Fishing Freshwater Salmon and Steelhead Fishing

Swinging for Steelhead

The steelhead and the swung fly: It’s one of fishing’s greatest combinations.
steelhead fishing
Steve Cornetet raises a healthy fall tributary fish just upstream of Lake Michigan. David Karczynski

The steelhead and the swung fly: It’s one of fishing’s greatest combinations. So electric is the moment of the tug that just one arm-jarring take is enough to recast a slow day as an exciting one. Throw in the fact that the ensuing fight can consist of cartwheels, tail-walks, and 100-yard runs around river bends, and you can see why a significant faction of fly anglers look forward to the cold rains of October the way dry-fly anglers pine for the warmth of May. How do you get from zero to hero? It’s not as tough as you might think.

steelhead on the fly
This fish required three fly changes before eating 20 yards downstream of where he was first encountered­—the back of deep bend hole. David Karczynski

For my brother, an elite spinning angler who looks upon the fly rod with a reasonable degree of suspicion, the swung fly yielded not only his first steelhead, but his very first fish on a fly rod. Of the first six seconds of the fight, that fish spent roughly 5.9 of them in the air—a self-skipping stone I chased after so frantically that I lost my hat, sunglasses, and gloves in the process. Despite having virtually no understanding of the physics of the fly reel—I was just about to explain the drag system when the fish hit—my brother somehow managed to land the steelhead, a dime-bright 12-pounder.

We released the fish and my brother looked straight into my eyes, his pupils as big as grapes, and said, “What just happened?”

Here’s how to get started with your own brain-blasting steelhead experience.

Manage Your Swing

First off, you need a balanced setup consisting of an 8-weight, two-handed rod in the 11- to 12-foot class (smaller two-handed rods are often referred to as “switch rods”) and a reel loaded with backing, running line, and a shorter (21- to 23-foot) Skagit head of an appropriate grain weight. Spend some time on internet discussion boards and you’ll see how complicated dialing in your outfit can get. But you don’t need all that intel to get started. Many companies, such as Redington, have gone to great lengths to take the guesswork out of gearing up. Its Chromer series rod comes with recommended grain weights written on the blank so you can stop scratching your head and start swinging with confidence.

The business end of your rig will consist of 10 feet of tungsten core-sink tip like T-11 or T-14 (tie perfection loops directly into the material on both ends) connected to 4 feet of straight 10-pound-test mono leader. As far as flies go, you really only need a handful. Look to unweighted sculpin patterns and Intruder-style flies in two or three color schemes, ranging from natural olive to unnatural fuchsia. These needn’t be big. Size 4 or 6—just a bit larger than a stonefly nymph—will do, and they’ll be easy to cast.

More important than size is the movement of the materials. Good swing flies have excellent passive movement that results from the interplay of natural materials and current. Flies built with marabou, ostrich herl, rhea feathers, rabbit strips, and arctic fox make great steelhead flies. Tie them on with a loop knot to further maximize appeal.

Creative Presentations

Double Speys, Circle C’s, Snake Rolls—these are complicated, beautiful casts, and one day you may have them all in your quiver. But when it comes down to it, Spey casting is really nothing more than tricked-out roll-casting, and you only need one to get started: the single Spey. Watch a few videos, practice on the nearest river, or book a one-hour fly-casting lesson with a local casting instructor. It’ll be money well spent.

In presenting the swung fly to steelhead, you’re generally looking to quarter downstream through holes from 3 to 6 feet deep. Because getting your fly down to the proper depth is important, your cast can be divided into two parts: preparation and fishing. The former consists of casting upstream of the water you’d like to fish, then stack mending to allow the tip to sink on slack line down to the fish’s level. This preparatory part of the cast ends when you come tight to the fly. At this point, it will begin its cross-current motion—aka “the swing”—until it comes to a stop directly downriver of you. This moment when the fly waffles around on a tight line is called “hang down,” and it’s an important part of the cast. Many fish that follow a fly out of curiosity actually make their attack once the fly has stopped. That said, even curious fish will not follow a fly into inches of water, so choose casting positions that will allow the fly to come to rest in fish-friendly depths of at least 2 ½ feet.

If you find you’re never hanging up on the bottom and losing the occasional fly, you might need to get deeper—just add two split shot to the middle of your mono leader. If the shot keeps slipping down the line, put a connecting knot like a blood knot or Albright knot, or even a small barrel swivel, in the middle of your leader, and position the shot above that.

The Do-Nothing Hookset

This should be the simplest part of swinging flies for steelhead, because the best way to set the hook is by doing little to nothing. Let the fish turn with the fly and move downstream on a very light drag setting, then come tight and raise the rod tip. If for some reason your tug doesn’t result in a solid hookset, don’t despair. Steelhead have a preternatural ability to yank on a swung fly without getting stung by the hook. If you got bit but didn’t hook up, it’s time to rest the pool and change flies. Try offering something in a smaller size and different color scheme.

senyo tropic thunder fly tying
Light on materials but heavy on action—­Senyo’s Tropic Thunder. David Karczynski

The Cheat Sheet

There are a number of things the beginning swinger can do to shorten the learning curve and get more quickly to that hallowed first swung fish.

1. Try to time your trips around the days following rain. An increase in current flow brings new fish into the river system.

2. Stick around for the evening bite. Even on colder days in December or January, evening is prime time to be on the water.

3. When you approach quality holding water, don’t neglect the very head of the hole. Fish in this part of the hole are only there for one reason: to whack something.

4. Stick with it. As with any new technique, part of the battle will be the human tendency to attribute failure to the inability to grasp something new. When you do connect, it’ll put every other take to shame. Tens of thousands of swinging junkies can’t be wrong.