The Steelhead Swing… How Deep?

by Jeff Putnam


After fly fishing for steelhead for over 30 years I have come to the conclusion that I really enjoy the feel of a steelhead taking a fly on the swing with no slack in the line or leader.

Swinging presentations can produce a violent slamming-tug that’s arm-wrenching and exciting, followed by a chrome bullet leaping into the air and cart-wheeling downstream as you count the turns of backing left on your reel and then decide that now might be a good time to start running after it. This is incredibly exciting fly fishing at its best!

As an avid spey steelheader I’m always trying to figure out how a steelhead thinks. I’d like to get into the brain of one to better understand their behavior. Why do they aggressively chase down a swung fly and sometimes act as if it’s not even there or worse they swim away as if they just saw a seal? Understanding the behavior piece of the puzzle is a large part of the fundamentals of steelheading. If we can learn more about their behavior and how it’s affected by numerous variables including water temps, light conditions, river flows, spawning, etc. then we’ll be able to adjust our equipment to these conditions and increase our chances of hooking these rare but highly prized fish. One of the most important factors to consider is the technique that we’re using.


When we use swinging presentation to present our fly, we have a habit of fishing the fly near the bottom thinking it is better because it will be closer to the fish making it easier for them to eat. On many personal occasions this has been proven to be just the opposite… even during cold winter steelhead trips.

During one particular fishing experience I was with a friend near my home in Sacramento in the dead of winter during the middle of the steelhead run. My friend had just returned from British Colombia where he was recommended by his guide to use floating lines and weighted flies. After taking a water temperature reading of 42 degrees he started the run using his standard 15’sinking tips and fished through it without a grab. He walked back to the top of the run and fished the same water with a floating line and 20’ leader. He managed to hook and land two adult winter-run Steelhead. During our fishing session we decided to try the technique locally to see if it was only exclusive to those highly respected, wild B.C. Fish that are known to chase down swung flies with aggression.

As we fished the first run I lead first using a Skagit Head with a 15ft Sink Tip Type 6 sinking tip making sure I was within contact of the bottom or close to it during every presentation. He followed me using a floating Scandi Head with a 20’ tapered mono leader. We both tied on the same size 6 black leeches for our fly. After moving through almost the entire run with my friend trailing me about 100 feet, he hooked up and I watched him land a beautiful 6 lb adult. We continued through to end of the run and he hooked one smaller fish around 5 lbs. while I caught nothing.

We learned a little more about swinging flies during that day on the water. Since then we have tested the method on many rivers for over 12 years with no question that it’s very successful and sometime more productive. The main reason for this might be that many of the Steelhead that are willing to swim after a fly tend to be the hottest fish in the river. These aggressive fish are not resting near the bottom but instead are usually suspended just off the bottom up to the middle of the water column. Resting fish, near the bottom are there to seek refuge from faster currents or they’re escaping from something and hiding. Usually fish like this are not thinking about eating or wanting to swim after a fly.

The key to fishing this method is using a leader that can turn over a weighted fly. My equipment selection for this method is usually a powerful leader like a RIO VersiLeader in 10’ length with 5-6 feet of 12 lb. RIO Steelhead/Salmon Tippet. I’ll also use a 15’ RIO Steelhead/Atlantic Salmon Leader in 12lb test attached to a 4’-5‘- 40 lb butt section of RIO Saltwater Shock Tippet. This heavy nylon butt section helps in turning over the leader and weighted fly. The overall length of this leader system will allow the fly to drop fairly deep and quick when needed.

The flies that I usually use but are not restricted to are tube flies that I tie using heavy drop weights and sleeves to increase the weight of the fly to around 10-20 grains. I like a fly that is sparsely tied for sinking quickly, added movement and ease of casting.

By using a long mono leader you can easily get a 20 grain fly down 8-12’ in medium speed current. Another benefit to not using a sink tip is the added enjoyment of fighting a fish that is connected to the angler with the lightest amount of weight in the line. Be sure to give this technique a try on your next steelhead trip to enjoy the feel and finesse of fishing a floating line.