Heartbreak & Hope: A Spey Saga

Steelhead Underwater Trout Spey
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By Jason Harman 

It all started on the Madison, the day I lost The Big One. 

As we all (should) know by now, rivers have stories. And there’s one held deep in the waters of the Madison, somewhere close to the bubble line and a little to the right of the kidney-shaped boulder. It’s the story of the day I caught—and subsequently lost—a mind-altering, earth-shattering, cosmos-imploding brown trout.

That fish came into my life like a firecracker, an explosion of flailing fins and writhing mass attached to a measly size 8 woolly bugger and some quickly evaporating fly line. It jumped three times, my reel screamed and spun, and then it was gone. 

It’s one of those things. I didn’t know how badly I wanted it until it was no longer mine, but it was never mine. It was there, and then it wasn’t—a lesson in the ephemeral. Still, I couldn’t deny it hurt losing the biggest trout of my life. 

It’s not the only story hidden in the Barnes Pools, and I’m not the only one to have loved and lost in the mighty Madison. But what if there was something I could have done differently? What if the lesson wasn’t to accept what I can’t control but to learn to control what I can’t accept? I needed to improve my technique, I knew that much, but I didn’t know where to access the information I needed.  

The rest of that day, and the next, my mind whirred as I replayed the moment of loss again and again. I ruminated. I analyzed. I might have even cried a little bit. Meanwhile, I trudged through life like an apparition. “It’s just a fish,” said my loving wife. Just a fish… 

On the drive back home to British Columbia, I was listening to the Anchored with April Vokey podcast—a staple on long car rides between fishing destinations—when an ad came on for an online masterclass at www.anchoredoutdoors.com. Of course, I knew about online masterclasses for things like business and writing, but it had never crossed my mind that there could be an online masterclass for fishing. I paused the podcast and looked it up on my iPhone. “Holy shit,” I said to my wife as we flew down Highway 200, “they have a Trout Spey course!” And just like that, my hope was back.            

The Anchored Outdoors Trout Spey course is presented by Whitney Gould, a world-champion fly caster, instructor, and guide. The course starts with the basics you would expect but is dusted throughout with some beautiful, game-changing nuggets of angler wisdom. 

I’ve always been attracted to Spey fishing—I find it endlessly fascinating and eminently relaxing— and it’s evident from the course videos that Whitney is accomplished, masterful, and passionate about Trout Spey; she’s the kind of teacher that I would handpick in a line-up of potential instructors. 

I threw myself into the course like a far-flung Skagit head, ravenously devouring each lesson and pausing to take notes each time I came across something novel or interesting. Much of what I learned from the course seemed recognisable and simple, even obvious, yet it was stuff I hadn’t thought of before, and it was often presented in such a way that gave me added context as to why it was important. 

I learned about casting angles—how you should customize your approach to suit the water you’re fishing (shallow vs. deep, fast vs. slow); I learned that the true purpose of a mend is not to sink your fly but to fish it more effectively and longer; I learned how to “edit” the water, picking likely lies and runs based on variables like flow speed, oxygenation, water temperatures, and food availability (even flow, walking pace is best); and I learned how to add movement and variation by lifting, pulling, twitching, jigging, and figure-eight retrieving. 

Once I had completed the course, I felt ready to do battle again. I felt confident. I felt like I’d been through the fishing equivalent of spartan training; I’d lost the fight, but I was back to win the war. Armed with renewed confidence and fresh knowledge, I descended upon one of Vancouver Island’s summer steelhead streams to try to convert theory into practice. 

The day was quiet—as it often is when targeting steelhead—but there was a feeling. I’m sure I don’t need to explain this (and I don’t think I could if I tried) because I’m certain that most of you will know the feeling I’m referring to. Each cast was sublime. With each swing, I was hovering on the balls of my feet, expecting a fish to take at any moment. Every time I moved downstream looking for new water, cast or mended my line, I’d hear Whitney’s voice in my head, offering advice. 

Eventually, I made it down to a run that oozed with piscine possibility. There was a slot right near the head, so I stood upstream, cast across, mended once, and swung my fly in a deep, throbbing curve right into the honey hole. 

The grab was so unmistakable and thrilling that it still gives me chills thinking about it. It was followed by several pulsating headshakes, a blitzing run, and a tail walk—a steelhead! I pulled my rod towards the bank and worked quickly to get my line under control. Then I slowly walked downstream towards the softer water, keeping the fish under tension while it darted to and fro. As I reached out and netted the beautiful doe, I let out a cathartic whoop that travelled on the breeze all the way back to Montana. The monkey was off my back!

Cover photo by Ryan Yardley.

Picture of Jason Harman

Jason Harman

Jason Harman is a Kiwi writer, trout bum, spearfisher, and bowhunter (read: bonafide wilderness enthusiast) who splits his time between the South Island of New Zealand and the West Coast of Canada.

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