Drift Fishing Steelhead: The Standard Swing

By Bill Herzog

Steelhead Drift Fishing

Once you have determined where to begin your presentation by proper positioning, it’s time to cast. One specific drift fishing technique will be used approximately 80% of the year under almost all river conditions, and that is the standard swing presentation.

What angle to cast out will be determined by water depth and speed. You want the terminal rig to be at steelhead eye level by the time it is directly in front of you, not before. For example, if the holding water is swift and deep, your cast will enter the river upstream from your position. If the holding area is shallow, or slow, it may require a cast slightly below your position. This is where on the river experience kicks in. If you are casting either too far upstream or too far downstream to be in immediate control of the drift (remember the workable casting distance), you must make the change on the weight or weighting system to achieve a comfortable drift.

The idea is to allow the terminal gear to get down to the bottom and be presented properly in front of where the first fish would lay. After you have made the weight adjustments for getting the offering down in front of you, it’s time to start working the water. You will be casting in a framework, often called fan casting or casting in a grid. This means gradually working out and then down, step by step, from your original position at the top of the holding water. Start with the shortest possible cast and gradually cover the water outward by increasing casting distance with each presentation. The cast will travel or swing downriver at, or slightly slower than, current speed. This is the ideal drift fishing scenario. The number of casts made in one spot before moving on will always be varied, the number being determined by the actual size of the holding water and degree of visibility. For example, if there is currently 2 feet of visibility, there will be 2 feet between casts working outward. If there is 4 feet of visibility, then 4 feet out, etc. When you have worked the grid in one spot, step downstream or drop your boat downstream and begin a new grid. That is, unless you are hooking one steelhead after another, then by all means stay right there!

How far downstream to begin a new series of casts again depends on the degree of visibility. With 2 feet of visibility, begin the new drift 2 feet above where the terminal finished its swing at the end of the last drift. By doing this you will slightly overlap the fan area of the drift, and no fish will be missed or spooked by a line bumped off its blind side.

When your cast is traveling along the bottom, how natural and effective the swing drift will be depends on rod angle and body mechanics.

When river fishing, regardless of technique, you always have to deal with certain laws of physics. These laws, when applied to drift fishing, determine that any time the mainline and terminal gear are pulled against the current, the force of the flow will push the gear upwards toward the water’s surface and out of the steelhead’s range of vision. It is the angler’s job to use rod angle and body motion to negate this "push" of water. After the cast is made, the terminal gear settles to the bottom and starts to drift with the current. Here the laws of physics kick in. When the line becomes tight, the bait will start to rise off the bottom. Now the angler must turn his body and follow the drift with the rod. After the angler has followed the drift down, there will be a point where the line is far enough below to again become tight and start to rise off the bottom. Here the fisherman must give line in short, fast lengths to stay in contact with the bottom. If the holding water is short, be prepared to take line onto the reel to keep the terminal gear from settling into the rocks. This again depends on experience and the type of holding water encountered.

It is during the last half of the presentation, or during the swing portion of the cast, that 90% of all steelhead strike the terminal offering. This is because the drift starts to slow at this point, allowing the bait/drift bobber to swing down below the weight, giving the steelhead a chance to follow and take it. Unless there is considerable color in the water (between one and 2-1/2 feet of visibility), make only one or two casts in the same area before making a longer cast or moving down. Steelhead will take a properly presented lure on the first or second drift 95% of the time. Drift fishing is the slowest method of gear fishing for steelhead, and by nature drift bobbers and baits have the smallest attraction radius, therefore you have to present them closer to the steelhead. They do not have the profile or flash of a plug, spoon or spinner, so you must make more casts in a given section of holding water to cover it thoroughly. The only technique that requires more time investment to work a section of holding water is fly fishing. Don’t be a "rock lizard" and stand in one section of holding water and make a hundred casts. If no fish come to the bait after methodically working the grid, move on to new water.

At the end of the presentation, there will be a point where the terminal gear has started to slow down, swung into the shallows or is entering non-holding water. Now you must do two things. One, if the water is too slow and shallow to hold a steelhead, immediately raise the rod tip to allow what little current there is to push up the terminal gear out of the rocks, and retrieve the line on the reel to prepare for the next cast. Two, if the section of holding water is deep enough at the end of the swing to possibly hold a fish, leave the bait hanging in the current below for a few seconds. This is an area in which many steelhead are hooked, but most fishermen do not allow them time to take the lure, as the gear is immediately reeled in after the end of the swing. In cold water situations, many lethargic steelhead will follow a bait for many feet before they take. Summer runs in clear, warmer water are notorious chasers. They will come after a bait for many feet after first spotting it, often when it is slowing down in the slower water next to shore.

The ideal position of the rod is with the tip pointed slightly above the spot where the line enters the water. This way, with the rod tip just above the terminal’s position, you have leverage to raise the rod and allow the current to pick up the weight, allowing the gear to bounce effortlessly downstream and to set the hook. Always keep the line tight when drift fishing, on that fine line of almost pulling the terminal up off the bottom, yet allowing enough leeway in the line so that it drifts naturally downstream. Inevitably, you will hang up. When you do, try to lift the weight off the bottom immediately. Give it no time to settle into the rocks. Do not yank hard on the rod if the terminal gear momentarily hangs up. A quick lift will allow the terminal to free up and continue drifting. If you yank hard every time the gear hangs up, you will be pulling the drift lure closer to you, and out of the correct position in the holding water. Jerking hard on the rod will also pull off any or all bait on the hook. A steady, but firm, quick lift is always the correct way to free momentary hangups.

How high or low should the rod be held? Again, this depends on how long a cast is necessary, and how much line is out. As each cast is made progressively longer to cover the water, the rod must be raised higher to keep the mainline out of the water. This keeps line belly (the cause of line drag) to a minimum and is one more reason to fish the shortest line possible. The higher the rod is held, the less "back-strike" area is left to set a hook. We’ve all done it – had too much line out, and because we had the rod pointed almost straight up to keep the line out of the water, we missed a steelhead because it came off after a few head shakes. Ideal rod angle is anywhere from 9 o’clock (straight out) to 11 o’clock. This variance will allow for enough rod angle pointed up to allow the terminal gear to be worked so it bounces downriver easily, and enough back-strike area left to allow a full hook-setting motion. At all times a relaxed, 10 o’clock position is best for the drift fisherman.

The standard swing presentation is most frequently used as well as the most valuable drift fishing technique. A reminder: no one juggles five running chain saws on the first try. It takes years of practice and a few fingers to get it right. The same goes for steelhead drift fishing. You must take the information and practice it streamside. There are no shortcuts.

Excerpt from Steelhead Drift Fishing by Bill Herzog