Basic Spey Tactics for Steelhead - A Gross Oversimplification

Ken Morrish June 06, 2023

The following is a document I wish I had access to 30 years ago, but instead, I had to learn the hard way, missing countless opportunities along the way.

If you are an experienced steelhead angler, reading this article is likely not a great use of your time. My objectives are to oversimplify a discussion that many make too complicated and outline a few key concepts for anglers still learning the craft to keep front of mind while on the water. The following is a document I wish I had access to 30 years ago, but instead, I had to learn the hard way, missing countless opportunities along the way.

The True Challenge of Steelhead Fishing

Steelhead are not hard to catch; they are hard to find. As a result, anglers need to concentrate on effectively covering lots of water instead of overfishing water in hopes of enticing one. In short, the most challenging part of steelhead fishing is finding a willing fish in water that works for a swung fly presentation.

Covering Water

To cover water effectively, anglers need to be systematic and make sure that each cast is landing in new water while at the same time not leaving gaps. When entering into a new piece of water, start with a short line and strip the exact same amount of line off your reel each successive cast until you have reached what is either the line length you can effectively turn over cast after cast or the line length that is appropriate for the run you are fishing. Trying to throw a line that is longer than you handle consistently undermines the efficacy of covering water in a grid-like fashion and wastes valuable time.

Once you have reached the proper line length, you must focus on taking steps between casts. Not stepping between casts is a curse and drives guides and fishing companions crazy. Never be that angler as it slows progress and means that you and your companions will fish fewer runs and have fewer opportunities. How many steps? That will depend on several factors, including water clarity, depth, and temperature, but to keep it simple, think about moving three to five feet downriver every cast. You can move a greater distance in the lower percentage portions of a run and a lesser distance when you are in the best part of a run. I always move at least three feet between casts and often six feet between casts in less than prime water.

Taking steelhead are typically only present in some of the runs you fish, so you need to move fast to find where they are. If you have the coordination to strip in your running line as you step downstream, you increase your speed and efficiency. This principle of fishing quickly is a true key to the kingdom and a skill all highly effective anglers need to cultivate.

Presentation Speed and Angle

As a general rule of thumb, strive to have your fly swinging equal to or slower than the water speed. The colder the water, the slower the fly should swing but feel free to play with a faster swing in warmer water. Steelhead can respond well to a square or broadside presentation, but this works best in relatively slow water and is not very effective in fast water as the fly will swim too quickly. When the water is swift, use a strong downstream casting angle or mend aggressively upstream to slow the fly. This will result in more of a tail-first presentation.

One thing to avoid is a downstream belly in the fly line which results in the fly swimming head-first quickly downstream. Many anglers unknowingly fish the fly this way because they have cast the fly across faster current into slower current, or their cast lands with an upstream hook, and they fail to execute an adequate upstream mend that corrects the angle. Many anglers make a corrective mend with the belly of their line, but to truly remove a downstream belly, an effective mend must reach all the way to the fly. 

One final note is to let the fly swing as close into the bank or the water directly beneath you as possible. This is referred to as fishing the hang-down. Steelhead often follow flies for a great distance, and sometimes they commit to the fly as it "escapes" into shallow water or as it comes to a dead stop beneath you. These are the most challenging fish to hook properly, so don't be too hard on yourself if your hang-down fish come unbuttoned.

Fly Selection

I love steelhead flies. They are fun to tie and fish, and I am continually amazed by all the great patterns that tyers from all regions and walks of life create. But ultimately, flies are the least important part of the effective steelhead fishing equation. Specific rules of thumb matter, for example, not fishing a tiny sparse fly in high dirty water or not fishing a super heavy fly in slow, shallow water, but it strikes me that almost all the other rules are easily broken. Dark flies can work on bright days, and bright flies can work on dark days. Big flies work, little flies work, dead drifted flies work, as do pulsed flies. Dry flies can work in 32-degree water, and so on.

The hot fly is often the one that the best (or luckiest) angler is fishing with. To allocate success to fly selection is a big mistake in my book. It is like asking a great photographer what kind of camera they use or asking a great painter what bush they use. The art is in the angler and the luck of the draw as to who steps in which piece of water when.

With that said, having confidence in a fly matters a great deal. Great anglers outperform great flies day in and day out. If the blue one is your jam and you feel like you are going to get one when you tie it on, that makes it a great choice. If I could secretly replace a great angler's favorite fly with a two-inch strip of black bunny tied to a hook, and the angler fished it with the same confidence as their special fly, I believe their success would be comparable. So find a few styles of flies that you like and use them as you see fit, and if you are questioning any of them, move back to the one you believe it. Like many of my theories, none of which can be proven, I think steelhead can sense self-doubt!

The Moment of Truth

As steelhead anglers, we spend a lot of time getting our gear and flies together, improving our casting, and following returns and river conditions. There is one additional element that I feel anglers should also mentally prepare for, that being what to do (or, more importantly, what not to do) when a steelhead takes your swinging fly. The hard part is that the best reaction is typically no reaction, which is easier said than done, especially with no legitimate way to practice.


If I had $20 for every time I felt a steelhead gently tugging on the end of my line and prematurely lifted to set the hook; I would be retired, not writing web content. One of my fishing buddies calls this common occurrence "gacking." In its simplest form, it means not giving the fish enough time or slack to turn with the fly and hook itself. Gacking is a natural response. You feel something tugging, so you attempt to set the hook, which typically equates to a missed opportunity.

Steelhead often follow flies for a fair distance, sometimes nibbling and pecking at them the entire way. When they actually grab a swung fly, they tend to turn back toward their holding spot, and if we are too tight to the fly or lift the rod, we pop it out of their mouth as opposed to letting them draw the fly into the corner of their mouth where we want it. So the key is to give them enough line/time to hang/hook themselves. As Ted Williams once said about swing fishing, "We don't hook fish; fish hook themselves."

So the question becomes, how do we do this? Some anglers let the fly swing with a high rod tip so there is a sagging belly of line for the fish to draw tight. Some carry a 20-to 30-inch loop of line that they let the fish gently pull from under their finger. Some gently pinch the line against the cork and let the fish pull line directly from the reel with a soft drag setting. For those new to the sport, setting a loose drag and not trapping the line under your fingers is very effective. Whichever method you employ, as you approach the hot spot on any given run, try and relax and think about giving the fish enough line and time to hook itself. Once your reel is spinning or you feel the fish's full weight, you can lift up and gently set the hook. The key here is that it is easy to set too quickly and hard to be too slow.



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