Swinging Flies in Difficult Conditions: Low/Clear Water and Sunny/Warm Weather

Swinging Flies in Difficult Conditions: Low/Clear Water and Sunny/Warm Weather

Without a doubt, the weather this Autumn around here has been abnormally warm, sunny, and dry.  According to Accuweather.com, 21 of 30 days in September had above average temperatures, and the first 4 days of October have all been well above average temps as well.  The forecast is for more of the same for the next 5 or so days at least.  For those of us who enjoy fishing a swung fly in the Autumn for either migratory or resident fish, conditions have been a bit tough.  By tough, we mean conditions that are not typically conducive to good/great catching on the swung fly – low & clear water, and bright sunny skies.  Unfortunately, conditions will continue on this path at least for a bit.  The good news is that the fish are there in the river, and from what we have seen they are fat and plenty healthy.   

So what is an angler to do in this situation?  Of course, you can always put the Spey and single hand swing rods away for a few days and poke around with nymphs in the morning and evenings and maybe some terrestrials on top during the afternoon warmth.  But what if you prefer to keep on swingin’?  It’s a very fun and relaxing way to fish, after all, and we are fortunate enough to be out here for fun.  All is not lost, amigos!  Read on for a few of our best tips for swinging flies in difficult conditions. 

Fish During Low Light Periods

Trout, and especially migratory brown trout, respond best to the swung fly during periods of low light.  It is during those times that they are most active from a feeding and migrating sense.  They are also the least cautious during low light periods.  It’s far easier to show a fish your fly when it’s moving up the nice seam on the inside of the run than it is when that fish is hunkered down under a cut bank at midday.  The problem with extended high pressure periods like the one we are in right now is that the low light periods are short and most of the day is very bright.  Dawn and dusk provide the best windows of opportunity for those looking to swing up a few fish.  Make sure you focus your efforts during those times especially, even if it means setting that alarm extra early and wearing warm clothes to brave the morning chill, or trading a nice dinner for a couple of power bars so you can fish until dark.

Focus On Stealth

When the water is low and clear, and the light is high (or low), fish tend to be on high alert.  They are more exposed to predators, included the ones wearing waders and carrying flyrods.  Their survival instincts dictate everything about how they act in these conditions, including where they hold (more on that later).  During low and clear water conditions, it really helps to up your stealth game in every way possible.  Wade quietly, or stay on the bank if possible.  Wear drab colors.  Choose types of casts that create less ruckus on the water.  Make longer casts when possible. 

Upping your stealth game also means adjusting your gear.  Use longer leaders and lighter tippets at baseline.  If you are used to throwing T-tips or MOW tips on a Skagit style Spey line, consider switching to a Scandi head and long, mono leader like the RIO 12ft Salmon/Steelhead Mono Leader and adding 3 or 4 feet of your favorite fluorocarbon tippet.  Another great way to soften your presentation and still retain the ability to fish deeper than with a full mono leader is by using a sinking SA Sonar Leader.  We posted a review of them last week on the blog, and they cast great on both single and 2-handed rods.  They will mellow out the powerful WHACK of most Skagit lines, and, when paired with a line like RIO’s Trout Spey Shooting Head on the low end of your rods grain window provide a combo of stealth and sink tip that is tough to beat!

Fish More of the Right Water

As we alluded to earlier, low clear water conditions make for cagey trout, and influence where they are most likely to be holding.  Swinging flies is largely a game of probability, and the angler who swings the most “A+” water using the right tactics, will typically move more fish.  So, where should you fish when water is low and clear?  Think again about where the trout will feel most safe.  During low light periods, migratory fish will feel more inclined to move, and resident fish will likely move to feeding lies.  During these periods, the fish may be found in more exposed locations like inside seams, shallow tailouts, or wide flats.  As the sun gets higher and brighter, and also as anglers have fished through the more exposed lies, the fish will move to where they have more protection.  That means deeper water, places with lots of bottom structure like boulders and ledges, or areas where the surface is broken making the light diffuse. 

If you are targeting migratory fish during the day, consider the fact that the fish you are after will likely just hunker down during the midday periods and not move much.  Conversely, the same fish might be moving all day long when the weather is dark and gloomy and the water a bit higher.  So during tough conditions, rather than letting the fish come to us, we like to cover A LOT of water in search of the fish that want to join in on our silly game.  This is also the approach we take when searching for resident fish on the swing.  Cover more of the right water, and you will cover mover fish.

Downsize Your Flies

We all dream of the days when the browns are out hunting and giant streamers elicit savage, visible grabs from the biggest fish in the river.  Those days do happen, but not typically during the type of conditions we’ve been dealing with lately.  When you are dealing with low and clear water and high skies, smaller and sparser is often better.  In large part, we believe this has to do with the stealthy approach we discussed earlier.   Try landing that articulated, dumbbell eyed beast of a fly softly enough to not spook every fish in the run.  It’s difficult.  Maybe impossible.  For streamers, if you want to fish bigger stuff, they should be light enough to land softly.  Smaller streamers are another great way to go – both weighted or not.   While they might not be that exciting, small variations on the iconic Woolly Bugger are a great option.  So are small, drab bunny patterns like the Sculpzilla.  Of course, soft hackles and nymphs, presented stealthily, are a terrific choice to swing at all levels of the water column.

Last Cast

No matter how you decide to approach the water during tough conditions, we hope that you will do so with an open mind, and enjoy not only the process of angling and appreciate the incredible opportunities we have, but also take some time to treasure the total experience.  As always, if this post triggers thoughts or questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us by swinging by the fly shop, or dropping us an email to jspence@bigskyanglers.com or mklara@bigskyanglers.com

Take Care and Fish on,

Matt and Justin

Big Sky Anglers Featured Fly – Chou’s Fortune Cookie

Big Sky Anglers Featured Fly – Chou’s Fortune Cookie

Originator:  Brian Chou, MFC Signature Tier

Shank: Cut off hook or pre fab shank, Straight eye

Trailing Hook: Owner SSW, #6 or 8

Trailing hook connection: Coated wire

Weight: Cross Eyed Cone, ¼”.  Substitute tungsten for extra depth.

Thread: 6/0 black

Tail: Marabou blood quill, Pearly Krystal Flash, and a pair of matching grizzly hackle tips in matching or contrasting color.

Body: Ice Dub, color to match pattern (olive, uv black, pearl, rusty, purple)

Legs: MFC Barred Sexi Floss

Collar: Guinea hen, palmered, color to match pattern

Notes:  This pattern is a real winner from the bench of my good friend Brian Chou.  Originally tied to fish for trout from a drift boat on Washington’s Yakima River, the Fortune Cookie has, in recent years, become a real favorite among Trout Spey and swung fly enthusiasts from Montana to New Zealand.  The fly’s moderate size makes it easy to cast on lighter Trout Spey setups, and the profile has all the right qualities to suggest baitfish, sculpin, or crayfish.  Contrasting colors and wiggly materials help to move those fish who might not be on the feed, but are in the mood to be influenced into making bad decisions.  The weighted head makes it very versatile in terms of action and presentation.  On a straight swing it planes out, stays deep, and wiggles.  Bounce the rod tip and you get a great jigging action and tons of motion.  This pattern comes in great colors too:  Olive, Black, White, Purple, and my favorite, Brown/Yellow!

CHECK OUT the 360 degree view on MFC’s website!


The Pull

The Pull

I moved away from Oregon in 2014, and after a crazy year in southern California, I wound up, thankfully, back in the state that has always felt like home to me – Montana.  When I lived in Oregon, steelhead fishing was a huge part of my life, a true passion, and something that I dedicated countless hours and days to.  From mid-July through late-November, it was nearly all-consuming.  I called it the “summer run”, after the steelhead we fished for, and because of my own manic devotion to the pursuit.  Even in winter we searched for steelhead with our flies.  Twelve months a year.

Towards the end of my time in Oregon, though, I found my passion waning as my friends and I watched steelhead numbers around our region declining more and more every year.  When I moved away from Oregon, I left behind a lot of that passion for steelhead fishing.  Since then, my beloved summer run rivers have seen even poorer returns.  Other things have occupied my life, including a new son and a rejuvenated interest in trout fishing, which I am surrounded by close to home.  The poor returns of steelhead haven’t been enough to motivate me to make the long drive or flight west from MT to steelhead country.

My last steelhead fishing trip was in October 2016.  I got skunked for 4 days, alongside some of the most experienced steelheaders I’ve ever known. 

I caught my last few steelhead in October 2015, on a roadtrip over to Idaho and Washington, nearly four years ago.

Recently, I tied a huge batch of steelhead flies for Joe Moore and his crew of anglers who are travelling to British Columbia this April.  The flies I’ve been tying for them are some the same ones that I used to fish with confidence across the Pacific Northwest when I was so engrossed in the pursuit.  As the dozens stacked up on my tying bench, and the marabou stains on my fingers grew more pronounced, my mind wandered back to the old days.  So many good memories came back, not just of great steelhead hooked and landed or lost, but of time with great friends in fishing camps, freezing or burning up, dehydrated, tired, delirious, but also happy.  I dug through some old photos.  Most of all, I thought about what it feels like to swing one of those big flies through a run, the tension of the line just right, the sink tip curving down and away in that perfect “slow J” shape,  and the sudden, expected-yet-unexpected, heavy pull of a fish that has filled your thoughts and dreams for so long. 

The pull. 

The pull that I haven’t felt in so long.  The pull of a fish, but also the pull of the river, and of the camaraderie and friendships among steelheaders. 

A few dozen flies into the batch, I felt that pull again.  And it felt pretty good.

Take Care and Fish On,


PS – This essay first appeared on the frontpage at Sexyloops.com where I’m a regular contributor.