Sunday Classic / 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
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One thought on “Sunday Classic / For Steelhead, The Swing Is The Thing…Or Is It?

  1. Great description of swing management Louis, and exactly the way I like to do it. The only difference is I fish for steelhead almost exclusively on the dry fly, but the technique is the same. If your fly lands on the seam where a steelhead should be, I visualize it dropping back and following the dead drifting fly as it gently transitions into the swing and following it around until it can resist no longer, rises and takes the fly. If at any point the fly streaks cross current or whips around the end of an uncontrolled fly line and/or leader the fish gives up and heads back to its lie with no indication it was ever there.

    The advantage of the dry fly is that you can see exactly what your fly is doing and manipulate it as required to slow down or speed up the swing……oh yeah, there’s also the heart stopping crushing of a surface fly by 30+ inches of sea run rainbow ripping you out of your Thai Chi meditative state….don’t want to forget that part.

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