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A steelhead fell for a black and blue mole leech on the upper Rogue River. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

In the Swing

WHITE CITY — As he lays a long cast across an upper Rogue River riffle and watches his big, purple streamer sink beneath the surface, Ray Ball knows he's in the swing of things.

The line and fly cut across the water in a perfect arc until they suddenly stop and a wild, watery frenzy ensues.

A fat summer steelhead leaps skyward with a triple flip that even the Russian judge would give a 9.8 score. Then just like that the steelhead comes unbuttoned and the fly line goes limp.

"The best thing about swinging flies is the take, for sure," says Ball, a veteran upper Rogue fly-fisher. "Half the time they throw the hook, but I don't care. It's getting them to take that's great."

Early fall is the swinging season on the upper Rogue, when water conditions, steelhead numbers and their aggressive behavior make arcing large streamers through riffles the go-to method for catching these iconic fish of the Pacific Northwest.

Let the nymphers worry about matching the hatch. Tie on a big gob of hot-pink marabou that appears like nothing in the natural world and swing it over steelhead that seem to take such offense at the offering that they'll dash off the bottom to chew it to pieces.

Then hold on and wait for the reel to stop screaming.

It was good enough for Zane Grey, and it's good enough for Keith Liddy.

"When you swing flies, it's like you're going back to the '20s," says Liddy, a Talent carpenter by day, and steelhead swinger by eve. "The take is so great. It's wicked fun."

And before you know it, the swinging season will be done.

Cold water releases from Lost Creek Lake will soon help slow incubation rates of wild spring chinook salmon eggs that will soon be laid in upper Rogue gravel beds. It's a change biologists for years have used to help the Rogue's most depressed run of salmon by reducing the growth rates during winter flows unnaturally warmed at Lost Creek Lake.

Though done for fish, it doesn't help traditional fly fishing.

Upper Rogue water temps in the low 40s that routinely come in mid-October make steelhead far less likely to muster the energy to rise in the water column at a swinging streamer just to make a statement. Conditions favor nymphing, which puts the fly down into the face of holding steelhead.

So swing away while the swinging's still good.

Use a floating or sink-tip fly line and a tapered leader about 8 feet long. The streamers-du-jour are large, articulated leeches, with combinations of black, purple, red, pink and blue in vogue. Still, any of the traditional streamers, such as a green-butt skunk, red ant or bucktail coachman sold at most Rogue Valley tackle stores, will do the trick.

Wade into any of the upper Rogue's common steelhead riffles, usually no more than knee- or waist-deep. Using long, flat casts, send the fly at a 45-degree angle downstream, then let the line and fly swing through the riffle until it flattens out.

And hold on. When a steelhead hits, it usually does so with a violent thrash before speeding downstream.

This is the traditional technique, or "old school" way, to fish summer steelhead with flies in the Rogue, North Umpqua and other rivers in the fall. It relies on the fish coming to the fly.

It differs from "nymphing," the art of using weighted nymphs, long leaders and strike indicators, which relies on getting the fly down in front of the steelhead.

Nymphing is far more common in the upper Rogue starting in mid-October and is the norm for the remainder of the summer steelhead season.

But for two more glorious weeks, the swing will be the thing.

"Just being out there swinging flies is awesome," Liddy says. "And when a big steelhead rolls over your fly, it's hard not to wet your pants."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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