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Not long ago, our editor brought to my attention a discussion on the FlyStream Forum regarding swinging flies. It reminded both of us that in Australia, swinging is not widely used and understood – or even rated as particularly skilful. This is despite the fact that on many rivers across the globe, swinging flies is the preferred method, particularly for anglers chasing anadromous fish such as Atlantic salmon in Scotland, sea run browns in Argentina, Pacific salmon in Alaska or steelhead in Canada. I’m sure you would raise more than a few eyebrows if you were to walk into a fishing lodge on Canada’s Dean River and announce that swinging flies does not require much skill! I will go out on a limb here and suggest that wet fly fishing generally, when practiced correctly, takes more skill and concentration than dry fly fishing. In dry fly fishing, the angler needs to consider fly selection, accurate positioning of the fly, managing drag and line management. However, the wet fly fisher needs to manage all these considerations, as well contending with depth and a fly that’s usually invisible. Anglers who are proficient at swing - ing wet flies view the water three dimensionally, visualising where the fish are lying and working out how to make the fly dance in front of them. These anglers will have felt and appreciated that moment when they know the cast, drift and swing have all combined perfectly to ensure the fly is placed enticingly right in front of the fish. When the strike occurs, it is almost expected. This feeling is hard to explain and exhilarating to experience. There are several terms for swinging, such as across-and-down, wet fly fishing and streamer fishing. All refer to fishing wet flies downstream from the angler. Initially, I mentioned anadromous fish to make a point. However, swinging is not a technique restricted to these species. It works equally well on all trout, char and grayling. Generally, swinging is best employed on wider, more open rivers, where the topography creates uniform currents. Rivers with many confused currents are less suitable as they make it very difficult to manage the drift, impacting on the wet fly presentation. Rivers like this are better fished with short line dry and nymph techniques.
Virtually all wet flies can work in swinging situations, although I have my favourites (see FlyStream Facts). I usually use two flies, although with big streamers, I may settle for a single fly. Having rigged up, identify where the fish should be holding – just as you would when reading a stream generally. Cast upstream of that point, allowing the current to drift the flies down to the holding position. As the flies arrives at the likely location, they should have gained the appropriate depth to start swinging in front of the fish, and then ascend. The skill is in managing this process to ensure the flies dance in front of the fish. A fly dragged downstream right past the fish will be ineffective and at worst, may spook it. Accurate reading of the water, fly placement and effective mending are all required to achieve good presentations. As a flyfishing guide, I regularly see clients making ineffective mends because they are afraid of moving the fly. The problem with this approach is that an ineffective mend will adversely affect the entire drift. You are far better off making an effective mend, even if it does move the fly or flies a little. At least the rest of the drift will be good. Just as often, anglers make the mend too late as the fly is approach - ing or has reached the fish. My advice is to make your mends deliberate, effective and early. As the flies swing downstream, follow them with the rod tip pointing down the line. At the end of the swing, work you flies backward and forward through the water prior to striping them back upstream. This is an important part of the presentation, as often fish will follow the flies through the swing, yet only take at this point. It’s the equivalent of the lake angler hanging and/ or dibbling the flies at the end of the retrieve.
How to Fish Different Water
The most suitable types of water for swinging wet flies are riffles, or riffles that flow into a deeper pool or undercuts; broader pools and glides with some current; and the tail-outs of pools and glides.
When fishing riffles with no obvious holding lies, all styles of flies can be used. However, I often find nymphs and small wet flies most effective. I like to view this water as a grid, effectively working my flies through all squares on the grid. It can be worth taking the time to thoroughly fish these areas as fish will primarily be in riffles to feed, and feeding fish are catchable fish! Instream structure such as boulders, logs, bank undercuts and depressions within the riffle will cause eddies and variations in current. These are all potential fish-holding spots.
Where the river runs into deeper water and pools, I like to fish streamers and larger nymphs, using sink-tip lines or sinking poly leaders. Be prepared to work your flies as they swing across the current. Sometimes the fish prefer the flies to be more animated, particularly late in the season when they are becoming more territorial and aggressive.
Pools and Glides
Pools and glides can provide some challenging fishing due to the calm water surface and slower currents. This is where soft hackle ‘spiders’ really come into their own. Concentrate on the bubble line using a floating line and a team of flies. Swinging a soft hackle in front of a bulging fish is an excellent way to imitate an emerging mayfly nymph or ascending caddis.
For many forms of fly fishing, the tailouts of pools can be the most difficult part of a river to fish. The smooth surface, combined with accelerating current, make managing drag very difficult with an upstream presentation. However, swinging small flies downstream to the fish can be very effective.
Mixing it Up
Partly for convenience of explanation, we tend to put different techniques into boxes. This can cause us to become blinkered or one-dimensional in our approach to the water: today I’m upstream nymphing, or I am downstream swinging. However, the best European competition anglers are employing a more dynamic approach to their fish - ing. That is, they are utilising different techniques on successive casts as they move through a river. For example, suppose a fish flashes at the flies while you are upstream nymphing. Firstly, change flies. Next, change the angle of approach by moving above the spot where the fish flashed, to jiggle the flies where you believe the fish is holding; swinging your flies through the spot. By varying angles and retrieve speeds like this, skilled anglers are catching larger numbers of fish than we previously thought possible.
Striking and Playing
Quite simply, when swinging, don’t strike – this is where most anglers learn - ing the technique to miss fish. Instead, simply hold on to the line, pointing your rod down the line and feel the weight come on as the fish turns on the fly and effectively sets the hook itself. Striking will simply pull the hook out of the fish’s mouth. Once the hook is set, keep calm and allow the fish to run. It will usually end up in an eddy behind a boulder or log, or in a pool or depression. Many fish are lost in the early stages of a fight through the angler allowing the rod to be pulled flat and having a tug-of war with the fish, which will probably be downstream. Trying to pull even an average-sized fish upstream early in the fight often ends badly for the angler! So if possible, move downstream and try to get below the fish. If this is not possible, point your rod upstream, putting a full bend in it and lay it horizon - tally, using it as a long shock absorber. Then, by applying constant pressure, begin to lead the fish upstream. If the fish rises to the surface and starts playing up, ease off the pressure until it settles down, then start again. By using this technique, it is possible to successfully walk the fish upstream. Hook selection will also help put more fish in the net. I use circle-style hooks when swinging, such as the Tiemco 2499SPBL and the Hanak H 50 and 550BL styles.
Open to Ideas
The best anglers I know keep an open mind. They’re always ready to explore new ideas and techniques. Or in the case of swinging wets, to revisit old established techniques. This is one of the reasons flyfishing can keep you stimulated and engaged for a lifetime. The angler will grow with flyfishing and flyfishing will grow with the angler. Every season, a river will offer up an oversize fish to a lucky angler. I would wager that often, that angler is swinging flies.