SWINGING for STEELHEAD
Last month I covered the basic techniques and tactics using indicators/floats for our winter steelhead. Fishing indicators is certainly the most successful technique during these tough months. However, for those looking to challenge themselves a bit and learn a new technique, look no further than the latest craze called “swinging.” The technique has been popular on the rivers of Oregon, Washington, and the Canadian Provinces for a number of years. It has slowly developed a cult like following around the Great Lakes and the numerous rivers that feed our wonderful ecosystem.
Let’s cut right to the chase, to really have the best chance for success, you’ll probably have to go shopping. Your current steelhead setup, even if it’s a fly rod, probably isn’t going to get the job done. I’m saying those 9 or 10 foot rods in 8 weight that are your go to for chuck and duck fishing with light fly line or mono won’t be able to move the heavy sinking lines and big flies required to get the tug of a cold water steelhead. Starting with rods, think long, like 11 foot being on the short end. These rods are called Two-handed Spey rods. There are many great companies out there making some real quality rods designed specifically for this. My personal rod is a Sage Z-Axis 8134. This rod is 13 feet 4 inches long, in 8 weight. The advantage of the length comes into play when managing the heavy lines required for sinking the fly into the strike zone. You can find this particular rod on closeout lists at a local fly shop.
Next on the gear list is the reel. Fly reels come in numerous sizes based on line weight; you will need one for 9/10 size line. These larger diameter reels will hold 200 yards of 30# Dacron backing, a running line and your fly line. All of the major fly reel makers have models that will fit the bill. Like everything else related to outdoor gear, your wallet will help determine which model fits your needs and budget. I run with a Greys G-Tec 410 model. Solid construction, with smooth drag systems are a must for the hard pulling species we are targeting.
With rod and reel in hand, let’s look at the real business part of the system, lines.
As mentioned, your reel will need to have Dacron backing and running line installed first. The running line connects to your backing and to your fly line. This line is a thin, coated line designed to increase casting distance by sliding through rod guides easier than other lines. Now the business end of the system: the head. These lines are the workforce of your spey fishing setup. Many options are available based mostly on rod selection. The major rod manufacturers have charts online listing the recommended grain weights for each rod model they produce.
The lines come in various grain weights designed to load the rod when casting. A steelhead gear nut could go crazy buying all the different brands that are specialized for certain situations. But in reality, if you have a floating head for shallow water fisheries like the PM or certain sections of the Muskegon and a sinking head for the Big Manistee or the Grand, you would be covered. My line of choice for my setup is a Skagit sinking line in 560 grain when fishing the Big Man and the deeper pools on the PM.
Based on current water conditions and depth, we also attach sink tip leaders in varying lengths. The higher flow water will require longer sections or heavier sink tip lines. These sink tip lines also come in various grain weights, T8 (8 grains per foot), T11 (11 grains per foot), etc. Again, preference is based on water conditions and what becomes comfortable to the angler with his set up. So to recap my line set up: Dacron backing, running line, Skagit sinking line, 8 to 9 feet of T11 sink tip, and a 3 foot section of 12# fluorocarbon attached to my fly. You’re almost geared up!
Visit a local fly shop and check out all the fly patterns available for swinging. Your head might spin a bit, there’s a lot to choose from! Keep things simple to start, dark colors with varying bright colored heads are solid go to colors. Intruder type patterns are the most basic with sculpin patterns right there too. If you’re equipped to tie your own, then you probably have the material needed on hand. Marabou, flashabou, schlappen feathers, ice dubbing, etc. Again, a little research on a few internet sites will get you pointed in the right direction.
Gear To Work
I’ll tell you right up front, this type of fishing isn’t for everyone! Expect sore arms, shoulders and joints after a day of swinging. Manhandling a 13 foot rod with heavy fly line, heavy flies and trying to master the casting techniques will test your mental fortitude and your sanity a little. The most basic casting sequence goes something like this: a roll cast to bring the fly line close to the surface where it can be managed. A snap T follows the roll cast. The best I can describe it would be a raise of the rod tip, performing a quick loop “T” with the tip. The goal is to bring the fly back at you off of either side, depending on which way the river is flowing. The target distance to have the fly land is just upstream and about the distance of your rod tip away from you. Let the fly settle for just a quick 3 or 4 count, and then sweep the rod tip high in the direction you want the cast to go.
This is hard to describe, can be hard to master, but once you have figured out how to make all of your gear work together with your hands controlling the rod- it’s a blast to fish this way. One tip I kept hearing was to really use my low hand on the rod. Pushing and pulling with the low hand takes a lot of stress off the shoulder joints.
One other very important piece of gear: good quality sunglasses! These flies are big and heavy; protect your eyes when these mini missiles are flying around while you practice and fish.
Nothing beats a good day of fishing, whether the fish are biting or not. I am fortunate to have a couple of good buddies who showed me the ropes with this new-to-me technique. Jon Odykirk and Alex Forsberg of Jays Sporting Goods fishing department were the first to get me hooked and we spent numerous afternoons on the PM last winter. I had a few tugs but nothing brought to the hand for the grip and grin pictures. They outlined the correct way to approach fishing a hole or run. Each cast is made just downstream of 45 degrees to the bank. A quick upward mend of the line allows the sink tip and fly to begin its decent. Keeping the rod tip a few feet off the water, allow the line to get as straight as possible, then track the line with the rod tip as it moves downstream. Once the line and fly get almost straight downstream, allow it to hang in the current for a few seconds. You can also do a few short strips after the hang. Steelhead will oftentimes track the fly downstream until it pauses at the hang point before grabbing it.
Once the tug of the grab happens- don’t set the hook! This is the most crucial point of the bite. Keep a short loop of line under your top rod hand to the reel. Allow the fish to grab the fly and turn toward the bank, usually pulling out this small loop. Once you feel the constant tugging- then it’s time to lift and drive the hook home.
If you have no takers on the first swing, take two steps downstream and make another cast. This will swing your fly through new water. Fish through each run like this: I imagine painting the river with my fly. Trying to make each crescent shaped swing within a couple feet of the previous swing. This should successfully show your fly to any fish holding in any part of the hole or run.
Jon Odykirk and I take a guided trip each year with Jon Ray from Hawkins Outfitters as a special treat to ourselves. We spend the day fishing on the Big River with a great guide and don’t have to worry about boat control, gear failures, etc. Our latest outing went very well even though the conditions have been tough. We went 4 for 6, with a few other missed tugs, quite possibly
due to premature hook sets by this rookie.
If you are interested in learning more about this technique, take a look at: speypages.com. I am not affiliated in any way with it; I just think there is some useful information that can be used. A couple of DVDs worth picking up regarding casting are Skagit Master 1 and RIO’s Modern Spey Casting.
If you really want to treat yourself, give Hawkins Outfitters in Traverse City a call and set up a guided trip. If you’re down near the Muskegon area, check out Feenstra Guide Service. These guys guide for a living and can show you the gear, casting techniques, and water reading to help get you on the fast track to success. The current saying in swing fishing is; “the swing is the thing, the tug is the drug.” Give it a shot and you too might get hooked on the addiction of the swinging streamer.