Swing Low – Part 2

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

Part I described how I came to wetfly swinging and the main methods I tend to use. Part II will discuss more applications and benefits of this fine fly fishing style, as well as a few features that have stood the test of time.

Wetfly swinging offers numerous advantages. You can fish the head of a run more easily when you’re fishing it downstream of where you stand. Deeper runs invariably sit just below riffles and rapids, and so they so often start with a prominent drop-off. Trying to get to that fish-rich drop-off from downstream can be difficult because the water can be too deep for too far to let you reach it from below. And brushy shorelines make from-the-side fishing a pain. In these cases, swinging wetflies from above is an ideal tactic–plenty of back-cast room…very enjoyable.

In truth wetfly fishing is a lot like streamer fishing–just more delicate. The motion is simply scaled to the size of prey the fly tries to imitate. Swimming insects won’t go upstream against a strong current, but otherwise the techniques are alike. In truth, I’ve learned what I know about streamer fishing from wetfly use, not the other way around. And I’ve even tied up tiny fish-imitating streamers and fished them successfully just like I would a wetfly. Streamer fishing is very often (maybe most often?) done with a sinking line, whereas personally I nearly always use a floating line for wetflies, the better to accomplish the “rise to the surface” at the end of the swing. But of course it depends on how deep the water is, and at what depth the fish are likely to be lurking.

Downstream fishing is actually easy –the current “loads” the backcast. And even if the canopy is low and hampers backcast room, the current will extend your line for you. Line doesn’t pile up around your knees like can happen with upstream fishing–hooks don’t sweep down upon your waders (how many of us have felt the cold inrush of water, courtesy of our own fly on a botched cast? I’ll admit to one such episode….)

It’s not just the strike that’s so thrilling about swinging wetflies downstream. Hooked fish have the current’s power in their favor. Depending on the speed of the water, small fish can seem large and medium can seem like steelhead. It adds to the thrill because it adds to their odds of escape. And that’s a great advantage to the angler–the challenge and rush are both heightened, and water that has no huge fish can give you a bigger, better experience. Choose tippet sizes, fighting pressures, and bring-to-net expectations according to the current’s strength.

There is that old lore that one should set hooks in the downstream direction to avoid pulling out of their mouths…but we can’t guarantee to do that anyway unless we can see all the curves in the line and can ensure there are none…and I think it’s smarter to fish in whatever way gets us the most strikes. Fish that dart and nab a prey are going to turn this way or that to do it anyway. I think it’s foolish to avoid wetfly swinging for fear of pulling hooks out of a lot of fish mouths. A lot of fish mouths is a very good problem to have.

Winged wetflies include a fin-like or wing-like (who are we to say what it really looks like?) dorsal feather…or sometimes it’s hair. That this dorsal feature could mimic a fin or a baitfish body is borne out by the fact that many of these “wings” have eye-shaped feathers tied over them. But again, it’s not for us to say what the “wing” represents to a fish. Spider styles are called “wingless wets”–the soft hackle remains and its motion is emphasized, but the “wing” is absent.

Old-time wetflies can have names like “Jenny Wren,” “Silver Doctor,” “Parmachene Belle,” “Fish Hawk” and “Telephone Box.” The monikers can be as colorful as the flies themselves. Do they try to describe the critter being imitated? For many, no…they’re impressionistic by nature, by design. Their goal is to dispense with trying to know how a fish thinks and instead go directly to the task of inducing strikes. Others, such as the “Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear Wet” and the “Guinea Hen” and the “Grizzly King,” are named for the materials used. Still others, like the “Trout Fin” and the “Claret Gnat,” are indeed named with an attempt to signify that which they aim to imitate. Finally, plenty are named for whoever first came up with them. Many “salmon fly” streamers are basically designed like a large wetfly.

The oldest patterns are very drab and very disheveled, but they still work as well; they differ from artistic display-case ties like a work glove differs from a doily.

You can taut-line-fish a wetfly from quartering upstream to straight downstream; about the only angle that’s more difficult is directly upstream. You don’t need a perfect drag-free drift, especially if lightly stripping a pattern that imitates a natural known to swim or maneuver in the water. Advantages over indicator fishing include the fact that you’ll rarely set your hook hard into a log or rock again because you can easily tell the difference between a bottom snag and a take–the bottom doesn’t serve up a ‘live’ signal…and it certainly doesn’t savagely hammer a fly. So even if you miss a few subtle takes, you’ll know the fish are there and are feeding and fancying the pattern you have on, and the depth it’s at. That knowledge is worth a lot on the water–much better than, “Was that a take? Dunno…well, just keep striking at anything, in case it might be a fish.”

And every bit of such knowledge, every take we coax while using the line itself as our conduit to a fish, I think makes us a better angler. We learn to directly control the fly’s drift and action and depth. This, I believe, is what some old sages mean when they remark that indicator fishing can increase the number of fish beginners and intermediates can hook but will ultimately impede one’s aspirations of subsurface fly angling greatness. As I personally aspire to a little “mastery” (perhaps one day when I’ve passed the two-century mark), and as wetfly-swinging and taut-line nymphing (at most angles from my wading position) are meanwhile serving up very decent action and more than enough lessons learned for me, (dry-dropper rigs aside) I tend to find little motivation to put a right angle discontinuity in my line via a floating bubble. There’s a reason why wetfly technique has stood the test of time, why it’s the furthest thing from a fad: It’s visceral, and it works.

Myself, I like olive mayfly nymph patterns, sometimes on a “swimming nymph” hook–I swing them around and strip them like a wetfly. I also like spider styles, Hare’s Ear wets, fat peacock-herl-bodied patterns with or without wings but always with soft hackle, and anything else that’s drab and natural-looking. I don’t tend to go for any “bling” on a wetfly because it doesn’t seem to be needed and it degrades my confidence, which makes me fish more carelessly. The pattern used can be a matter of personal preference. Coachman wets are always good, as are patterns with palmered soft hackle–the “legs” wiggle and wave in a most tasty-looking way (I think). And I often use a claret-dubbed wood-duck-hackled wet of my own humble design in riffles, which gets plenty of attention.

So when nothing else is working, or (like me) as a primary strategy, don’t hesitate to swing ‘em low. You’re likely to tie into whatever’s there.

3 thoughts on “Swing Low – Part 2

  1. Sandy

    A great article and I couldn’t agree more!

    I’ve been ‘swinging’ for more than 50 years and find it extremely enjoyable and almost always very productive. You really learn where the fish are when you pay attention. In many ways it’s almost like ‘feeding the fish’. Over the years I’ve become a very firm believer in the idea that the fly pattern doesn’t really matter that much but that drag free realistic presentation at the right depth is everything. It’s much more effective to drift downstream on the swing than to try for that perfect upstream dry fly drift. Try it some time on a rising fish…you’ll be amazed.

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  2. Michael Vorhis

    Thanks for the enthusiastic endorsement of the wetfly fascination guys. Joe, I agree, soft-hackle patterns are where it’s at! I can take or leave a dorsal “wing” but I’ll believe in a soft-hackle fly anytime. And when I believe, I fish 10x better.

    Sandy, you said it well–you learn where they lurk, and drifting to them is easy. Even with a single wetfly it’s prospecting at its best–doesn’t take long to try the full range of depths, and then you know. Any fly with relatively realistic mottled coloration is a good choice, from my experience (I find tinselly things much less universal).

    One thing about trout in clear-water fisheries is that they’re not exactly comfortable showing themselves to hawks and other predators. They’re more willing to take a chance if they do it subsurface or in riffles that break up their image from above. Wetflies let us fish all day long. When on the big annual fishing trip & spending every waking moment on the stream, the last thing we want is strike out all day until evening. And as you say, even fish willing to rise are usually still more willing to feed subsurface.

    I do now sometimes dabble in streamers too, but I got there through wetflies, and when I can take fish either way I prefer the thrill of taking them on something small–the paradox of that is always a thrill.

    – Mike

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