Micro Skagit: Like Steelheading, Except You Catch Fish

Ben Paull is the General Manager at Olympic Peninsula Skagit Tactics in Seattle, Washington. We’ve been interested in these Skagit tactics for some time now, especially with the current rise of the “trout spey”. Ben is a veritable master of all things Skagit, so we reached out to him to explain a little bit about how micro Skagit works. From Ben…

In recent months, Micro Skagit has become more and more popular. And with summer approaching and better rod, line and reel options than ever before, it should become a lot more popular by the day. By Micro Skagit, I am talking about the marriage between ultralight rods, say from 2 to 5 weight, and water-loaded, sustained anchor Skagit casts. While some take to this technique because of its practicality, many others do it just because it’s fun. Of course, the two are connected; you can’t have fun if your rod is rendered completely impotent by the bushes or high bank behind you.

Simply put, there are numerous situations we encounter where a conventional back cast is literally impossible. I’m sure we all know of these places. I was just fishing one, during high tide on a beach on Washington’s Hood Canal, where a steep bank behind me would have prevented any overhead cast longer than about 15 feet. With a Commando Head, and a water loaded Skagit cast, I fished the beach to my heart’s content, easily casting 70 feet, catching… nothing. But I was fishing, where just a few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to. You don’t always catch, especially with sea run cutthroat trout. But a short Skagit head will put you in the game in places where you would otherwise have no chance. With more people on the water than ever before, the ability to fish un-pressured water that others avoid can really pay off. After all, dark, wooded, brushy high banks are places fish really love.

Another benefit to Micro Skagit is that it allows you to throw relatively large flies on light rods. For streamer and bass fishing, this is a big deal. You don’t need to throw a 6, 7, or (gasp) even 8 weight to throw some pretty big flies. You Montana guys that throw 8 inch long flies, yeah, you’re still going to need a fairly substantial rod to do that. But for guys throwing average sized, 2-3 inch streamers, it is possible to cast those on 3 and 4 weight rods. Even with practically no space behind you. Not only can you cast these flies, but you can do it without back casting (guides read: reduced chance of clients sending a sex dungeon into your dome at a hundred miles an hour). Recently, my buddy Mike McGovney and I, along with Joe Rotter of Red’s Fly Shop, fished the lower Yakima River. While we hoped for bass we could measure in pounds, the reality was, and usually is, that little guys in the 6-8 inch range far outnumbered even the 12 inchers. Instead of losing our patience and trying to shake them off every time a little guy took the fly, we enjoyed the smaller fish, because we were fishing 3 weight rods. For the bigger bass, the 3 weight did just fine.

And, most importantly, there’s the fun of single hand/Micro Skagit. Even if I have a mile of space behind me, it’s the way I prefer to fish. If you’re “over” trout fishing, because you think steelheading is just the very coolest, (it’s funny how quickly some people make this transition after just starting fly fishing- just saying), try trout fishing with Micro Skagit before putting away your trout rod. It’s like mini steelheading. If you’ve got a river nearby that has a decent population of 12 inch trout or bass, you can have an awful lot of fun swinging flies and getting ripped just as you would for steelhead. The great part is, trout actually eat! You actually get to catch fish! It’s almost like fishing. Seriously though, getting lots of bites is fun, and this is a seriously addictive way to fish.

Check out Micro Skagit in Chile:

So I guess I should offer a few notes on casting. A short Skagit head, like a Commando Head, can be cast with a variety of styles. Commando Heads are excellent overhead – much more accurate than you would expect. We did extremely well overheading with them last summer, fishing side channels for Alaskan rainbows. They can also be cast underhand, or Scandi-style, with casts like a single spey or a snake roll. But these lines were originally designed for water-loaded Skagit casts. What we at OPST call a “pure Skagit” cast is a cast whose energy is generated from water tension. The thick line is laid on the water, with the “anchor”, which is the fly, either off to the side or slightly in front of you (farther in front of you if there are obstructions behind you), about a rod length away. With a very low rod tip to start, you peel this line off the water’s surface, with the rod tip rising constantly but gradually throughout the stroke. At the point when you “run out” of Skagit head, you should be in position to make your cast. This should also be the point just before the anchor starts to move. Hence, we call this “Sustained Anchor Systemology”, or SAS. The energy you have generated through peeling both the Skagit head and the sink tip from the water’s surface is what bends the rod, storing the energy in the rod like a spring. At this point, you unload the rod just as you would if you were overhead casting.

Skagit

The nice part about this is that if you “get” a rod, that is, if you know what it takes to load and unload it while overhead casting, it’s a pretty easy transition to single hand Skagit. The biggest mistake people make is overdoing it. Remember: you only get out what you put in. You can’t force the rod to unleash more energy than you have put into it through removing the line from the water’s surface. Like almost everything in fly fishing, it’s about technique, not brute force. Many people who have been overhead casting for a while will tell you that the point when they got good was the point when they realized how little effort fly casting actually takes- when they stopped overdoing it. I tell my students that they should imagine their hands are sponges, absorbing every little bit of energy that goes into the rod as they remove the Skagit head from the water. Pay attention to THAT, while you are casting, not the far bank you’re trying to reach, not all the line you’re trying to shoot. Pay attention to that crucial little bit of energy that’s being stored in the rod, that’s running through your hands. Then use the rod to unleash it, in a quick, short stroke for a fast action rod, or a longer, more measured motion in the case of fiberglass. You can also use a haul with micro Skagit, and that is something I like to do for all of the same reasons I do it while overhead casting. It adds power, tightens loops and gives my left hand something to do.

The good news is, most people find this style of casting pretty easy. Most experienced casters are shocked by how much fun it is. And the quest for perfection is an endless hobby unto itself. While I love to catch fish, and have seen and experienced time again how well these lines fish all over the world, it’s also true that I can enjoy simply casting this way for hours on end. Here are some of my favorite setups for Micro Skagit:

  • 10’9″ 2 weight/175 Grain Commando Head/7′-10′ Rio Versileader or Airflo Polyleader, or 12′ OPST Commando Tip, 96 Grain
  • 7’6″ to 9′ 3 weight/150 Grain Commando Head/5′ Airflo Polyleader, 7′ Rio Versileader or 5′ OPST Commando Tip
  • 10′ 3 Weight/175 Grain Commando Head/10′ Polyleader or Rio Versileader
  • 7’6″ 4 weight fiberglass rod/175 Grain Commando Head/5′ Airflo Polyleader, 7′ Rio Versileader or 5′ OPST Commando Tip
  • 9′ 5 weight/200 Grain Commando Head/7′ Rio Versileader or 5′ OPST Commando Tip, or 10′ Airflo polyleader for dry flies
  • 9’6″ 6 weight/250 Grain Commando Head/7′ Rio Versileader or 5′ OPST Commando Tip, 1/16 ounce worm weight, streamer

As far as techniques go, my favorite ways to fish these rigs are swinging from shore, casting and stripping streamers either from a boat or from shore, and fishing with large dry flies. These lines work well with any dry fly, but for really technical, spring creek conditions, it is probably not the line of choice. For throwing hoppers and Chernobyls out of a boat, though, it will change your life. We’ve had great success nymphing out of a boat, without an indicator, for big Alaskan rainbows. The Commando Head’s weight seems to enhance strike detection, and it can throw giant split shot if necessary, which is huge in areas where there are only small pockets of fishable water between snags. We have also taken advantage of the line’s power to throw worm weights while streamer fishing. In lieu of a giant sink tip, we just add a 1/16 ounce worm weight, which the Commando Head doesn’t even notice. This helps us get down to fish level almost instantaneously while fishing to deep holes and around structure. Here again, the freedom from false casting allows for the casting of rigs that would be unpleasant, if not borderline dangerous to overhead cast.

If you’re reading this, chances are you have a rod that will work with a Commando Head. That is to say, if you have pretty much any single hand trout rod, these lines can change your fishing. With a Commando Head, a running line behind that (our Lazar Line in 30-35 pounds is fantastic, but there are many options), and a proper sink or floating tip (see the recommendations above), you will be ready to rediscover your home water. You owe it to yourself to at least give it a try. Or at least give me a call at 207-257-3925 if you want to talk rigs, line recommendations, whether or not these things can handle indicators (yes), or if you just want to talk fishing. I will end by saying that I am not trying to sell you this line with a bunch of technological jargon. We don’t have to make up any BS acronyms. This style of fishing is clearly different than what has been popular in the past. Even if our company implodes, micro Skagit is here to stay. Because holy shit, it’s fun.

Visit OPskagit.com for more info and for retail information.

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