By Chris Thompson
Photos by Matthew Vand De Motter
The cast gets most of the attention from the angler who pursues migratory trout with the two-handed fly rod. With monk-like reverence, we repeat the chant: lift, sweep, anchor and delivery. Our souls soar when the rod tip powers the head forward, pulling the running line behind it as it shoots through the air toward the far bank. But if our goal is hooking fish, then our focus should be on the swing, because the swing is the thing.
Unlike the cast, the swing is mostly invisible. Yet, out of sight shouldn’t mean out of mind. Especially on the relatively narrow Great Lakes streams that fill with migratory rainbows and browns every fall through late spring. A long cast on most Great Lakes tributaries will end up in the woods on the far bank. And if you only swing through classic two-handed pools, you’ll do more walking than fishing. Learning the art of the short swing means more time fishing and more fish to the net.
The short swing is used to fish the slots and runs where migratory fish often hold in the journey to and from their spawning habitat. These holding spots are generally only a few yards long and few feet wide, at most. If you’re like me, you spent a lot of time fishing these spots with a nymph rig, but ignored them when you switched to fishing the longer, two-handed rod. Such spots don’t cry out “swing water,” in the same way that large pools and long runs do. Even though I knew they held fish, I told myself that passing up such spots was the price I paid for getting hooked on the swing.
But after I purchased a shorter two-handed, rod (an 11-foot, Scott 5-weight) I was fortunate to spend a few hours on the water with @greatlakesdude and he helped me add the all-important short game to my quiver.
The key to the short swing is doing more steering than swinging. The cast needs to land above the target; close enough that the fly can be guided into the desired slot, yet far enough that the fly has time to sink to the appropriate depth. And then the line needs to be manipulated so the fly stays in the slot, rather than dumping into slack water or the shelves that surround it. More often than not, only a part of the head of the fly line is out of rod tip. A roll cast is all that’s needed to set up the swing. A quick mend to set up the fly to sink is followed by a manipulation of the rod to steer the fly through the slot. Sometimes that steering requires the angler to lower the rod, in essence feeding the fly into the slot. Or walking downstream a step or two to guide the fly into the zone.
Even the longer runs and deep pools can be effectively fished with this short swing technique, as the bottom of those runs and pools are nothing more than a series of short slots and pockets that hold fish.
For example, on a cold, late March day earlier this year I was blessed to fish a relatively un-pressured stretch of very popular south shore stream on Lake Erie. Standing on the river-left bank, the river took a sharp turn against the far bank and poured into what looked like a classic pool and run. About 20 yards downstream of the turn, several deadfalls were pushed up against the far bank. The first time I fished the pool I was disappointed to discover it wasn’t as deep as it looked from a distance. The pool lacked boulders and other obstructions that might hold fish. I swung through the pool without luck but couldn’t help but think that if I had taken time to focus on the water flowing past the deadfalls, I might have had more luck.
A few weeks later, on an even colder day, I was invited back to fish the water and the flow was slightly higher and the water along the wood debris looked even more promising. I started fishing high in
the riffle just in case there were fish staging to move upstream, but quickly moved into position just above the first deadfall. I had crossed most of the river and was only going to fish a four-foot-wide slot of green water rushing along the log jam. The key would be to land the fly as tight to the wood as possible, mend quickly to give the fly time to sink and then steer the swing so it stayed close to the wood. If the current pulled the fly away from the logs, it would end up in the foot deep water rather than the three- to four-foot-deep slot. I used a 10-foot Scientific Angler TC Tip 3/5 tip and a 16-inch, 12-pound leader to sink the fly quickly; the tip was too heavy for the shallow water in the main part of the pool, but hopefully heavy enough for the deeper slot. And the short leader kept the fly in close contact with the tip, which allows for more control of the swing. I prefer fishing unweighted flies and rely on the tip to sink the fly. A short leader keeps the fly lower in the water column than a longer leader.
The first fish hit after two swings along the first log. The drop-back steelhead had colorful red fins and a silver side. Her tail showed the wear-and-tear of spawning. I got a pluck toward the bottom of the first log and took a few steps back upstream to try again. I
resumed the swing and got a little overconfident and roll cast the fly into the wood. One benefit of using barbless OPST hooks is that they can be popped free of such jams with an even more aggressive roll cast. My fly free, I backed up a bit and focused on dropping the fly just inside the logs. A few swings later an aggressive buck grabbed the olive and brown sculpin pattern and leaped from the water and the reel screamed.
Two fish from a run 10 yards long made for a good end to a great day on the water. And neither fish would have been possible without the short swing.