Keeping Your Head Straight Catches Steelhead

11 comments / Posted on / by

Photo by Jeff Hickman

Photo by Jeff Hickman

By Louis Cahill

I just got back from hosting two groups of anglers on this year’s Deschutes River Steelhead Camp.

This trip is always a highlight of my year. Because it’s just so much fun and because there is nothing I love more than swinging flies for steelhead. Camping on a beautiful river and sharing some water and whisky with like-minded anglers would be awesome even if it didn’t involve one of my favorite fish species.

Steelheading is a unique fly fishing experience, especially when done with a two-hand rod and a swung fly. It offers plenty of challenge and technique, even when the fishing is stellar. It’s definitely about quality over quantity and if you are the kind of angler who needs constant feedback, the biggest challenge can be in your head.


Nice work Jon!

I’ve always said the reason steelheaders are so cranky is because they spend so much time staring at the water thinking about all the bad things they’ve done. It’s funny but all too true. We all know the voice in our head that, when denied a pull for a while, starts to chant, “You Suck! You Suck! Yes You Do!”

For some anglers, and especially for beginners, this can be a real problem. Not just because it will melt your spey cast down but because it’s no fun. The best way I know to catch fish is to fish with confidence and if you lose your confidence you’re on a slippery slope to skunk town. Trust me, I’ve been there.

One of the coolest things about the Steelhead Camp is that I get to see a lot of anglers catch their first steelhead. The Deschutes is a great place for that because the fishing is so good. While the fishing this year was good by almost any standards, it was off for the Deschutes.


Jeff gets it done.

The generation of steelhead which are returning to the river for the first time this year faced some rough conditions. These fish, known as “single salt” fish, usually make up the largest part of the run but this year they returned in smaller numbers. It’s kind of a good news / bad news situation. While numbers are lower than normal, average size is larger. Again, quality over quantity.

I’m really proud of all of my anglers, who kept their attitudes straight, fished hard and had fun. In the end, all but one caught fish, but several paid their dues getting it done. That, of course, makes it that much sweeter. The other good thing about the camp is that anglers have great support, both technical advice and communal encouragement. It makes a big difference.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when you’re not catching steelhead.

You are intercepting migrating fish.

These fish are always on the move. Just because they were in a given run last night does not mean they are there this morning. You have to stay in search mode. Cover the water thoroughly, make good casts and good swings and have confidence that you will find them.


Kyle swings one up.

Steelhead are not feeding.

It’s a very different thing than fishing to a resident trout who is hungry. When a steelhead eats, it is an act of aggression and emotional response. Not every fish is a potential player. You may be swinging your fly in front of fish who just aren’t feeling it and it has nothing to do with your technique. You are pursuing a fish who eats the fly for reasons we will never completely understand and that’s part of what’s cool about it.

You have chosen to do this the hard way.

Let’s be honest, there are easier ways to catch steelhead than swinging flies. If you’re swinging for steelhead you’ve chosen to catch fewer fish in the hope of having a more rewarding experience. If it was easy, you’d be disappointed. Embrace the challenge and stay confident.


Dave is a fish magnet.

It’s got more to do with the fish than it does with you.

Like any species, steelhead are caught all the time by anglers who have no idea what they are doing. It’s better to put a bad cast in front of the right fish than a great cast in front of the wrong one. To some extent we all luck into our first fish. What we learn from the experience determines how good an angler we become.

You can’t fish in two places at once.

The only swing that matters is the one that’s happening right now. Not the one an hour ago, when you missed a fish, and not the next one through the bucket. Stay focused and present.


Even I got one.

The swing catches the fish, not the cast.

While it’s true that a better cast has a better chance of ending in a hookup, it’s the swing that actually catches fish. It’s pretty common to see anglers who are learning to cast a spey rod neglect or rush their swing so they can make that next cast better. Fish every inch of those bad casts. It can happen at any time.

It’s better to be tenacious than talented.

This is the story of my life. Natural talent means nothing. What makes a great angler is a great work ethic, a willingness to fail and the grit to never give up. Bloody noses and black eyes are great teachers and the hardest lessons are the best learned. If you are struggling, know that the will to succeed is always there in you. That fish is out there for you and the harder he is to catch, the sweeter it will be.

Keep swinging! And drop me a line if you’re interested in joining next year’s Steelhead Camp, Sept 2017.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!

Follow Gink & Gasoline on Facebook:

11 thoughts on “Keeping Your Head Straight Catches Steelhead

  1. awesome article….

    last year while on a trip I made one of the worst casts in my life only to be taken by a monster steelhead. although the beast got away about five feet from my feet I learned to fish EVERY>SINGLE>CAST.

  2. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. Too often we fall into this trap.

    If it’s not working then try changing it up! Fish the fly faster or slower. Try a different fly or sink tip. Fish different water types. If you can, change where you are fishing (move upstream/downstream) to find some fish.

    • Doing the same thing and expecting the same results would mean casting over and over again in the same spot. Taking one or two steps down river changes the game every cast. I think it’s as simple as having a consistent swing from the start to the hang down.

  3. Steelheading requires resilience, there’s absolutely no question about it. Having the support of the other anglers at the camp was a significant factor in keeping this up. The stoke level in the morning as everyone is getting up is contagious. You wake up at zero-dark-thirty, tired and sore from the previous day of wading on perhaps one the toughest rivers to wade. However, once you get that first whiff of coffee brewing and hear others starting to get their gear prepped for the day you can’t help but think of what could possibly happen that day on the river. As this was my first time steelheading, I was constantly questioning what I was doing wrong…then it happened(after 2 eats and operator error). And when it does, man all of those negative thoughts that have accumulated over the last day or so are instantly removed from your memory bank and it’s like a reset button has been hit in your attitude. IMO steelhead on the deschutes are one of if not the most hard hitting/fighting fish in freshwater that I’ve ever encountered.

    I highly recommend checking out the camp next year if you’ve been on the fence about swinging for chromers(like I was) or if you’re a seasoned steelheader looking for like minded folks. This is a top notch operation led by extremelly accomplished steelhead guides. Not to mention the provided meals alone could possibly be worth the trip.

  4. Great info/pics! Was on the Bulkley this fall and met fish biologist doing research on steelie survival and effects after capture/photos, and he stressed that we not expose the gills to air AT ALL! and that, when we do, it not only affects that fish, but greatly reduces the number and quality of eggs produced at their spawn. We can still learn to be better for the resource! Photos of fish with head/gills in the water, never exposing gills to air, will help them, and us…
    Great work on this story!

  5. Having spent untold hours swinging for steelhead, including many on the Deschutes, I appreciated this article concerning new fisherman coming to terms with this approach on a unique and irreplaceable watershed. But more than confidence, grit, or other descriptors, I find the single most important requirement for success is concentration. Maybe that’s what people mean by confidence, but they are not the same. Concentration is the single quality that is most stressed by swinging flies for steelhead. Concentrating repeatedly–all day–on the mechanics of the cast, the swing itself, and the myriad of details (has your line accidentally looped over your reel handle?) one must control to have a shot–are all overcome by the sheer willpower required to concentrate on an imaginary spot about 12-17 feet beyond and slightly upstream from the end of your Scandi or Skagit line. If you’re sleeping, you could miss seeing the toilet bowl flush and you could reflexively farm that fish. Concentration is the challenge, and frankly, many fisherman just aren’t made for it. For me, the intense concentration required is the very thing that makes steelhead fishing so great, because it makes anything else in your life, all your worries and cares, fade to background noise. Swinging for steelhead isn’t easy and requires knowledge, perseverance, confidence, resilience, attention to detail, and yes, a whole truckload of concentration. But the fish is worth it. It’s been to impossibly shallow creeks, big rivers, the waters off Japan or the Aleutian Islands getting big and mean and now it’s in your river looking at your fly and getting that little nervous, happy, excited posture and it’s about to rock your world. He’s concentrating on your fly. It’s all about the concentration.

  6. Pingback: Focus On Steelhead Technique | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying | Fly Fishing Blog

  7. Pingback: Good Steelhead article by Louis Cahill of Gink and Gasoline - LinespeedJedi

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Captcha loading...