Bob Clay crafts some of the finest cane spey rods available today. He lives and works along the banks of his home river, British Columbia's legendary Kispiox, home to perhaps the largest steelhead on the planet. Recently he took some time away from the river and the workshop to chat with me.
Dana Sturn: How long have you been spey casting?
Bob Clay: I can't tell you the exact date but I do
remember going to the Sage plant years ago with Lani Waller. There we met with
Don Green and I got my first spey rod that was designed by Jimmy Green.
It was a 14 foot 9/10 with the reel seat quite far up the handle.
Later I got another butt section with the reel seat in the proper
Dana: What was that rod like?
Bob: Compared to today's rods it was what today we would call slow--more traditional and fuller flexing. It's a rod action I still like. Being my first spey rod I was a bit overpowered by it. Later as I learned to cast it I realized what it could offer.
Dana: What was going on in the speycasting world at
Bob: I don't think there was much of a speycasting
world at the time Connecting as we do now on the speypages was not happening.
When you met a guy with a spey rod on the river, it was a time to connect.
Dana: What got you started with the two-handed rod?
Bob: I knew Mike Maxwell when we both lived in
Calgary. Being a Brit he could see
the merit in the long rod for steelheading.
Dana: Were you a steelheader at this time?
Bob: We were both coming to BC for a few weeks a year. I think we both got bit by the same bug, steelhead--as we both ended up in BC.
Dana: How did you learn to spey cast?
Bob: Mostly by trial and error after reading John Lynde's 34 Ways to Cast a Fly. My breakthrough came during a streamside lesson from Simon Gawesworth. Simon had been invited by Jim Vincent to come over and fish the Kispiox and I was lucky enough to really see the master at work while floating down the river. What really impressed me was not only what he could do with a spey rod but what he could do with a single handed rod--all the spey casts and more.
Dana: What are the hallmarks of a good speycaster?
Bob: To me it's consistency under all conditions
with both hands. I still struggle
with my left but I enjoy the challenge.
Dana: What are the advantages of a spey rod?
Bob: One might think it is the ease of casting
distance, being such a big rod and all. But
I really believe it's the fact that you can cast in difficult places.
I enjoy being able to drift a fly into the fish rather than to them and
have it swiftly carried away from them.
Dana: Can you explain what you mean by this? Is this
a presentation method?
Bob: When fishing a good fish lie presentation is
everything. Getting the fly slowed down and at the right depth is what you're
trying to achieve. For example the
classic high bank run. Fish are in the gut, say about 10 feet from the high
bank, swift water above them. You can either be on the far bank casting to the
fish, having your fly landing on top of them and being swiftly carried away
before sinking to their depth, or be on the high bank with a spey rod casting
away from the fish sinking the fly to their level as it comes to a slow drift
right in front of them. Where would you rather be?
Bob: The major disadvantage is the short game.
Spey rods tend to load with a fair amount of line on them, making most of
them difficult to load with a small amount of line out.
Dana: What's your favorite tackle set up?
Bob: As you know I fish bamboo. With bamboo there
are two types of rods. The
traditional line lifters that are long and powerful but also heavy and the new
modern spey rod, which is a shorter shooting line type of rod. I enjoy them both
but I tend to fish the lighter shorter rod as I feel the fight is much more
amplified. In North America I believe Lee
Wulff popularized the light tackle
phenomenon with his short rods He
even caught fish casting without a rod.
Dana: How did you get interested in cane rods?
Bob: My love of bamboo rods
started with my mentor, Harry Honer. I
was living in Calgary at the time and learning to fish the Bow River with Harry.
Fiberglass was the material of choice for flyrods at the time but Harry,
a transplanted Englishman, was still using cane. I also grew to love its
qualities and history. Later I moved to the Kispiox where the longer single
handed rod was what to use. I must admit that I thought bamboo might seem
inappropriate until reading Fennelly's
Then I wanted a 9 EC Powell which I ordered from Jim Adams. The hollow
building made it light enough to use.
Dana: Why does a Bow River trout guy move to the
Bob: Well, quite frankly for big rainbows.
There is nothing like the tug. The tug is the drug, not to mention the
country. Steelhead country is like
Dana: Can you tell me a little about your flyfishing
Bob: It has evolved like it has for all anglers
I'm sure. At first I wanted to catch as many as possible. Then the biggest.
Now I savour the experience. To
be with my friends, enjoy what nature has to offer and the beautiful places
flyfishing takes you is where it's at for me.
Dana: Does steelheading amplify this experience?
Bob: I don't think so, but it doesn't hurt
Dana: This goes back to something you mentioned
earlier about the short game, but one thing I noticed right away when I cast
your cane rods is that you need very little line out to make them load. The
expression 'they cast themselves' really seems appropriate to describe them.
Is that quality a happy accident of working with cane or are there design
Bob: People often ask me why bamboo?
It's all about feel. You can feel the load happening as soon as you
start getting even a little line out. In
order to propel the line you must use the total rod. This is a progressive
action and is where bamboo really shines You can feel it flex in your hands,
feel the load, feel the strike and feel the fish. I often tell people the fish
seem twice as big when you get one on bamboo. Yes, it does take a bit longer to
land the fish but I tell people to enjoy, it might be a while before you hook
Dana: What lines do you recommend for your rods?
Bob: For short rods, short belly lines and long rods
long belly lines. Ed Ward has a good formula I believe, 3 to 3 times the length of
the rod is what the head length should be.
I really enjoy the Vision Ace lines and the Beulah Elixir lines for the
short modern rods. For the traditional longer rods The Carron Lines. For sinking
lines, it's hard to beat the Rio Skagit setup.
Dana: Do you favor modern or classic reels?
Bob: Personally I enjoy the classic type of reel.
It looks like what a reel to me should look like.
I realize though the newer modern lightweight reels are extremely well
made. Unfortunately they are mostly mass produced and are missing a little bit
of the soul of the maker. I also believe you do not need a saltwater type disc
car racing type of brake on your reel. A simple click pawl compensating check
type of setup is all you need for our quarry. Let the fish run and jump!!
That's how they tire themselves out, not on a short line bucking and
rolling around . Every run will become shorter and they will come to hand ready
to be released. Adjusting a drag is a thing I almost never do.
I simply set the reel so it won't overspool and that's it.
Dana: Your home waters on the Kispiox produce the
largest steelhead in the world. Are cane rods up to the challenge?
I believe is a lot more harder on any rod than landing a fish if it is done in a
proper manner. I have seen lots of
graphite rods broken when casting. Some because the design was wrong and some
because they had been previously whacked with a weighted fly. So a properly
designed bamboo rod that transfers the stress of the fight to the butt of the
rod has no problem with large steelhead. To
play a big fish on any rod never, especially when the fish is in close, have the
tip above your chest level. Place
the butt of your rod on your hip and play the fish parallel with the water in a
horizontal fashion rather than a vertical one.
Never be close to your fish when landing it. On a beach situation I back
up until the fish is on its side, put my rod down and go over and release the
fish. On a high bank, play the fish
out, put the rod down , follow the rod, then the line to the fish with your
hands, and then release.
Dana: You guide on some of the finest steelhead
waters in British Columbia. Can you share some of your philosophy as a guide?
Apart from helping clients hook fish, what else do you try to achieve?
Bob: As a guide I have learned the measure of
success is not in the numbers. Everybody likes to catch fish, myself included,
otherwise we would not be there in the first place. After all we are the hunter,
but knowing when to back off and have a look around you is the trick. After
you've caught that fish sit back, see what a beautiful place you've managed
to end up in. There's an eagle circling overhead , a dipper
dancing on the rocks, the mountains are covered in fresh snow, a salmon
carcass laying in the river at your feet. All
marvelous sights for you to take in. Also sharing your success and failures with
others is an important part of our sport. Take the time to share a favoured fly
pattern or special place with a less fortunate angler.
You were there once, remember?
Dana: what do you see as being the greatest threats
to wild steelhead?
Bob: The greatest, but not only threat to wild
steelhead is the harvest of wild fish for food. When you go to the grocery store you will notice the only
products not raised on a farm are fish and seafood. Everything else is raised by farmers, who manage what they
raise on their idea of sustainability. They
do not butcher there breeding stock to sell. When we harvest wild creatures we
have no idea what is sustainable. We continually over harvest, taking a
percentage of what's left, dwindling the stocks to remnants of what they once
were. We cannot feed the earth on
wild fish. They must be farmed on a
sustainable basis on land, period. Leave the wild fish alone.
Dana: what can anglers do to help ensure strong runs
of wild steelhead in the future?
Bob: Anglers can and have been vigilant. We are out there watching. Watching the decline. Get involved however you can. You can see what's happening. I know there have been failures, but there have been some successes. I see glimmers of hope on the Skeena. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is paying more attention to harvesting problems. Habitat has been protected . Keep pounding away until you get some change. Join a Conservation Organization, get involved.
Dana: What are your thoughts on the Skeena Quality Waters Plan?
Bob: As you may know, Dana, I sat on one of the three groups set up to give recommendations on problems resulting on fishing pressure on some classified waters at some times. Each group was made up of 4 resident fisherman and three guides, plus a facilitator to look thorougly at the problems. Recommendations were not unanimous and were driven by the majority. Personally I found the process flawed and frustrating. I knew there would be problems but still I elected to participate The report now goes to the public which has until November 2008 for comment . Early in the new year the feedback will be reviewed and the plan amended. The plan will then be sent to a provincial oversight group and then in to Government for consideration. Implementation will be 2010 .The Government has already stated that if the plan does not meet the needs of all British Columbians it will not be accepted. So there is lots of work do to and changes to be made. If it affects you please let the government know.