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As we move into November, river conditions and fish behavior begin to change. The last of the salmon have died off and the eggs that have flooded our rivers for the past two months have started to taper off. The diminishing amount of caviar around will have the steelhead in the rivers moving into sandier lies and looking for different food sources. This opens up the opportunity to utilize one of the most exciting techniques we use for steelhead--swinging.
Swinging is one of the fastest growing techniques used in the Great Lakes region for steelhead, and involves presenting a fly broadside in the current to the fish. This can be done with a single-handed rod, although either switch or full spey rods make the delivery and presentation much easier. If using a single-handed rod, a multi-tip sink line is ideal for the varying depths and currents in the river. With the switch and spey rods, the line choices grow exponentially. The two most popular systems are those using either Skagit or Scandiavian shooting heads. With either of these set-ups, varying amounts of sink tip can be added to achieve the correct depth.
As with any type of fly fishing, the correct presentation is key. Once the cast is made, mending the line in the first part of the swing is important to get the right depth and speed. While swinging through the run, I don't like to mend the line, as any mend will disrupt the swing of the fly. As far as speed goes, you don't want the fly to be whipping around at the speed of light, but rather be moving at a steady, moderate pace. In the early fall, it is not necessary to dredge the bottom of the river as fish are much more willing to move around for the fly. As the water temperature cools to below 40, getting the fly to the bottom is much more important with the more lethargic fish. The strikes may come at any point during the swing and are usually extremely violent, so be ready. However, a majority of the takes will come at the hang-down when the fly is directly downstream at the end of the swing.
One aspect that surprises many people is the type and size of flies used in this presentation. The most popular flies tend to be quite large and rather gaudy. Although you certainly can take fish on the classic patterns, the most effective flies are usually leeches and sculpin/baitfish patterns that incorporate a generous amount of flash.
Not every spot in the river is ideal for swinging. Look for water that is between 4 to 6 feet deep and has a nice walking pace current speed. I particularly like to fish runs with a sandy bottom. Food is quite scarce in sand in comparison to gravel areas and the fish seem to feed much more opportunistically when potential foodd is around. Another key area to target is those that have bottoms congested with wood. Most of the time you can swing the fly right over the top of the snags that bottom bouncing rigs will hang up on.
One of the most common misconceptions that I hear is that swinging flies is not very productive. Although it is true that most days nymphing will out produce a swung fly it can be a rather productive method. Swinging is not intended to target every fish in a run, rather only the aggressive or player fish. With that being said, do not stayin one spot long. After making a swing, take at least a few steps down before recasting. A common occurrence is to feel a small peck or two during the swing. If you feel this stay with that fish for several more casts before stepping down. Keep covering water until you find an aggressive fish that tries to rip the rod right out of your hand, and when you stick a hook in one be prepared to have your hands full with a mean, acrobatic chrome fish.
If swinging for silver bullets sounds like your game, then November should be your favorite time of year. If you have any questions about techniques or riggings, please don't hesitate to call the fly shop. We have guides available if you want a first-hand experience using this exciting technique. We also have some openings in our switch rod school where swinging will be covered indepth.
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