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Mike Kinney

Like so many of the new wave of steelhead fly fishers that got their start in the 1990s, I first met Mike Kinney on page 413 of The Book, Trey Combs' Steelhead Fly Fishing. Reading those few paragraphs I got the distinct impression that Mike was a unique character, and wondered why such a singular steelhead personality didn't get his own chapter. When I finally met Mike a few years ago in Seattle and spent time with him whenever our paths would cross at speyclaves, I slowly came to understand more about the man and his understated genius.

Mike is one of the few anglers I've met who can cast anything. It's magical to watch him pick up any rod and line combo, wiggle it around for a second or two and then launch a cast across the river. Mike makes it all look so effortless, but his deep understanding of the two-handed rod has been developed over years of casting and fishing in the tough winter conditions of the Pacific Northwest. Standing belt deep in cold water will teach you a thing or two about conserving energy, and there's nothing wasted when Mike picks up a spey rod.

Last spring Mike and I sat down at his camp near the Sandy River and chatted about Spey casting.

Dana Sturn: How long have you been spey casting?

Mike Kinney: 18 years.

Dana: What got you started with the two-handed rod?

Mike: I started flyfishing on the Stillaguamish with single handers and whenever the rod companies came out with longer single handed rods I liked them better. I started reading about the two-handed rods coming out of England and got interested in them. Then I heard that Sage was going to be making some of these rods so I asked for some of the first ones. In those early years they didn't even make rods, they were just blanks. I knew Les Icorn, the Sage rep in the Northwest at the time. I met him at a local fishing shop and got my first blanks through him.

Dana: Tell me about those early Sage blanks.

Mike: The first year they had a 16 ft medium action and a 13ft. These rods were similar in action to the original Sage 9140, but the rods were much heavier. The butt section was like today's 18 footers! I didnÿ˘t know any better so I took the longest one because I thought I needed it. The original blank was not three even sections--the butt section was longer than the other sections.

Dana: How did you learn to speycast?

Mike: I started by casting on the lawn and learning how to make a loop with the rod--something between a single spey and a switch cast. Then I started to question anyone who seemed to know any thing about it--people who had gone to England, anyone. The first guy who I ever saw with one of these rods was Steve Rajeff who was visiting the Oso cabins on the Stilly at the time, about 18 years ago.
When I met Rajeff he was with John Farrar and I asked him what he was doing with a two-hander. He had a spinning reel on the 13 ft Sage and he had made a 45ft shooting head backed with mono that he was throwing across the Graveyard Pool on the Thompson. That gave me some ideas about shooting heads.
The next guy I talked to was Eric Maison-Pierre who had a rod for a while longer than me because he got his directly from England. He was using shooting heads but he recommended long lighter heads so that you could shoot some line into your backcast to give you a little more distance. That didn't make any sense to me because it seemed too complicated, so since it was a 9 weight rod and I had heard somewhere that I should use a 10 weight line for a shooting head with a 9 weight rod, I cut a 10 weight line in half to make a head and then cut 15ft off the front to add sinktips to it. This didn't work too well for me--1/2 the time I couldnÿ˘t get my anchor right!
But shooting heads made sense to me because I used shooting head style sinktips to start with for single hand rods and my single handed rods tended to work better if I overloaded them and made the heads shorter. So I got a piece of 12 weight double taper figuring I could make a shorter head and still get enough weight to load the rod. This worked much better. Through trial and error I came up with the total length of the head between 35ft and 38ft. Then I just kept experimenting on the river until I came up with things that worked, so I didn't really have anyone who taught me how to spey cast. I kept this system for several years. Then I started to notice other people spey casting and watched the things they were doing--what worked and what didn't. I probably learned as much from their bad casts as good casts, but I think I learned the most by watching their rod tip and hand position. I still feel that is the best way to learn to spey cast--paying attention to what the hands and rod tip are doing--and I emphasize that in my teaching today.

Dana: What are the hallmarks of a good speycaster?

Mike: The things that are important to me are that you can get your fly to totally turn over before it hits the water and that you can cast on either side of the river from straight downstream to straight upstream and all in between, and that they don't need a lot of room to do it, a good spey caster can tuck into any place and be able to cast. Beyond that to me a good speycaster is the one who looks like he isn't working hard to make these casts.

Dana: What are the qualities of a good casting instructor?

Mike: I think a casting instructor needs to know a little bit about the physical movement of the line and how it can be made to go up or down or sideways, and then I think that you have to find a way to communicate those things in terms that ordinary people understand. I often use golf or baseball or throwing a shot put or using a hammer as ways of helping people learn what I mean by how to use their hands and how to move the rod.
Another thing that I think is important is that you don't keep nagging at a person and intimidating them. Give them some time, complimenting them when things go well and coaxing them when things go wrong.

Dana: What are the advantages of a spey rod?

Mike: The advantage of the spey rod for me is I don't need any backcast room to make a cast. Once I learned to relax it was 1/2 as much work as a single handed rod.

Dana: Disadvantages?

Mike: The only disadvantages I have found in Spey rods are two people fishing from a boat and setting the hook with longer rods while stripping in.

Dana: What is your favorite tackle set up and why?

Mike: My favorite rods are four piece rods so I can break them down in two equal pieces for going the car between fishing holes or when walking through the brush. The length of rods and lines I like are chosen for practicality--shorter rods and lines for in-close work and longer rods and lines for distance. The action I like is medium-fast progressive. The taper I like is regressive.

Dana: What do you mean by "regressive"?

Mike: A regressive or regressed rod has most of the power in the top 3/4. The butt section is slightly softened. This way, the more load put on the rod, them more you feel the flex in your hands. The byproduct is a more even flex throughout and a slightly less deflected tip giving a slightly higher forward stroke and less effort throughout.

Dana: Tell me about the origins of Skagit casting style?

Mike: First of all I guess I don't really like the term Skagit casting. To me it is more of a way of fishing than casting, but the first people that I saw that not only cast but were successful catching fish were Harry Lemire and Bob Stroble. I would seem them across the river on the Sauk or Skagit.
But Harry and Bob, while they were gentlemen on the river, they never shared much information. And so what I did notice from watching them was that they fished in places where single handed casters couldn't cast, tucked up against a high bank, underneath limbs and with obstructions all around them. So Skagit casting became a way of fishing where other people couldn't. We had to figure out ways to fish in all these places. Lots of times the traditional casts wouldn't work, so we would wiggle the rod to get the line repositioned, and do other things so that we could cover the water.
My cast evolved through watching the guys who were fishing--Harry and Bob and Al Buhr. They didn't use long sweeps of the rod, they used shorter strokes and kept an eye on the line so that we could watch the loop form and then drive off the loop to make their casts.

Dana: Drive off the loop?

Mike: Yes, when I form my D loop it had to be opposite the direction the fly was going out in the river, and had to be at it's tightest point when I went forward. Later on I learned how to accelerate that loop so that it got tighter and made it easier to make my forward cast.

Dana: Yes, you were showing me that on the river yesterday. How do you accelerate that D loop?

Mike: As I go back and lead my rod tip with the top hand I add extra tension by moving my bottom hand in the opposite direction so that it accelerates the rod tip and speeds up the line, making a tight, fast loop. I've always envisioned what I do with my hands as using them equally, like how you would use a brace and bit hand drill, and the pivot mark is actually between the two hands, like a ball joint centered between the hands. I also envision the power for the cast to be 60% backcast and 40% forward--most of the power is in the backcast, making the forward cast much easier.

Dana: Mike, what are the elements of your fly fishing philosophy?

Mike: My fly fishing philosophy is based upon keeping an open mind and being in tune with my surroundings. My fly fishing philosophy is based upon self improvement and maintaining the same level of love or lust for the sport. In order to keep this level of enthusiasm I must be open minded enough, and aware enough, to have continual input (learning) and observation and a need to improve. Observation takes on a Zen-like quality of slowing down enough to notice the little things. Being aware of everything and everyone around me is the only way I know to continue to learn or get input. Hence I cannot get to the water, run down the bank, wade as deep as I can, and go on full attack mode. In other words, I must...take it all in!

The learning part comes from reacting to or trying the things that I observe. Building a skill set or a bunch of tools, if you will, improves success. In order to become a successful fly fisher, caster, teacher--I must build a set of skills or tools to make the job easier. And the more some skills become second nature, the more I can be aware of weaknesses and things going on around me.

The tools I stress in teaching are as follows:

  • Observation
  • Realistic expectations
  • Casting Experience
  • Presentation
  • Open mind
  • Wading
  • Respect for fish, environment, and other people
  • Common sense
  • Knowing the quarry, its life history, its regional history, and regional preferences
  • Tackle
  • Knots
  • Flies
  • Leaders Maintenance

The more I learn to verbalize and teach these skills and ethics to others, the more I understand myself.