Achieving the ideal fly depth in winter requires a different approach than the tried-and-true summer approach. Here are 5 Strategies for Winter Swing Success.
By Rob Crandall
Willow and alder lined banks with a backdrop of towering firs could be seen through the misty fog rising from Oregon’s Clackamas River. The air temperature was a few degrees warmer than the air. The morning chill had frosted the ground and boots left out overnight were rock hard. The cup of coffee sitting in my drift boat grew cold in a few short moments. With each exhale, we could our breath rise and quickly disappear into the morning air. Shaking off the cold my two clients began their quest for winter steelhead with the swung fly.
John started into the run. Being a very accomplished angler on the Deschutes and British Columbia rivers in the fall, he worked his fly through the run. His method mirrored the style he’d been successful with in the summer and fall. He fished the water smoothly and efficiently quartering each cast down and across then swinging evenly to the bank below him. Jim, his partner for the day, followed through the same water a few minutes later; however his approach was slightly different. Jim’s intentional strategy to get the fly deeper was a mix of cast, then step and then a slow swing. Mid-way into the short run Jim’s rod bucked and throbbed. Line raced quickly off his reel as a chrome hen ripped into the mid-river current and then cartwheeled into the frosty air throwing spray like a broken firehose. Minutes later Jim’s fish was to hand; it was an incredible wild fish fresh from the sea, a true beauty that leaves you gasping for air as your heart rate slowly comes back to normal. The question every angler wants to know is: Why did Jim hook up and not John?
When it comes to fishing the swung fly in cold water the depth of your fly becomes of paramount importance. Winter steelhead fishing is different than summer fishing. Many winter fly fishers simply use their summer fishing strategies with the addition of a sink tip. Occasionally this approach will work but the conditions must line up perfectly. It helps when aggressive steelhead are around, but to consistently catch winter steelhead managing the swing is the key. By adjusting your approach, swing speed, fly selection and overall strategy, consistency increases dramatically.
Water temperature is the primary difference between fly fishing for steelhead in the winter and in the summer. During summer and fall months when the water temperature is greater, steelhead are more active. It’s common for steelhead to come to the surface and slash at your fly. During the winter water temperatures are much colder, often below 40 degrees, and a steelhead’s metabolism is lower thus it is less likely to that it will slash at your fly on the surface, or chase a fly down. To expect that would be like counting on President Trump to change his hairstyle. It’s not going to happen. To be in the ball game your fly needs to be at least half the depth of the water.
Having been a steelhead guide for the better part of two decades I can tell you that 90 percent of steelhead grabs happen during the last third of the swing. The question is why? That is something that keeps me awake at night. It could be for several reasons. One, as the fly swings across the run it is covering more water and steelhead will often follow a fly deciding to take the fly as it gets closer to the bank. More importantly, this is when the fly is at its deepest point in the swing. Typically, when the fly hits the water it starts a slow decent and continues to sink deeper as the fly swings through the run. It’s safe to say that the fly is at its deepest point the longer it swings, which is usually the during the last part of the swing. This correlates to 90 percent of grabs taking place during the last third of the swing. That also means that as fly anglers we are leaving a lot on the table and we’re only effective one-third of the time. The secret to winter success is getting the fly deeper earlier in the swing. How do we do that?
Strategies for Winter Swing Success:
First, let’s start with the basics: cast, swing and step. This is the foundation on which we build our strategy and it’s what most fly anglers are familiar with. This basic approach is an extremely effective way of covering a lot of water quickly. For winter steelhead, a Spey rod delivering a Skagit fly line armed with 10- to 12-foot T-11 or T-14 sink tips with a short three-foot leader is a deadly combination of tools for this job. The fly is cast at a 45-degree downstream angle and then swung across. When the swing is complete it’s customary to move downstream two to five feet. This cast, swing, step approach can be applied to the winter time of year by dialing in the sink tip and flies appropriate to the water speed and depth. Here, an even current speed, consistent bottom topography and shallower water combine to create the perfect blend in some situations. This strategy works best when current speed, depth and sink tip/fly combination are matched perfectly.
Line Control: “Mendenhold”
Often the basic cast, swing, step approach needs a slight adjustment to get the fly deeper —add in line control. Often anglers simply cast, mend and then hang on. To join the 10 percent of anglers who catch 90 percent of the fish manage your swing speed for success. The key component to this is what many call the “Mendenhold” strategy. That is “mend” and “hold” the line to slow the swing of the fly. In general, a fast-swung fly rides shallower whereas a slower swing enables your fly to swing deeper. After the cast, the line is mended as it comes into the 45-degree angle position downstream from the angler. The important consideration is to mend and then hold the rod position allowing the line to continue swinging until the line is closer to parallel with the current effectively reducing the angle of the line to the current. How long you hold the mend before rotating the rod through the swing is dependent on the water speed. The mend and hold will need to be adjusted as the speed of the current changes through the run. Another aspect to this is controlling swing speed. Steelhead respond best to an even swing speed; often this means slowing the fly at first in faster mid-river current then speeding the fly in the softer edges near the end of the swing. Careful line control enables the swing to slow settling the fly deeper giving your swing a more consistent speed all the way through the swing.
Cast, Step and Swing:
To get the fly deeper earlier in the swing, and to accommodate water speed or heavier winter flows, we break from the traditional approach with a slight adjustment. Simply changing the order of our approach easily adds depth to the swung fly; enter cast, step and swing. Now, we add the step-down portion of our approach after the cast. By stepping after your cast your fly is able to settle under the tension of the current and maintain control. We are not simply adding slack to the approach. Make the cast, mend and step down with the timing of your step-down correlating to when your fly is coming just out of the “too fast” water and into the seam where fish might be. This requires good traction; aggressive studded boots are preferred. Use the cast, step then swing approach when the traditional approach is not working or not getting your fly deep enough.
Slip Swing Strategy:
Often the sweet spot where you are certain steelhead live is on the far side of the river. It’s that deep green slot tapering shallower to your side and screams, “fish live here”! In this situation, the challenge is getting the fly deep enough early in the swing to be effective on the far side of the river. Remember the fly is shallowest at the start of the swing and deepest at the end of the swing. To get the fly deeper earlier in the swing try the slip swing strategy. The slip swing is applied to the basic cast, swing and step approach by adding a specific amount of extra line after the mend. To keep a consistent distance of line, hold a loop of extra line under another finger separate from the rest of the shooting line you’re casting. The amount of line used is just enough to move the rod from a 45-degree angle downstream (where you start the mend) to a 45-degree angle upstream. By adding this extra line your fly is not moving as you move your rod position upstream. After slipping the extra line to the upstream angle the rod is then lowered towards the fly with an even speed, maintaining tension to the fly. Simply moving a 13-½ foot rod from the upstream angle to the downstream angle is a big adjustment. This helps get the fly deeper earlier in the swing and is especially effective in those sweet, across the river spots that are often so challenging.
Slip, Step and Swing
Another strategy to success in cold water is a variation of the slip swing approach; which simply changes the order of things to slip, step and then swing. Here we follow the same approach of the slip swing but add our step down as we lower the rod position from upstream 45-degrees to downstream 45-degrees. The step down can be adjusted to correlate with your swing timing as the fly comes into a bit softer water or done right off the bat. Again, good traction is required to do this right. Be careful doing this with your favorite fly as this really works to get your fly deep. Miles away from the simple cast swing and hope approach the slip, step and swing strategy gives you the ability to get your fly deeper even in tough winter conditions.
Being able to effectively swing the fly at the proper depth and speed requires the right combinations of gear and approach. Getting the fly deep, but maintaining the swing speed by adjusting your angle of the fly line to the current, allows you to achieve the “hover” that is the careful balance of “not too heavy and swinging fast” and “not too light and near the surface”. Approaching a steelhead run with the right sink tip, the right fly (that is: unweighted, slightly weighted, heavily weighted or small, medium or large profile) and the right deep swing technique will bring more consistency to your winter steelhead approach.
These are some of the tools the you can utilize to increase your odds of connecting during the coldest and most difficult times of year for the swung fly. By adopting these strategies you will have an arsenal for winter steelhead success that far outweigh the standard summer steelhead approach that too often ends up as casting practice when the water is cold. Use these tools to help you find more chrome in your winter fishing and perhaps like Jim you can catch more fish behind your fishing partner.