For all the varied methods of casting a line and showing something interesting to a trout, presenting a fly always comes down to this: Are you drifting or swinging?
Daylight or night bite, we’re delivering our flies either with the current or against it — drifting or swinging. And while their are hundreds of variations on each approach, it helps to recognize the root of every tactic that we employ with a fly rod. When I talk shop with my night fishing friends, when I sit down to share a beer and swap a few tales about how last night’s fishing shook out, my first question is usually, “Were you drifting or swinging.”
— — — — — —
It was a warm midsummer night (2013, I think) and the sky was unusually dark on the small river I’d chosen to night fish. A clear sky with no moon kept my visibility limited. I’d learned to swing my flies against the current on nights like these, casting across, or down and across, to let the line and leader tighten against the subtle pull of a moderate current. I felt takes easier this way, so I lost fewer fish. This presentation also kept my flies off the river bottom and above the trout for some time, giving them a chance to look up and find the dark silhouette of a large fly — the blacked-out shadow of spun fur and feathers against a raven sky and hazy galaxies.
I’d night fished on and off for years, but I hadn’t yet found the confidence of experience to break through the confines of any particular method. I didn’t see all the possible variations of the line, leader and rod in my hand. I just knew that when fishing wets, I was supposed to swing them this way.
Near the end of a favorite piece of water, and well past midnight, I leaned in with anticipation. My eyes widened and pupils dilated, trying to gather every shape of the river bank that I could glimpse. I knew the water well, and although my target was only half-seen, I could imagine the other half. I cast to a slightly swirling current behind a submerged boulder, just above its junction with the tailout. Prime water.
If a trout takes anywhere tonight, it’s right here, I thought.
Instinctively, I leaned in further, trying to see more, to track the flies beyond what feeling the rod could give me. Nothing happened. A dozen casts later, each with minor changes in angle and presentation, I told myself I’d give this night one last cast before walking out on it.
Ten casts later, I finally leaned back and stood up with a sigh. I unhitched my water bottle at the carabiner and took a long drink. Looking up, I watched an airplane blink through the constellation Leo.
Sometime back in college I had a class called Oceans and Atmospheres, where I learned most of the stars and patterns created in the night sky. While my memory for most of them has faded, I can still pick out Leo. Because every November the Leonid meteor shower bursts from the heart of the constellation Leo, lighting up the sky with streaking, shooting stars. So I’ve spent enough wide-awake hours lying on my back at 2:00 am that the location of Leo is burned into my soul.
When the plane’s blinking lights faded behind a rogue cloud, miles above my place on the earth, I sighed again. With some disappointment about the night, I turned to look upstream from where I’d come. All that water, all those casts, all those hours spent since darkness settled in, and nothing to show for it. Unsettled, I wasn’t ready to quit the night, so I didn’t. A fisherman knows when he’s done, and walking out when you know you should stay feels like a mistake. It’s a mistake we don’t make more than once.
With forced optimism, I gazed upstream and recommitted myself. I could make out the bank structure, and I knew enough about the overhanging limbs that I saw an opportunity, a moment to try something different.
Instead of casting my pair of #4 wet flies across stream, I moved closer to the bank and cast the wets nearly straight upstream, at the same angle I would attempt to dead drift nymphs on a tight line. Within a few casts I was surprised by a trout. And after the release I was rewarded with another. Although I couldn’t see my line to track the drift, I quickly realized that I didn’t need to. With decades of experience tracking hundreds of thousands of nymphing drifts during the daylight, I instinctively knew what speed to lead the flies at night. Visually, I could barely make out the surface currents, but I could hear the speed of the water. And I could feel the weight of the flowing current against my legs.
So I drifted my flies, leading the rod tip fast enough to barely be in touch. Opening up and relying on my other senses felt like a sea change, like I accessed a bank of stored information that was primed and ready for release. By merely giving myself another opportunity, a different angle of presentation to this pair of the Governor and Professor, my instincts, my experience took over. Sometimes I could feel the flies against the current ever so slightly — something I’d never noticed during the day. And when my wets grazed the river bottom I lifted the rod tip and led the flies downstream a little faster.
Another trout came to hand. And then another as I worked upstream against the far bank. The river’s edge stayed in shadow as the moon rose behind it over a line of maple trees. I picked apart the pockets and seams that bordered the best river structure. And my wet flies found success, drifting, in the very same water where swinging them had failed. Within an hour or so, the moon rose high into the sky and stole away the shade lines. But by then, I was a hundred yards upstream and a dozen fish into the count. So I reeled up and walked out satisfied.
— — — — — —
That night, that moment under the stars, and the dozen or so trout that followed, taught me to look at things differently. It was a defining night, with the kind of lesson we’re all granted from time to time, and one that stands ingrained in memory. Since then, my first adjustment at night is often a flip from swinging to drifting, or vice versa. Whether fishing wets, streamers, mouse flies or other surface patterns, one simple change may be all you need.
— Next time, we’ll take a detailed look at drifting vs swinging. When, why, how and more.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N