Gear Review: 9’6″ 6wt Orvis H3F

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

I’ve heaped a ton of praise on the Orvis H3F lately, but with good reason. The various configurations of this rod series I’ve fished have been absolutely stellar. The first one I reviewed, an 8’6″ 4wt, is still arguably the best 4wt you’ll find on the market today.

I’ve experimented a lot with rod length in the past year or so, trying to determine how much of a difference it makes for my “usual” fishing circumstances. Is a 10′ 5wt, for example, worth the extra swing weight just for the reach?

As with everything in fly fishing, it depends. But after a month or so spent with the 9’6″ 6wt Orvis H3F, I’ve decided the extra length and weight of this rod is more than worth it.

For starters, this rod will pick up and throw line. Whether I had streamers or dries on the end didn’t matter; the rod just flat-out performed. Being 9’6″ long, it’s obviously a great tool for high-sticking dead drifts, and is an absolute dream for mending from a drift boat.

That comes at the cost of added weight, swing weight, and less subtlety than I’d like in close, but overall the 9’6″ 6wt Orvis H3F is a fantastic rod that’s worthy of a spot in any angler’s quiver.

What I Like

Raw Power

Even though this rod is part of the “3F” family, don’t mistake it for a slouch in the power department. It rockets line wherever you cast, and with whichever line you choose, too. I usually test rods out with various lines, because a good line can make all the difference in rod performance.

I used a Cortland 444 Classic Peach DT6F and the Orvis Power Taper WF6F on a Hardy Princess and Orvis Mirage reel, respectively. The 9’6″ 6wt Orvis H3F handled both lines flawlessly, though it mended the DT line better (as should be expected).

orvis h3f casting
Angler Ryan McCullough casting the Orvis H3F to wary brown trout. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Multiple times while using this rod to fish small dries in Oregon this March, I needed to pick up 50 or 60 feet of line and recast quickly. I rarely, if ever, had to false cast with this rod. That’s some serious power that comes in handy when hatches are sporadic and fish are wary.

Presentation

While I’d never call this rod a delicate dry fly tool, it is remarkably adept at soft, accurate presentations. For fishing pre-runoff hatches in low, crystal-clear water, that sort of delicacy is an absolute must. The 9’6″ 6wt Orvis H3F isn’t a Scott or Winston by any means, but it’ll get the job done.

Blank Strength

Honestly, six inches doesn’t feel like a huge difference in length, but as anyone can attest, length matters. And six inches is more than enough to make a normally great rod feel a bit wobbly.

You notice this a lot on some of the lower-end Euro Nymphing rods, if you’re paying attention. The rods are stout throughout the butt section, but lose any power, stability, and strength in the last few feet of the tip.

Orvis avoided that pitfall. The 9’6″ 6wt H3F has plenty of blank strength to help turn and lift fish. Given that this is the “F” model as opposed to its more powerful “D” model cousin, that’s pretty impressive.

Build Quality

I’ve touched on this in every other review I’ve done of an H3 rod, but I’ll briefly address it here. The build quality on the Orvis H3F and H3D series is impeccable. The thread wraps are tight, and you’ll find two SiC stripping guides alongside REC Recoil snake guides. As with all H3F rods, the finish is a matte gray.

Paired with the best cork on production rods I’ve found to date, an anodized aluminum reel seat, and a cork fighting butt. Nothing about the rod is fancy, but pick one up and it’s apparent that all components are top-notch.

orivs h3f in grass
The build quality of an Orvis H3F is hard to beat. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

What I Don’t Like

Swing Weight

This was a new experience for me with an H3. Most of these rods have so little swing weight you never notice it. The 9’6″ 6wt had enough for me to notice and wear my arm out a little after a week of fishing sunup to sundown.

For the average angler, though, the swing weight won’t be too much of a deterrent.

Rod Weight

The H3 series hasn’t even been known for being light. These rods are actually heavier than their predecessor, the Helios 2. It’s a minuscule difference, though, which most folks won’t notice.

But for the length and weight of this rod, I felt that the 9’6″ 6wt was too heavy. Eliminating the fighting butt may be all Orvis needs to change in order to help it feel better in-hand.

orvis h3f with fish
Angler Ryan McCullough tricked this big brown with the Orvis H3F 9’6″ 6wt. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Final Word

Orvis continues to be the name to beat in the fly fishing arms race. No other company offers consistent value and performance over their lineup in the way Orvis does. From entry-level sticks to high-end models, Orvis has a rod for every angler.

The 9’6″ 6wt Orivs H3F may not be for every angler, but it has its place as an excellent distance rod. It’s an absolute wind cannon, perfect for using while fishing out of a drift boat, but also capable of delicately presenting dry flies.

The swing weight and overall rod weight are a slight deterrent, but not enough so that I’d write this rod off as “not good.” It’s an excellent piece of equipment that’s accurate, fun to fish, and most importantly, gets the job done.


Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His writing has appeared in multiple national publications over the past decade, including Field & Stream, American Angler, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, Sporting Classics Daily, Hatch Magazine, and Gray’s Sporting Journal. Spencer is the founder of Spencer Durrant Outdoors. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

Book Review: Simple Fly Fishing

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

John Juracek – who’s quickly becoming one of my favorite fly fishing writers – made an interesting, albeit sad, observation in a recent piece for Hatch Magazine.


For quite some years now, the classic books of fly fishing have been skating on thin ice. Very thin ice. Recently it appears—at least from where I stand—that the ice has finally given way. With luck a couple of classic titles may flounder for awhile, but the bulk of them seem to be plunging unceremoniously to depths from which only the most intrepid of future anglers might dredge them. Yes, the classics are pretty much gone. I’m taking it hard.

John Juracek

As someone who has a stack of classic titles on my desk, nightstand, and one of the many bookshelves in my home, I feel John’s pain. But I also see some hope for fly fishing books, of which the revised 2nd Edition of Simple Fly Fishing is emblematic.

It’s categorically impossible to call Simple Fly Fishing a classic, but if the angling world can produce more books like this one, then perhaps the classics titles from the early-to-mid 20th century won’t fall into such abject obscurity.

What Simple Fly Fishing Does Well

Concise Detail

For starters, this book earns its title. Authors Yvon Chouinard, Craig Mathews, and Mauro Mazzo break down the complex world of fly fishing to something more approachable. The intricacies of mayfly hatches and aquatic insect life cycles are illustrated with great detail, helping to roll back that shroud of wonder and mystery. I imagine this will shorten the entomology learning curve every angler goes through.

Also included are detailed descriptions and illustrations on casting techniques, like the one pictured below.

simple fly fishing diagram

Honestly, this feels like Simple Fly Fishing‘s biggest strength. The illustrations and directions are clear, concise, and easy to understand. If I’d had a book like this when I started fly fishing, I think I’d have picked it up quicker.

A Fly Primer

I’m no professional guide, but on the occasion I take folks fishing who’ve never been, the question I’m asked most is how to know which flies to use, and when.

I had the fortune of learning all about flies from a grandfather who tied commercially for 27 years, and a dad who took me fishing from the moment I could walk. For those not born into a situation like that, this book is a great primer on flies.

It’s not as scientifically-driven as Vincent C. Marinaro’s A Modern Dry-Fly Code or In The Ring of The Rise, so there’s not as much depth as more experienced anglers may expect. The details on flies in Simple Fly Fishing are much more akin to any of Jack Dennis’s books.

Phenomenal Illustration

image of dry fly in simple fly fishing

As a photographer myself, and a purveyor of fly fishing art and photos, I was absolutely blown away at the quality of the photos in Simple Fly Fishing. They’re above and beyond what I’d expect, and I think for a new angler they add to the grand aura that attracted so many of us to this sport in the first place.

How Simple Fly Fishing Could Improve

Pick Tenkara or Fly Fishing

I’ll likely catch hell for this, but I’m of the persuasion that tenkara isn’t fly fishing. I’ve spent enough time doing it that I feel confident in making that assertion, and I’ll even go so far as to say I believe the same thing about Euro nymphing. Fly fishing, in my mind, involves the act of casting fly line.

I also think both tenkara and Euro nymphing are too complex for beginners. Almost no technique from tenkara transitions to traditional rod and reel, which makes attempting it a waste of time if the goal of a new angler is to learn to fish in the classic “Western” style.

That’s not to mention losing out on the absolute thrill of feeling a big trout take line, and the immediate heft when you’ve hooked a brute.

If the authors would’ve picked a single form of fishing to focus on in this book, the overall instruction and presentation would’ve been much stronger. I know Yvon Chouinard loves tenkara, but out here in the Rockies it’s not practiced much.

simple fly fishing image

More Emphasis on Gear

The authors do a good job describing what kind of gear you need, but fail to give specifics. Craig Mathews says he prefers a “slow-action rod” for dry fly fishing (pp. 125), but unlike the recommendation on tenkara rods for dries – “I prefer Temple Fork Outfitter’s ‘Dry Fly’ model rod (pp. 115)” – there aren’t any recommendations for traditional rods or reels.

With this book being published by Patagonia, they obviously have a vested interest in selling Patagonia gear. But Patagonia doesn’t sell rods or reels, so why not suggest anglers try a Sage X, Winston Air, Scott Radian, or the outrageously-cheap-yet-impressive Fenwick Aetos? This at least gives newcomers a better starting ground than walking into a fly shop, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, asking for a “slow action rod.”

Final Word

In all, Simple Fly Fishing is just a nice collection of easy-to-digest fishing knowledge from some of the best in the sport. It’s simple enough that newcomers won’t feel intimidated while reading it, but those who’ve only been fishing for a year or two can still learn a lot from it.

I’d like a narrower focus and more specifics on gear, but those are two minor complaints about a work that is, overall, a great introductory tool to the sport of fly fishing.


Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, American Angler, Sporting Classics Daily, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, Hatch Magazine, and other national publications. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

Gear Review: Orvis H3D 9′ 6wt

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

Over the past half-decade, I haven’t been as consistently impressed with a rod family as I am with the Orvis H3 lineup. They’re light, have a low swing weight, track incredibly straight, and are absolute lasers at distance. From the 8’6″ 4wt H3F to the 9’8wt H3D, each rod hits the sweet spot for its length and line weight. Call it premature, but I think the Orvis H3 series will gain the cult following the Sage XP currently enjoys.

The 9’6wt H3D was my second H3, and it had its first true test in Alaska in June 2018. The rod handled big salmon streamers just fine, but followed that up with surprisingly good dry fly presentation for hungry grayling. Surprisingly, I didn’t notice a change in accuracy when throwing streamers or dries.

The 9’6wt H3D features a full-wells cork grip, the standard H3 gray anodized aluminium reel seat, and a fighting butt. Since this is the “D” model, the blank is matte black with matching wraps. Rounding out the components are two SiC stripping guides, followed by REC recoil snake guides. Some folks don’t care for the white sticker above the grip, but I like it. The rest of the rod is fairly plain-looking, a far cry from the classy blue hues of the Helios 2 rods.

close  up of h3d grip
The cork on the H3D is wonderfully soft and smooth in hand. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

The rod performs like few others I’ve ever seen. It’s a beefy 6wt, to be fair – and heavier than the Helios 2 rods – but with a surprising amount of feel and delicacy available. A new Orvis H3D 9’6wt runs $949 and comes backed by the standard Orvis 25-year warranty.

I hesitate to call it the “best” 6wt on the market, but at the same time, I can’t readily place another rod ahead of it. The H3 is in a league all its own, and is one of the few top-tier production rods that’s worth every penny of its steep asking price.

What I Like

Accuracy

Orvis has spent a big chunk of change on marketing the H3 as “accurate from anywhere.” In the hands of a competent caster, they’re not wrong.

The 6wt H3D, in particular, is a laser of a rod. When throwing average trout-sized streamers from a drift boat, I rarely had to re-cast to get my fly right where I wanted. Switching over to dries, the rod did just as well.

Action

The H3D is definitely fast, but not in the realm of the Sage One or Method. It’s lively, quick, and sensitive in-hand, even in heavier weights. I have an H3D in a 9′ 8wt, and it’s just as sensitive as its 6wt brother.

Novice and expert casters alike will get the H3D to work excellently. It’s fast enough to be forgiving, but in the right hands, it’s astoundingly powerful and accurate.

Soft Tip

I didn’t expect this, but the 9’6wt H3D has a surprisingly soft tip. I’m not sure if this stems from the rod’s increased torsional stability, but I’m extremely grateful for it. A few weeks after I got home from Alaska, I was on Utah’s famed Boulder Mountain. My buddy Jeff and I were chasing tiger trout and splake, and the fish weren’t interested in anything unless it was a size 20 or smaller.

So I tied on a few nymphs, a long 6x fluorocarbon leader, and started a slow hand-twist retrieve back to where I sat in my float tube. Something heavy gobbled up a midge, I set the hook, and immediately felt the tell-tale death rolls indicative of tiger trout.

More than once, the fish made runs I thought would snap the tippet. But the Orvis H3D 9’6wt tip absorbed the impact and kept the tippet intact. A few minutes later I had a 20-inch tiger in my lap.

Power

As much as I’ve raved about this rod’s feel and accuracy, it shouldn’t be overlooked as stick with plenty of oomph. The H3’s an absolute wind cannon, and you can cast to backing without too much effort.

h3d sitting on log
The 6wt H3D is surprisingly good on smaller streams. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

What I Don’t Like

Price

Everyone has to make a living, and Orvis isn’t any different. It almost feels disingenuous of me to complain about the price, since I run my own business and get tired of folks balking at my prices.

What bothers me about the $949 price tag for this rod is that a majority of anglers won’t get the chance to fish one. Add $200 to that rod cost, and that’s my mortgage payment. The H3D is worth $949, don’t get me wrong – but it’s still a hard pill to swallow.

Snake Guides

I’m not used to fishing Recoil snake guides, because every time I clean ice from a frozen eyelet, I’m convinced I just broke my rod. This doesn’t affect rod performance or anything. It’s just a feature I’m not all that fond of.

No Hook Keep

Orvis eliminated the hook keep on all H3 rods. The 9’6wt H3D is no exception. About a year ago, when I first got my hands on an H3, I jokingly told Tom Rosenabuer that if he’d put a hook keep on all the H3F rods, they’d be absolutely perfect.

The lack of a hook keep isn’t a deal breaker, especially on a heavier-weight rod like this one. But it’s one of the few things Orvis did with the H3 series that I don’t absolutely love.

close up of orvis h3d 6wt
Overall, the H3D 9’6wt is a stellar rod. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Final Word

The Orvis H3D 9’6wt is one of the most impressive rods I’ve ever fished, and it’s proven extremely capable for fishing dries to grayling, small nymphs to tiger trout, and streamers to angry browns and rainbows. It’s light, accurate as hell, fun to fish, and deceptively powerful.

The $949 price tag is steep, and it’ll prevent a lot of anglers from owning this rod. The lack of a hook keep still bothers me, but it’s honestly the most legitimate gripe I have against the rod. Orvis hit a home-run with the H3D.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, American Angler, Hatch Magazine, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, Sporting Classics Daily, and other national publications. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

A Bad Trip

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

A friend of mine recently said that I live a charmed life. The way he said it made the statement sound more like an accusation, though I suspect that was jealousy speaking. He made the comment not long after I had my first byline in Field & Stream. That wasn’t my first ‘big-time’ byline, but seeing my name in Field & Stream lent credibility to my career as a fishing writer.

I do live a charmed life, if I’m being completely honest. I get paid to fish, hunt, camp, and travel. I’m living the dream of every outdoorsy man who wishes he didn’t spend his life in a cubicle. What those guys – my friend included – don’t get is that behind the veneer of Instagram pictures and magazine articles is a life just as hectic, stressful, and annoying as theirs.

As I lay in the back of a Toyota 4-Runner trying to keep my insides from becoming my outsides, I half-wished my buddy could’ve been there to see just how “charmed” life was in that moment. Three days before I lay dying in the 4-Runner, I’d left on what should’ve been a leisurely backpacking trip. My buddies and I spent the better part of a year planning this trip, but things went south so spectacularly that we came home a day early.  

The tragedy started late on a Wednesday night. I was with the usual crew of miscreants who are the cast in my fishing adventures. Mike, Bill, and Marty – Mike’s cousin – and I huddled around an empty fire pit, staring off a cliff at the valley which unrolled before us. The moonlight revealed scant details, but we could just make out the far edge of Big Dog Mountain, behind which lay our destination. It was just after midnight, chilly, and the crisp air did little to help us relax. The sharp edge to each breath – shorter now that we were more than 8,000 feet above sea level – excited rather than discouraged. After countless hours of planning, and countless more spent ignoring honey-do lists and general adult responsibility, we could literally taste the adventure we’d come chasing.

From left to right: Spencer, Marty, Bill, and Mike. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Like kids on Christmas morning, we turned from the cliff’s edge and started unpacking the trucks. The plan was to sleep on the cliff, get up with the sun, and start hiking shortly after first light. And, just like kids, we had to make camp as close to the edge of the cliff as was safely possible. Men may grow up, but rarely do we ever stop being children. Cast-in-point:

“Did you eat all the donuts?” Mike asked while I set up our tent by starlight.

“Does a bear shit in the woods?” I replied.

Dozens of bad jokes later, I lay on my thin sleeping pad, acutely aware of each and every rock’s exact location along my spine. All-night comfort my ass, I thought, thinking back to the review I’d read of this sleeping pad. I’d bought it specifically so I wouldn’t feel like I was sleeping on top of spilled Legos, but it seemed I’d been swindled yet again by savvy advertising.

And in case you’re wondering, spending $120 on a sleeping pad that wasn’t near as soft as the pile of feathers and angel tears I’d been promised wasn’t this trip’s great tragedy.

I didn’t sleep much, and was the first to wake to a weak sun and a sky dotted with clouds. Careful not to make noise, I opened Mike’s truck, rummaged around behind the driver’s seat, and pulled out a half-dozen nearly-frozen donuts. I was halfway through donut number three when Mike staggered out of the tent, looking surprised to be in the wilderness. He pointed at the donuts. “I thought you ate ‘em all?”

I shrugged. “I wanted one last good breakfast.”

Camp got packed up quicker than expected, and the sun hadn’t been up for more than half an hour before we started the trek. There wasn’t much of a trail for the first few miles, but we’d spent a year staring at topographic maps, Google Earth, and arguing about the best approach to get to a lake none of us had ever visited before.  

We couldn’t have asked for better hiking weather. Blacksmith Lake was nine miles from the cliff where we’d slept. Balmy temps and a slight breeze kept the sweating and cursing to a minimum, even when I insisted on stopping five times in a span of fifteen minutes so I could set up some still photography and video shots.

Perfect hiking weather. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

“I’m working,” I had to remind everyone else. “I gotta make a living.”

Bill and Marty both chimed in with variations of, “You have a rough life.”

As I lay in the dirt, directing their movements through the forest, I replied, “Yeah, call me when you’re up for two nights editing photos and videos after doing this hike.”

We passed a handful of lakes and eventually found a faint trail that’d take us through the rest of East Basin, which we were currently in, and up to the base of Big Dog Mountain. From there, the trail lost regard for the frailty of men’s legs and lungs at high altitude and shot straight up, taking us more than 1,000 feet from the bottom of East Basin to the top of East Basin Pass.

I was the last to arrive on the pass, and everyone lay sprawled on their backs, gasping for air. From the top of East Basin Pass I could see north, all the way to Mt. Emmons and the southern end of the King’s Peak Basin. Between Mt. Emmons and myself, buried beneath a canopy of emerald leaves, was the dull roar of the Yellow River. Sunlight glinted off it in a few places where the trees broke, but for the most part if was only noticeable by the sound it made.

Climbing passes at 11,000 feet above sea level isn’t for the faint of heart. Literally. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

East Basin Pass was more than halfway to Blacksmith Lake, so we soldiered on, the cursing increasing exponentially with the distance. Finally, we arrived at the most profane moment of the entire excursion. Blacksmith Lake was due west of us, but no trail led to its banks. We had to pick a route based on topographic maps, an ancient GPS, and the actual terrain before us. A year obviously isn’t enough time to pick out a path from maps and Google Earth, and hell will freeze over before four men agree on the right way to walk in a straight line.  Mike and Bill were certain their chosen path was the best, the only “straight shot” to the lake. Marty told Mike to go fornicate with a goat, someone said something about an ass-kicking so hard grandchildren would feel it, and in the interest of the only physical fight being between us and the hike, we split up. I went with Marty and Bill went with Mike.

Marty and I staggered into camp well after Bill and Mike arrived. I haven’t been in good shape since high school, and Marty wasn’t in his prime anymore, either. The only reason Bill and Mike beat us to the lake was due to them being in better shape – not the path they’d picked after we had to leave the trail. Regardless, the view of the lake was worth it all – accusations of fornication with goats notwithstanding.

As I set my pack aside, pitched the tent, and made dinner, however, I wondered if it was pretty enough to merit the hell that was the hike. Nine miles with 12,000 feet of elevation change isn’t for the faint of heart – literally. And we were camped at 11,000 feet above sea level. Even at a rest I had a hard time catching my breath.

Oh, how I wish I could tell you that being short of breath was the trip’s disaster. Alas, the journey only grew more perilous. I made note of my poor physical state as I wrote in my notebook around the campfire after dinner.

I have to go to the gym for like, a month, before I do these things, I wrote. I’m too fat for this shit. But it’s gorgeous. The lake is glass and the pines aren’t all dead from the pine beetle. The only trails are tracks of elk and deer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re the first people here this year. This isn’t a place you stumble onto by accident – you have to know where you’re going to get here.

I have a notebook with me on every trip, because most every outing ends up being work-related. I make a living retelling the stories I live throughout the year, and if I didn’t come home from this trip with ideas for at least two columns about the adventure, I’d have wasted my time – and my money. 

High above us is the craggy ridgeline of Big Dog Mountain, barren and lifeless. This feels like most other backpacking trips, all things considered. More work than it’s worth, but a necessary evil if you’re going to tell a story worth telling.

I went to bed that evening – a Thursday – to the sounds of wolves howling in the distance and the gentle whisper of wind through cold aspen leaves. Friday morning, I woke to a layer of frost on my tent. Mike and I bunked together, but he’d been up with the sun. I could hear him and Bill down by the lake, a hundred or so yards from camp. They’d been fishing since they could see. Normally, I’d be down there with them. Normally, though, I’m not waking up after a hellacious stroll through Utah’s high country with 30 pounds on my back. Marty was in similarly rough shape, so we ate a late breakfast and commiserated together about growing old and out of shape. I went back to sleep and Marty went to the lake.

Missing out on a morning of fishing, realizing I’m not as young as I was (and I’m still young, so this train of thought is disturbing), and waking up almost too sore to move would qualify as fiasco on any other trip. But on this one? Those discomforts were the highlights.


I woke up at lunch, and that’s when I made my first big mistake. I sat on a log in weak sunshine, an open box of chicken salad and crackers balancing on one knee. The chicken salad and crackers have been a mainstay on all backpacking trips for as long as I can remember, and it makes a fabulous lunch.

I must’ve been 11 the first time I had boxed chicken salad and crackers on a backpacking trip. My grandma Pat loved the things, and she’s the one who taught me how to backpack in the high country.

“Always have something light and easy for lunch,” grandma Pat said while we were stopped in the middle of a trail. “That way you don’t have to stop too long to eat.”

“But I wanna stop,” I complained, because I was 11 and that’s what 11-year-olds do best.

Grandma Pat shook her head. “Nope, that’s another rule of backpacking. You don’t get to rest unless I say so.”

That hardly seemed fair. “What if I’m backpacking one day and you’re not with me? When do I get to stop?” I tried to be sassy. But grandma Pat always had a smart comment for every smartass one I made.

“Then I taught you something right,” she said.

I chuckled as I thought back to my first trip with grandma Pat. She still backpacks to this day, at the age of 72. Just this past summer, in June of 2018, she spent five days with her dog and a friend in Utah’s San Rafael Swell. I’d told her about this trip to Blacksmith Lake, but when she asked about the elevation and the length of the walk, she just shook her head. “I’m too old for that. Go have fun.”

Just that once, it would’ve been a good thing not to listen to grandma Pat and eat something else. I didn’t notice anything wrong with the chicken salad as I ate it, but short of something blatantly obvious – like bloody, raw chicken – I don’t think I would’ve. I was tired and hungry enough that I’d have eaten anything.

I burned my trash, cleaned up around camp, and got ready for the trip’s main attraction. In spite of the protests from cramped calves and thighs, I grabbed my fly rod and headed down to the lake. I was still beat from the hike, but I’d come all this way to write about the fishing in that lake. I had to throw a cast or two if I wanted my writing to have any ring of legitimacy. I made it to the lake, grumbling that I’d rather be back in the tent sleeping, in a generally foul mood.  

Despite everything, Blacksmith Lake was gorgeous. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Then the food poisoning hit. Right about midafternoon on Friday, on the banks of Blacksmith Lake, at 11,000 feet and nine miles deep from a trailhead that lay at the end of a 20-something mile long dirt road, which was 30 miles from the nearest town.

In other words, I ended up on death’s doorstep while in the middle of absolutely nowhere. But fear not, my intrepid reader; if you’ve made if this far, you’re likely thinking that this is what turned the trip from bumpy to bad. Getting food poisoning miles from any sort of help has to be as bad as it gets, right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, the food poisoning was terrible, but it’s what happened after my bowels became impetuously inconvenient that’s truly disastrous. I ran back to camp, looking for the toilet paper, failing to find any, and answering nature’s call with nothing but dry sagebrush in arm’s reach.

I staggered back to my tent, found the toilet paper, and was just settling down to rest, in the hopes that this was a fluke accident, when my body decided everything inside of it needed to see Blacksmith Lake, too.  As Friday night turned into Saturday morning, the temps dropped precipitously and I spent the hours trying not to hurl and begging for sunrise. The sun eventually rose. I couldn’t hold back the urge to empty my guts. With snow falling around our camp, I wiped the vomit from my beard and declared, “I’m not spending another night on this damn mountain.”

With that said, we packed up and hiked out. The snow got worse. In any other situation it would’ve been beautiful. Snow in the high country, especially in September, is a breathtaking sight. A light dusting of the stuff on pines and aspens still clothed in their late-summer greenery is nothing short of magical. Sadly, I wasn’t in a position to appreciate the beauty. Instead, I spent the majority of the hike in a position not conducive to hiking

By a miracle I made it up East Basin Pass – the climb up on that side of Big Dog Mountain was easier than the climb on the way in – and stopped to either die or find the will to keep going. At that moment, death sounded like a splendid idea.

Then I heard the unmistakable squawk of a sage hen. I looked up to see two of the birds standing right in the middle of the trail, heads cocked to one side as if they’d never before seen a human being in such terrible shape. With a start, I realized this was the exact spot where we’d seen sage hen during the hike in. My mind flashed back to that moment – seemingly a lifetime ago, one in which I was healthy and whole and relatively happy.

“Shoot it, we’ll have it for dinner,” I told Bill. We stared at the sage hen. It stared at us. Nothing moved.

“I’m not eating sage hen,” Bill protested.

“It tastes just like chicken,” I retorted. “Come on, shoot it! If you won’t, give me your gun.”

That got Bill ready to shoot. He popped off ten rounds from his little .22LR pistol, missing every single one. The sage hen strutted off, clucking in what sounded like a disapproving tone. I shook my head in agreement with the sage hen. “Here, let me shoot,” I said.

Bill refused. He emptied the rest of his magazine after the sage hen, missing every shot, and concluded that the bird was moving too fast to be hit with a handgun.

“It was twenty feet away and walking!” I razzed him as we climbed down the north side of East Basin Pass.

In a fit of irony, I laughed as I remembered telling Bill that the sage hen would taste just like chicken. That’s completely true, by the way. Those birds are some of the best eating I’ve ever had, and as I sat in the snow, a cold wind doing its best to whip me into submission, I couldn’t help but think that if Bill had shot the sage hen, I’d have eaten those instead of my chicken salad, and I wouldn’t be in this mess.

This is rugged country under normal conditions. With snow falling and food poisoning? It’s almost deadly. Photo by Spencer Durrant. 

Mike showed up then, hauling me to my feet and practically pushing me all the way from the top of East Basin Pass to Lake Bonnie, a mile or so from the pass. We’d stopped there on the hike in for lunch and a bit of fishing, but this time we stopped only to refill water bottles and catch our breath. The wind was so ferocious that little Lake Bonnie – the size of maybe two football fields – had whitecaps crashing on its shore.

I sat on a large square boulder, my pack off for the moment while I rested. Almost everything was wet, but my Sitka rain jacket kept my torso dry. Most importantly, though, the jacket’s waterproof pockets kept the quickly-dwindling supply of toilet paper in usable condition.


The break stretched out longer than expected, and the extended time to sit on a flat surface made me feel almost . . . better? No, that was too strong a word. Less terrible than I’d felt a half-hour ago, definitely, but nowhere near approaching better. Buoyed by the thought that maybe I’d passed the worst of the food poisoning, I fished a package of cheddar and peanut butter crackers from my pack. These weren’t a grandma Pat-approved backpacking mainstay, but they fit her parameters for good backpacking food – light, full of carbs, and easy to eat while walking.

Reasoning that my body would do well with something in my stomach aside from acid and misery, I ate as many of the crackers as I could before we started hiking again. I even washed them down with a bit of freshly-filtered water, and for the next mile I felt like I was on top of the world. I could walk for five minutes without needing a break! I had the strength of a ten-year-old instead of a toddler! I was beating the food poisoning, consequences be damned!

The elation was short-lived. The mile after my brief encounter with hope, I dashed from the trail to the trees so many times I ran out of toilet paper completely, had to borrow some from Bill, used up all of his, and eventually had to resort to other means as I exhausted our once-impressive supply of one of backpacking’s most valuable assets.

Hiking in took us just under eight hours, with long breaks included. 10 hours after we’d left camp that morning, I found myself at the base of the cliff we’d slept on that first night. One last hurdle and I’d be . . . well, not home, but able to lay on something soft and die peacefully, instead of in a pile of unwashed pain in the middle of the mountains.

A faint trail – carved by mountain goats, most likely – traversed the cliff as it rose for a few hundred feet above me. Under normal circumstances, it’s a treacherous climb; loose shale, steep, muddy chutes, and nothing in the way of foliage to use to break a fall are the cliff’s defining features. In good health, I’d see the cliff as a challenge, as something in need of conquering, and I’d do so with a swagger, standing atop it with my beard blowing in the wind, surveying the wild kingdom I felt I owned after scrambling up a relatively small cliff.

In my present state, though, I saw the cliff as insurmountable. I’ll just die here, I thought. This is as good a place as any. The base of the cliff was pretty. Pinion pine, aspen, and cedar grew thick, and there was even a pile of what looked like horse bones next to the trail. I’m not the only poor animal to die here, I thought.

Despite it all, Blacksmith Lake is worth a return trip. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Then Bill showed up, grabbed my pack, and set off up the cliff. Armed now with only my trekking poles and a bruised ego at watching Bill haul two packs up the cliff with ease, I staggered up the rocky trail, each step a victory that cost me untold amounts of energy and willpower. I’m certain my beard turned from brown to gray in the time it took me to climb that damn cliff, and I collapsed in a soggy heap next to Bill’s 4-Runner convinced I’d not live to see another day. It was the longest, most exhausting hike of my life. Worse than an expedition in 2017 which saw me go 35 miles in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, the last of which were spent fighting altitude sickness.

That trip had a silver lining – as I descended, I got better and caught fish.

This trip? Sure, the food poisoning was a blight on the experience. Running out of toilet paper was a literal pain in the ass, and I left parts of me on that mountain I’ll never recover. The true tragedy, however, is that I went through the entire ordeal without catching a single fish.

Bill drove as quickly as he could down the bumpy road, but there’s only so much you can do on a trail designed for ATVs instead of trucks. Saturday evening – a full day before we’d expected to get back to civilization – we arrived in Duchesne, Utah, and I staggered into a Sinclair for a bottle of 7-Up. I sipped while Bill drove in silence the rest of the way home. Somewhere around Strawberry Reservoir I passed out. I woke when Bill pulled into my driveway, and as I settled in my own bed in the wee hours of Sunday morning, I thought, a charmed life indeed.


Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Sporting Classics Daily, American Angler, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, Hatch Magazine, Trout Magazine, and other national publications. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant, and on Facebook @SpencerDurrantOutdoors.

Gear Review: Douglas DXF 11′ 3wt Euro Nymphing Rod

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

Over the past two years, I’ve dabbled in Euro nymphing. I happen to be good friends with Gilbert Rowley, the unseen hero behind the camera for the the excellent Modern Nymphing films. I’ve had the chance to learn from Gilbert, as well as Lance Egan, and I’ve used every Euro nymphing rod I can get my hands on.

From Winston’s Super 10 series to the Sage ESN and Cortland Competition rods, I have a feel for what I want out of my Euro nymphing rod. It has to be light, quick, lively, sensitive, accurate, and able to double as a dry fly rod in extreme circumstances.

The Douglas DXF 11′ 3wt checks almost all of those boxes, but more importantly, it’s quickly moved to the front of my quiver when reaching for a Euro nymphing rod.

It won’t cast dries like the Winston Super 10, and it’s not as accurate as the Sage ESN. But Douglas sells this iteration of the DXF line for $395. With a rod this exceptional at that price point, it’s hard to spend top-dollar on such a niche-specific stick, unless you plan to dedicate most of your angling time to Euro nymphing.

With that in mind, let’s take a deeper look at what makes the Douglas DXF 11′ 3wt such a great Euro nymphing rod.

What Works

Weight

This aspect of Euro nymphing rod design has come a long way in recent years, though most lower-end sticks are still hefty enough to wear your shoulder out during an afternoon on the river.

The DXF clocks in at 3.2oz for the 11’3wt model. That’s the same weight as the Redington Hydrogen ESN, heavier than the 10’6″ 3wt Sage ESN’s 2 11/16thoz (Sage doesn’t make an 11′ version of their Euro rods), and lighter than the Cortland Competition MKII.

With how great most modern fly rods are, a lot of anglers don’t need to take weight into consideration when buying a new stick. With Euro rods, though, you do. Luckily, the DXF weighs right where it should for its length and line rating.

fish caught on a euro nymphing rod
Chris Cutler with a toad he caught Euro Nymphing on the Henry’s Fork. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Sensitivity

Euro nymphing is an exercise in feeling what’s happening with your flies, rather than seeing the take. Sure, your sighter will move when a fish really commits, but I often feel the takes before seeing any movement in my line.

Great rods help you feel those takes better, and the DXF is significantly more sensitive than any Euro rod I’ve fished except the Sage ESN. That’s including the Winston Super 10 – a personal favorite rod.

Action

It’s hard to describe “action” on Euro rods. Most “casts” don’t happen with fly line leaving the guides. Hell, I’ve seen great Euro nymphing anglers fish a leader so long that their fly line never leaves their reel.

That being said, there is an art to casting nothing but straight leader and two heavy bugs off the tips of an 11′ rod. The DXF puts flies where you need them without making you work too hard for it. I was surprised to find that Douglas built a more accurate rod than Winston and Redington. But that’s a recurring theme with Douglas lately. They’re consistently outcasting my expectations.

The DXF has a nice stiff backbone to help turn fish and cast flies. The tip is loose and feels a bit like a noodle – usually a sign that your rod won’t be as accurate as you’d hoped. I don’t know how, but the DXF makes it work. The light tip is obviously great in protecting light tippet as well.

euro nymphing rod macro shot
The Douglas DXF – in all its configurations – is an exceptionally well-built rod. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Build Quality

The mid-priced rod market is blowing up in fly fishing. It’s arguably the only market growing in the sport, but that’s a conversation for another day. All the demand for rods that fish well but aren’t equivalent to a mortgage payment has forced builders to get creative.

From completely custom builds from builders like Shane Gray to Instagram-ready rods built by Blue Halo, the aesthetic appeal of fly fishing has never been more prominent.

The problem is that a lot of attempts to make rods that stand out from the pack results in added weight, decreased performance, higher prices, or a combination of the three.

Douglas doesn’t escape this completely – the DXF comes with burnt cork rings on the end of the grip, as does their flagship rod, the Sky – but they do an admirable job at building a functional, but attractive, piece of gear.

The DXF’s matte green blanks, dark green wraps, white lettering, and hard-chromed snake guides all show a bit of class. This is underscored by the gorgeous burled wood reel seat and double uplocking rings.

The cork is better-than-expected quality for a sub-$400 rod, and it comes shipped with a rod sock and triangular Cordura rod tube. I don’t see anywhere that Douglas cut corners when building the DXF. Compromises have to be made to sell a sub-$400 rod, obviously, but that reality aside, the DXF is a solidly built, good-looking stick.

What Doesn’t

Guide Spacing

One spring day in 2018 I sat in a drift boat with Bob White, the sporting artist, and our guide Charlie Card. Charlie brought up the topic of competitive fishing – and his brief stint with Fly Fish TeamUSA – which Bob found fascinating.

What caught my attention, though, was an observation Charlie made of the French national team’s custom-built Euro nymphing rods. Where most Western-style rods have a hook keep, the French national team placed a stripping guide. According to Charlie, this was done to reduce line sage between reel and rod, bettering the connection between angler and line.

That sounded like a bit much, but I’ve come to realize the French are onto something. Other Euro rods I’ve fished have guides lower on butt section, and more guides in total. Adjusting guide spacing on the DXF would help make this rod even better.

Uplocking Reel Seat

Blame it on my old-school tendencies, but I don’t like uplocking reel seats. Reels should sit in a downlocking seat, putting all their weight at the very end of a fly rod. That creates a better balance for every kind of fishing, but Euro nymphing especially.

Douglas could improve the DXF by swapping out its double-ring uplocker with a single-ring downlocker. This will help better balance the rod, and I personally think downlockers look better.

small fish caught on euro nymphing rod
Author Spencer Durrant with a decent cutthroat caught Euro nymphing on the Henry’s Fork. Photo by Chris Cutler.

Final Word

Douglas put together an absolute winner with the DXF. It’s a lively, fun, light, well-built Euro nymphing rod that fishes better than sticks twice its modest $395 price. I wish the reel seat were different, and guide spacing could be improved, but overall, this is just about the best Euro nymphing rod I’ve fished to date. The Sage ESN still holds the top spot, but Douglas’s foray into Euro nymphing should easily go toe-to-toe with Winston, Cortland, Redington, and other manufacturers.


Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Sporting Classics Daily, American Angler, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, Hatch Magazine, Trout Magazine, and other national publications. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant, and on Facebook @SpencerDurrantOutdoors.