This article originally appeared in the 2019.1 issue of Swing the Fly magazine and is free to view. Enjoy, and if you’re not already a member, consider joining to get access to all the member content and the Anthology book.
As Spey fishers, we dream of the perfect pool. At the head of the pool, where the current dumps in, the depth is thin but the surface is broken enough to hide a steelhead readying to make its move up to the next pool. Moving down the water turns darker, slower and the current that is fairly strong in the middle softens as a tapered inside seam, offering a perfect resting spot for a fish while creating little need to mend the line. There are visible swirling disturbances on the surface indicating rocks and contour changes offering ideal holding structure. The pool fishes deep into the tail as the bottom rises to meet the next heavy riffle down river. A few boulders nearly poke through the surface creating a slightly irregular current and respite for a traveling fish.
The perfect pool may take an hour or two to completely cover through all the nuances. You can get lost in its vastness while imagining what exists below the surface. The pool allows you to bomb out long casts to cover its width while adjusting the casting stroke for the changes in wading depth.
If you have spent time chasing migratory fish you most likely have fished this type of pool. The rhythmic cadence of cast, step and cast can put you in a Zen-like state that is only disturbed by the heavy take of an aggressive fish. But, in fishing, things are not always perfect. This type of water my not readily exist on some rivers or it may be one of the more popular pools making it difficult to get in the rotation. While a perfect pool often holds plenty of fish, steelhead and other migratory and non-migratory species can be found in a wide range of water. Utilizing non-typical lies found between the main pools is a great strategy for avoiding fishing pressure while prospecting for aggressive fish looking to attack a swung fly.
Two-handers and even one-handed Spey rods are tools of versatility. While these rods allow you to swing a fly using effortless casts and acute line control, there is also the advantage of creativity. Rigged with the proper line, tip, and fly, a myriad of water can be explored while fishing the fly on a tight line. Taking a contrarian view of a river allows you to see it in a different light and exposes opportunities that might not otherwise be seen. There is often an advantage to leading and not following.
I am drawn to pocket water created by boulders, rock formations, drop-offs, or submerged logs. Pockets can be found within a typical run or pool, as a series of pockets in fast currents, or in less defined water between the main pools. Pockets offer structure and soft water where a fish can rest. While pocket water is often covered with high-stick techniques, using a tight line and swinging fly can result in aggressive grabs with the proper presentation.
One key to covering pocket water is to understand that fish can be positioned in front of the structure creating the pocket as well as behind. A large boulder causes the current to split, leaving soft holding water directly in front. Making sure the fly shows itself in both the front of and behind the structure will maximize the coverage.
The presentation challenge when fishing pocket water exists in placing the fly at the proper level and controlling the line in order for it to swing through the target area. How deep the fly needs to be presented often depends on water temperature; it is always important to be rigged in a way that places the fly deep enough to attract a fish’s attention. A weighted fly can assist in reaching the proper depth by breaking through the heavy surface tension often found around pocket water, especially when attempting to cover water in front of a large boulder. Using a longer tippet or leader combined with a heavily weighted fly will maximize depth.
Line control is critical to fishing pocket water. In big pockets, where the fly needs to get down fast, aggressive mending will be important. Taking the tension off the line will allow the fly to free-fall for a short period. In some situations, one big upstream mend will be enough to set up the swing but greater depths and current flow may require a series of mends. Stack mending refers to making repeated short mends to create maximum slack and depth to set up the swing. Stack mending requires a fair amount of effort but can pay dividends when fishing around large boulders.
Managing line is typically the key to working pocket water. The water in front of the obstruction causing the pocket will normally have a relatively uniform flow but you need to make sure the fly and sink tip doesn’t swing into the obstruction and become snagged. The water behind the boulder or other item creating the pocket can require a more calculated approach. As the current flows around the obstruction it creates soft water directly down river with a more forceful current on the outer edges of the pocket. The first casts that allow the fly to swing into the pocket will be made while positioned above the obstruction. Swinging through water with abrupt changes in the flow can be challenging. Make the cast so that it lands on the far side of the pocket, mend as necessary to get depth and allow the fly to swing through. In order to get a good swing, line manipulation may be required throughout the entire presentation. Mending the line up stream might be required to slow the fly down by removing a belly in the line. If you are close enough to the pocket, lift the rod tip to take some of the line off the water to help control the swing. Down stream mends might be required if the water behind the obstruction is fairly dead or placid, where a belly will be needed to pull on the line and swing the fly through. Making more than one cast from each position by changing the angle or approach to managing the line will make sure the water has been covered thoroughly.
The fast, shallow water found between main pools is constantly overlooked but under certain circumstances can be quite productive. On some of the more heavily pressured rivers in the Great Lakes region, steelhead may take to heavy cover to avoid anglers. Over the years I have found fish in water that by simple observation looked much too fast and heavy to hold fish. But you must keep in mind that the current is always heaviest on the surface and structure along the bottom will create just enough soft water for fish to hold.
Since most anglers will walk right by this type of nondescript water, it is typically a good place to try on days when anglers are present in the main pools. Look for areas or spots that appear darker to indicate a drop in the bottom and possibly offering softer water. Also focus on any other types of structure such as rocks and boulders that can break the main current flow. A weighted fly along with a sink-tip will work best in quickly achieving the proper depth. An upstream mend immediately after completing the cast will allow the fly an opportunity to sink. In fast water there will be a tendency for the fly line to develop a big downstream belly as the heavy current works on the surface area of the fly line. This causes the fly to swing too fast. Making continual upstream mends that reposition the line to eliminate the belly while not impeding the swing will allow the fly to maintain a proper speed.
A type of water that every swing angler should pay attention to is deep, swirling pools and tail outs. Swirling currents can be quite intimidating but I have caught some of my largest steelhead in deep churning pools. I gained much experience with this type of water on one of my home rivers but the lessons learned there have carried over to many situations on other rivers in the Great Lakes and northwest.
Uneven or swirling flows normally change and pulse as the force of varying currents push against one another. Sometimes this type of water will not facilitate a swing at all, but some swirling flows will swing perfectly with the right set up. The key is to read the flow, recognizing that when fishing inconsistent, pulsing currents you may need to actually wait until the current is pulsing at the right speed before making your cast. This type of water usually requires aggressive upstream mending after the cast is made to sink the fly. From here, reading the water is critical to keep the fly swinging at an enticing pace. Some water will require a downstream mend and belly to swing the fly and other times upstream mending will be required to keep the fly from swinging too fast. This type of water may also require longer casts to allow the head of the line and sink-tip to catch an outside current flow that will swing it around through deep, slow water.
Fishing swirling, pulsing currents takes some trial and error, experience is the best teacher. It will often take some out of the box thinking and patience to get the right setup and swing. You may need to make a number of casts from the same location to get the preferred swing or it may require moving past an area where a swing is impossible to find the sweet part of the pool or tail where a swing can be attained.
I generally consider the tailout as part of the final section of a typical steelhead pool. However, certain tailouts do deserve extra attention so not to overlook opportunity. Some can extend quite a distance to reach the next set of downstream riffles. But even in shallow, fairly fast tailout water, steelhead can be found when there is some structure to break the main current. Always be sure to fish a tailout all the way through, even as the current begins to pick up speed. Focus on all soft water caused by boulders and changes in the bottom.
Some tailouts can be deep and slow before rising up to meet the next riffle. I have experienced this type of tailout water on a few rivers of the Great Lakes region. Slow tailouts can look so uninviting from a swing perspective that it is easy to walk or float right by. But the lack of flow offers ideal resting water, especially when the current immediately below the tailout is fast and heavy. Fishing a slow tailout will usually require reducing the sink rate of the sink-tip and removing a fly with weight. Angling the cast down-river may be required to keep the fly from digging too deep. You may also need to throw some down river mends into the line to keep the fly moving. In extremely slow flows it may be necessary to slowly strip the fly or use an overhand retrieve to keep the fly swimming. Even with the fly moving very slowly, I have experienced some explosive takes in slow tailout water.
Ledges in slate or bedrock are a type of structure that tends to attract and hold fish. Ledges can be found on many rivers and a few rivers come to mind in the Great Lakes region that are primarily comprised of this type of bottom structure. Ledges will typically have an edge that runs parallel to the current. For aggressive fish, simply swinging a fly high in the water column over the ledge may be enough to entice a take. But for fish clinging more closely to the security of bottom structure, placing the fly down in the water column along the ledge will be the key to a successful presentation.
It is important to determine where the ledge begins, recognizing that it is not always straight but commonly has various cuts and uneven angles. The ledge will normally show up as a change in the color of the water. Simply casting to the ledge may not place the fly at the proper depth. A weighted fly assists in allowing the presentation to drop along the ledge. An effective approach to ledge water is to make a long cast that lands in the shallow water across the ledge and immediately raise the rod tip high to pull the line and fly back to you until it is at the edge of the deeper water. There’s now slack in the line that allows the fly to drop along the ledge. Some additional upstream mending may be required for deep ledges. Once the fly comes under tension it begins to draw away from the deepest part of the ledge water creating a very effective presentation that can result in explosive takes. Reaching out with the rod tip assists in slowing the swing slightly, allowing the fly to stay along the ledge for a longer period of time.
Slots and Troughs
A narrow slot or trough can be similar to ledge water without the steep edge. Deep slots can be found on various waters but are more common on smaller rivers and typically have a strong surface current. The key to covering this type of water is punching the fly through the heavier surface currents and controlling the speed of the swing. A weighted fly assists in cutting the surface tension of the current. Slightly over-powering the forward stroke allows the fly to hit the water and begin to sink before the line. An exaggerated upstream mend made by reaching out with the rod and pulling the line up stream will put slack in the line and allow the fly and sink-tip to free-fall. Adding line by moving the rod tip back and forth inserts more slack allowing the fly to dig deeper. As the fly comes under tension down from your casting position it will begin its enticing swing. Pointing to the opposite bank with the rod tip will assist in slowing the speed of the swing.
Don’t overlook any potential holding water. A couple years ago on a trip to British Columbia, I hooked the largest steelhead of the trip in a small piece of water that took about five short casts to cover. The holding water was simply a soft edge along a significant stretch of heavy riffles. The soft edge was created by the contour of the bank and I hooked the fish while barely standing in the water. This holding spot made sense since resting areas in this section were at a minimum. A light tip and un-weighted fly was all that was needed to cover the shallow flow.
They key to utilizing more than classic lies is to be observant and creative. Offbeat holding water requires a plan that will typically include some trial and error. But with the short-head lines available today combined with a myriad of two-handed and single-hand Spey rods, flies can be delivered to and controlled in a wide range of water types. Most of us have a tendency to become complacent and routine with the water we regularly fish. However, taking a look from a different perspective can open up some of a river’s secrets.
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