Swinging for Steel
By Mike Verhoef
Even with the number of times I have seen a steelhead almost pull the rod out of a persons hand it still always reminds me of the favorite saying I heard a number of years back……”the swing is the thing but the tug is the drug”! Once this saying is passed on to the person who just experienced this memorable occasion it always puts a smile on their face, and then with a nod of their head in agreement, this saying is then etched in their memory for a life time. This scenario usually starts when I recommend putting on 12lb tippet immediately after they have pulled out their spool of 6 or 8lb. That is when the question is always asked, “why would we need that heavy of tippet for steelhead”, and then my usual response with a cautious smirk is “well let’s just hope you find out why”! Then the coaching session starts along with the setting of expectations which usually goes something like this. ”Well you see, when we swing a fly like this we are pursuing the active fish and when they decide to go after it they want to kill it and do so with extreme aggression and this is the reason for the 12 lb tippet!”
The set up one may use for swinging would ultimately depend on the size, depth and speed of the river system they intend to fish. That being said, usually a couple different set ups are preferred for the different situations one would encounter while pursuing steelhead around the great lakes. For single hand rods a 10’ 7 or 8 wt is ideal with a sink tip line or sinking poly leaders to go on the end of a wf line. Personally I have 3 set ups that easily cover any situation I may find myself in throughout the season. These set ups include an 11’ 7wt, a 12’6” 7/8 and a 13’9” 8/9 all with the appropriate matching shooting heads along with a variety of matching sink tips. If I was to choose one rod “to do it all” it would probably be my Gloomis 12’6” 7/8wt Stinger loaded with a 480 grn compact scandi shooting head and a few 14’ sink tips of different densities to go with it. Off the end of the sink tip is a 4-5’ length of 12 lb fluorocarbon with my fly of choice tied to it.
In the past few seasons my fly box has become a lot more compact. Actually I carry very little anymore when I head out for a day on the river. Once you have become comfortable with just swinging flies to pursue steelhead you need nothing more then a spool of tippet, nippers, a few sink tips and a fly box with a couple dozen flies. The fly box is broken down into 4 or 5 of my favorite patterns each in a couple different sizes, colours and weights. I have found having a pattern with just a little bit of weight on it can make the difference. This can be anything from a bead, a cone, a set of dumbbell eyes or simply some lead tied in around the shank. An example of this would be one of my favorite searching patterns, the purple marabou leech. When tying this pattern on a #2 streamer hook with just a ¼ inch hot orange bead for weight you can then simply wrap some lead around the shank immediately behind the bead and now have the exact same looking fly. Another example of this is with my most consistent pattern, a cone headed golden olive sculpin. By simply changing from a steel to a tungsten cone you can have the identical pattern in looks but now it is just a little heavier. This extra little bit of weight in certain situations will allow the fly to get into and stay in the zone a little longer without taking away from its look and action. A few of my other “go to” fly patterns would include a black egg sucking rabbit leech, a dark olive zuddler, and a variation of a full motion hex.
I have always liked to believe that steelhead are relatively easy to catch and will readily take a swung fly but the challenge is simply to find them and then even more importantly be able to properly present that swung fly in front of them. This is where and when your rod choice, sink tip selection, and your chosen fly all have to come together for success. If you are fortunate enough to have years of experience fishing a body of water then your set up selection is relatively easy as the number of outings with some trial and error have got you now to the point of simply yearning ‘the tug”! If this is not the case and you are in water that has never been blessed with your presence then some careful evaluation needs to happen before you even take the first cast. Once you have chosen what you think is the appropriate sink tip for the flow and depth of the water, the next and most important thing to consider is where you are located in the run. You then want to methodically plan out how you are going to work yourself through the entire section of water starting at the top end and literally “swinging” your way down through to the tail out. One of the most valuable things I have come to appreciate is that there is a fine line between having too heavy of a tip or too light. Taking the time to stop and put on the right tip for the specific situation can make all the difference between having a day on the water practicing your cast to satisfying your addiction to “the tug”.
I’m always surprised with the number of people I meet each year that have never spent much time swinging a fly for steelhead. This is usually because they were first introduced to nymphing and then found some success so they stuck with what had worked for them. They maybe had tried swinging a few times but after losing a fly or three and having no success they simply diverted back to their comfort of confidence. There is no doubt that swinging for steelhead can seem a little challenging and maybe even intimidating but actually when it is broken down and thought through it is a very simple and productive way to fish. Give it try the next time you are on the water chasing some steel and when that 8lb native chrome bullet decides to take your swung fly I guarantee that the tug you feel will turn into the drug you need the next time you hit the water!!