Swinging flies for winter steelhead

Last weekend, I holed up at winter steelhead cabin that’s every angler’s dream. The water runs just outside back door. There is sleeping space for friends, and there’s a private slide for adventurous boaters.

Rob’s friend Mariusz stayed with us, a spey casting champion and protector of some of the world’s greatest salmon runs for a conservation organization. He told stories about the amazing fishing on the Kola Peninsula for Atlantic Salmon, a species that actually eats swung flies. He talked about how hard it is to convince Russians to limit hatchery programs when our own systems are out of control in the U.S. Then, he stuffed two pretzel sticks up his nose and made a face so Rob can take a picture. He’s one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met.

That night I tied a half-dozen flies for swinging at winter steelhead the next day: yellow saddle hackles, hot-orange ostrich plumes, overlapping jungle cock eyes, and UV crystal flash, all clumped intruder style on a cut 7999 shank with a trailing hook. I call it the Porno-Prawn. Mariusz offered color combination suggestions. Rob heckled my sloppy methods.


In the morning, Rob braised chunks of lobster tail in Coors Light in a cast iron pan, hoping the giant prawns would transfer some crustacean mojo. Something about leggy sea-bugs appeals to my inner fish-brain.

We ate breakfast, and then jumped down the back steps to fish in the rain. I can’t emphasize enough how amazing it is to go directly from breakfast to fishing, putting on dry waders indoors, and then slipping outside into the river.

The river was a deep chalkboard green, clearing. Snow piled in pockets on the ground. No fish on the camp water, we packed up the rig and headed to the boat ramp.

At the first swing spot, the river was too high to wade, so we fished from the boat. I had the best sink tip for this spot, so I took the run. My spey casting from shore is passable. My spey casting from a boat? Ridiculous. But Mariusz was in the front of the boat with me, and he guided the rod after a couple flubs –he literally cast the rod with one hand, while I held it in both of mine. And the line flew out perfectly, the fly landing inches from the far bank. Spey casting champ… blah blah blah.

After working the run over a couple dozen times, we hooked a wild hen on a pink jig under a bobbicator, pulling it out of the water we’d just fished. Quickly landed and released.


Despite all the pretty spey casting and the jungle cock eyes, the fish wanted a dead drifted pink thing. We were the seventh boat through the run today, and the aggressive fish may have been picked up already.

But this outcome was actually very reassuring to my angler’s psyche.

I was fishing with the best steelhead fly tyer and the best spey caster I’d ever met. It was pretty clear to me that we were swinging as effectively as possible. And yet, nobody got a grab.


But we were in fact swinging over fish. We had a shot at catching some big chrome brute, every time we stepped through that run. And even more reassuring, we hooked and landed one. Steelhead lived here, and they do indeed bite!

Rob down below, swinging what looked like even better steelhead holding zone, hooked up with a couple trout and moved out of the run.

Following the routine, I ran through with the pink jig.

I’d brought my single-hand six weight for some reason, and quickly realized I picked the wrong rod.

A chrome wild hen jerked down the bobbicator, cartwheeled clear out of the water, and ran downstream. There was no butt on the rod. My dirty reel whined and wiggled loose in the seat while the fish jumped again and bucked. As I got it close to the boat, the fish cleared the water and sprayed us with a tail slap.

The sky turned black and rain poured into the valley. The sky cleared and a fresh dust of snow gleamed on a clear cut peak. Pacific Band-tailed pigeons wheeled and roosted in the trees above the river. Rob said there used to be so many of them in Tillamook, they looked like clouds in the sky.

We came to the last run of the day. The fish clearly wanted dead drifted offerings, yet we wanted to swing two handed rods. We were at an impasse. Rob steeled our resolve to continue swinging with a flask of Wild Turkey.

I fished through the run once without a grab, my giant spey rod weighing me down. My casts were getting sloppy (well, sloppier), the tailing loops tying knots in the leader. So I went off to shoot photos of the stinging nettles, cow parsnip, salmonberry – young growth starting underneath the hollow stalks of last year’s Japanese Knotweed invasion.

Mariusz and Rob methodically fished the run, and as we loaded back into the boat, a steelhead rolled a few feet from where the last cast.

If you’re swinging flies, you have to have some kind of suspension of disbelief. 99% of the time, it’s not going to work. But it always could! I’m reminded of a scene from the 1994 classic film, Dumb and Dumber, adapted below.

Me: I came a long way just to see you, Winter Steelhead. The least you can do is level with me. What are my chances to catch you on a swung fly?

Steelhead: Not good.

Me: You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?

Steelhead: I’d say more like one out of a million.


Me: So you’re telling me there’s a chance… *YEAH!*


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4 Responses to Swinging flies for winter steelhead

  1. Sam W. says:

    “Suspension of disbelief?” Could be that swinging flies has elements of ritual in the classic sense, a form of magical coercion that somehow benefits the Steelhead and his/her world. If some of us don’t do it, what becomes of our Steelhead?

  2. wags says:

    wish i could have been there…..

  3. Josh mills says:

    absolute ripper of a report/story. Felt like I was right there….

  4. Andy P says:

    Rob, you need more carp in your diet.

    Happy Holidays & Happy New Year!


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