Swinging flies for steelhead is one of the toughest ways to catch them- especially winter steelhead. It’s similar to the comparison of archery hunting and rifle hunting; archery hunting is the “hard way” to do it. Sure there are easier ways to catch steelhead, like a jig and a bobber- I did some of that when I was a kid and caught tons of steelhead. Getting steelhead on the swung fly is a challenge but it’s also so rewarding. Feeling that tug on the end of the line with not just any fish- a special fish with an attitude that decided to move to the swung fly and eat it. That’s exhilarating and if you are wired just so- totally worth it!
Throughout this last winter I’ve seen some heart breaking losses that didn’t have to happen. Some “really close- almosts” and some complete screw ups! These are things you don’t want to have happen to you. Hopefully you can learn from these mistakes and save yourself some heartbreak on those precious steelhead encounters.
It all starts with the grab. This is when you first feel the existence of a finned critter out there in the sea of river green that is messing with your fly. John was a new steelheader and swinging flies for steelhead was a lifelong dream. Being an archery hunter for elk he understood the challenge. Over and over we reminded him not to “trout set” (that’s when you feel a fish you instantly yank-common for trout or bass fishing). We went over what the most probable steelhead encounter would be like. Expect a soft tug, a pull on the line, different that when your fly grabs a rock. Expect 2-3 of these pulls before it comes tight we told him. When you feel it get heavy then put a bend in the rod. Bend it towards the bank we said.
John got the grab, a good one. It started with a soft pull, text book; followed by another and then the rod loaded with a couple heavy thumps. John kept his cool – but never reacted. After the heavy, steady pulls and about 8′ of line disappearing the fish simply was gone. John never bent the rod towards the bank to seal the deal.
Another angler anxious to get his first spey rod steelhead swung and swung and swung, finally towards the end of the day the rod thumped twice and line started to peel off the reel only to abruptly stop and go slack when his reel handle got stuck on his open pocket. Uuugghh!
Same guy the next day gets another great grab from an aggressive fish but unfortunately gives the rod a hard yank straight upstream pulling the fly out of it’s mouth.
Finally, the third day same guy hooks a big chrome steelhead in the mid-teens. This fish is a brawler that fights like a prize fighter. It ran upstream into the backing all the way to the next pool! Finally getting it back down to the main pool the fish was starting to tire. It came up on its thick chrome side, looking tired. I reminded him, “he hasn’t seen me with the net, get ready for another run!” That’s exactly what the fish did but the new steelheader thought he was “tired” and held the line. The rod snapped back with a whipping sound as the 15lb tippet broke! Ouch!
Another angler swinging through a deep tailout felt the sharp yank of an aggressive fish followed by a long pause. He wisely kept calm and kept swinging. Somewhere between 5 seconds and an eternity later the fish committed and grabbed the fly with enthusiasm bucking the rod hard only to find it go instantly slack. “What happened?” a confused angler asked. A quick look at the reel told the story where the running line had caught on the reel handle.
Working into a deep pool the angler cast, swing, stepped his way towards the sweet spot where the water got deep enough you couldn’t see the bottom. Right before getting to it we saw an aggressive chrome fish roll on the surface. Whoah! That’s a good sign. The next cast the fish slammed the fly and ripped off line. Unfortunately the reel went into full backlash mode as the drag went from perfect to zero! The fish was quickly lost. That was clearly a good time for a new reel!
The stories go on and on of how opportunities are lost. Don’t let your next adventure be a mis-adventure. Pay close attention to the details and get more steelhead!