Swing Low – Part 1

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

Trout stream lore has been awash with nymphing techniques and the nymphing focus for at least four decades, and probably more. The benefits are obvious, but as with all things, for something gained there’s always something neglected or lost. In this case one could make the point that the age-old wetfly fascination, along with deft wetfly technique, has fallen from common practice.

The earliest written fly fishing accounts we know of were all about wetflies. Purist dry fly enthrallment, and then more recently the matching of nymph stages of specific insect species, combined to get us to where we are today. And yet there are many wetfly experts among us, and they do at least as well as anyone. Unless someone back then could read fish minds, which I doubt, old-fashioned wetflies were developed through trial and error. They embodied features that current theory believes push key buttons in a fish’s instinct–a dorsal fin shape, and/or trigger colors of some kind, and perhaps a tail, and maybe hackle that could represent gills or fins or legs of the prey…etc…but not necessarily put together to resemble baitfish or bug, to us…and yet they work.

Years ago in a fly shop I was chatting with a staff member and a fellow customer, who the salesman introduced with, “Mike, this is Vincent; he likes to fish downstream–you know, just swingin’ and swimmin’ drowned flies around down there on a tight line, ha ha!” I looked at Vincent expecting him to object to the left-handed intro, but he just replied “Yep” with a big quiet smile. It made me think.

My early nymphing efforts were all solo, all guesswork, all based on this or that magazine article. That was long before the internet, so no YouTube to show me how to do it. I probably missed a fair few strikes because I didn’t sufficiently credit the need for line tightness or strike detection–maybe I assumed trout would mouth a fly like other species might mouth a doughball. So most of the fish I caught were on the “swing,” when the nymph would rise in the water column at the limit of the line I’d paid out, and then slide sideways into an eddy. What I learned was that (A) I needed to keep a nymph low in the channel to draw other kinds of takes, (B) I needed to focus more on detection of a take while the nymph was drifting, and (C) perhaps the most exciting lesson of all three…that I really, really, really dug it when I got a strike on the swing.

I also noticed that I could entice strikes after the swing with some upstream stripping–sometimes even if the nymph pattern was thought to imitate a non-swimming bug like a stonefly nymph. Usually a slow short strip was best, but it depended on the water into which the fly had swung. Rather than go to indicators, I opted to stay with these snug line methods–but I switched to drifting impressionistic soft-hackle wetflies and mayfly nymph patterns, and the results improved.

I’d discovered wetfly fishing; I had the big wide grin now; I’d become Vincent. The main two reasons I liked this style so much were (1) I could catch fish before or after the sun rose, before or after hatches…anywhere there were feeding fish; and (2) the strikes were as electric as blue blazes.

Successful techniques I began to learn or “invent” and experiment with included:

1. I’ll almost always cast across, or across-and-down. If I cast across-and up it’s generally to give the fly more time to sink, and I usually leave the fly line slack until it comes even with me, on the theory that I won’t get a take until it sinks a bit anyway.

2. A wetfly needn’t have a perfect dead drift; twitches can be good. So can a little drag at times. So I endeavor to “snug up” the line once I think the fly is about where I want it. There are current anomalies in multiple dimensions in river or stream flow anyway…so a fly moving “counter” to the flow may actually not be, or at least fish don’t necessarily think “odd” movement is odd. They see things moving erratically all the time. I know this is heresy in a dead-drift-focused world, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true just the same.

3. Once the line is snuggish, I lead the drift with the rod tip, to swing it into and out of the water I want it to traverse. The line can curve a bit as long as I maintain enough snugness to detect strikes. I try to target the turbulated line between current and eddy, or the eddy itself, or even the lower parts of the water column in the main laminar flow, by positioning the rod tip left or right of where I stand. Mends can also control the direction and abruptness of the swing. And if there’s enough current to maneuver in these ways, none of these adjustments will spook trout in the least.

4. The swing need never be static. Fish will come to the fly if they like what it’s doing. I give the fly a little longer than expected to complete a swing–I learned this lesson from the fact that I often get strikes quite a few seconds after I assume the fly has finished its swing–it always takes a bit longer to get there than my calculation assumes.

5. Fly motion of any sort attracts attention, and if the fly could conceivably look like a critter that can swim, then even repeated motion is a good thing. This means flies with natural mottled coloration can still stand out (and I prefer them). It also means line can be re-released after some stripping, to let the fly settle and sink before you strip it upstream again. It can resemble a hapless, struggling thing unable to gain against the current and just begging to be eaten.

6. I try to position myself relatively center-stream, at the head of a riffle that includes a drop-off or slowly deepening channel. This way I can reach toward both banks, and either swing to one of them, or to a mid-current eddy, or do whatever seems to work. Although I’m standing boldly upright, at the distances my fly is from myself the fish either can’t see me or (because I stay there for over an hour) they soon forget I’m there. I start by fishing water closer to me–a relatively short amount of line out, let it swing, let it rise. Work that area a few times, that drop-off, then extend more line and do the same. Often I’ll find a length that draws takes, and I’ll work it for a few casts, then shorten it up again, then drift the fly back out further a minute or two later–because they seem to forget. I work it longer and longer until I feel I’m no longer controlling what’s going on, then drift from the left instead, into the same water…then from the right again. I can stay in a spot I believe in for three or four hours, and never get bored–the early morning changes by the minute anyway, and I’m in a new place every time I glance around.

7. They’ll either “bump” it or nail it hard. If the former, the necessary discipline is to strike instantly. Doing so won’t spook anything (if you miss them it’s almost always because they let go an instant too quickly, which means a missed hook-set went unnoticed by them). So there’s nothing to lose by trying. The same fish may well take that fly again three or four minutes later. One can achieve a 20% to 30% hook-up average on these “bump” takes, or perhaps even better…I’m forever working on my focus and reactions. These hook-set attempts needn’t be violent–just enough to poke a needle-sharp hook point into some lips–it can be buried in harder the instant you feel something. Of course if instead of “bumping” they nail it, it feels a little like I imagine lightning might feel. That’s what you come for.

8. Imitating emergers is easy when swinging a fly–use a floating line, let the fly sink as it drifts, restrict the line to the degree you want the “rise” to happen, and let the fly rise in the water column. Try both abrupt and extended. Likewise, imitating a variety of mobile insect species in riffles, for example diving caddis, is also easy with these techniques–feed more floating line and the fly sinks (especially a fly that has some weight to it); then hold back on the line slightly or firmly, as you choose the speed of the rise to be, and the fly drifts toward the surface. This can be done several times on a single drift.

9. You can use what I like to call a “slingshot swing” to get the fly into water you can’t reach any other way, such as the eddy behind an exposed rock. Get creative. If unable to mend out a slingshot drift to keep the fly’s motion from being unnaturally abrupt, just add line to your mend–it softens the swing and I think draws the strike that a perfect swing drift would have drawn.

10. Letting a wetfly swing downstream of you, “pulsing” the line with short strips and releases as you swing it across the stream can draw strikes and cover a good quantity of water at that distance. Pulsing while giving out just a little more line with each release can do the same and cover water between x feet from you and x+y feet. Pulsing is a good trick, but find ways to ensure your fly stays at a productive depth. (If the water is all relatively shallow there are no depth concerns.)

11. When swinging wetflies, it’s that much easier to fight larger fish from the reel–you don’t have fifteen feet of stripped line streaming in the water from your reel, that you have to get back onto the reel spool…and bringing a good fish to net is cleaner and less prone to distracting tangles when the line is all on the spool, too.

12. Ganging wetflies together works great. You can sample multiple depths this way–and figuring out the right depth is more important to you than figuring out which fly works better on this day. Note that knowing (and accomplishing) which fly rides deeper than which is an art unto itself–although placement of shot and use of weighted flies is a topic for another tale. Just try to know, when you hook one, not only which fly it took but what part of the water column the fly was in. Even if you never do more than feel the takes, those takes can give you indispensable knowledge.

Part II will discuss more benefits and applications of wetfly swinging.

5 thoughts on “Swing Low – Part 1

  1. Michael Vorhis

    Thanks guys, much appreciated. I’m guessing you enjoy wetfly fishing as much as I do. By all means use this article’s comment section as a place to share your own wetfly experiences and techniques…I know we’d all love to hear ’em.

    – Mike

    Reply
  2. Steve Marsh

    It was a tough week on the South Fork of the Shoshone in Wyoming and I struggled with drys and nymphs. Toward the end of the week I started swinging wet flies and had the best two days of fishing that week. The fishing also picked up for my buddies but i was certainly pleased with my results.

    Reply

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