Why I Swing Flies for Steelhead

For the last 4 or 5 years, when it came to catching Steelhead on a fly I have been 100% committed to swing-only fishing. To be honest, for a long time I was doing it just because it seemed like a badass way to fish for them, and after catching fish using indicator rigs I figured I needed something a bit more challenging. Then somewhere in the middle of that commitment I met some guys that were far more adamant about swing-only fishing with the reasoning that it was a more sporting and traditional way of going about it. That made a lot of sense to me too. Soon, I too became adamant that if I was fly fishing for Steelhead, it would be with a swung fly.

Now, there are all manner of arguments to get into about ethics and fishing practices, but I really don’t want to get in to that here. What I’d like to talk about is a revelation I recently had about my commitment to the sport, and why in the future I plan to be more adamant about the way I fish and the way others with me do as well.

Today, swinging flies is often considered to be a challenging way of actually catching Steelhead. However if we look back a few decades, that was the only option for the fly angler, and although it certainly took more time and patience than the gear chucking crowd, the swung fly was an effective summertime presentation. Jumping back to the present, the equipment and tackle the fly angler has at their disposal makes the swung fly a viable and effective option year-round. With compact shooting heads and standardized sink tips, rods that can cast them, and flies that elicit an aggressive response, an angler who wants to swing flies can, and should.

So swinging flies is deemed less effective these days, and a common refrain on the banks of any river might sound something like “well swinging has been pretty slow lately…caught two nymphing though!”. Catching fish is great, and I’m not the guy who will walk up and tell you to stop what you’re doing because I disagree with it. But I do have a few things to point out.

I truly believe that swinging flies can always be an effective method of fishing for steelhead, particularly in waters with a healthy run of Wild fish. So when fishing gets slow,  I have the opinion that there just are not many fish around. And when there aren’t many fish around, I don’t feel a need to put pressure on as many as I can. Because those few fish are probably the most important of them all. If you take a look at run counts up and down the coast, I think that is a pretty fair assumption to make. Keeping that in mind, if you can go out and catch 5 using another technique to my 1 on a swung fly, I feel that it is too easy to forget that our runs of fish are not doing well. Go swing a fly for a week straight and tell me the runs are doing just fine. I’ll wait.

My point isn’t to chastise someone for fishing differently than me, but to insert the idea that maybe swinging flies is what we all need to truly understand the weight of the situation. Our runs are tanking, and if we don’t do something positive to change that soon these fish may not be around for much longer.

Swinging flies with one hand or two is in my opinion the most fun and relaxing way that an angler can spend a day on the water. You can feel the river around you, have the time to enjoy your surroundings, and if you put your time in to become an effective angler you will catch plenty of fish. But you’ll have slow days, slow seasons even, and that should serve as a reminder that we need to take every chance we can to do right by these fish. Whether that’s handling them properly, or becoming involved with the numerous organizations fighting for our wild and  native fish.

I now realize that my passion for Spey casting and swinging flies has a purpose, and that is far more than to be the guy making a pretty cast or holding a fish with my spey rod in the back ground. The purpose is catching fish and doing what I love most, while still holding myself accountable and doing my part to make as little impact on a dwindling resource as possible. I believe that if more and more of us make that stand, then one day we might all have the chance for some truly epic days of fishing that don’t require questionable ethics.


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