Basic Steelheading: The Wet-Fly Swing

By Scott Richmond

The most basic summer steelhead tactic--which is probably the only steelhead tactic for 90% of fly anglers--is the traditional wet-fly, cast-swing-step. This brief article takes you through the ABCs of this tactic.


A seven- or eight-weight rod is right for most summer-run steelhead. Use a floating line; either a weight-forward fly line or a double taper will work, but the double taper will do better when you have the brush at your back and need to roll cast. A good compromise is a long-belly line such as the Wulff Triangle Taper. A nine-foot, 0X or 1X leader is sufficient for most fishing.

You'll find most western anglers using a Green Butt Skunk , Skunk , or Freight Train for summer steelhead. Other good flies to carry are the Purple Peril , Streetwalker , Skykomish Sunrise , and Marabou . Most anglers follow the adage "Bright day, bright fly; dark day, dark fly." Since most summer steelheading is done in times of low light, you're usually using a dark pattern such as a Green Butt Skunk.

The lower and clearer the river, the more subdued your fly should be. On the other hand, in early fall when a river might be murky due to a rain shower, a large bright fly, such as a Marabou, can be a good choice.

Finding Good Water

Look for water that is three to six feet deep with the current moving at the speed of a walk. Underwater structures, such as rocks and ledges, can be important, but are not essential. You will often find this kind of water downstream from a point of land or a pile of boulders.

Steelhead often will be lying in the transition zone as the current changes from fast to slow (but not in stagnant water). You should be able to reach the run by casting from shore, not from a boat. If there is a backeddy near shore, or if there is a sudden break between fast water and slow, seek a different run.

Presenting the Fly

Cast across river at about a 45-degree angle downstream. Immediately mend line (usually upstream). This helps the fly slowly cross the river with your fly line as straight as you can get it. Lead the fly slightly with the rod.

Then do nothing-don't wiggle the rod, mend line or strip line-until the fly has stopped below you. When your fly reaches the end of its swing, step downstream two-and-a-half to three feet and cast again. Cast-swing-step your way downstream until you've covered all the water in the run.

When your fly passes over a willing steelhead, the fish will follow your fly, 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 and fast 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.

Other 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 evening fishing. But if you do it the other way you'll only be casting for an hour.
  3. Mid-day Fishing. When the light is bright, your odds are reduced. But not to zero. It's possible to pick up fish in the middle of the day if you use a sink-tip line that will reach closer to the bottom. A weighted fly, such as a large purple Woolly Bugger , helps.
  4. 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 five feet and resume your cast-step-cast through the run. If this happens several times during the day, tie on a smaller, darker fly.
  5. Carry a loop. Most steelheaders carry a loop of line between the rod and reel. When a steelhead strikes, they let the loop slip. This gives the fish enough slack so it can turn and pull the hook into the corner of its jaw.
  6. Downstream Grabs. Steelhead often follow a fly until it stops swinging, then just sit there looking at for a few seconds. Then they might grab it. This is a problem because the fly is straight below you. If you strike, you'll pull the fly out of the steelhead's mouth. The right thing to do is to drop the loop (see above) and thrust the rod at the fish. Of course, fewer then one angler in ten will actually do this in the heat of the moment. The rest of us jerk the rod up, thus snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
  7. Guides. The trickiest part of steelhead fly fishing is not mastering the tactics. It's being on the right water. If you're new at this, hire a guide for a day or two. Then pay attention to the type of water the guide puts you on. When you're on your own, go back to those spots, and look for places that have the same conditions--depth, current speed, etc.--and fish those places.

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).