We try to plan those precious days on the water to the best conditions and optimum run timing, but the reality is the river can change from one day to the next. In a pounding rainstorm, a steelhead stream can go from low and clear to near flood stage. I believe that when swinging for steelhead, the fly matters less than the presentation.
That said, an angler can pick the wrong fly and go fishless when a considered approach is likely to produce more grabs.
What fly to use? Think about it. A steelhead won’t eat it if he can’t see it; the visibility of a fly in the water changes with turbidity and light. To get the latest thinking for which style of fly to swing in various water conditions, I asked guides and the guys in fly shops.
Winter Fly Fishing, Low and Cold
When the water is low and cold, when it drops to 40 degrees and below, fish won’t move as far or as fast to take a fly. Jay Bouchet, from Fin and Fire in Redmond, Oregon, likens these conditions to the typical winter day on the John Day.
Bouchet likes to cast a lighter sink tip or a MOW tip (designed by McCune, O’Donnell and Ward) - a floating line with a looped sink tip that ‘hinges’ to work small holding lies.
When the water is low and I’m swinging slots upwards of 40- to 60-feet out and five or six feet deep with nice bouldery patches, I can be more precise with a MOW tip and a lightly weighted fly like a Kilowatt.”
The Kilowatt, in blue or purple, is one of Bouchet's favorite flies to use off of a MOW Tip. “It is kind of like a woolly bugger on steroids tied on a jig-style hook with light dumbbell eyes. When the line hinges with the sink tip, the hook rides hook up which is great for bouncing off the boulders and river bottom.”
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