Swinging Flies for Steelhead

Any normal person who witnesses our lives as a Steelhead Angler would say we're crazy.


For some, swinging flies is just a phase. It’s something new and different to try. For others, it’s become a passion and addiction which consumes our life. Normal people look at us and and say we’re crazy!

Steelhead Anglers who swing flies, are well, pretty crazy. Only “crazies” will wade in a freezing river while making Spey cast after Spey cast with one hope: to find a player and entice it to chase and attack our fly.

Swinging flies for Steelhead isn’t for the faint of heart. Swinging flies takes patience and persistence. You also need to have confidence and what I would call, “Mental Toughness.” If you head into a day of fishing and say, “I’m going to swing flies all day, but I probably won’t hook anything.” Well, you are probably right. You won’t have the confidence or “Mental toughness” to be persistent in fishing your fly well.   Over the years, I have guided clients on the swung fly for Steelhead. I see many Anglers who believe swinging flies is a “just cast out there and hang on.”   There is more to swinging a fly. It’s an art form in which the canvas is always changing. Steelhead fishing on the Pere Marquette doesn’t come easy, so swinging a fly only makes the job more difficult.   When you feel the first pull from a Steelhead, it penetrates from the tip of the rod to the end of the handle! Your fish rips through the water like heat seeking missile! It’s a reward hard to put in writing. It’s hard to explain in words the whole scenario of hooking a Steelhead on the swing, it all happens so fast.   I can explain it this way: It’s the closest you will ever come to reaching down in that pool, and grabbing that fish with your bare hands!

Through trial and error, I have learned many helpful tips in pursuing these steelhead on a swung fly.   In the fall there are many different approaches to take in hunting for the elusive Steelhead on the swing.

streamer box

“Heavy Hurts“

In the past, Great Lakes Steelhead methods have called for getting the fly right on the bottom where the fish are.   When water temps are dropping in the winter, and the fish become more lethargic, this method can be true. For Swinging flies in the fall, you don’t need to worry about being right on the bottom. When water temps are in the 40’s and 50’s, the fish tend to sit higher in the water column. These fish are fresh and way more aggressive. Fishing deep can hurt you. Being on the bottom means you’re fishing under the fish. The Jackpot with swinging flies is the HIT or GRAB. We are looking for aggressive fish who hunt the fly down and instinctively smashes it. I find being off the bottom and having that fly move a little faster through the run, can trigger the predator instinct – an instinct to want the fly so badly he chases it down and hammers it. With that in mind, run a lighter tip and fly. There is no need to weight the fly. Let it swim and hang on.

“Flashy or Dull”

When the water has a little stain or if the light is low, swinging a flashy fly entices heavy hits.   I like to run a little flash, but too much flash can be too much. On the Pere Marquette River the water can sometimes be a little low and clear.   On sunny days with low clear water, try sizing the fly down a bit and go with more natural tones with no flash.

“A Player”

When fishing a run on the Pere Marquette or any small river, if you get the pull but the fish doesn’t commit to the fly don’t give up. You have a player. Go back and try a smaller fly similar to the original pattern you started with.   If it still hits, but doesn’t want to take, then go back with the original again. Usually that’s all it takes.  Stay on that fish. Don’t give up. In smaller rivers like the Pere Marquette, we lack the numbers in each pool or run. So your one player, is worth working over until you get it. I don’t recommend spending all afternoon on one player, but be persistent and mix it up a bit.

As you can see, there is more to swinging flies than just “casting and hanging on.”  Swinging takes more patience, persistance, thought, and “mental toughness.”   You will find it to be one of the most rewarding ways to pursue Steelhead.