Indicator or Swinging Flies?

by Bill Kiene

On our Nor Cal valley rivers in the winter we have cold water, mostly hatchery fish (but not all) and fish that are getting ready to spawn too. We also have salmon spawning. This is a tough time and place to swing flies for Steelhead. Fishing with the indicator/nymph/egg system is the most effective way to fish in this situation. If you try to intercept these migrating fish down river before they get to the spawning areas near the hatcheries you can catch them swinging flies.

After chasing Steelhead for over 50 years I have become spoiled. I mostly fish in the time periods that are good for swinging flies on a floating line. This is when the water is above 50 degrees. Much of this time is Aug/Sept/Oct on many rivers from Nor Cal all the way to British Columbia. Fishing early and late in the day, especially with the sun off the water is another important part of this type of fishing. Having fresh run wild fish doesn’t hurt either.

Fly fishing for fall run Nor Cal Steelhead is best in Sept/Oct/Nov on many rivers. As you go further north the fall gets there faster so Oct/Nov in BC can turn cold quickly and you need to go to sink tips but can still swing flies.

My information is not just from my experiences, it is from looking at this a lot and talking to hundreds of people over the years. I talk and fish with many top Steelhead fly fishers and guides so this keeps more centered for the best information I can have to share with friends/customers.

I have read lots of books, hundreds of magazine articles, and watched many videos about Steelheading but my favorite book is “Dry Line Steelhead and Other Subjects” by Bill McMillan. It was made up of a dozen or so articles by Bill and published by Amato Publications over 20 years ago in paperback. Out of print now but I see them on the Internet used for $100 to $300. We are hoping that Amato and Bill will reprint it in it’s original format some day. It has incredible information about “Greased Line” (floating line) Steelheading.

Another good book is “Greased Line Fishing for Salmon (and Steelhead)” by Jock Scott.  It was written some time ago specifically for fly fishing for Atlantic Salmon with a floating line but much of it will work for summer and fall Steelheading.

Both of these books might be out of print but used copies are on the Internet.

The closest good place and time for swinging flies on a floating line are our Valley Rivers in spring (March/April/May with no flooding) and in the Fall (Sept/Oct/Nov) when the Halfpounder Steelhead (12″ to 22″) are in the rivers with warmer water temps and bugs hatching.

The closest really high quality place and time is the lower Klamath River in Sept/Oct. The scoop here is to fish the lower river with a jet boat. The middle river, Orleans to Happy Camp, can be fished by car and walking but floating with a drift boat guide in October is very nice. November above Happy Camp can be good but you might need to get a little deeper with a sink tip line.

The Trinity River is a sweetheart and a smaller river with Sept/Oct/Nov best for swinging flies. Try the lower Trinity River in Sept/Oct from the mouth of the South Fork of the Trinity downstream through the Hoopa Reservation. By November many Steelhead have moved up through the system from the hatchery downstream to Big Bar but the river starts to get colder then and extremely crowded with the “indicator commandos”.  The cold water, crowds, spawning salmon all make swing flies a little less effective.

In Oregon we have many great rivers like the entire Rogue, the North Umpqua , the entire Deschutes , the Grande Ronde and then it just keeps going north to Washington and then British Columbia.

Over the years I have been very lucky to have fish enough of these good rivers to know the difference. Once you wade in a great river like the Klamath in the Fall and hooked those hot ‘Halfpounders’ swinging an un-weighted fly on a 6 weight floating line you will be after them for life. The reality is that this fishing is not really that difficult. You just need to be there and the fish need to be there too and you need to be able to cast a little.

I was lucky to have been able to fish the famous Dean River in British Columbia in August for two weeks once with Joe Shirshac and friends. It was about 20 years ago but seems like yesterday. We drove most of the way up there from California and then took a helicopter from Bella Coola in where they dropped us off on one of Joe’s favorite remote camping spots (~17 miles) up river away from the other campers.

We spent the first day just making a camp site so we would be comfortable. It was one of the best trips of my lifetime. Sitting around the fire in the evening listening to stories told by the elders of the group was very special.

We fished for the first week with shooting heads, sink tips and floaters but then soon learned that when the water was in good shape we only needed a floating line. We hooked wild summer run Steelhead from about 8 to 16 pounds daily and then a few in the 20 pound plus range. Many where on dry flies. Some even “dead drifted” dry flies. This is considered by most Steelheaders to be the best river in the world.

After a trip like that it is hard to get we excited about indicator fishing for tired hatchery fish in our Valley river in the winter.

Spey / two-handed fishing has actually helped get classic Steelheading started again. Graphite materials have made the long (11-16′ ) two handed rods lighter and better casting tools. Here in Nor Cal we are lucky to have plenty of larger rivers to fish with the long rods.

In the 1980s, after the big drought of the late 1970s, I was afraid that Steelheading had almost gone away completely. In the mid-1990s it seemed to be coming back with runs on the Trinity, Klamath and Roque getting stronger.

Today we do have some fly fishing guides and instructors who promote classic Steelhead techniques.

Jason Hartwick specializes in guiding and teaching two-handed fishing on some of the best Nor Cal Steelhead rivers.

Jeff Putnam teaches single-handed and two-handed classic Steelhead methods in Nor Cal and southern Oregon.

Herb Burton, owner of the Trinity Fly Shop on the Trinity River, is one of those guides who only ‘swings’ flies for Steelhead.

Confluence Outfitters is another good guide group for classic Steelheading with two-handed rods.

Deschutes Angler on the Deschutes River in Maupin, Oregon teaches and guides classic Steelheading with two-handed rods.

Scott O’Donnell and Mike McCune guide and teach classic Steelheading with two-handed rods in OR and WA year round.

If you pick the right time and right place you too can catch Steelhead while swinging flies on a floating line.

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