Swinging Wet Flies Downstream
June 28, 2016
Summer is upon us, the time trout fisherman start to change things up. Springtime nymph fishing is deadly, streamer fishing with baitfish patterns in the margins during high water can produce some big fish, and large dry flies come into their own post runoff. But a fourth option is largely overlooked by many, one that has history and style in addition to being just plain brutally effective at times. Swinging wet flies downstream to imitate emerging insects is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and the technique has had some modern updates that make it something you'll want to be rigging for when circumstances dictate.
Two hundred years before Isaak Walton, Dame Juliana Berners was writing about wet fly techniques and patterns in the first recorded book on fly fishing "A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle." The dawn of fly fishing in Elizabethan England made do with what was at hand for equipment—long cane or willow poles, horsehair or silk lines and imitation insects made from whatever feathers that were handy caught fish when presented on a downstream swing. Dry fly floatant was half a millennia away, and line diameters were still crudely thick if they were to have any chance of holding a good fish.
Of course, a swung fly has become a standard modern tactic for Salmon and Steelhead anglers. But for whatever reason, the approach fell out of favor for trout in the US, even on larger rivers, despite remaining a go-to technique in Europe. About fifteen years ago, I was turned on to a new generation of sinking leaders and soft hackle flies that changed my thinking about how, where and what to fish with. This technique is effective around the world—I took one of my personal best Brown trout in Patagonian Chile swinging and mending a large wet.
AirFlo and Rio produce monofilament core, flexibly coated leaders with variable sink rates to adjust for conditions. Leaders designated for trout typically have a 12lb (1x) core, though Steelhead and Salmon fishers are being accommodated with leaders that are double that. These leaders change everything about how your rod handles, loading instantly, and your ability to roll cast will increase exponentially.
Better commercial fly suppliers are now producing trout patterns incorporating what I feel is the most effective design element for wet flies, unweighted soft hackles. Typically made from Partridge feathers in smaller to medium hook sizes, soft hackle imparts action that mimics the shucked casing of an emergent insect being cast off in the middle of the water column. The pulsing, translucent fibers act as a very strong strike trigger for fish that are starting to key in on the beginning of a hatch, and this seems to apply to both Mayfly and Caddis emergences. Unweighted, non-beadhead patterns seem to have a more lifelike action with swung presentations. A word of caution is in order here, strikes tend to be violent as the fish are chasing the fly, typically hammering it downstream at the bottom of the "J." A Drop Loop strike will help with a solid hook set, and to keep from being broken off by the heavier fish that this technique can produce.
Some very enticing flies from Orvis, Umpqua, and Solitude are perfectly suited for this technique, with some New for 2016 patterns catching my attention. Despite sometimes being labeled as Stillwater or Tenkara designs, these flies are becoming favorites among hard core swing fly fishers. Umpqua's New Trick soft hackle, in particular, has produced well for me on the large riffles of the Upper Rio Grande in Colorado.
You owe it to yourself to try a new take on an old trick, by getting into the swing of things on your next outing!
"And if the angler catches the fish with difficulty, then there is no man merrier than he is in his spirits." -- Dame Juliana Berners, 1450