As time went on I got tired of loosing all kinds of flies, leaders and split shot as one typically donates a lot to the river bottom fishing in this method. I remember at the time thinking that someone could mine the river bottom for lead given how much gear was lost on the ledges and rocks.
My first move towards swinging took place when I got a switch rod. The one benefit I could not deny was that a two handed rod allowed one to reach water that one could not easily do with a single hand rod given the limited backcast room. I happily used my switch rod to nymph waters that would have been out of range previously plus the longer rod aided the mending of the line, a bonus.
Little by little myself and my friends started swinging flies. I don't actually recall how it happened but it did. Whenever one of us caught a fish on the swing it was worthy of a little celebration as it was an outlier for us, an achievement. Looking back I think it was more of an accident than anything else, but it happened just enough to keep us interested. Many days we would nymph in the morning and then swing flies in the afternoon. If I recall correctly we ended up catching almost as many fish swinging and enjoying the hell of out of it. Part of what happened for me was that once you get good at nymphing and know some good seams the challenge and learning curve in that type of fishing diminishes.
Photo by Dave Severson
Swinging flies provided a whole new learning experience and one that pulled me in deep. During this transformation I had to relearn my approach to the water. I found that good swinging water wasn't always good nymphing water. Conversely good nymphing water typically didn't make good swinging water. This concept alone took me a while to truly understand. As I finally made the leap to swinging flies full time in my pursuits of steelhead I became to really appreciate the challenge of enticing a fish to take my fly. The process was active on my part. I needed to be able to read the water well, to picture what the surface currents divined about the river bottom. Then I had to pick the correct tip, properly position myself above the designated spot, make the correct cast and mend, if needed, to get the fly to move properly through that water at the right speed and depth. It required a much more active involvement on my part. Each section of water required one to properly read the water and formulate a plan of attack. The challenge was full of nuance and one that changed with every visit. After a few years the most important part of the process came down to the feel of the swing. When every thing was right, my fly had just the right speed as it moved through the water and when this happened regularly so did the number of hookups that I got. The process made me feel more fully engaged in the process of fishing and in full hunt mode on the river as my flies plied each bucket and run. I had undergone a full transformation and was no longer interested in nymphing for steelhead. If I couldn't get them on the swing I didn't want to get them any other way.
In psychology there is the concept of intermittent reinforcement. When I heard about it, it made me think of spey fishing. Intermittent reinforcement is when rewards (in this case steelhead) are handed out or enforced inconsistently and occasionally (when you get a hit often after hours of fishing). This usually encourages the person to keep pushing (fishing) until they get what they want (another take) without changing their own behavior (still swinging flies). I believe this is the reason for the moniker "the tug is the drug" that is well known in spey fishing circles.
As I have been only spey fishing for steelhead for at least 7 years now I find myself enjoying my fishing time more than ever, the challenge remains ever present as with each season the river changes subtly in ways that I was never aware of as a nympher. Each season I relearn the river anew. Each trip presents different water flows and water temps that force me to be conscious of my position in the river, my casts, mends, which tip I have on, what type of fly I am using and the all important feel of the swing.
I have to say that I am constantly amazed that this method works as well as it does. I love the challenge. The river rarely gives anyone anything. One has to go out there and earn it. With spey fishing the never ending layers of learning that this method provides will allow me many years of enjoyment that I eagerly look forward to.