The low/clear water myth...

Conventional wisdom suggests that the most effective tactic for tackling low and clear conditions (which seem to be common this year) is to downsize flies and focus on more drab/dark colors. The more I've thought about this, the more I've questioned that tactic...

Normally I'm out with a fly rod, but I've caught a number of steelhead on swung spoons in low/clear water conditions...granted these were fish that were somewhat less pressured than those on many of our current rivers. The spoon is quite possibly one of the flashiest and most obnoxious tools available to the steelheader but it has always seemed to be quite effective for me in conditions where folks swinging flies would be electing to reduce their fly size and go to colors that aren't as loud. Indeed, I've caught steelhead on a spoon behind guys fishing small/drab flies in these very conditions.

Thinking about this I've tried to develop some possible reasons why that happens:
1. The spoon is more likely to be attacked in relation to the swung fly: i.e. fish "investigate" the fly without the angler ever knowing, rather than aggressively attacking it. Perhaps this has something to do with the more erratic action of the spoon across all axes, versus the more linear movement of the fly?

2. The spoon attracts fish from farther away, these fish are likely to be more aggressive. It still "scares" away fish that are close, but the increased search range more than offsets this negative. Perhaps the massive search range that the spoon creates cannot be mimicked by any fly, meaning that the larger fly simply frightens the great majority of fish that ever see it?

As it looks like we're going to be facing low/clear conditions for a great deal of the winter I'm hoping to get a little time to try and refine my thoughts on this. I used to think the conventional wisdom made sense from a logical standpoint, but in practice that hasn't always proven to be the case.

Would love to hear anyone's theories about this or experiences.

David Dalan

69°19'15.35" N 18°44'22.74" E
This is one of my favorite steelhead topics. I firmly reject the necessity of small flies under low clear conditions. Now, read that carefully...I reject the NECESSITY, not the effectiveness :D

One of my favorite fall flies, for a special small water fishery is a fl.flame and yellow marabou spey on a #2 hook. It's one of the flies I am doing for the steelhead fly swap. It's 3" long and bright as a firecracker. It has be incredibly effective in clear, low water, swung (I have to use tips, as it will not sink on its own).

It was inspired by a friend of mine who is a wizard with spinners on fall steelhead. He uses a gold and orange blue fox (#5), and fishes it quartered down and swung quickly. So I fish it the same, swung with no effort to reduce the speed of the fly. I've seen fish charge it from across the river (all 20' of it) in flats and picked them up in riffles. For about 2 years (big return years for sure) I hit fish every time I tied it on.

As an aside, in the same river, I have seen fish chase the 4" pink worm (also swinging at the end of a drift). 4" bright pink worm on the swing in water clear enough, you never lose sight of the worm. Except when it vanished into the fishes mouth.

Somewhere, recently, I read something that really seemed to connect all the dots (for me) between the wide variety of flies and techniques that all seem to work under the same conditions. The writer said the goal with the file for steelhead was to present an offering that would not be missed, but also would not be visible for a long time, depriving the fish of time to make a choice. The implied logic I concluded (that I agree with) is that if the fish is deprived of choice, it is likely to select the "kill it" option, not the ignore it.

The cool thing about this is, you end up with lots of paint on your pallet. In clear water, you could dead drift or gently swing small drab patterns. Or make short rapid presentations of larger flies. Or skate flies which will come in and out of a fishes cone of view pretty quickly if the fish is a couple of feet down.

I don't think I'll ever solve this mystery, but its fond to ponder.

I am sure others have the exact opposite experience as I do, which also makes thinking about this puzzle interesting.
So often I see folks fishing small sparse unweighted flies in low and clear. Lately I have taken a different approach. I've been fishing light colored and super flashy but HEAVY flies.

My theory is that in clear water fish find refuge in fast or deep water. Hasn't paid off yet but it sure feels fishy....
When I fished spoons all the time I was astonished how big and bright chunk of metal they would hammer with abandon. When is got serious about fly fishing I did not get the whole down size thing. I have always stayed with big and bright no matter what the water conditions. I have had good success this way. When I did try small and drab I did not get much interest. When I went back to the big stuff on a run I just covered I would hook up.

David Dalan

69°19'15.35" N 18°44'22.74" E
While it is very anecdotal, in the Skagit Master 2 DVD Scott Howell uses a pretty big copper prom dress to swing up a fish in cold and clear conditions. I think he even mentioned that they were basically spoon/plug imitations.
The small and drab strategy has worked for me. Bright and medium has done the trick as well as the tried and true black and blue bunny leach.

Small and drab is probably sound advise but my lack in real confidence in it has severely handicapped my efforts to depend on it religiously.

Low and clear winter water is my least desirable condition to fish.

Except for when I fish Upper Columbia tributaries during the fall, I prefer using bright flies (weighted and un-weighted) pretty much year round. However, I vary the size of my fly depending on the water temperature, where the fish are holding, and the size of the river. For example, a lot of the time I don’t really feel the need to decrease my fly size when fishing larger rivers in what would be considered low, clear, and cold conditions. On the other hand, if I am fishing s smaller river (same conditions as noted above) where the fish might be holding in heavier water, I might use a weighted fly that is ¾ to ½ the size of the one that I was using on the larger river. I really only use my smallest flies in low clear conditions in mid to late summer. Anyhow, this is just based on my own experiences. I’m sure many others probably have differing opinions.
Agreed James. Just experimenting. My go to low flow cold as a mofo fly

View attachment 38279
That's a nice looking tie....I'd fish that in conditions you suggest, if you handed it to me. Red is not my color, I'd struggle at the bench trying not to tie that in blue and black or all black with a bit of chartreuse. I brighten up my limited selection of choice in colors, black, blue and purple, with various amounts of accent color and flash material.

There was a time when I saved every fly I landed a steelhead with and probably half were surprisingly poor ties, most where no name self creations and less than five on commercially purchased flies.


Jeremy Floyd

fly fishing my way through life
I think fishing pressure has more to do with it than the water being clear. Fly choice for me reflects my gut feeling of how much shit the fish has has dragged in front of it recently, that is has had to move out of the way of.

Charles Sullivan

ignoring Rob Allen and Generic
I caught steelhead this fall on 4 inch intruders, sunk and size 8 brown dries, in the same run. I don't think it matters for wild summers.

When the local river was open in Feb. I hit a bunch of fish on smaller flies in cold clear water. These were heavly pressured fish as you had to cast between the sleds at times. I like casting smaller better so that's what I used. I think they'd have taken big too as the sled jockeys were hitting them with pink worms and jigs etc.

I guess I'm saying that I don't think it matters in any amount that you can find a pattern. I just go through small and high first and deep and big second if I can.

One thing that I do know is that wild fish rock.

Go Sox,