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Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Dry Line Swing in Winter

Casting a Winter's Hope on a dry line.  Photo by Steve Turner 
Bright winter buck taken on a 5/0 Winter's Hope swung on a dry line.  Todd Hirano photo

When I first took up fly fishing for steelhead in the late 80's, the common wisdom for pursuing winter steelhead was to use a sinking shooting head or sink tip line.  I bought into the hype and purchased some of the sinking lines available at the time and found them a pain to cast, but accepted that as part of the winter steelhead game: this game is supposed to difficult, afterall.

It was during those early days as a novice steelhead fly fisher that I began peeking at a copy of Bill McMillan's classic book Dry Line Steelhead sitting on the bookshelf of the Kaufmann's Streamborn fly shop in Tigard, Oregon in 1989.  I was working a minimum wage job at the time so I put off purchasing  the book so I could afford the bare essentials with tackle and fly tying materials to keep me on the water.  A few years later, my dear wife Wendi purchased a copy of Dry Line Steelhead for me as a Christmas gift.

Along with the chapters on surface methods for steelhead, the chapters on utilizing the dry line throughout winter captured my attention.  I was fascinated with the prospect of fishing all winter with a floating line!  Bill's descriptions of using the "deep wet fly swing" with his graceful and elegant Winter's Hopes tied on big irons filled my mind with romantic images of fishing winter rivers with the fluid grace of the dry line and hooking into winter steelhead in such a gentlemanly manner.

Some Hope.  Photo by Todd Hirano
The only problem with my perfect fantasy of dry line winter swinging was that I had moved from Oregon back to my childhood home of Kauai, HI from 1990 to 2009, which provided a minor 19 year interruption in my plans!  Upon arriving back in Oregon in 2009, I began hitting winter rivers with regularity and subsequently became fully committed to fishing the dry line swing throughout the coming winter steelhead seasons.

I have been extremely blessed to have been able to regularly communicate with Bill McMillan directly over the years and even more blessed that we have become friends.  Bill had mentioned to me that when the old Partridge code M hooks that he tied his Winter's Hopes on were discontinued, he began fishing other non-traditional flies for his dry line winter fishing.  Speaking of non-traditional flies, I began experimenting with tying bead headed MOALs (leech pattern) in 2009 and offered some to Bill and he actually accepted some of my crude ties.  It wasn't long before I heard back from Bill that he began hooking into his local winter steelhead on them!  I figured if MOALs were good enough for my mentor, then they were good enough for me.

Hefty winter buck taken on a red/orange MOAL dwarfs single hand 7wt.
Despite my initial doubts, uncertainties, and second guessing while utilizing the method, I got my first few dry line winter steelhead on MOALs tied with a 1/4" bead and about 3.5" in overall length.  I was thrilled with my hard won dry line winter successes and with each dry line steelhead encounter came more confidence.    My next goal was to get winter steelhead on the traditional Winter's Hope and in subsequent seasons I have been able to attain that goal of getting winter steelhead on the famous pattern from size 5/0 down to 2/0.  I was able to luck into some old stock Partidge code Ms in the large sizes and have been carefully rationing their use since they are no longer produced.   I have also taken dry line winter steelhead on simple, sparse, marabou intruder style patterns and a simple marabou/rabbit strip pattern called the Samurai as well.

Bright Winter Hen taken on Black Friday 2013 on a simple rabbit/marabou fly named the Samurai.  Photo by Todd Hirano
Bill McMillan was utilizing a traditional double taper line and single hand rods up to 10' in length in the days his articles on the method were written in the early 70's.  Bill has since been using two handed rods and windcutter style lines in recent years for the winter dry line swing.  I initially used two handed rods and double taper or windcutter lines in my early winter dry line attempts as well.  The longer rods and lines made setting up the dry line swing a breeze with easy back mending and line control advantages as well.

I most often fish winter rivers in the medium to small range so in 2011, I began a passion with utilizing vintage single hand glass rods in the 8-9' range.  I had also discovered the ease and utility of Wulff Ambush lines during that time.  The short, heavy head on the Ambush lines make single hand spey casting a delight and they match old glass rods especially well.  Of course using a short head line on shorter single hand rods eliminated the ability to set up the dry line swing with back mends so I adapted the Ambush line to the dry line swing by using what Dec Hogan has referred to as a "pull back" mend.  The cast is made cross stream and as soon the the line lands, the rod is lifted and the rear of the head is pulled back in a diagonal, upstream orientation.  Some additional line can be fed into the drift to allow the fly to sink, and/or the angler can take steps downstream during the swing to allow the fly to stay deep for the greatest portion of the presentation as possible.

As Bill McMillan noted in his writing on the subject, the method does require "editing" water one chooses to fish.  In other words, the winter dry line swing will not fish all the water that guys with indicators or swinging sinktips will be able to cover.  The method works best in runs with a moderate current speed where the fly is able to gain some depth and maintain that depth for the maximum amount of the time during the swing before currents pull the fly to the surface towards the dangle.  This is the primary reason that the winter dry line swing will rarely net as many hookups as indi fishing or sinktip swinging:  your fly is simply in the zone for a smaller proportion of the time compared to other methods.

On the flip side, there are times and places where the winter dry line swing has advantages over the sinktip equipped angler.  An example is were a soft cushion forms close to the near shore.  A guy with a tip will swing his setup through the heavier main current and be fine, but when the sinktip comes into the softer water, the angler may have to strip in before hanging up on the bottom.  In this situation, the dry line angler is able to allow his fly to safely swing all the way to the dangle without fear of hanging up and sometimes winter steelhead like to hang out in that soft water close to shore.

An example of the above scenario comes to mind when I fished with my good friend Craig Coover a few years ago.  We hit a local coastal river for a quick afternoon session and we found ourselves on a nice run there the main flow pushed hard towards the far bank which was lined with a rock wall.  I started at the upper section and found it a bit fast for the dry line.  Craig was fishing the mid section of the run from a small clearing he found through the bankside brush.  I looked longingly at the water Craig was fishing as I noted how the flow transitioned very nicely from the main flow to a soft inside cushion.

Craig is a very good fisherman and he is literally a "vacuum cleaner" with his sinktip setups that he fishes with much skill.  Craig had thoroughly fished the middle water from his casting station and came up empty.  However, despite Craig's "barometer" indicating there were no fish there, I decided to try fishing the same water anyway after Craig moved to fish the bottom of the run.  I wanted to see how the water fished with the dry line for future reference on return trips to this run.  
I found Craig's water to fish the dry line extremely well.  This flow was basically a "self mender".  All I had to do was cast cross stream and the current did the rest.  This water had the perfect feel for the dry line: moderate speed, even flow, and decent depth.  One of the indications of the "feel" I like is when the current is just lightly pulling against the head during the swing, which translates to a soft tension on my index finger as I lightly hold the running line against the cork.  After several casts where the Ambush head and a few strips of running line were out, my 4/0 Winter's Hope came towards the dangle on a nice slow swing.  A quick yank came next and I was fast to a bright hen that I eventually managed to get to the bank in spite of the cramped quarters of the jungle behind me.  

I was surprised at hooking into a steelhead in water Craig had just fished, but it later dawned on me that I likely was able to swing my fly closer to the near shore with the dry line presentation and had actually fished water that Craig had not touched with his sinktip.  Other areas where the winter dry line swing shines is where the flow is too shallow and soft for guys with tips to fish effectively. 
Classic Dry Line water.  Photo by Todd Hirano
 Fishing without the mechanical advantage of a sinktip can seem like too much of a sacrifice to many, but for those up for a new challenge in winter steelheading, the dry line swing can bring great rewards with the rare successes giving a great sense of accomplishment.  Utilizing the dry line swing in winter is very satisfying for me because when success comes, I know I have overcome great odds.  As it is, winter steelhead are tough to come by for most of us so why make a tough game even tougher?  As Tom Hanks has said:  "It's supposed to be hard, if it were easy, everyone would do it".  Makes me wonder if Tom Hanks was a dry line winter steelheader.

My first winter steelhead taken on a classic Winter's Hope.  Todd Hirano photo

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