The gawks and gazes of fellow anglers across the road made me giggle, as I pulled out my 11’6 ”trout spey and started rigging. With a cold beverage cracked and bobbers swaying in the bend of their rods, I could hear their murmurs and whispers. “What is this guy thinking, the river isn’t that wide?”
I am thinking I did not call my friends because the last thing I wanted to hear is a group of guys making fun of a method I chose to fish with. I am thinking that watching a bobber subtly dip below the water might just be the most boring method of fishing I have ever done. And I am also thinking that I thrive on the fact that I may be the only one who would even consider swinging flies on a river this size, in the dead of winter, populated with bobber watching individuals who crack open beers and make fun of people like me who do not practice the same.
The fact of the matter is, I do not have friends anymore that I wish to call and go fish with. People’s opinions get to me. I’m sensitive. Even as a writer, I let a silly comment from an article stew me into doubt that makes me wonder if I am even angling like someone who knows what they’re doing. But heading to the river and flipping my phone on airplane mode, gives me unwarranted molestation that allows me to receive the one thing I am looking for, peace.
I would be lying if I said I did not practice fishing to catch fish. Anyone who sets out to say that needs to cut the hook off their fly. But the beauty of the location is undoubtedly high amongst why we fish, and me swinging flies allows this practice of catching fish to slow or even not exist in order to maximize the beauty of the surrounding landscape instead of focusing on a damn bobber.
Given the day, a streamer can be the most effective method for catching fish. However, most of the time, in winter especially, it is the least effective method. Precisely why I practice it. Science of catching and handling fish in extreme conditions, whether extremely cold, or very warm, can have deadly consequences. Even if the fish swam out of your net or hand, practiced with all the proper keep fish wet handling practices, the mortality rate can flirt with 10%. Couple that by targeting a deep pool in winter where most of the fish hole up and minimize their energy reserves for dead drifted bugs, like a bobber nymph rig, and an entire hole on a river can be decimated from the effectiveness of a dropper rig.
Swinging streamers however, brings back that conversation of taking in the beauty of the landscape you swing through while keeping that hook on the fly in case an encounter happens. Often is the case, throughout the year, where anglers delve into streamer fishing in the early summer, spring, and fall seasons of the morning before a hatch begins, or just after dusk, waiting for that larger fish, uninterested by that grasshopper or caddis imitation during the day. In winter, the practice of swinging flies often does not make sense, entirely. Fish hardly move throughout the river systems, staying put, in the deepest and slowest water, conserving energy for when the mercury decides to come back to reasonable angling temperatures. Hardly moving, even to open their moves and feed.
The style reminds me of swinging flies for steelhead. It is evident how effective a nymph rig setup can be on landing a steelhead. Where swinging flies limit the encounters, but can arguably bring in the hottest fish in the system. On the other side of the Continental Divide, in the depths of winter with snow crunching beneath my feet as I edge closer to the river, the process remains the same.
The first step in the water often begs the question of why you are fishing when the highway adjacent is a gateway to fresh powder at the local ski resort. The toes sting before going numb and the ankles and feet begin to throb. Wondering if there is a hole in the waders from the arctic grip the water and air now have on your lower extremities. The water tumbles over the small boulders and cascades into the green and deep pool, likely holding fish. I unhook the green woolly bugger from the guide and begin stripping line out of my reel and slowly cast and swing with each strip of line taken out of the reel.
Snow begins to fall. Collecting on my beanie, shoulders, and rod with each slow swing into the deep pool. Like steelheading, I whisper sweet murmurs of praise, hoping and praying that in this moment a fish should strike. But like steelheading, they never do. Strip a bunch of line in at the end of the swing, snap, cast, mend, and step. Repeating until the hole has been covered.
Shaking my head in disbelief, I remembered why I chose to fish this way. The day is flirting with freezing, hardly an effective day for landing fish. Perhaps a nymph rig would have landed me an opportunity to see that bobber dip below the surface, however it likely would have just been another whitefish (Nothing against whitefish by the way, a real North American resident, with plenty of strength to give an angler a challenging and fun fight). But, I remembered the deep green pool. The beautiful water tumbling down the rocks with nothing but the sound of it rushing into the pool. The steep rock cliff with snow collecting on its ledges is painting the landscape beautifully with patterns and colors no canvas could replicate. The dipper birds doing their namesake while singing in the solitude of the snowy river.
Upstream, I walked around the bend following the footsteps of the bighorn sheep that come down in elevation in winter. Around the bend I see two things: another huge deep pool with some of the most beautiful swing water I have ever seen, and a bald eagle perched on a tree gawking at me, similarly but more directly than the bobber sporting, beer drinking anglers from earlier. Almost as if I am accepting the eagle’s judgment, I step out and begin my swings. With a log on the other side of the river, I aim for a few yards above it to allow the streamer to sink a bit before the swing begins. As the cast bends and sways in the air, landing perfectly to where I intended, it lands, and I again look to the eagle still staring at me. As the fly sinks then gets tension, I return my gaze to the river and watch my line swing through the deep green pool. Not two seconds into the swing my line comes tight.
My heart stops, then suddenly races. At first there is confusion as the headshaking seems to distort the actual size of the fish. But I rest assured that most of the fish that would take a swung fly in these conditions will likely be a bull in their pools. Sure enough, with a leap out of the water and a quick fight, the adult brown comes to hand for a quick conversation. I remove the barbless hook from its tongue and gently allow him to swim out of my hand, submerged in the freezing water. With as gently of a release as I have ever seen, I watch as the fish slowly meanders back to the pool whence it came. Sadly, my first initial thought is that of the mortality rate I learned recently, but held my breath thinking that fish did not get that big and strong to die from a swung barbless streamer while only leaving the water on its own accord. Before picking up my rod I look up to the eagle to see it had flow away, never to be seen again this day.
I gaze around after noticing the dispersal of the eagle, to find the landscape devoid of everything. Snow and the river seem to be the only sound, wrapped in my own soundproof room that is a cacophony of music only mother nature and solitude can provide. Most people, assumingly are on the mountain for such a magical day in winter. Powder is now lining the riverbanks, creating their own towers and skyscrapers like a big city growing along the major river systems of the world.
Unlike the big cities of the world, these skyscrapers do not last forever. In fact, the score to swing flies in the snow is rarer than one might think. Living in the mountains, when I see a forecast of overcast and mid 40-degree days, my salivation level tends to diminish, knowing many are aiming to hit the river for one of those warm days of powderless mountains and castable tolerance. But when the mercury flirts with freezing, and the skies unload the white gold that most jump at for skiing, I grab my two-handed rod and hit the river, bundled with layers and a pocket full of streamers, hoping for an encounter to enhance the experience of it all.
Article and photos from Sean Jansen, an avid angler and writer based in Bozeman, Montana. Sean grew up on the California coast where he spent years surfing and steelheading the coastal areas. Follow along with his adventures at @jansen_journals.
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Of Surfing and Steelhead, An Angler Story
A Beginner’s Ode to Swinging Flies for Steelhead