Fishing clear water is almost like being the first person up on a weekend: no matter how hard you try to be quiet, your entire family can hear your every step. The fish in clear water are no different. As soon as you can see them, they can probably see you. This is what makes targeting fish in clear water so difficult. Even if you did manage to sneak up on them, you still need to present your fly or lure in an ultra-realistic way without spooking them with your line. It’s not easy, but every once in a while the stars align and you have a fish on the end of the line.
This year, instead of spending Black Friday violently attempting to take advantage of the best deals of the year, I was at the storied Swift River fly fishing for its highly-educated trout. It was my third trip this year, and my third trip ever, in fact. Over the past two trips, I amassed enough knowledge about the river to fill a book. Only use size 18 flies and smaller. 7x or 8x tippet is a must. Don’t cast directly over a fish. No matter how much I learn, though, I still find a way to screw it up.
So far, all of my trips have gone about the same. In competition with other anglers arriving at the same time, I race down to the river to reserve a spot. As soon as I get to the water, I begin seeing the 16-to-20-inch trout this area is famous for. Once I locate a pod of fish not far from the entrance, I’ll begin ultra-precisely casting, as I haven’t yet lost enough hope to get sloppy. Pretty soon, I’ll either get a take from a really nice ‘bow or brown. I then proceed to either completely botch the hook set, or play the fish too aggressively and eventually break it off. Frustrated, I begin fishing again, and may get a few more takes in the coming hours, but never actually get a fish on. Feeling defeated, I find a small group of the little native brook trout that seem to be everywhere, and fish for them. It usually doesn’t take long for me to catch one of these little guys, as it seems like they’ll eat anything. However, they are a welcome break from the otherwise unproductive fishing. The next hour or so yields nothing save from a few fly changes, and then it’s time again for the two-hour car ride back home.
Each time I go I get more excited than the last on the way there, and more defeated than the last on the way back. It almost begins to feel like my mom and I are taking a long road trip with a little bit of fishing in between. Nonetheless, even though I don’t catch anything, just seeing the fish is pretty spectacular. I’m somewhat experienced at fishing in ultra-clear water having fished Sebago Lake for most of my life, but it doesn’t even come close to the clarity of the Swift. At the Swift, if you’re thirty feet above the water, you can still make out a twelve-inch brookie on the bottom just as well as if you were standing right in front of it. Honestly, on windless days it seems as if there isn’t even any water there to obstruct your view. Even if you get completely skunked, it is still an amazing experience to simply watch the hoards of fish swim by.
This gin-clear water is also what makes the fishing so difficult. In order to even have your flies looked at by a fish, you need to have a perfect drag-free drift with line thinner than one of your hairs. The fish are also very smart due to the dozens of anglers that fish for them every day. This means selecting a fly that closely imitates whatever the fish are eating that day. Generally, this means fishing a fly no larger than a grain of sand. If the flies aren’t to the fish’s liking, they just ignore them because they can see everything flowing by in the clear water. The most frustrating part about fishing this spot is that you can see everything happening below the water’s surface. You’ll be able to see that the trout are eating everything that passes by them except for your flies. You’ll know when your flies are passing by the fish, and that they aren’t even giving them a look. And worst of all, you know that the fish are actually there. If you fished any other river, your first excuse for not catching a fish would be, “I guess the fish just weren’t there today.” But at the Swift, the fish are always there, and you know it. I would liken it to fishing in an aquarium. While your nerves may go through the roof at the thought of catching the massive brown trout right in front of you, actually making that reality is another story.
I think every angler who has ever fished these waters has a love-hate relationship with the river. While it may seem like the Swift frequently produces twenty-plus-inch fish, there are also swaths of anglers fishing it each and every day. To be one of the lucky people to pull a nice fish out of the water is to win the lottery.
My favorite part about this last trip I took was my realization of just how discouraging success can be. When I first got to my spot, there was another fly fisherman above me, as well as one below me. You could tell that both had already been there for hours (my nine o’clock arrival meant I certainly wasn’t the first one on the water), and neither had found much luck. As I deliberately worked my way downstream, scanning for any signs of fish along the way, I began to get the idea that I would show these guys how it was done. I finally spotted a nice 15-or-so inch rainbow and began casting to it. After maybe ten minutes, I saw its mouth open wide as my flies passed by, and I set the hook. My mind quickly went to the fact that I was using super-thin 7x tippet, which would break if I wasn’t careful. After a quick glance upstream and downstream, I realized that I had a bit of an audience. I knew that prolonging the fight might make me look bad as it increases the chance of the trout becoming over-exhausted. I began to rush the fight slightly, which was fine until I went to net it. Just as I began reaching with my net, he started violently head-shaking, splashing water everywhere. I knew that I could easily break off here, but I still kept guiding him towards the net. Finally, I felt my line go slack, and found that my two-fly rig was missing the partridge & orange soft hackle. I had lost the fish, but could still see it resting in the current break that I created behind me. Maybe I was already beginning to put together a pattern!
I was excited about my early triumph, but I knew if I kept making mistakes like this, I wouldn’t catch any. Unfortunately I let this get to my head. I figured if I didn’t catch that fish, I wouldn’t catch any. Even though I consistently got bites throughout the next couple hours, I was never able to truly connect again. Everything, from my casts to my knots to my wading became rushed. I felt the need to get another fish on the line to prove that it wasn’t simply beginner’s luck.
Despite my disappointment, I still had a ton of fun. I ended up catching one little native on the least likely fly I used all day, a small attractor European nymph that I tied just before coming.
That brook trout seemed to be one of the very few I didn’t see spawning. It seems that whenever I make the trip to the Swift, some species is in a spawning mode. Earlier this year it was the rainbows that would chase each other back in forth in massive pods.
Now, the brookies were on redds in groups of two’s and three’s with deep orange bellies and off-colored backs. At one spot there was even a line of redds nearly 20 feet long chock-full of trout. As tempting as it was to toss a fly to them, I refrained, and did my best to walk around. New England is the last true stronghold for these gems, and every angler should do their part to protect them. There is no excuse for endangering the lives of spawning fish when there are countless others to be caught.
Per usual, my trip to the Swift was uneventful but incredibly enjoyable. It was so crowded on this unseasonably warm Black Friday that I didn’t even make the trip to the Y-pool. Still, I was fortunate enough to catch a fish and hook many more in one of the lesser-fished sections of the Route 9 area. I still have a lot to learn about this river. I’m sure if I continue to work on it, I will eventually find some larger fish. For the time being, though, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve managed to catch. After all, it’s not too often you get to fish in an aquarium.