Fishing short lines is a topic that has probably been done to death. Even epic has several blog posts about how effective it can be. The problem is that people don’t accept how difficult fishing a short line effectively is. Every subtle mistake with a short line is exemplified 10 fold with the fly. Without much line in the water to stretch or absorb your mistakes your poor fly gets tossed around like your favourite shoes in the hands of your new Labrador puppy dog.
When steelhead rivers get low it's time to get down and dirty with a short line presentation. The key concept to grasp is that you are going to need finesse, and that is not easy when you are casting short skagit lines. They are fat, heavy and attached to sink tips and flies that do not want to exit the water. The biggest mistakes when casting short accurate lines is finding that sweet spot on your power acceleration and maintaining a straight line with your rod tip. Although the skagit is extremely forgiving most of the time, the aftermath of a poorly timed acceleration and curved tip is that the line does not land straight in the water. This means you are already way behind the eight ball in getting a good swing.
Successful small water, short line casting all starts from how your line lands because there is very little time to make adjustments. Most of the time anglers don’t even put much thought into how straight the line just landed. As long as they see a decent loop off the tip and that the fly landed roughly where they wanted they are mentally right in the zone. Unfortunately this is often not the case. When your fly lands in a slight upstream J on a short 15 foot cast, it is very difficult to ever recover enough to sink your fly and get a proper swing. By the time you mend and get things lined up the way you like the swing is already long past where it needed to be.
We have spoken in length about how important it is to maintain the depth you got out of your fly on the cast when it first hits the water. That is the fastest sink rate you will get, so if you mend and bring your fly to the surface again your are wasting energy.
The reason short lines are so effective is basically because of drag. Simply put short casts drag less. Cross currents and micro slots are handled much easier with a small line and a raised rod. It is not by accident that the most productive fly anglers in the world are the high sticking nymphers that fish with absolutely no fly line on the water at all.
When casting a short accurate line you still need to pay close attention to your stroke. The biggest mistake I see is anglers make is rushing the cast with a short line. By starting the casting stroke too early before the sweep is completed you are "rounding the corner". In essence your rod tip is not travelling in a straight line and your line will land in a hook shape (usually up river). This causes your fly to swing too fast and not get any depth. In winter steelhead language it means you aren’t getting one on that cast.
You can save it by mending, but with short line presentations pull back mends are to be avoided as often as possible. To solve this, think about aiming your cast with the butt section of the rod, and make sure it is pushed out from your body (because if it isn’t after the sweep you have already lost). Make a small light sweep, keep hands in line, and point butt of rod at your target. At this point ease into your acceleration without overpowering. The result will be a good consistent, straight, accurate cast.
When the fly lands perfectly straight with the line, raise your rod and “walk” the fly through the bucket at the desired speed while you slowly lower your rod tip. Do not fumble your rod, or switch hands or tweak the line in anyway. Just relax and wait for the heart stopping grab, land and release your fish and tell your buddy about the epic battle. Short line fishing is considered anywhere from a couple feet to about 35 feet of line out. Practice this on your next outing and you will likely see results pretty quickly.