The Swing

Nearly noon as I step into the river, fully in shadow. The sun doesn’t get a lot of time on the water in December, at least not on this pool. I wade slowly upstream, thinking and watching as I go, trying to decide just where I will begin.

I don’t expect a great deal of activity in faster water, so I situate myself in more moderate flow, where depth and cover lie before the thread of the current. Seems like a place a good trout might lie, I tell myself, if he feels the stirrings of hunger.

There is enough depth here that my unweighted fly fails to tick the rocks as it swings, and I decide I need a bit of weight there. Clipping it off I paw through the box and ponder. A one-off streamer catches my eye, flashy with trailing strands of copper and UV highlights and a foxtail wing. The small copper cone at its head should be just enough to help the mini tip line swing it in the taking zone.

I sometimes will tie one-off flies from a burst of inspiration. Such was the genesis of the Copper Fox.

I take a few steps back upstream before I cast again, to be certain my swing covers the area at the lower depths. The seventy-year-old bamboo flexes and the fly falls short. I must change my casting rhythm for the weighted fly, allow the old rod to load a split second longer, then slow my delivery slightly. The adjustment sends the fly further and drops it on the surface just beyond the traces of the bubble line marking the river’s thread. There is enough weight now for the fly to dance among the rocks of the bottom, not enough to hang up, just enough to keep it ticking over their tops.

Fishing slowly, I work the water with the timeless rhythm passed down through generations of anglers: cast, swing, then two steps down. I smile as I feel the fly bouncing along down there, in my mind’s eye I can see the copper tendrils moving and flashing in concert with the pulsing of the soft fur wing; alive and vulnerable. The solitude of a winter afternoon envelops me.

The strike comes suddenly and forcefully, not the soft tap of a near dormant trout, but the wallop of a substantial fish that’s intent upon his meal. I allow the loop of slack between my hand and the reel to absorb the shock, and then slowly and smoothly raise the rod into a heavy bow. Head shakes and short surges bring welcome warmth to my fingers as I grip the cork harder and set the nickel silver knob of the reel seat against my vest. He’s not giving up so easily.

The arc of vintage cane triumphs in the end and I slide the net beneath him, backing toward the sunlit bank with the net low in the water. I slip the fly from the corner of his mouth easily and submerge the net fully as I grab my camera for a quick shot. Nice brownie! Winter trout are special for me. As I release him, he scoots back to the shade and deep water as I smile and whisper my gratitude.

The swing is perfect for a cold, quiet river, and it makes me think about steelhead. Fishing the Great Lakes tributaries demands mostly a nymphing presentation. It can be quite productive when fresh fish are in, but I miss the charm and tradition of the swung fly. My best steelhead intercepted my swing though. The fly swung deep along the bottom of the pool, yes, ticking the rocks! I felt the take, then two or three head shakes, and raised the rod in that slow, smooth arc.

That Michigan buck was tremendous, twenty-one pounds, the only strike between Mike and I on that frigid February day.

My wild, double red band MIchigan buck. (Matt Supinski photo).

I think about that fish sometimes, as my little streamer swings and ticks the rocks on a Catskill trout river. I wonder just what might be down there. Regional history has recorded a number of brown trout of 8, 9, even 10 pounds or more taken from these rivers. Tackle breakers. As much as I love to dream about one of those sipping my dry fly, such a fish is probably much more likely to take a meaty looking swung fly bouncing along the bottom of a winter river. The thought helps me ignore the cold in my legs and feet, at least for a while.

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