April 13th, 1998

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories. . .

The Sage SPL and the Ridge Runner

By Michael A. Widener

I awoke at 5 o'clock local dark time with the great anticipation of trying a new fly rod. I sat on the edge of the bed alternately looking at my wife and the new, untried Sage SPL 2-weight in its case leaning against my bookshelf. I knew what the wife had in mind for me since the weather changed from winter to spring the past three days. Visions of paint brushes danced in her head while I heard the imaginary screams of "get me to water" from the little cased rod. After three weeks of snow storms, rain and wind, my passion could not take it any longer. I had spent a near sleepless night trying to decide where to go, what leader length, what bugs would be active, what, if, when, etc. The scenarios I ran in my head were endless. With knowledge of new releases of hatchery raised trout, I finally decided the South Holston River would be the initial testing ground for this new addition to my arsenal.

I had fought off the temptation of taking a second "just in case" rod. I wanted to give my new charge my total concentration. The anticipation ended with me dressed in my best Simms, gently carrying my new three week old possession out to 'Gracie,' the famous fishing car. I had broken an SP in a Bronco captain's chair some time back with a stupid act of carelessness, so I secured the rod next to me in the front seat with great care even though it was secure in its nuclear hardened Sage case. As I eased 'Gracie' out of the drive, the sunrise was beginning to paint the outline of the distant Blue Ridge Mountains in purple and gold. I looked behind me to see Sue waving goodbye and blowing me a kiss from the front porch. This was her signal for "have a good time but be back in time to help me with the outside work or you die" among other hand signals of love and affection.

I drove towards Bluff City, I reviewing the scenario I had decided on. The section of the South Holston that was my destination was a difficult, narrow 100 yard portion of an eight mile river course. This portion of the river was the section that established the 5,000 trout per mile theory during the last creel survey. The topography included fast runs, rapids and riffles that held some of the larger brown trout in the southeast or the United States for that matter. It was a section that produced the sixteen pound rainbow that was the state record and was a place generally associated with the bait crowd. It was a place the creators of the SPL would probably not immediately associate with light line fly fishing. My thoughts were on the great number of shallow pools, eddies and narrow portions of this section that had produced big in the past. I have kept very good records of not only my fishing in East Tennessee, but of all the "cracker barrel" reports from the people I had met during the four years since I returned home. I knew I was going to the right place for light line, little imitations, multiple situations and selecti trout.

As I turned up Highway 44 from Bluff City, the river looked tranquil compared to the periods of heavy generation during the past week due to snow melt from the surrounding mountains that fed South Holston Lake. As I drove, I thought of the past couple of backyard practice sessions . I still had great concern about the length of the leader and tippet that would perform best with the rod and the new Sage line. Initial experiments with a recommended leader, with a 0.016 butt of my construction, had various results from all those I had try it. I had settled on a ten foot leader and with a 6x tippet with an initial 0.021 diameter butt that had turned over well in the backyard trials. The Sage SPL is a rod that does not have a traditional felt weight at all. My "2" weight has a whole ounce and 15/16th worth of bulk. It is like nothing in your hand and will readily follow any motion of the arm or wrist. I had tried the "0" weight, with even a 1/4 ounce less weight, at my local dealer and found out immediately how easy it is to over-powered these rods. Compared to my cousins three weight LL, with more than a full ounce of difference, my final choice of the "2" weight seemed to be an exercise in thought projection rather then the traditional feel of a heavier rod. The SPL makes a statement for "light and easy" with enough rod length to be useful.

In East Tennessee, the ability to have a rod with enough length to control a line around rocks, over riffs and off embankments is important. Hence, I have never been impressed with the functionality of overly short rods which have been favored by those who tramp the mountains. The SPL demands more attention to basic casting techniques and line control. This seems to come second nature after one decides that expectations to reach out and touch something at extended distances might be a little unrealistic and any target over twenty feet is probably being fished wrong anyhow. The SPL to me represents an instrument of stealth and deliberate purpose. That purpose is a selective trout with "Do Not Disturb" signs posted. It seemed to be the ticket for the heavily fished trout of the Tennessee tailwaters and mountain streams.

My initial choice of a Hardy flyweight reel seemed to be a good match to the rod. The small diameter and weight seemed to qualify it as a good choice. However, for personal taste, I replaced the Hardy with a Lamson LP-1L. The Lamson lacks an adjustable drag and offers two springs of different tension instead. The lighter spring and single pawl of the Lamson is a joy and the weight difference of the two reels came out to be about 5/8th of an ounce loaded. The ability to palm control the reel is important here in Tennessee since there is always a danger of hooking something other than a trout in these waters. While comparison casting the "0" and the "2", the difference to me is noticeable as was the purpose of the rod. Function and need dictated my choice rather than the urge to be different or be the first kid on the block with a new toy.

I eased old 'Gracie' into the first car park after passing the Old Elizabethton Highway. A gift from my father-in-law, 'Gracie' is an 1984 Chrysler E-Series that is totally trashed looking. I just throw a can of corn in the back seat and leave a worm pack on the fender before I set out into nature. This small attention to detail removes all possibilities of vandalism and discourages others from stopping to take my hole. I was finally here after a three week wait and I was ready. I stepped out of the car to surreal world of early morning mist, the sounds a river makes, and chirping spring robins in a nearby tree. Even the stench of the near-by road kill did not dampen my spirit for this adventure of truly light line experience.

After donning my gear and careful assembly of my new toy, I started down the embankment to pay homage to my favorite body of water. Once near the rivers edge, I thought through all the scenarios from my dreams the night past. The sun was now gaining the top of Holston Mountain casting shadows across the river. The low layer of morning fog would burn off quickly and the scattered clouds would aid my approach to the spot I had planned on.

I made my way to the foot of a twenty yard flow over large boulders and narrow runs. I slowly eased my way to the top which overlooked about one hundred yards of open, smooth water averaging about three feet in depth. Below the smooth texture, I know the rocky bottom would hold exactly what I was in search of. I sat down on a rock over looking the tail of the pool, careful not to cast a shadow or ripple in the pool. I watched for about five minutes and noted the fish were there as they always were, feeding on what nature offered. I mentally blocked off a ten by ten yard section of the pool and tied on my choice.

Based on a total lack of the rises, most people who fish these upper tailwaters would have started with a pheasant tail or other traditional nymph in size #14 or #16. I knew from experience the first thing that would cause any response from the trout below would be the small BWOs and Black Caddis in about size #20 and smaller that play the surface during the early morning hours. I selected a small emerger of my own design in size #22 which consisted of pheasant and sculpin wool. If sculpin wool is tied in loops instead of cut straight, the result is an air bubble that causes neutral buoyancy that will hold the little bug at an even level just below the surface film. What is important, I was using a size that matched the conditions, and I had an apparatus to deliver the imitation in the manner it was meant to be . . . lightly and quietly.

I targeted a small flow around a partially submerged rock about twenty feet away and laid an acceptable right curve cast six feet above the subject rock. I repeated this cast at different points above the pattern sunken rocks that were the subject of my attention. I was amazed at the ease the Sage line cast with hardly a ripple from the line entering the water. I major change for a guy who laid a five weight out like a torpedo trail.

While I was thinking how well the line controlled and how easily the outfit handled, the initial subsurface take transmitted through the little rod loud and clear. A soft lift upward resulted in the immediate cushioned curve of the rod bending south and a solid hookup. The twelve inch rainbow headed upstream once it became aware of the sensation of pressure. The line in my hand ran out and the Lamson picked up the load with no effort. I let the trout run with the reel while I had complete control over its destiny. When I released the trout I realized I had just transformed into another being. I had become a "light" fly fisherman. I repeated the events I just described three more times during the next hour. As the sun rose above the ridges, General El Nino provided a continual twenty mile an hour wind with gusts that would cancel even the advantage of an eleven weight flats rod. I had to surrender the field as the high winds became steady. As 'Gracie' sped me home to the land of paint brushes, I thought of all the possibilities for the SPL.

If you read the varied articles, testimonials and other dialogs written to date about the SPL series, one has visions of casting a hair weight fly line with extremely fine tippets with impossible hook sizes. These visions are painted on scenes of small waters flowing off a mountain, static pools or a stream you can straddle. These new rods are capable of a whole lot more for the fly fisherman with imagination.

Most of my brief fly fishing experience, I always associated the large rivers and streams with heavy weight equipment and techniques. These techniques and hardware requirements are usually supported with the thought of fishing large amounts of water per trip as advocated by local aficionados. The "light" approach has brought me to a new level. If you take any portion of our East Tennessee tailwaters or large free flowing streams and look at a particular section or part of that water, one finds multiple conditions each requiring a specific technique within a very small area. Undercuts, current flows through a series of sunken rocks, submerged timber and what ever else constitutes a portion of the water to be fished makes a person believe there might be a better way to fish these small areas of concentrated fish even on larger waters.

This season I plan to get smarter. I plan to break down each piece of water I fish into the smallest target area and match the small hatches we contend with here. I have no doubts of the SPL and line to handle even the largest fish that can be hooked from my local waters. As a matter of fact, I am willing to bet my catches improve in quantity and size by going light with full attention to those little pockets I had not paid attention to in the past. The subtle entry of the light Sage line will allow me to stay even more invisible than in the past. Invisibility is a requisite around here for those invisible browns that East Tennessee is famous for. For those inclined to fish static pools, slow flows and picturesque mountain streams, I am certain that the "0-2" weight SPL series will pay big dividends for those who choose to specialize their approach to a particular piece of water.

For those who think that the new Sage SPL series are novelties, toys or high-end specialty rods, I will offer that they are just a way to another level of fly fishing. To me, these three rods, with the Sage designed lines, cast and handle better than any other rod and line in the class of light weights. The eight foot length is a major plus for getting the most out of the rods with almost no rod weight penalty. My grandfathers always taught me to use a proper tool for the task at hand. The SPL is just another tool that is going to expand my capabilities. Now I am in no way any kind of expert in this institution of fly fishing. However, I sure wish that I had not wasted the past four years without a "light weight" rod under two ounces. Oh yeah, anyone want to buy a good used five weight? ~ MW

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