Landing Big Swift River Trout on Light Tippet

The Swift C&R area is unique: super-clear and shallow water and wily rainbows that have been hooked and released multiple times. And, some really big trout that are very leader-shy.

So, there’s a challenge: how light a tippet do you use for savvy fish vs. having a big fish break off?

I’ve shared previously about a go-to rig for trout, and also, I noted the tweaks I do for the Swift River. I’ve found that landing trout on the Swift requires some tweaks, too. I fish the Swift differently than freestones like the Millers and the EB. 

As previously mentioned, I want fly fish to be accessible to all. I’m happy to share my personal lessons learned. Here’s what I do on the Swift.

I fish the lightest tippet I can. I’ve noticed a big difference between going from 5x to 6x tippet in the shallows of the Swift on a bright day. I sometimes use 7x and also have with me 8x. On the Swift, you need very light tippet to fool those wily and big rainbows.

I use a rod that “gives.”  IMO, it’s a myth that you need a 5-wt. rod to bring in quickly a big trout. My usual fly rod on the Swift is a 000-wt. that allows for substantial give. This protects a light tippet when a fish makes a run. The rod acts like a shock absorber.

On the Swift, I loosen the drag if I’m away from log jams. When a big fish is on, and it makes a powerful run, I want it to take line if there’s no escape chute. I’ve had too many fish break off a 4x tippet. I want a big fish to sprint away, deplete its oxygen, and then pause to catch its breath. And, I’ve been able to land fish quickly, without over-taxing their bodies (more below).

If I’m fishing near structure, then I do tighten the drag, but try to get away with as little as possible. I’ve had too many trout break off when my drag is too tight, and so, I’d rather risk the log jams in those situations.

When a fish runs, I lower the pressure.  It sounds counter-intuitive. Once a fish is hooked, and begins its initial surge, I lower the rod tip, while keeping a tight line. The more you pull a big fish, the more it will resist. And, the more likely your tippet will snap. 

As a fish catches it breath after a run, I pull in line. After its sprint, a fish needs to pause and get more oxygen, and that’s a great time to pull in line. It’s compliant.

I hold the rod sideways, not up. I’ve read that fish hate to be pulled to the surface. So, after making sure a fish isn’t rubbing my tippet on rocks, I actually hold the rod horizontally to the water and to the side.

So, I’m really pulling the fish to the side vs. pulling it up. I’ve lost many fish as they splash and roll furiously on the surface. I’ve found that fish calm down a bit when they’re not being pulled up.

In fact, someone I know, who competes in fly fishing competitions, puts the fly rod’s tip into the water at times; in this way, the fish is being pulled but not pulled up. Some anglers call this the “down and dirty” method.

Ultimately, my goal is to put the trout “on a treadmill.” I don’t want it thrashing on the surface nor on the slow-moving bottom. I want it to be fighting current but not panicking.

If I guide the trout firmly and with constant and non-abrupt pressure, there’s actually a moment or two when my rod is fixed and the trout is swimming in place and in the current.  It’s frankly a magical time: the rod is in control and it is “pacing” the trout on that virtual treadmill. When I sense it is tiring, I start to pull it in. And, if it surges away, I lower the tip.

And, I repeat this process until the fish is landed: fish surges, lower rod tip, fish catches its breath, I pull it in and/or put it on the treadmill.

I quickly try to break the fish mentally. I read somewhere about how anglers land really big ocean fish. They try to break the fish’s spirit. I have found that to be true. A fish’s spirit will break well before its body gives up. I do so by changing the fish’s direction often and imagine that I’m pulling the trout’s tail (great video from Orvis on that here). If it’s going left, I am pulling right. And, vice versa. Over and over, not too abruptly, but firmly. Even pressure. No jerky movements on my part. Almost Zen-like. I’ve found that the fish quickly gets confused and just gives up.

I’m prepared for a final run by the fish. I’ve noticed that when you’re about to net a fish and it sees you, it then makes one last strong run. A “last gasp.” Then, it’s over. It gives up. So, as I pull in a trout, I don’t take out my net. I’m prepared to lower the rod tip as the fish makes its one last break for freedom. I’ve lost many fish by rushing to net it. I now let the fish tell me when it’s ready to be on-boarded.

So, that’s what I do. I’ve lost many, many big fish after hooking them, and so, this approach is a by product of failure, but also, experimentation.

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