A Beginner’s Ode to Swinging Flies for Steelhead

A tale all steelheaders know too well.

I feel drops of rainfall on my hood as I shiver knee-deep in the fast-moving current. Water laps up against my waders while my soulless wading boots barely grip the rocks. My hands are drenched from the stripped in line. Even at this moment, looking back, I have never felt this soaked, this exhausted, this frustrated for the last four years chasing wild steelhead. From Northern California to Washington and even a few casts in British Columbia. All with the same feeling and same situation of a tugless fishing line.

Nevertheless, the rain continues. When you have been going for nearly five years without so much as a bite to show for it, each drop of rain is like a steelhead’s echo, laughing at you while you swing some ungodly colored fly in front of them.

Cast, mend, step, repeat. The drumbeat continues with each hour casting while the continuous sound of rain bounces off my hood, rattling me into a dimension of irritation I never knew I could get in to. Making me question everything. Is the fly color wrong? Is the fly too big or not big enough? Is the presentation deep enough? Is there too much runoff or not enough? That cast sucked. Should I come back on a sunny day? Should I have mended earlier? Do steelhead even exist? Each raindrop making me doubt every second spent on the water, annoying me like a sibling from hell that you have to love.

This all began from a Todd Moen YouTube video, called Fall Run. The video opens with tailing salmon slowly meandering their way up a PNW river to spawn. Then the camera pans out to two anglers walking the shore with very large fly rods and a long butt section that my trout casting brain couldn’t fathom. I knew of heavier weighted fly rods, with a small butt section for leverage on larger fish like steelhead, but knew little about these two-handed rods that are essentially used as snipers to swing flies. In that scene, I discovered what spey meant. And from that point on, I watched every clip about steelhead and spey rods and casting.

I didn’t own one yet but began making the Snap C and Switch Casts with my single-handed 5-weight trout rod. Over time and serious repetition, I began to get the motion down and more control of the cast. I made pilgrimages to the coast and even lived there for a couple of years chasing steelhead. With little to show for my efforts and without a spey rod, I made the best of what I could do until the day finally came where I could afford a double-handed setup.

Too excited for my own good, I quickly set up the rod halfway into a trip. Tied a trout streamer on, and quickly ran to the banks of a local trout stream. Stripped out a bunch of line and began making the movement from all the videos watched. Made the first snap, and as I went to launch the fly, the hook nestled right into my pinky finger with all the strength, leverage, and momentum the 13-foot rod and weighted line and fly used as momentum. Intended for the distant seem, the fly instead landed near the bone of my finger. Great start to my double-handed casting technique.

With several more trips to the PNW in the years following, I began to refine my casting. Learned to read water a little better. And ultimately began combining my trips with other activities to ensure my sanity remains intact from the hours on end in cold water without a fish.

But even if I combined a long trail run in the redwoods, a fun cold water surf in the shark-infested waters, or sat around a campfire sipping on tea beneath the rare starry night skies, the deflation of the long drive home without so much as a glimmer of hope that steelhead exist always crept into my mind and begged the question of why I continue to chase these fish.

Without giving up hope I immediately began planning the next trip. Refining my gear, loading the fly box, and learning new techniques both on and off the water about casting techniques and studies on steelhead.

Another year had passed and the returning rainfall began in the PNW. The car was packed and a new window of weather appeared on the horizon. Upon reaching the river, the feeling felt different than the years before. I felt confident. Felt comfortable. Perhaps all the years I have been coming over to the coast were starting to feel at home in a way. I knew where to go. I knew what the weather was doing, and I knew what the flows were. A storm ripped through days prior, dragging down river anything in its path, but opening up channels and passage for fish.

I couldn’t help but fathom what it takes for these remarkable fish to get to the rivers, the struggles they go through and the obstacles they dodge to get there, as well as everything I needed to do to meet them there. I believe that it was during the drive that I finally began to appreciate the effort these fish take for us to meet them in the river and how appropriate it is that I have been fishless for so many years needing everything to line up.

Regardless of how the trip went, I knew that there was an element that clicked in mentally that allowed me passage to swing flies at that moment. Almost like acceptance or an entry fee into their world, like a movie trailer before you enter the theatre. With that engulfing my mind, I arrived at camp, set up the rod, pulled on the waders, and began my hike upriver.

The entire walk-in was a spiritual experience. Passing a few hikers on trail double-taking my 13’6” rod and waders. The dew kept dripping from the tree limbs and the canopy shielded the raindrops falling from the sky. The trail meandered towards the river and dropped into an aqua blue pool with deep runs and downed trees. It felt fishy. As the fly was set, the line penetrated the water and the casting began.

I snapped and cast and watched the line perfectly swirl to its location exactly where I intended it to be. I mended then took three steps to let the fly sink further, a lesson learned from another YouTube video, and let it do its greatest swing dance impersonation. I looked to the horizon to see fog and cloud layer engulf the trees on the mountainside canyon, and the raindrops gently land around my rod, hovering just above the waterline following the swinging line downstream. My gaze wandered down the rod to the tip when the line came tight halfway through the swing.

My vision nearly blackened when the line careened out of the reel just in time for me to quickly veer my glance upward to see the tail of a hooked fish throw caution to the wind. My heart raced and the fish sprinted downriver where the chase began. I finally had a chance to catch up to the backing and adjust the drag. The soft, hopeful slurs with mild praying begun for a glimpse of its adipose. The fight came to a slow end for me to see its battle scars. Its snout was torn to bits from its journey. Like a boxer at the end of a fight, scarred and puffy, the fish too had its own wounds to bear. As I reached for the line to bring it to hand, the line snapped and the fish darted off to never be seen again.

I am uncertain of the irony at that moment, but I do know that in the years I have spent chasing these fish, I came connected with a steelhead when I mentally felt not only prepared but accepted to entice one of these fish to make my heart race the way it did.

There isn’t a woman hot enough, a swell big enough, or a trail single-tracked enough to replace that adrenaline-filled heart thumping from an adult steelhead. And because of that, I hope it takes another five years of trying until my next one lets me have another chance. Until then, I will take solace in my casting in some of the most beautiful fishing scenery the planet has to offer. And maybe keep surfing and running as well.

Article and photos from Sean Jansen, follow along with his adventures at @jansen_journals.

Additional photos from Kirk Blaine and Patrick Perry.

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