Primer: Swinging big nasty flies for winter steelhead

This is part two of Jay’s winter steelhead technique primer.

Jay Nicholas Swinging Flies for Steelhead

Swing traditional and leech flies. Traditional steelhead patterns catch winter steelhead like they have for decades, so you don’t have to throw out your Green Butt Skunks, Polar Shrimps, or Thor flies and replace them all with Intruders or Leech-style flies.

That said, big nasty flies like Intruders, Pick-Yer-Pocket, MOAL Leeches, and big-ass marabou and rabbit-strip flies are the latest rage. These flies often present a profile that is 2x – 4x larger than a traditional #2 steelhead fly. These big flies are intended to trigger a grab in cold water from fish that might otherwise just ignore a fly passing several feet away.

Jay Nicholas Swinging Flies for Steelhead

Big Intruder and Leech style flies range from blacks and purples to pinks and oranges. Everyone seems to have his or her favorite color combination for high and low water; bright and cloudy days; cold water, and so on. These flies do catch winter steelhead and an arm-wrenching grab to one of these beauties will create a life-long memory.

Big steelhead leeches may or may not be weighted, and there’s a reason to carry both types of flies. Some of the winter steelhead fishing we do is in slow moving, 3-foot deep water. In this water, a sink-tip line alone will be sufficient to present the fly at optimum depth, but a heavily weighted fly would hit bottom and stay there. On the other hand, if we want to put a fly 6 feet deep in fast water at the head of a hole and swim it through a boulder patch, we probably need to fish a stoutly weighted leech on a fast-sinking tip. Link to poly leaders or T-14 here?

Can the swung fly be more effective than the dead-drifted fly? You bet. Consider the challenge of trying to cover gravel-bottomed runs that are fifty yards wide and two hundred yards long. Two or three steelhead could be laying anywhere out there. No obvious sweet spots to concentrate on. Big, open rivers and runs are best suited to prospecting with the swinging fly. You can cover a lot of water systematically. Cast, swing, two steps; cast, swing, step; repeat until you get a pull.

Jay Nicholas Swinging Flies for Steelhead

That’s it. That’s the short version of the primer I gave my friend on the joys of dead drifting and swinging flies for winter steelhead Soft takes. Savage grabs. Nine-inch Intruders and Leeches. Size #14 nymphs. Tube fly hooks. Marabou and Ostrich. Barred rabbit-strips. Blah, blah, blah. We’ll see if he gives it an honest try.

Jay Nicholas

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6 Responses to Primer: Swinging big nasty flies for winter steelhead

  1. Rob R says:

    Your wide-open approach to steelhead fishing (and salmon fishing)–embracing it all–is the product of your immense experience. And your innate optimism. It seems like the more you fish for salmon and steelhead, the more confidence you gain–the more you believe that fish are capable of almost anything.

    It reminded me how narrow my perspective was when I started…made me think of my interactions with crazy Mike Maxwell. Mike nymphed while he swung. Each cast was upstream, with a big mend, a couple more stacks as the fly dead-drifted , then a gentle swing to the hang down. That clashed with my narrow understanding of a what made a good swing. I’d been taught the 45-degree downstream swing, period. Nymphing required a different set of tools and techniques in my mind. I had written him off as a very entertaining nut-case. But I was entrenched in beliefs based on very little actual experience. Pete Soverel, one of my gurus when I was getting started, explained my judgement of Mike with a simple warning: “Ignore your guide at your own peril.” His point: Mike knew his river(s), and his fish.

    Mike got so frustrated watching float fishermen (bobbers with spinning tackle or center-pins) come in behind him and catch every fish in the pool, that he finally broke down and added the dead-drift to his swing. He’d swing stonefly nymphs with a spey rod, but he’d nymph them first. All in the same cast.

    Skagit lines are 20′ to 30′ bobbers. With a weighted fly, these lines allow a significant amount of depth-control through the swing. The more weight the fly has, the more effective this two-for-one strategy can be. To your point, weighted flies won’t finish the swing in soft water. So here we can add a third technique: the strip. Since I’ve added the strip to help me through the slow stuff, I’ve had some great grabs. No steelhead to the bank yet, but get this: multiple kings! So it’s a matter of time before the strip has a run of success with steelies and is totally validated.

    This has been a long-winded way of saying that we are at a point in the evolution of tackle & technique where nymphing, swinging and stripping can completely merge…and maybe I can start leaving the bobber rod at home? Nah!

  2. Jay Nicholas says:

    Nah is right. Get this — the strip has been validated big time, on the North Umpqua, many years ago. My friend Stan Davis told me about his experience following people swinging flies through a run, doing the same himself, and then pondering what to do next.

    Being a solid king salmon fisher, and having no reason to not do so, Stan spooled up a type IV shooting head and a small boss fly. He then proceeded to chuck the rig into the water, let it hang down, and then do the little chinook salmon strip.

    Tug city! Not once. Several times. Not one day, several days and several pools.

    So, my friend, you can believe that the steelhead strip, sooner or later will produce for you.

    In my case, I have caught both summers and winters on the strip too. But not because I was trying to. It was the old – swing the fly, let it hang down, wait, wait some more, pause, and then start pulling in line as fast as I could to set-up for another cast. Twenty or so feet into the retrieve, with the fly going at Mach-three, eatage occurred. Go figure.


  3. banknote says:

    Stripping is a great way to extend the swing through soft “hang down” water and tanky insides that are generally excruciating to fish through completely. I’ve also had success with it in super slow pools that would have taken an hour to complete ten normal swings through, allowing me to cover way more water and find more fish. Much like the business end of a whip, the fly will move much faster than your stripping hand, so a very slow, sustained strip results in just the right swing speed through the pool. It’s important to significantly lead the fly to get it to swing across, rather than move upstream against the current. And it works with skaters, too!

  4. rene says:

    good day
    would it be possible to have fiew fly patters for steek head intruder

    thank you

  5. Steve says:

    Where can I buy some of those intruders pictured above?

  6. fred in eagle point says:

    solid, man. way solid… ;>)
    thank you!

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