Steelhead fishing introduced us to Spey casting, and it’s become a bit of an obsession over the past several years. It’s a pretty cool feeling when you set up a cast, sweep around, pull your bottom hand and your flies go sailing across the currents nearly effortlessly. When a fish takes a swung fly, it’s a totally different experience than fishing with a typical nymph rig. Your flies and line are under constant tension, and you can steer your flies across the currents faster, slower, broadside or upstream depending on what the run and conditions dictate. You feel every time your fly touches a rock or gets tapped by a fish, and the takes are usually pretty vicious. You’re not often wondering if that last bump was a bite or not. That being said, we live a heck of a long ways from the ocean here in South Dakota, and that translates into living a long ways from steelhead. The annual steelhead trip or two is awesome, but is only a once or twice a year thing for most of us. Trout Spey is the answer for many folks, and here’s a number of options just a few hours from home that are a ton of fun as well, and give you an excuse to go swing some flies when you have a couple extra days!
Over the past several years, there’s been a huge influx of ‘micro spey’ rods into the market from nearly every manufacturer, as well as lines and sink tips to make them effective and fun fishing tools. Steelhead folks wanted to replicate the feeling they get when spey fishing for anadromous fish, but be able to do it on a regular basis rather than for one trip a year. Enter the trout spey – just like using a lighter 2 or 3 weight rod on a small stream here in the Black Hills, matching your equipment to the size of the fish is important to having a good time. The new technology in spey rods and lines allows you to fish a relatively short rod in the 11′ range for a 2-4 weight line, and still be able to cast it much further than you could cast your 5 weight single hand rod, fish reasonable sized streamers, and get a ton of feel out of both the strikes and fighting an average sized trout. With the weather last week looking to be some of the last good weather for awhile, we loaded up and headed over to the Bighorn River near Fort Smith, Montana to try our luck at swinging some flies, as well as try out a big pile of new rods, lines, and tips.
A lot of folks from our area fish the Bighorn River frequently, and for good reason – it’s only 5 hours away, it’s easy to float or wade fish, has piles of fish and a lot of productive water. Most people head over there, put a Thingamabobber and two flies and a ton of weight on and go nymph fish any seam on the river. If you’re just looking to rack up numbers of fish, that’s a good way to fish – albeit a bit monotonous after awhile. The dry fly fishing can be really good as well, but you’re definitely limited as far as time of day/year when looking for fish up on the surface. We headed over without much in the way of single handed gear because we wanted to dedicate the trip to figuring out the Bighorn fish on a swung fly, so we had few distractions that way.
The first day we had to fish was ultra windy, so we opted to just wade fish around the 3 mile boat launch rather than fighting with the boat in the wind all day. There’s a lot of really good water around the islands by the boat launch, and we headed upstream to find good swing water. When you’re looking for good water to swing flies in, you typically want something that’s reasonably deep and has an even current. The mostly even current is key, because that’s what allows you to get a nice, even swing across the water you’re fishing. If there’s a bunch of seams and significantly varying currents across the water where you’re fishing, you’re often not even connected to your fly and control is nearly impossible. We found lots of good swing water, and had some good luck all throughout it. Most trout fishers work their way upstream, but when swinging flies you work downstream. There’s a lot of variables that dictate how you cast etc., but for the sake of simplicity you cast at a 45 degree angle downstream, toss a mend in your line so your fly/sink tip have time to sink for a few seconds, and then follow the line across the river until it’s directly below you. Take two steps downstream and do it all over again until you’re at the end of the piece of water you want to fish. It’s a pretty simple way to fish, and is nice because once you figure out what sink tip and how heavy of a fly you need for a particular run, you don’t have to change your rig much if at all. No more monkeying with split shot and depth and changing flies all day long!
I hadn’t really spent much time fishing light spey rods before this trip, so it was a new experience for me. Hands down, the coolest part about these miniature spey rods is the eat – a 14″ trout feels nearly the same as a 30″ steelhead. I primarily fished an 11’3″ 3 weight Redington Hydrogen, and was amazed at how fun an average size trout was to catch. Casting was nearly effortless, and the less I tried the further my casts went and the smoother they turned over. I was skeptical of the size of flies a little rod like the 3 weight could cast, but I never felt limited. I fished a 10′ Versileader sink tip, and a number of different flies that varied in size, but the largest was a size 6 Kreelex with big dumbbell eyes. Casting was no problem at all, and made an average 12-14″ fish a lot of fun to catch. The best of both worlds! We fished a lot of Wooly Bugger sized flies, and caught fish on a wide variety of patterns. I used a Kreelex quite a bit, as well as black buggers and Thin Mints in a size 8 on 2x tippet. The fish were willing, and the ones that wanted the fly usually crushed it. There’s a lot of good water around the 3 mile boat launch, so there’s no requirement to have a boat to have a successful and fun trip!
The next two days we floated, once from 3 mile to 13 mile, and the last day from Afterbay to 3 mile. Both floats were good choices, so long as you chose the right type of water. Most of the fish that we encountered came out of water that was a bit slower, and in the 4-5 foot range. The water during the winter on most rivers is a bit on the chilly side, so the fish move into water that’s a bit slower than you might expect them to be in in the late fall or spring. That being said, there still has to be enough of a current to keep tension in your line and keep your fly moving. We found that in some spots the fish liked the fly fished on a smooth swing, but in others they would like a little more action. Once the fly came under tension, we would ‘hop’ the rod tip up and down enough to put a little slack into the line between movements, and the fish really dug it. Depending on how active the fish are, you might find one or the other to work best on a particular day or stretch of river. Fly wise, buggers, leeches, and flashy patterns like a Kreelex worked well enough that we never really had to switch it up much. Hans did well on a trout version of a low water Steelhead Coachman, so they’re definitely opportunistic.
Overall, we had a blast fishing trout spey on the Bighorn. Could we have caught more fish fishing bobbers and nymphs? More than likely. Would we have had as much fun as we did swinging flies? I think not. Swinging flies is simply a really fun way to fish, and is a nice way to change up your annual trip to your favorite trout river. If you fish the Bighorn, North Platte, Missouri, or many other larger rivers, we’d highly recommend trying out a trout spey. The remainder of the winter and early spring is a fantastic time of year to swing flies, and these rivers are usually pretty vacant this time of year! We fished a number of rods this trip, including the Redington Hydrogen, Echo TR Trout and Glass, and Sage ONE. Look for a breakdown of what we thought of each of these rods, as well as a review of each coming up in the next few days! If you have any questions about trout spey, lines, flies, rivers, etc., feel free to shoot us an email or give us a call at the shop.