Why I Swing a Fly for Steelhead

Why I swing flies for steelhead

Many fly fisherman feel very strongly about this topic. Some will tell you nymphing is the most productive way, others will tell you that nymphing is not fly fishing and you might as well be throwing a centerpin with a float and fly set up. Whatever  you think, the argument is simple: Do I want to swim a fly or drift a fly when steelhead fly fishing. And honestly, I cast no judgment on whichever way you decide is best for you. Its your day fishing; spend it how you please.

A nice winter steelhead caught nymphing

my path to the swung fly

My first day fly fishing, my 8th birthday, was spent at the hip of a guide near Sun Valley, Idaho. We met early in the morning and headed up Trail Creek. I was outfitted with a bamboo rod my father had found at some second hand store. Not labeled or expensive. We put a 6 weight line on it for lack of anything better. The guide had me set up with a seven and a half foot leader, a strike indicator, two split shot, and a prince nymph.

We shuffled from pool to pool catching cookie-cutter, stocked trout all morning. My fish to hand count was a million plus. I was the best fly fisherman ever. At eight I was convinced that fly fishing=nymphing with strike indicator and a prince nymph.

For years, this was the set up I used, and it was fly fishing. More often than not, I went without the split shot as it felt too close to spin fishing for me. When I fly fished, I fly fished; leaving behind my countless days of spinners and Powerbait. That’s not to say that I didn’t still spin fish. I struggled at first with the concept that I should fly fish instead of spin fish. Why would I want to spend more time fly fishing, tangled up, than catching fish with a spinner or Powerbait?

From stream to stream, I employed the strike indicator, prince nymph set up. More often than not I caught fish. Then one day, I was fishing with my dad on a small stream in Southern Oregon and I was getting skunked. My dad was crushing it. How can this be so? Why would they not eat the prince? I was dumbfounded. The fish were everywhere; feeding regularly on the surface. My dad was using a Royal Wulff and was catching a fish nearly every cast. This was my first lesson about fly fishing outside of nymphing.

Fast forward to when I was 15 (I am 31 now). The Rogue River was having an exceptional run of Steelhead. Claims of over 100,000 fish were spoken in the fly shop in Ashland, back when it used to be located in the Ashland Outdoor Store and run by Kenny Morrish.

“You guys have to try steelheading” we were told by the guy behind the counter.

“We have heard that its really hard and we’d prefer to catch fish” we responded.

“If ever there was a time that it was as easy to catch a steelhead as a trout, this is it!” He responded.

We agreed to give it a try and had him set us up with the proper outfit for Rogue River steelhead; strike indicator, ugly bug, and a bloody mary. He pointed us to a “favorite” spot of his and away we went.

After a short drive, we hoped out of the truck, jumped in our waders, rigged our rods, and tromped down river to the “first bend below the creek.” My dad put me in the upper position on the seam and walked down about 40 feet to his spot. The heavy nymph set up was laborious to cast but I got it out there. First drift was unsuccessful. Try again. Second drift was also unsuccessful. Third times the charm: drifting, drifting, drifting, indicator went down, rod tip went up, and a half-pounder bolted out of the water to flight. This was exciting…my first steelhead of sorts. She was fiesty and didn’t give up without a rigmarole of tricks. She came to hand, I scooped her up, removed the bloody mary, and went back to work.

Four half-pounders later, I hooked my first adult steelhead. Not a large fish by any means, but a force to be reckoned with on my 8’6″ Sage 6 weight. I remember the moment clear as day. Brutal fight, backing showing, Battenkill screaming, 15 minutes and I landed my first adult steelhead. Little did I know that this would begin a lifelong pursuit of steelhead. (I laugh at myself for saying that at the meager age of 31; how can I know its a lifelong pursuit?)

Fast forward to my sophomore year of college. I had a “serious” girlfriend at the time. She was beautiful, sweet, and full of fun. There was a big weekend event scheduled at her Sorority. One of those parties that kids talk about these days. There were to be costumes, themes, dancing, booze, nearly naked girls, the whole nine yards. I was going fishing. I had had enough of events.

Despite the hounding from my girlfriend to stay for the party I grabbed my tent, raincoat, and gear and headed south to the Cowlitz river. Weather forcast: 100% chance of rain. Going anyways. Chance girldfriend will be mad/leave me: 90% chance. Going anyway. Quick stop by the Morning Hatch Fly Shop(now closed) for a few flies, directions, and technique and I was going steelheading.

Armed with a single hand rod, sink tip, and intruder I stepped into the Cowlitz. I made my first pass through the run without a touch from a fish. Back to the car, drink a beer, change fly to a smaller one, back to the run. Cast, step, swing, cast, step, swing, cast, step, SET! Fish on. I hooked my first steelhead on the swing and what a dandy! Ten minutes later, yards of backing, and a battle between two river souls the fish came unpinned. Didn’t matter to me. My heart was beating as fast as it ever had, I had a s*&t eating grin a mile wide, and was convinced that swinging flies for steelhead was going to be my new passion.

I love to spey cast

choosing witch fork to fish

All steelhead fly fisherman come to learn one thing quickly about steelhead; they are tough to catch on a fly and you can go days, weeks, and even months between fish. That became very apparent to me in my beginning days of steelhead fishing.

What we all must decide for ourselves is how we would like to spend those moments between fish. Swinging or nymphing. What do you want out of your experience? Are you there to catch, catch, catch? Are you there for a larger experience?

When it comes down to the basic cast by cast enjoyment of steelhead fishing I choose swinging flies. I love to nymph and have spent countless days doing it but have found that I miss a lot of why I love to fly fish. When staring at the bobber and constantly mending to get that perfect drag free drift I miss things like spacing out and watching caddis dance, watching the river, life contemplation, and  being present in my surrounding space.

A well swung fly in a classic run requires focus of a different sort. Cast, mend (sometimes), wait for the grab. Repeat. Its about feeling the fly swing through different currents, probing boulders and gravel bars and enjoying casting. Ahh yes casting, over and over and over. I can spend hours with my spey rod just casting. Yes its nice to get that pull once in a while but to enjoy casting is a gift in itself. 

Oh and lets not forget the grab. This years steelhead have been playing games. You may get a pluck, then nothing, then a pluck, then nothing, then a pluck and nothing. Next cast the same. Next cast WHOOOMM…fish on.  Each grab is different and each one is special. I’ve experienced everything from the mind blowing, freight train of a grab to the softest pluck. You don’t get to feel this grab nymphing, only see it.

Regardless of which fork you choose, choose it for the right reason-you enjoy doing it. After all if you’re not enjoying what your doing, why are you doing it? I invite you to come spend a day on the river with me and share my steelhead fishing experience. 

Tight loops,




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