There’s something about the repetition of waiting for that first tug on the fly line. Of the power of that pull and excitement of trying not to lose a downstream screaming fish. The blood is pumping, as the fish goes into the backing, and you struggle to get closer to shore to follow the fish. You are thinking – Are there any fly fishing tips to assure that I land this fish?
You finally slow the fish down and begin to make some ground. After 10 minutes, you have the huge steelhead within viewing distance below you. As you bring it up closer, it makes one last surprise run and spits the fly.
Shit….shit…..shit – The feeling of disappointment is powerful. You won’t forget about that fish until you get your next opportunity to hook into one. That’s steelheading. Here are a few more first steelhead stories to get you fired up.
The wet fly swing is about the pull. The power. The pleasure of hooking…… and landing a steehead. It’s about standing in a run for an hour as you watch the sun rise over the cliff and feel that first warmth of morning. It’s about getting up at 4:30 am to be ready for the first fish or skipping dinner because you had to be in that evening run. It will become a passion.
There are different methods for steelhead fishing. There’s indicator fishing, nymphing, and sinking lines with large flies, along with others. But, the most common, easiest and most enjoyable is the wet fly swing.
I will walk you through this technique and provide a few tips to remember that will help you catch more fish.
The technique is super simple. I’ll get into the terminal tackle at a later point, but want you to understand the technique first. This link does a good job of summarizing some of the key points to remember:
November 2020 – I updated this blog post to include a few links to recent steelhead podcasts we produced at the Wet Fly Swing Podcast. We have over 40 hours of steelhead content from some of the greatest steelheaders in the world.
How to Read Steelhead Water
The Water – The first part of catching fish is finding the right water. Look for water in the 3 to 6 foot depth range that flows at a pace of a walk. Also known as a glide. Not to fast and not so slow. Fish will be holding in and around areas where there is broken water. Places where there is a break in the current is key. This is not always easy to see since the obstructions are below the surface. You need to either fish the water to find these buckets, watch someone else hook fish or pay a guide to take you out.
How to Swing Flies for Steelhead
The Technique – The wet fly swing is implemented by casting downstream and across the river at a 45 degree angle. After making a cast, it’s good to make one mend to get your fly in proper presentation and speed. As the fly swings across the water, keep your rod tip low and follow the fly across as it goes towards the hang down (End of the run.)
After in the hang down, allow the fly to sit there for a few seconds as fish will strike occasionally. Take a step or two downstream and repeat the same cast. it is in this fashion that you cover a run systematically. You can easily spend an hour or more casting and stepping your way down.
Although we focus on swinging here, many of the tips also apply to nypmhing.
The Fly and Line – This technique uses a floating line with a steelhead pattern. You can also use many different sinking lines, but my preference is the floating line when applicable (sun off the water).
I like to use small flies in the #6 and #8 range tied sparsely. Steelhead have amazing vision even in low light condtions so don’t be afraid to go small. Now, let’s get into a few tips that will help you land that next fish.
10 Steelhead Fly Fishing Tips
1) Stay on a hot fish – a tip or tap is a steelhead
A common mistake people make when swinging flies for steelhead is not recognizing the tips and taps of a steelhead plucking your fly. Make no mistake, these are steelhead and you should spend time working that fish.
If you get a tip, put the same cast back to the fish. Take a few steps upstream and work back over that fish. Jack Mitchel was on the Wet Fly Swing Podcast and talked about covering the heads and tails in the winter. So, instead of spending all day in one run, just hit the top and ends where most migrating fish are holding.
2) Spend more time on the buckets
Once you begin to figure out the runs and start hooking fish, you will find that steelhead hold in the same water year after year. Remember those runs and concentrate your efforts on those buckets as you fish the larger run.
Try giving it an extra cast or two in those hot spots before moving down. Is there a little ledge that always holds fish – spend more time at this spot. One of the greatest steelheaders in history, Trey Combs was our guest on the podcast where he reinforced this by noting that you should learn every square inch of the run down to the pebble.
3) Bow to the Steelhead
When you get your next pull from a steelhead on a swung fly, “bow to the fish” before anything else. Just as you would take a bow after giving a performance, do it for the chromer. This will allow the fish to take your fly and will avoid pulling it from the mouth of the powerful sea-run trout.
4) Use a Proven Pattern
Find out what a good proven pattern is for the river you are fishing. You can experiment with new flies when you have the river dialed in. But, when starting out, talk to someone to find out what pattern is good. Here is a link to some good patterns.
5) Let the Fish Run
Remember that you have a lot of backing on your reel and you shouldn’t freak out when the fish is taking a huge run. If you have to, follow the fish downriver to keep up with it.
6) Patience, Persistence, and Passion
These key attributes are key for steelhead fly fishing. There are times when fishing will be slow and understanding this should help you get through these long periods. The fish of a thousand casts. You are not alone.
7) Find a Mentor
If you want to save a lot of time finding fish, find someone who has the skills. You could stop by your local fly shop to see if there is some knowledge to pick up there. If you have extra money, paying a guide will obviously help. Look for my link to a map with fly shops around the world. Send an email here to request it.
8) Start in close
A mistake many anglers make is walking over the water in close. Before you wade out across the run, make a few casts in close and swing it through. After covering the close in water, work out to a distance that allows you to cover the outside part of the holding water.
9) Sharpen Your Hook and Check Knots
You may put in hours of time swinging flies, before getting than one hook up. You need to make sure not to miss the opportunity, so keep your hooks sharp. An easy way to check is every once in a while, drag the point of your hook across your fingernail in a perpendicular fashion. If it slides easily, you should sharpen your hook.
A sharp hook will catch and carve into your fingernail slightly.
If there is a wind not or frayed leader, fix your leader. These are weak points that will break with time.
10) Use an Open Clinch Knot
This knot is a must when swinging flies for steelhead. As the name suggests, it’s an open loop and give the fly more action. Another benefit of the open clinch – it avoids turning your fly at a 90 degree angle to the knot. Use it and you will catch more fish.
What to expect from Wet Fly Swing
I will be sharing success stories from around the world so you can gain some insight on what you’re getting into.
I remember the first steelhead I landed on a fly rod like it was yesterday. How about you? Send me a message here if you have a first steelhead (or atlantic salmon) story and I’ll share it with the community.
The first steelhead that I landed was on a fish that my dad had hooked. After a short time, my dad looked at me and asked if I wanted to land the fish – As an experienced 10 year old trout fisherman, I said you bet. I would never forget that moment. Even after taking long steelhead breaks up until my 20’s, I always had that story in my mind. It would be a number of years until I got addicted to steelhead.
My vision for the WetFlySwing.com is to create a healthy online community for people who want to learn about steelhead fly fishing.
It is for the beginner to fly fishing. It is for the fly fisher who has spent his life fishing for other species, and it’s about the traditional fisherman who are ready for another challenge.
I will be providing tips and tools, resources and relevant information, expert interviews and ideas to help develop your skills. I hope you have time to join the community and catch more steelhead.
What to expect from Me
I know how difficult steelhead fishing can be. I’ve been in that steelhead run for hours on end, with nothing to show for it other than a tired arm. That’s steelhead fishing. If you added up the time spent casting vs fish landed, I’m guessing it’s up there with the most challenging of fish to target.
I want to help cut through your learning curve, connect with a community who can help and save you time and $ along the way.
I will be covering every aspect of steelhead fly fishing, from fly tying to rod building. From expert interviews to video tutorials. I will be an equal part curator and original content. I hope this becomes the ultimate online steelhead resource for you.
You should now have a feel for swinging flies for steelhead and have a few tips to help you get started. I want you to get started today. Plan out your next step in preparing for a steelhead trip. Read more content on my site here to prepare then get out and start practicing. If you are experienced then tell me what your next trip is.
Life is short, so don’t spend it living someone else’s dream (Steve Jobs). It’s your time to shine and get connected. If you need a few more steehead fly fishing tips, leave a comment below and get some help. If you liked this article, click on the button below to get tips delivered to your inbox.
And if you’re interested in the right spey rod for steelhead, Click here to see the Echo Spey Rod that has helped me drastically improve my spey cast and find more steelhead at a super reasonable cost (You also get a free spey line if you pickup the Echo Spey). By the way, the link above is an affiliate link, which means I earn a commission if you do end up purchasing through that link. It’s at no extra cost to you, and please if you have any questions related to this product, please let me know and I’d be happy to answer them for you.
Grab the Steelhead Tips PDF Quick Guide Here
These are the Best Steelhead Tips from our Podcast Guests!