any surface flies), I’ll stick with my Airflo 40+.

But on days where I might want to go either surface or sinking, I think the OB Short is a great solution when combined with poly leaders from either Airflo or Rio.

Could I get to the point where the OB Short would replace the Airflo? I’m not ready to say that. I’d need to cast the OB Short more to say that. And it might take a beach shootout in conditions that favor the use of the Airflo.

Stay tuned.