Is Your Steelhead Fly fishing Or Just Swinging?

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Andy Bowen Swinging on the Deschutes Photo by Louis Cahill

Andy Bowen Swinging on the Deschutes Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

Is your fly fishing for the entire swing?

Many anglers who successfully swing flies for steelhead could be catching even more fish by improving their swing. Steelheading is all about taking advantage of every opportunity and it’s pretty common for anglers to waste as much as half their fishing time with a poorly swung fly. I include myself among them. It’s technical business and requires constant attention.

The key to a good swing is keeping the fly moving at just the right speed and angle. That buttery slow swing that gives the fish time to see the fly and react. The gentle motion that entices the attack. It’s a hard thing to visualize and even harder to describe. Fortunately there’s a reliable visual cue that will help you determine when you fly is swinging well and when it isn’t. The belly of your line.

Before we talk about what the belly of the line tells you, let get some terms straight.

The belly is the part of the line which is swept by the current causing an arch in the path of the line. When swinging flies the belly determines the speed at which the fly moves across the current.

Picture yourself fishing from river left. You cast directly across a swift current, which flows from your left to right. Your line bellies down stream so that the middle of your line is down stream of your fly. We will call this a convex belly.

Now, picture yourself on the same side of the river but casting across a slow moving current with your fly landing in faster current on the far side. Your fly moves down stream and hangs below your line, which curves to follow. We will call this a concave belly.

Picture a swing where your line makes the shape of an L. Your fly and leader point in a direction perpendicular to your rod. We will call this a 90% belly. A 45% belly would have less curve in the line and a 100% belly would have more. A straight line swing or 0% belly would have no curve in the line.

When the fly is swinging at a good pace and angle, we will say it’s fishing. Not fishing means the speed and angle are wrong.

Now that we have our terms, what’s the swing we are looking for?

Andy gets a nice one

Andy gets a nice one

For starters, a concave belly isn’t a good thing. When the line curves out and down, rather than down and across, the fly moves too slowly and the angle presents only the tail of the fly to the fish. This is not to say that a steelhead will never eat a fly swung in this way. It’s happened to me. Fish do crazy things, but it’s not your best presentation.

A good swing presents a convex belly of 90% or less. Any more than 90% and you’re not fishing. The closer you are to a straight line or 0% swing the better your chances of getting a fish.

A belly that looks like a J with the line pointing up stream does not fish. The fly is ripped through the water so fast the fish will not waste the energy chasing it.

My buddy Jeff Hickman explains this well.

“If your line is pointing up stream, you’re not in the game. If it’s pointing across the current, it’s a lottery. The further downstream it’s pointing, the better the odds.”

The lost zones

Most folks get a swing that fishes at some point during its progress across the river. Usually through the middle of the swing. The parts of the swing where the most trouble occurs are at the beginning and the end of the swing. I call these the lost zones. If you are catching all of your steelhead in the middle of your swing, this may be why. There are a couple of things you can do to help.

It starts with a good cast.

A good Spey cast delivers a nice tight loop which allows the entire system, fly, leader, head and running line to land on the water at the same time. When this happens, the swing is instantly under the angler’s control. A common problem is for the head to land on the water before the leader, fly and sink tip if you’re fishing skagit style. When this happens, the current takes the line downstream before the fly even lands. The J belly of over 90% is already in place when the angler gains control of the line.

The most common cause for this casting malfunction is wood chopper’s syndrome. That’s when the caster’s top hand moves forward during the casting stroke, creating a downward arch in the line. Remember, the casting stroke is powered by the bottom hand.

And then a good mend

In most cases, even when you’ve made a great cast, it still needs to be followed up by a good mend. A good mend is one where the entire head is realigned. If you’ve made a good cast and a good mend, your fly should be the part of the system which is farthest down stream.

Then you slow it down

The first part of the swing is always the most challenging. Your line is usually crossing swift current and the tendency is for the fly to move too quickly across the river. To slow the fly down, keep the tip of your rod held high and pointed straight across the current. As the fly swings down stream, lower the rod tip and draw the rod closer to your body then slowly start to turn it down stream. This will keep the fly moving at a slow and tempting pace in the fast water.

Leading it in

The end of the swing is another matter. There are a lot of steelhead to be caught on the hang down. The problem is that too many anglers never get the fly to them. A fly takes a surprisingly long time to reach the very end of the swing and it needs some help getting there.

Lead the fly into the soft water by pointing your rod tip toward the bank and touching it to the water. Be patient. It takes longer than you might think for it to make the journey. The best way to get a feel for it is to swing dry flies. When you see the dry fly on its course, you realize how aggressively you must lead the fly in and how long it takes.


Next time you’re swinging flies, pay close attention to the belly of your line. It will tell you a lot about whether or not your fly is actually fishing. Try a few of these techniques and see if you don’t catch more steelhead.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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9 thoughts on “Is Your Steelhead Fly fishing Or Just Swinging?

  1. Louis, Jeff in OR here,

    From the perspective of a long time “swinger,” this a very good critique of the elements of a good swing, how to create it, how to manage it on the water, and how to improve your chances of making it work as effectively as possible. Also, an important part of recognizing a good swing is to be able to recognize the elements of bad line position and therefore a bad swing and you explained that well.

  2. Awesome read thank you- I’ve been trying to improve my swing game and this helps. I do have a couple questions however.

    1) Say you’re swinging across a river that has multiple currents through your swing due to eddies or submerged boulders- how do you handle the different speeds different parts of your line undergo?

    2) When mending, do you find certain running lines work better than others? I’m currently using SlickShooter, and I love it for casting, but have a hard time mending it and the shooting head.

    • Thanks Louis. Great article! I enjoyed the read.


      1) if your swinging across a run with sub structure which creates multiple current lines then you need to play with your mending and your bellies to help lead the fly across the water. With eddies you may need to add a little belly into the line to help it move through the slower water, then throw a mend in to slow the fly down as it catches the main current line. Make sure to keep it moving at a consistent pace while the swings pulls out of the eddy incase you pull a follower out of the cushion or slick of the rock. What Louis explained above is very informative, well thought out, and well written. But, it goes over the most basic of swinging methods. Yes, you do get the majority of your grabs on a slow consistent swing. As you progress in your swinging style and start fishing more technical water you have to remember to fish the fly. Mend when it feels right to keep the fly moving at a good speed, lead the fly when it slows, or turn the fly broad side/ add a belly if you need a little help around structure.

      2) Try using the grip shooter 50 lb, The polly coating of the grip shooter adds a little weight to the upper section of the slick shooter running line which helps with the mending.

      Hope this helps. Not trying to step on any toes here at all. everyone has there own styles. Remember to fish the fly make a mental log of when the fish grabs. This is what I tell my guests. Just my two cents. its probably only worth one cent.

      • Thanks for the advice. I’m just starting out swinging so I have a lot to learn- appreciate it.

        Louis as always keep the phenomenal content coming!


  3. You hinted at one thing at the end of the article. The absolute best way to learn what your fly is actually doing is to fish a waking dry. The other benefit is you will start catching fish this way.

  4. hi guys,
    maybe its me or maybe its my english (I’m a french Canadian), but i’m having difficulty figuring out the J shape and L shape. First, The left-hand side of the river appears to have an observer who is facing downstream, so if i’m on the left bank, the stream flows from my right to left?

    why a say that? because if draw the explaination the wrong side the j Shape will L shape and vice versa!

    so breif, i dont understand! a grafic would be more than welcome, im a visual guy!

    thank you for your comprehention

  5. I’m still confused as per guylains comments

    “River left” is the left bank looking downstream.
    So the flow would be from right to left.
    (I think the article needs a small correction here)

    It comes from the boating/rafting world where you are floating downstream.
    I never liked the definition being an upstream dry fly guy, but
    came to adopt it as all white water guide books that describe river obstacles use this notation.

    I don’t understand the percentages. Angles would help me.
    It would be really great to have some pictures to go with the article.

    So the best swing is closest to a straight line?

    is that the gist of it?

  6. Pingback: Technik für Salmoniden: The Swing | Alpenforelle

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