For Steelhead, The Swing Is The Thing…Or Is It?

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Had To Have It  Photo by Louis Cahill

Had To Have It Photo by Louis Cahill

When swinging flies for steelhead, how important is managing that swing?

It seems like a simple question. I know how I feel about it, but when you start talking to folks about it you get surprisingly different opinions. I’ve been told it doesn’t matter and I’ve been told it’s all that matters. I’ve heard it matters on some rivers and not on others. So where does the truth lie?

I was talking with a friend the other day when he asked me why I was catching more fish that week than he was. That’s, kind of, an impossible question to answer, especially where steelhead are concerned. It could be the magic fly or the right sink tip. It could be a ‘right place, right time’ situation. I have a friend who thinks it’s karma and it could well be dumb luck or what my grandfather called, “holding your mouth right.”

After some discussion, my friend Kevin was convinced the difference is in how I manage my swing. I learned how to swing flies from some pretty damned good anglers and I like to think I do a good job of it. My technique is also informed by some basic things I believe about fish and fishing. I do think it’s important and there are other things about catching steelhead that I think are equally important.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I manage my swing.

First of all, a good cast is a real asset. Turning your leader over, casting distance and accuracy are all important skills. That said, you can catch fish with a bad cast. You are much less likely, however, to catch fish with a bad swing. The fish doesn’t see the cast. It sees the swing. I think where a lot of anglers who are new to steelheading with the two hander go wrong is obsessing about the cast to the exclusion of learning to properly swing the fly.

There are two thoughts on where one should cast. Straight across or quarter down. Of course, all choices are situational and there is no one right answer but on the average I come down on the side of straight across. At least when fishing skagit style. I do this because I fundamentally feel that fishing deeper is better. The more the fly is in the fish’s face, the more likely it is he will eat.

In a typical run I will make my cast across the river, then throw a big mend and high stick as I step down and ease the fly into the swing. All of this is done to help the fly sink and control the speed of the swing. If you take your steps before you cast and quarter your cast downstream, your fly will ride higher in the water column because your swing starts immediately. Casting across and mending gives your tip time to sink. Stepping down with the drift of the line greatly increases the sink time. High sticking and easing the fly into the swing keeps the fly moving at a slow pace that will entice the fish to eat in the heavy current midstream. This is an overly simple explanation of a single scenario but it is the fundamentals of a good beginning to your presentation.

Once the fly is at the proper depth and swinging at a good speed, the object is to manage the belly. The belly of the line tells you what your fly is up to. The right amount of belly means a good swing. It’s hard to explain, but what you are looking for is a gentle downstream belly. This will keep the fly moving at a soft consistent rate of speed with its profile presented to the fish, meaning perpendicular to the current. Too big a downstream belly will move the fly too fast. The fish needs time to think about it. An up stream belly moves the fly too slowly and turns it into the current and the fish does not see the profile.

An important tool for managing your swing is feel. You should feel the gentle pull of the current throughout your swing. Not too heavy and not too light. The weight should be consistent throughout the swing.

You have two ways to control the belly of your line. The movement of your rod tip from side to side and up and down. First we will look at the side to side motion. You start the swing by ‘easing it in.’ This is done by moving the rod tip slightly upstream. This puts the first tension on the line and creates the belly. At this point your rod tip is on the upstream side of the line. Now it’s time to ‘follow it in’. You start to move the rod tip slowly downstream. Just fast enough to maintain the right amount of belly.

The next part of the swing is the transition. Midway through the swing there will come a point where your rod points straight down the line. If you stop in this position your line will start to belly upstream. Not good. Keep the rod tip moving. You are now entering the part of the swing called the lead. As you continue to move your rod tip toward the bank, your fly will follow. Lead the fly into the soft current until it stops below you. This is called the ‘hang down’. In some cases the hang down must be cut short to keep the fly from hanging on the bottom. Err on the side of keeping the fly in the water. Lots of fish eat on the hang down.

The elevation of your rod tip will usually follow the side to side motion. Starting high on the follow and ending low on the lead. The important idea to grasp is that a lower rod tip means a faster moving fly. The more of the line that is in the water, the more the belly pulls the fly. This is an important concept to grasp. It is often necessary to raise and lower your rod tip as you swing through eddies and seams to keep your fly moving. Remember, you are managing the line and the line is taking the fly with it.

For me, managing your swing is crucial. Second only to keeping the faith that the pull will come. That said, I caught my biggest steelhead to date in a funky piece of water at the head of a run that didn’t swing worth a damn, with a terrible upstream belly in my line. I fished that water anyway, because I watched other anglers ignore it. You have to come to the fish. It’s not their job to come to you.

If you’re new to Spey fishing for steelhead, try focusing on your swing. Swinging flies is like Tai Chi. It’s done in a mindful state. Never drop your fly and disconnect mentally. Visualize the motion of the fly. Visualize the fish in his lie. When those two visions come together, you’re onto something good.

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
www.ginkandgasoline.com
hookups@ginkandgasoline.com
 
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9 thoughts on “For Steelhead, The Swing Is The Thing…Or Is It?

  1. This is essentially how I manage my swing, as well. I’ve seen very experienced fishermen and even guides with their rod tip on the water pointing straight down the line from the very start of the swing to the very end. I’ve been told by several of these fishermen and guides that this is the “proper” way to swing.

    I don’t buy it. If you’re not managing the belly and leading your fly with the proper amount of tension, you’re just ripping it through the water, in my novice-swinger’s opinion.

  2. any videos online you’d recommend for this? havent gotten into swinging two handers yet, but i started swinging streamers with my single hand rod this season and had mixed results, brought the biggest rainbow of the season to hand early on and have been striking out since, looking for ways to improve. thanks for the info.

  3. Louis, can you do a posting on taking good fish pics when you’re fishing single? I’m finding it kinda hard to handle a SLR and a fish in the net at the same time. Also the hand holding the fish looks kinda awkward holding the fish out with one hand and and taking pics with the other. Etc. Thanks!

  4. You’re exactly right about managing the swing. The goal is to maximize the action of the fly so as to appear a “natural” source of food to the fish.
    Quite a few years ago I saw a 35 mm film clip (gives you an idea of how many years ago) taken from overhead in VERY clear water with a brightly colored line and fly for teaching purposes. The film showed the “right mend” and the “wrong mend” and the result of each on the action of the fly during the swing. I immediately changed my mending technique with immediate positive results. BTW, the casts in the film were all cross stream as opposed to a quarter cast.

  5. Awesome post, Louis. I’ll be doing my best to channel this, my inner Swing Chi, on Sunday. Any fish caught will then be credited to you of course! You guys headed to the Poor Man’s Patagonia in the depths of winter this year?

  6. Pingback: Gink and Gasoline Great Post. | Steelheading, the hard way.

  7. Pingback: Spey Casting: Straight Is Better Than Long | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying | Fly Fishing Blog

  8. lotso good thoughts here but at the end of day most is utter nonsense with regards to reality

    flies swim ass first when under tension..period..end of story

    the moment the “swing” starts , all gets tight …tips and fly ride up the water column and then stay at the “physics mandated” point depending on legnt and density of sink tip…..think about lead core trollers in a reservoir rowing ..they ask/refer to how many colors out….this is about how much lead core is out…the more out of tip the deeper the fly…all the mending initially works but at the moment of tension the fly and tip come up …I used to think otherwise until I actually saw the reality

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