Thursday, September 6, 2012

Swinging Flies for Salmon River Steelhead - Introduction

I got into swinging flies to get away from fishing the bottom so I haven't used any extremely heavy tips or  T-material. I feel that if i do my job, the player Steelhead that wants my fly will come and smash it, no need to take it down to their nose. That being said I'm not just hucking it out there and hoping for the best. I know the odds are against me with this approach, but it's the way I choose to play the game.  Seems right to me since I am going to release them anyway. Flounder fishing, now that's another story!!

I understand that with this approach, I won't be able to target all the different types of water on the Salmon River and that's ok with me. I don't view all of the water as "swinging water" anyway. Is it possible to try and cover all the water....sure. Is it the best use of your time while on the water? I don't think so when it comes to spey fishing and swinging flies in the Salmon River. That is just my opinion since I view the spey rod as a specific tool.

Personally, if I did want to fish deeper I would switch to a mono leader and a weighted fly. That might be a metal tube of some sort, maybe a conehead streamer type fly, or a shank style fly with the shank wrapped with tungsten sheeting or non-lead wire. The casts may not be that pretty, but it will get the job done.  Controlling the presentation and the positioning of the fly with a mono leader has it's advantages too. If you haven't tried it, even during winter, you might be pleasantly surprised.

One of the first things to understand about swinging flies in the Salmon River is that the speed of the fly or speed of the swing is critical. If the fly is swinging too fast most steelhead won't make an effort to chase it down since it will take too much energy. Too slow and the fly probably won't look enticing enough to get the "smash and grab" reaction. Obviously there are a number of factors that dictate what the perfect speed of the swing would be. Time of year, water temp, water flow, water clarity, and many other things come into play and keep this game interesting.

In order to control the speed of the fly we must understand the area we are fishing, and especially where the fish are holding. Once we have an idea of these two things it is then possible to make the cast to a specific area. Once the cast is made, upstream mends or downstream mends will need to be employed. Don't get in the habit of making the cast on the same angle and making the same mend over and over again. Think of yourself as the fly on the end of your line, and remember, you're also the puppeteer. Bringing this fly to "life" and making it look "alive" is the goal. This takes some time to learn and the best way to learn is spending time on the water.

Going to a local stream with a single hand rod and a good sized, bright streamer is a good way to visually learn what the fly is doing, and what it will do in different current types. Don't worry about catching fish, focus on making short casts at various angles and apply different mends to the line and watch how the fly "swims." When you have a good grasp on what is happening in close, you will have a better understanding of what your fly is doing when it is 30ft-60ft away. Then you will be able to focus on other things, and the various mends that need to be applied will start to become second nature.

Presentation of the fly is also one of the main factors for success when swinging flies for Salmon River Steelhead. The fly is important as well, but if it isn't presented the way the Steelhead would like, it doesn't matter what the fly is or who tied it. Learn to "listen" to what the Salmon River tells you. This past season the water was low for most of the year so there wasn't as much flow or push. The standard down and across swing wasn't working that good and needed to be tweaked. The fly was moving too slow, so employing a downstream mend helped speed up the fly. It also presented the fly broadside to the Steelhead rather than tail first. Higher, faster water can often require the opposite actions. Pay attention to the river and adjust accordingly. Don't be afraid to experiment a little as well. Just because it worked last season doesn't mean it's going to work the same way next season. Heck, just because it worked yesterday doesn't mean it's going to work tomorrow.

Fly selection is also a factor when swinging flies for Salmon River Steelhead. The nice thing about fly selection is that it can be very personal and it can lead to confidence if things aren't working out the way we would like. This doesn't mean that your favorite fly is going to catch a fish every time you put it on the end of your line though. What it does mean is that if you don't know what to use or nothing seems to be working, put on your favorite fly and present it as best as you can. Over thinking and second guessing yourself will only make things more frustrating.

One of the best ways to figure out what flies to use or to have with you while fishing is to take a look at what Steelhead could possibly be eating while they spend their time in Lake Ontario and while they are in the Salmon River. There are numerous types of baitfish in Lake Ontario such as Alewife, Rainbow Smelt, Three Spined Sticklebacks, Gobies, and many others. Steelhead will also feed on invertebrates while in Lake Ontario. While in the Salmon River they can feed on various minnows such as Sculpins, Shiners, and Dace. They can also feed on various nymphs and Crayfish, as well as eggs from spawning Chinooks, Coho's, and Brown Trout. 

Now that we have a basic idea of what Salmon River Steelhead could be feeding on we can start to put a selection of flies together. Personally, I like to have some minnow imitations and I always have a few Crayfish type patterns in my box. These don't have to be anatomically correct imitations, but they should be tied with materials that move well in the water and help suggest life. Some should be tied with natural colors and others should be tied with bright, attractor colors. I like my minnows and Crayfish to be in the 2"-3" range so they are not too big and not too small. Just a nice sized mouthful. Sometimes I will add an egg to the pattern for an attractor, similar to how an egg is incorporated into and Egg Sucking Leech.

I don't carry any single eggs or the standard nymphs with me while swinging. Typically, these food items are dead drifting in the current and don't have any or much power to swim against the current. Swinging them would look un-natural to Salmon River Steelhead, similar to how a bowl of plastic apples looks fake to us.  Can you put on a mono leader and add a strike indicator/line indicator to fish eggs and nymphs with a spey rod? Sure you can do it, but it's alot more fun to have a 10lb plus steelhead completely smash your fly and literally rip the line out of your hand!!

Classic flies such as Spey Flies, Dee Flies, and Married Wing Salmon Flies will also get the attention of Salmon River Steelhead.  Although they may be tougher to tie and take more time to tie than most of the "standard" swinging flies, they are well worth the effort. Spey patterns such as the Lady Caroline and Grey Heron have gained some popularity due to their success on the Salmon River.  I haven't heard too much about Dee Flies from other anglers, but from my own personal experience, the Balmoral Dee has earned a spot in my box. 

Not many spey fishers are trying Married Wing Salmon Flies either.  I can understand why since they are very tough to tie and many people view them as "works of art" rather than "working flies." However, they do work and they do not have to be works of art to be good working flies.  Exotic materials do not have to be used either.  This past season, the Married Wing fly below(picture taken after it had been fished) did just as good as my other flies, and on one afternoon, it did much better than I thought.

Hopefully this little write up gives you a basic understanding of my thought process when it comes to swinging flies for steelhead in the Salmon River, NY.  Obviously there is more than one way to skin a cat or in this case, more than one way to swing up a Steelhead, so do your research and pick a method that will give you confidence while on the water. 


  1. I am always pleasantly surprised and entertained to stumble upon blogs with the content and character of yours. Best of luck up north this fall and try to enjoy that long drive back to work...

  2. What's your preferred Spey hook size? Standard hook size??

    1. Alec Jackson Size 1.5, 5, and 3, Blue Heron Hook Size #2 and #3. For standard up eye hooks Size 1 and smaller down to a size 6

  3. I know you may not want to disclose the info but I was going to make a trip out to the SR tomorrow and was hoping someone could suggest a really good swinging section of the river.