Reading Water for Trout Spey Fishing

Reading Water for Trout Spey Fishing

A fun and effective method of trout fishing is the down-and-across streamer swing. The popularity of trout spey fishing has grown exponentially over the last few years and for good reason. The simplicity of spending a day stepping down a run casting and swinging is a refreshing change from the usual day of trout fishing. Not to mention the take or “grab” while swinging is pretty exciting. The down and across presentation is done under tension, while passively swinging their fly through likely holding water, often daydreaming or enjoying the scenery. Then out of the blue a trout will aggressively grab the fly, sometimes startling the angler! Many of our staff and guides at Montana Angler are experienced spey fishermen and spend our fair share of time swinging flies on Southwest Montana rivers, don't hesitate to give us a shout if you have questions about this style of fly fishing.

As trout anglers, we tend towards bringing everything but the kitchen sink when it comes to fly selection and accessories. Swing fishing is a great change because you can leave all the extras at home and just head out with your rod, a sink tip or two, some leader material, and a small assortment of streamers. One of the initial challenges for those new to trout spey is determining exactly where to apply the technique. This post will focus on reading water from a trout spey perspective as well as examining the differences between a “good” swing spot and a “bad” swing spot.
The author releases a nice Madison River rainbow.
When trout fishing with a spey rod it’s easy to get in the habit of fishing the same type of water day in and day out. There can be a difference between water that will swing well and swing water that will actually hold fish. It’s easy to just wade out knee deep and start casting with a spey rod with no consideration of whether the water you’re swinging through is productive or not. It’s crucial to fish your fly, not just swing it. Meaning, imagine what your fly is doing while it’s out there on the swing. Is it swinging through likely looking water? Is it swimming too shallow or too deep? What can you do to make your fly fish through the water more effectively? These are all questions to ask that will help you fish the water as opposed to just swinging through the water. Looking at the river with a little bit more critical eye can open up more holding water that is also fun to fish with a spey rod. We've got a wide variety of rivers in Southwest Montana including The Madison, Yellowstone, Gallatin, and Ruby, all of which have potential as great trout spey spots, with different characteristics that make all fun options for the trout spey fisherman. 

First, the ideal swing run, which is probably the most obvious to a new trout spey fisherman, is a long, broad run with a relatively uniform flow. A run like this is fun to fish and is pretty common on some of our large Southwest Montana rivers like the Missouri, Madison, and Yellowstone. This large run will likely have a defined current seam at the top, a fairly uniform midsection through the run, and then a broad tailout. If we were to approach this run with nymphing in mind we’d likely head right to the defined seam at the top and start making cast after cast along the seam. When swinging we’d typically skip over this part of the run and focus more on the mid section and tailout of the run. Fish will tend to be concentrated at the top of the run which is why nymphing that defined seam is productive, however fish can also be found scattered throughout the midsection and tailout. Plus, swinging flies across that seam is tough and not all that effective, whereas it’s easy to cover a lot of water through the rest of the run by swinging. Keep an eye on the run and look for subtle breaks in the current signifying some change in subsurface structure as well. A mid-run boulder could provide a break in the current that would hold a large fish! A spot like this warrants a few extra presentations before continuing on down the run. Finally, the wide tailout of a run can be a popular place for trout to hold as it’s kind of a last chance to grab insects that have hatched in the run.
These two anglers are fishing a fantastic piece of fairly standard swing water.
A shelf and bucket within a riffle can also make a good looking riffle become a great riffle. The “bucket” is simply a deeper spot or depression in the river. Riffles tend to concentrate aquatic insects as they’re highly oxygenated and offer ideal habitat for a wide variety of bugs. They’re also popular spots for trout to hold for this very reason. Swinging flies, especially soft hackles, through riffles can be very productive. If you’ve got a riffle with a clearly defined shelf and a nice bucket below it it likely will hold a number of fish and it’ll be a great spot to swing through. A large focus of fishing the Lower Madison for example, is to target the dozens of riffle/bucket spots like this, as the buckets are the spots that tend to concentrate fish there. These buckets within the riffle typically have a fairly uniform current speed which is also nice for swinging as well.
The shelf at the top of this riffle makes for a great swing spot!
Can you find the bucket in this section of the Lower Madison?

Pocket water can be tricky to fish from a down-and-across perspective, although it’s not impossible. Pocket water swinging can actually can be a fun and exciting way to fish, as the fish only get a split second to decide to strike or not, so the grabs are usually aggressive! Trying to set yourself up in a spot where you can make a cast with at two-handed rod while fishing pocket water is tricky but it’s just another challenge that makes swinging flies interesting. Examining where you want your fly to swing through and then looking upstream from the spot for a casting position is key to pocket water swing fishing.
Pocket water like this spot on the Gallatin can make for some challenging trout spey fishing.
Smaller streams like the Ruby, pictured, can also be fun and interesting places to swing flies through. The spots are likely smaller and more defined, as they are in the picture. You still have to be mindful of where to position yourself to make your casts however the sweet spots tend to be small and obvious, and can be covered with a few well placed casts. Small water swinging is fun for the really active angler as well. It’s a great way to cover a lot of ground, just picking apart little buckets while moving downstream at a pretty good rate. Small water swinging will also make you a better caster as you have to make accurately placed casts to effectively fish each small bucket.
Small water like the Ruby River can also be a fun place to swing flies!
In closing, just as we’d read water for more traditional upstream-oriented fly fishing, we can step back and look at a section of river we’re interested in spey fishing. Looking at where the fish would likely hold, how we can swing a fly through that holding water, and where to position ourselves to for casting into said water are things to consider.

Many of Montana Angler’s guides are experienced spey fishermen and would love the opportunity to share their knowledge of swinging flies for trout with you.  Shoot us an email or give us a call to set up a day of spey fishing for trout with one of our guides here in Southwest Montana!
A brown like this is a highlight of a day spent swinging flies!

Receive fresh articles via email!