Tenkara Technique: Swinging Wetflies


Ever since I started fly fishing, just over 20 years ago, magazine articles have been urging us not to forget about those old fashioned wetflies. They have been declared dead and “re-discovered” many times over. I won’t be so bold as to re-discover them yet again but I will tell you that swinging those wetflies sure can be a blast.

When I talk about wetflies here I’m not talking about all flies that are fished under the surface. I’m not including streamers (though streamers can be used in much the same way) or nymphs or modern emergers… etc. Mostly I’m talking about more traditional wetflies. Things like a Lead-Winged Coachman, Quill Gordon wetfly, Pickett Pin and one of my personal favorites the Pass Lake wetfly. The Pass Lake is one of the few winged wetflies that has been a regular in my fly box for years. I’ve used it on and off for most of my fly fishing life and have caught fish everywhere on it. One of my earliest posts on Casting Around was about the Pass Lake–> see it here. Though I’ve been tying it a bit different lately.

I’ll readily admit that I’m no expert in wetflies and wetfly tactics – it’s just one of those things that I trot out from time to time. But this is actually a good reason to give them a try, because without all that much experience with them I’ve been having good success in my last few outings.

Of course your average tenkara kebari is a wetfly of sorts. Though the down and across stream swing is not often emphasized with their use. And though you can do what I’m going to discuss with a sakasa kebari or other traditional Japanese tenkara kebari I really prefer a winged wetfly. I like to imagine that the wing has a few benefits, especially a light colored wing (and very especially a white wing): The wing creates a taller profile that may be like a small baitfish; the wing may be a trigger like an emerging wing on a bug; the light or white colored wing may just help to make the fly more visible and attractive; and also the wing may help to add some action to the fly by causing it to wiggle or rock when pulled across and/or upstream. Those benefits may be all in my head – but the winged flies work for me and I’m confident in them for the swing technique.

On my recent trip to Wisconsin’s Driftless region – a heavenly place for the tenkara angler – I was again reminded of how much fun, and how effective the wetfly swing can be. And it happened accidentally. I’d tied lots of flies for the trip but they were mostly tied with very small streams in mind. Even the glass-bead-head wooly buggers that I tied were not that heavy.

One evening we found ourselves on a fairly large creek with deep holes and runs. It was not totally unmanageable with what I had – but I didn’t really feel like lobbing split-shot and I wasn’t very confident that trout would come up from the deep water to hit a shallow dead-drifted kebari. To be truthful I was also pretty tired at the end of the day and realIy didn’t feel like the putting forth the effort and focus required for upstream tight-line nymphing and drifting. I was happily resigned to just puttering around and not catching much. So in that lazy mood I tied on a Pass Lake wetfly and went to the head of the pool to swing it.

BAM! I started catching fish. I was actually pretty surprised at how quickly I started catching fish and how actively they came after the fly.

And I wasn’t just pulling fish out of shallower runs and riffles but fish were coming up out of deep water. The largest fish that of the trip came up out of deep run – perhaps 4ft deep to smack a Pass Lake wetfly that I was swinging just under the surface. I didn’t land the fish but it was a heart stopping take and fight.

It was a lesson learned. If I had been in a more focused and active mood I would have put on a bigger nymph, done an upstream cast and tried to roll the bottom of those big pools and runs. But my laziness paid off and I was learned that a swinging wetfly can bring fish up. Will it always work so well? Probably not – but it’s not a bad trick to have in your bag.

Why Wetfly?
Here are some of the reasons that I can think of – there are probably many more of which I am not aware.

– Wetflies work. Self explanatory really.
– It’s pretty easy to do. Like anything, I’m sure the more you do it the better you’ll get at it – but the beginner can get going right away.
– The wetfly swing can be a very relaxing way to fish. Nymphing and upstream drift methods can be deadly effective – but can get tiresome with all that staring at the end of your line looking for twitches. The wetfly swing on the contrary can offer a pretty casual way to fish.
– You can cover lots of water quickly.
– Strike detection is not an issue. The fish will make strikes very apparent – you’ll see them and feel them.
– It is EXCITING! When a fish comes up out of nowhere to slam a swinging wetfly – it can be some of the most exciting trout fishing you’ll do. It really is a blast.


Like I said earlier I am not an expert on this – It’s really something that I only do from time to time. Many of the small brushy brook trout streams that I fish are not the best places for the downstream swing. The reason being that it can be difficult to approach pools from upstream when the banks are brushy and the pools are shallow.
For gear and set-up I wouldn’t sweat it very much. You can do it with just about any tenkara rod and or line that combo that you’d like to use. Match the line length to the water you’re fishing and the length that you feel comfortable casting with. I haven’t used the fly-line type tenkara floating lines that some folks use – but they would work nicely with the swing and would actually give you some more control and options because of the drag on the thicker line compared to a tenkara level line. Furled lines would also offer some more drag and control. But I’m a level line guy mostly so that’s what I usually use for swinging wetflies too.
For a fly I am really partial to the Pass Lake wetfly. I tie mine lately with a peacock body instead of chenille, and Ive been using snowshoe rabbit foot hair for the white wing instead of the original calf tail (or antron like I used to). On sizes much bigger than 10 you may need to revert to the calf tail or a synthetic rather than rabbit foot. The changes I made to the original really aren’t driven by anything other than personal preferences. I’ve switched to peacock just because I like peacock bodied flies and so I always have peacock herl on hand. If I can avoid needing another material (the chenille) than I figure that’s a good thing. The switch to snowshoe for the wing was just done on a whim because I’ve been tying a lot with it lately.

My Modified Pass Lake Wetfly Recipe – see the fly at beginning of post
Body: Peacock Herl.  Originally black chenille. I like to reinforce the peacock by ribbing it with the tying thread.
Tail: Golden Pheasant Tippets. You could substitute other fibers of course.
Hackle: Brown hen hackle or rooster if you prefer. I prefer hen, but if you use rooster keep it sparse so that you don’t make the fly too buoyant.
Wing: I used snowshoe rabbit foot. Originally it’s calf tail. I’ve also often used white antron.

The Swing Basics
The basic idea is to have the fly float downstream, and at the same time swing across the current. You can vary the speed of the cross-current swing by how you move the rod. If you stop the rod completely the fly will swing more quickly across the stream. If you continue to follow the fly drift with the rod tip as it drifts you can make it move more slowly across the current as it also floats down stream. Of course you can also pull it back up stream, or even twitch and jig it as it drifts or pulse it up stream and let it fall back and repeat this.
All of these things can work. And you never know for sure what will trigger the fish. Often I find that If I let the fly drift downstream and slowly across the current then pause the rod to cause the fly to rise to the surface – then fish will hit just as the fly begins to rise.
Sometimes more vigorous motion can trigger strikes too and I’ve used quick strips back upstream to trigger fish too.
It’s easy to be creative with the swing. The one thing that I’d caution against is the situation where you have the fly constantly skimming on the top of the water – fish will hit this sometimes for sure – and sometimes I’ve done really well like that. But usually I have better luck with the fly drifting subsurface for a while and then rising on the swing. That rising action seem to really trigger them.
Most often my tactic is to try to get the fly to begin the swing and rise at the prime locations where I expect fish to be holding.

Let’s look at a diagram

the swingHere’s a diagram where I attempt to illustrate some of this. It would be easier to demonstrate it on stream of course.
Basically you want to position yourself upstream of the head of the pool or run and cast across the stream so that the current can be used to swing the fly and cause it to rise. In this case you’d cast to the spot marked with the red X.

If you cast and hold the rod still the fly will drift just until the slack is out and then you’ll get an immediate swing. You can even cast and then move the rod tip upstream to cause an immediate swing at the very head of the run or pool.

Optionally you can follow the drift of the fly downstream with the rod tip and then pause at points further downstream to get swings at various points and target fish holding further in the run or pool.

When you stop following the drift you can start the swing. You can also control the speed of the swing. If instead of stopping the rod completely, you move the rod tip across the current you can extend the downstream drift and also move the fly across stream.

At some point you’ll stop the rod tip and allow the fly to complete the swing and then rise to the surface. The goal is to make the fly rise at the point where you suspect a fish may be holding. Of course if you don’t have any idea where a fish is holding it is simple enough to just stop the swing and start the rise in various spots until you strike gold.

Real Life Example
Clear as mud? Perhaps an actual picture will make it a bit more clear. So in the pic below I would cast to point 1 and follow the fly with the rod tip down stream till point 2. At that point I’d pause the rod to get the line tight and start the swing. I’d the let the rod tip follow the fly down and across stream finally stopping it somewhere between 2 and 3. The goal being tho make the fly rise at point 3.

You can then cover the run further downstream in a similar fashion allowing the fly to drift to 2.1 and then making it rise at 3.1. Then repeat as necessary to cover all of the water – moving yourself downstream as necessary.

You can see in the picture how you can cover a lot of that prime run as the fly first dead drifts, then swings, then rises.


Let the fish be your guide. 

Though I may be making it sound complicated – like I said earlier this technique is actually pretty easy. Through trial and error you’ll quickly figure out how to make the fly move at various speeds down and across the stream.

Then all you need to do is experiment and let the fish be your guide. I will never pretend to understand the whims of fish – but luckily I don’t have to. By simply trying different speed swings, and adding various pauses and pulses and jigs and jives to the swing you’ll eventually figure out what the fish are looking for. Maybe you’ll find one particular tactic that’s killing them that day or perhaps you’ll hook fish in a different way in each run. The good part is it’s very easy to change your presentation until you find one that’s working.


what say you?