Indicator vs. Swinging Flies
Which winter steelhead tactic should you use?
This is a good question for winter anglers: when it's 40 degrees and raining, you'd like to have confidence that something might happen to justify all that cold water trickling down your casting arm.
The "pro" I talked to about this subject was Rob Crandall. Rob is a masterful winter fly-rod steelheader. When he isn't selling advertising for Frank Amato Publications or guiding anglers on the Deschutes, Rob is usually out on the water picking up fish of his own. He is expert with both indicator tactics and traditional tactics.
"The biggest factor," Rob says, "is the type of water. Indicator tactics are excellent for probing slots, pocket water, ledgy areas, around rocks, and over drop offs. They also work well for any part of a small stream, especially one that is lined with trees and other vegetation. Any place where steelhead will concentrate is a prime spot for indicator tactics. "
Rob notes that winter steelhead are often on the move--more so than summer steelhead, which tend to hold in one area for a longer time. When rivers are dropping and clearing, winter steelhead start travelling. So a good place to fish is a narrow slot that is a natural fish passage. If the current is moving at a walking pace, then fish will linger in it; in addition, fresh fish will keep moving through it all day. You can spend a lot of time casting to a spot such as this and probe it thoroughly with an indicator and fly. If you don't get anything on the first few casts, keep at it--a receptive fish could show up at any time.
When to be a Swinger
Long, wide runs, on the other hand, can hold fish in many different places. The steelhead are usually not concentrated in a few spots, but are spread out. You need a way to efficiently cover lots of water with each cast. In this circumstance, traditional tactics--swinging flies--work well. Also, indicator tactics are not suited to long casts: even if you cast 60 feet, you will probably have a line-control problem that will cause the fly to drag.
Water temperature can also play a role in your choice of tactics. When the water is very cold--say under 40 degrees--steelhead can be reluctant to move to a swinging fly, but they're more likely to respond to a dead-drifted fly that approaches them at or slightly above eye-level. In this case, indicator tactics are probably the best option on any size of river.
It can also make a difference if you're bank fishing or in a boat. Indicator tactics are dynamite when you drifting the river in a boat. Cast down and to the side and let your fly move naturally through slots, along ledges, over drop-offs and around rocks. Look ahead and anticipate where the best places will occur; then cast so your fly passes through the prime water as the boat approaches.
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