Why I Swing for Steelhead
By Dax Messett
Every angler has a choice as to how they go about catching a steelhead, and needs to understand that they have personally have a direct impact on the resource. I choose to swing flies for wild winter steelhead for many reasons. I like standing in the river, making a cast, and attempting to catch my own fish. That last part doesn’t happen all that much when you are swinging flies, and thats ok. Of all the reasons I swing flies for steelhead, the most important one is because I catch less of them compared to all other methods. That may not make sense to a lot of people, so I’ll try to explain.
Most people out there would presume that you go steelhead fishing with the primary goal and mindset to actually catch a fish. After all, fishing is defined as “The activity of catching fish, either for food or as a sport”. So I understand why most people wonder how a swing angler can have a fulfilling experience even when they don’t encounter a steelhead, which is a regular occurrence. Furthermore, every other method of angling tends to be far more successful for catching steelhead than swinging flies.
When discussing winter steelhead in particular, the encounter rate is even less likely to happen than in summer/fall steelhead angling. This is true for all anglers. Why? There are less of them, they can be harder to locate, and the weather and river conditions are much more unpredictable than they are in the summer and fall seasons.
On top of these aspects that are beyond our control, you need to dedicate a significant amount of time, dedication, and reasonable expense for any hope of success in the undertaking. Homework, you gotta do your homework. The R&D is actually one of my favorite parts of the game. You need to learn which rivers to target, how/where to access them, and when to go. A reasonable understanding of the tides is also an often under-looked, but very important part of the game.
Oh yeah, then there is that whole spey casting factor that you need to address. What line is best for this rod, what tip should I put on, what should be my leader length? Where do I stand, how do I cast this thing? Where do I cast it, how do I fish it? What fly? The list goes on, with ample opportunity to second guess the few things that you can actually control. This is the game, it’s not for everyone, and I love every part of it. Homework has never been so much fun.
Even after all of that careful research and planning, you may end up flying/driving/hiking/floating to a river system that ends up being, or very soon to be totally blown out and unfishable. Sometimes your hall pass from the family dictates when you can go, so thats when you should go. If you try to time everything perfectly for winter fishing, you will never go, and end up just reading reports by crazed steelheaders who are actually going fishing…even though the truly dedicated ones usually only share their hard earned info with other deranged winter Spey anglers.
Then there are times you encounter what seems to be great conditions with perfect flows, river color, weather, tides, and ocean conditions…but the river is simply barren of fish. Regardless of method, no one can catch what isn’t there. The fact is, there are less fish, with more anglers utilizing increasingly more effective techniques. Winter steelhead do in fact move quite aggressively to the swung fly, until they are already caught multiple times on their way upriver by much more successful angling techniques.
Most of us do it because we enjoy the whole angling experience and the focus on moments, not numbers…it’s as simple as that. And that is a good thing, because the numbers just aren’t there anymore to justify the numbers-oriented angling that most people want to do.
Overall, less than 10 percent of wild steelhead runs remain in existence, and that number is declining on most PNW steelhead fisheries. Considering the mortality rates of C&R steelhead, if everyone focused on numbers, we will eventually all lose the opportunity to even try to catch one. Numbers oriented angling reduces the number of the steelhead, with the result being more river closures and restrictions. Steelhead have a lot of problems, and there are many factors that contribute to the declining numbers of wild winter steelhead other than how we fish for them…but that is a whole other story. It is quite easy to blame the plethora of other factors contributing too the decline of wild steelhead, but at the end of the day, we as anglers need to look in the mirror at how we personally impact the resource.
As an angler, the best way to help sustain the future population of wild steelhead is to simply catch less of them. We each get to chose how many we need to catch to be happy with the experience. We each get to chose if we need to lift the fish out of the water for another grip and grin photo. Therefore, we each get to choose how much we personally impact the future of steelhead by how many we need to encounter to be happy, regardless of technique. Every time a steelhead is hooked the mortality rate increases, regardless of method. The good news is that the Moments not numbers mantra works for everyone. I could care less how you fish for them, just understand your personal impact on the resource, and above all respect it.
So, why exclusively swing for winter steelhead? Most of us swing because we love wild steelhead, enjoy the process of angling, and want to protect the resource. For us, the journey is just as equally important and enjoyable as the destination itself. To quote the title of a favorite book, it’s “The Doing of The Thing” that makes it all worth it.