I was lifting the rod tip at the end of the drift, almost at my feet, when the rod bowed against sudden resistance. Slightly surprised, as I always am when a fish inhales a deep fly, I set the hook into heavy weight.
"Probably a dollie," I thought to myself, expecting a pocket-sized char.
Then the line cut through the surface as 30 inches of pink-side, spotted and silver torpedo surged out of the deep hole and downstream.
"Steelhead!" I probably hollered, although when you're in the woods there's nobody to hear, who cares. Even though I was looking for steelies, and knew there should be some in this SE creek, seeing the big male surge by was a shock.
The fish seem both reluctant to leave its deep resting spot, and uncertain it was even hooked. It made a wide circle of the pool, churning a wide loop of yellow fly line behind it, before returning almost precisely to the spotted where it was hooked.
And then "the light came on," and the big male exploded out of the deep hole and raced downstream, skirting through shallow that didn't even cover its back. In a second, all the fly line was out and I began to stumble after it as the orange backing began rapidly following.
This steelhead was something of a test fish for one of several pack fly rods I'm trying out this spring-rods designed to pack small for frequent flying fly fishermen.
More and more anglers are making air travel a large part of their fishing excursions.
Lee Leschper photo Author Lee Leschper with a catch.
In the old days, and often even today, you can stash your traditional one-piece or two-piece rods into a tube the size of a sewer pipe and try to get it there in one piece. On many airlines, since it's considered oversized luggage, you have to go through the problem cargo desk to claim your tackle at your destination.
Some enterprising anglers used to pack their gear as carry on. But this is more difficult in today's post-911 security measures.
That's a tall order and in general a pain.
While a multi-piece rod is the obvious answer, for the longest time we believed the only way to get decent action in a fly, spinning or casting rod was to keep the sections long and the joints few. That was mostly true in the days of heavy fiberglass rods. But today's light and rugged graphite rod materials have rewritten the rules.
Today a number of manufacturers offer great travel rods small enough to pack anywhere, yet capable of handling almost any casting or normal fishing duties in Alaska.
While you can drop a bundle on travel rods, there are also some great solid performing rods for $100 to $200.
The particular rod doing battle with the steelie, a Browning Black Canyon 9-foot 8-weight, breaks into five sections and packs into a 25.5-inch tube. Yet there was nothing second rate about the casting or fish-fighting capabilities of this "pack rod."
I've got great 9-foot 5-piece fly rods from Browning, Cabela's and Bass Pro, all with very good action and fitting in cases of 26 inches or less.
Cabela's also offers a Stowaway 7-piece fly rod that is a darn fine fishing tool, packs down to just 20 inches in a tube that will fit a carry-on suit case, backpack or briefcase, which means it will give you a powerful fishing tool almost anywhere.
But where once travel rod were pretty much limited to fly tackle, today there are also some excellent spinning and casting rods that breakdown into three sections and will handle most Alaska salmon river and saltwater casting duties.
For example, Browning offers an excellent Safari 7-foot, 3-piece casting rod that handles 10 to 20 line and 3/8 to 1 ounce baits. And it will pack down into a 33-inch case that's still small enough for your bigger duffel bag or suit case.
I just put a tape on my "standard" case for my regular 9-foot, 3-piece, 9-weight salmon stick and it's just over 40 inches...too long to put in any bag...and more vulnerable to the luggage handler gorillas.
Bass Pro Shop offers a series of casting travel rods under the Ocean Master name that are also excellent, and will handle most baits you'd cast for river running silvers or sockeyes. While maybe a little light for the biggest Kenai kings, these rods will handle most other Alaska casting duties.
The spawning-brilliant steelhead was putting the 5-piece Browning to the acid test.
I splashed after the sprinting fish for 200 yards downstream, neither gaining nor losing more line, before it turned in the next waist deep hole.
And there we slugged it out.
Each time the fish began to head downstream again, I'd lay the 8-weight flat and make it fight the full curve of the rod and steer it back upstream, so it was fighting both rod and current.
Yet it was still a solid 20 minutes before I could ease the big gorgeous fish onto a sandy bank, grasp the wrist ahead of the tail and lifted it high. After a few quick photos, I eased the 30-inch steelhead back into the current, gently moved it back and forth until it swum strongly back into the current and back toward its spawning duties.
And that's one fish, and one rod, that can make a season!
Leschper is general manager of the Capital City Weekly and writes frequently about the outdoors for publications down south and in SE Alaska. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.