Basic Steelheading: The Wet-Fly Swing

By Scott Richmond

Basic Floating Line Swing

 

The most basic steelhead tactic is the traditional wet-fly swing done with a floating line. For many summer steelhead fly anglers, this is the only tactic they use (or know).

It's pretty simple:

  1. Cast across river at about a 45-degree angle downstream (1).
  2. Immediately mend line (usually upstream) to help the fly swing slowly and steadily across the river (2).
  3. Then do nothing--don't wiggle the rod, mend line, or strip line--until the fly has stopped below you.
  4. When your fly reaches the end of its swing (3), stop and do nothing for five to ten seconds. The pause ("hangdown" in steelhead parlance) is because steelhead often follow the fly without taking it; after the fly sits in front of the fish for a few seconds, it may grab it.
  5. After the hangdown, step downstream two-and-a-half to three feet and cast again.
  6. Cast-swing-step your way downstream until you've covered all the water in the run. Try to stay awake.

 

 

When your fly passes over a willing steelhead (1), the fish may follow your fly (2), then (maybe) take the fly in its mouth and begin to return to its lie, thus pulling the hook into the corner of its jaw. When you first feel the line tighten, swing your rod to shore. Not too fast, and don't strike! Let the fish hook itself; if you strike hard, you risk ripping the fly out of the fish's mouth.

Once a steelhead is hooked, hold your rod more to the side rather than vertically. This keeps side pressure on the fish so it can't get its head into the current, thus making it work harder and tire more quickly.

 

 

Many anglers like to carry a 18-24 inch loop of line between the reel and the forefinger of their rod hand. When a steelhead grabs the fly and turns, it will pull the loop tight before encountering resistance from the reel's drag. Make sure your grip on the line is loose so the fish can easily pull out the loop.

Here are some other summer steelheading tips:

  1. Low Light. When the summer sun is high and bright, your best fishing will be in the low-light periods of morning or evening. Often, the best times to be on the water are from just before dawn until about 11:00 a.m. Head back out once the sun has been off the water for 15 minutes (it takes that long for a steelhead's eyes to adjust to the changing light level).
  2. Canyons. Canyons, such as on the Deschutes and North Umpqua, often cast shade on the water. As the river twists through its canyon, some runs can be shaded while others are in full sun. If you're clever about choosing your runs, you can extend your fishing time. I have favorite runs that are shaded by the canyon a full three hours before dusk, while other good runs don't lose the light until only an hour before sunset. Fish those runs in the right order, and you'll have three hours of prime evening fishing.
  3. Dealing with Plucks and Boils. Steelhead often will pluck at a fly without getting hooked, and sometimes they will boil behind it without touching it. Most of these fish can be brought back to the fly with another cast, so when you feel a strong pluck but don't hook a fish, cast again (immediately). If you still have no hookup, walk back upstream about ten feet and resume your cast-step-cast through the run. If this happens several times during the day, tie on a smaller, darker fly.

 

Basic Sink-tip Swing

The traditional wet-fly swing is not just for floating lines. It can also be done with a sink-tip. The cast and presentation are much the same as for a floating line, but the tackle is different. Most spey (two-handed rod) anglers use a Skagit-style line with a sink-tip; flies can be weighted or unweighted.

When would you use a sink-tip instead of a floating line? Anglers used to say, "Any time the water temperature is under fifty degrees." However, the answer is more complex than that. Some summer steelheaders will use a sink-tip in the middle of the day, when light-shy steelhead are reluctant to come up for a fly presented on a floating line. Also, changes in water temperature can be part of the decision. There are other factors as well. For more on this subject, see the article Sink Tip or Floating Line?

 

Winter Fishing Issues

Winter steelheading is usually done either with a sink-tip line, as described above, or with indicator tactics. Fish can be caught with a swinging fly, but winter conditions create special problems because fish are cold-blooded: a steelhead's metabolism slows down as the water temperature cools, and it hugs the river bottom and is reluctant to move to your fly.

Modern fly tackle does a good job of addressing these issues, and a properly used, well-balanced rig can be productive in winter. However, the tackle choices and tactics are complicated and beyond the scope of this article. Pro-guide Rob Crandall, a frequent guest in Westfly interviews, hosts an outstanding instructional video on this subject. Winter Spey Strategies: Tactics and Techniques for Swinging Flies in Cold Water is available on Amazon.com. If you want to fly fish for winter steelhead, I strongly encourage you to get Rob's DVD and watch it several times. There's a lot of good stuff there.

 

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).