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Skagit Heads, Sink Tips, and Steelhead Swing Theory

By George Revel

10 TIPS FOR SWINGING FOR STEELHEAD

Spey lines have more pieces than Ikea furniture. Below is a description of lines, tips, and techniques we use to catch winter steelhead.

I will say there is such thing as knowing too much. If you don't care to know all the nuances or think you will be confused by bits and pieces of it all call us up 415-483-2278, or come into our fly shop in San Francisco. Tell us where you want to fish and your budget and we will get you everything you need at the best value.

The simple answer for a winter steelhead outfit is to get a rod that will cast a 525-550gr skagit head, a 10ft T-14 tip, a light tip, go fishing a lot, work hard, and you will find fish. It's a matter of being there when the fish are. The reality is steelhead fishing is easy when there are fish around.  

For those of you traveling around the world on guided fishing trips you should show up prepared. Guides fish their beats hundreds of times and know from lots of trial and error exactly what sink tip a particular run likes. If you are a nerd and want to read everything you can on the subject, settle in.


UNDERSTANDING SPEY LINES

ANATOMY OF A SPEY LINE SYSTEM

METHODS TO SINK YOUR FLY

Let’s start with a few ways to get your fly down. The goal typically is not to simply get your fly down as deep as possible, but rather to get your fly in the zone where you think the fish are. Getting down a couple of feet in heavy current can be a challenge on it’s own. Depth is not really as important when conditions are warm and you have good water clarity as fish can see your fly and are likely to move to it. When the conditions get cold or colored up putting the fly in the exact zone becomes much more critical. You can use these methods or a combination of these methods to achieve your desired depth.

SINK TIPS

A longer sink tip will help get your fly down and stay down. Longer sink tips will help you get down and stay down when your swing starts. A long sink tip to me is 12.5 to 15ft.


SINK TIME

A cast at a 90 degree angle or greater will give your fly and sink tip more time to sink. If you cast and then take your steps you will also give your fly and tip more time to sink. Another method is cast at the angle you want and feed line to get more sink time.

LEADER LENGTH/ FLY WEIGHT

A long leader (4-7ft) with a heavy fly is a great way to get down quick, but it can be more difficult to cast, because the mass of the fly is further from the mass of the sink tip and the head. Conversely, if you have a light fly that you are trying to sink use a shorter leader (2.5-3.5ft) to keep tethered to your sink tip to avoid the fly floating above your tip.


SINKING HEADS

Traditional Skagit heads Like Rio Skagit Max are floating, but others like the Airflo FIST heads and Rio Game Changer heads incorporate a sinking portion to the shooting head that will aid in getting your fly down.

UNDERSTANDING SKAGIT SINK TIPS

Sink tips come in a variety of weights that match up with the weight of the head you are using. Tungsten sink tips are measured in grains (a unit of measure) and typically are designated based on how many grains per foot. For example the winter steelheader’s go to is T-14 (or Tungsten 14) which has 14 grains per foot and if you have a 10ft tip the total tip weighs 140 grains. This allows us to quickly calculate what chopping off a foot will do to the overall weight of the tip. There is another method the sinktip is made with different materials to have a specific density. For example the 15ft Replacement Tips come in Intermediate (Sinks at 1-2 inches per second)

For Rio they make sink tips in:

          • Light – T-8 – 8 grains per foot - matches with heads under 450gr
          • Medium – T-11 – 11 grains per foot - matches with heads under 450-525gr
          • Heavy – T-14 – 14 grains per foot - matches with heads under 525-600gr
          • X-Heavy – T-17 – 17 grains per foot - matches with heads under 600gr

LIGHT- 300-425gr Head

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MEDIUM- 450-500gr Head

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HEAVY- 525-625gr Head

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For X-Heavy- 625gr+ Head

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LCO'S SINK TIP RECOMMENDATIONS

My sink tip kit, which looks a bit like George Castanza's wallet, uses the Rio MOW Tip kit as the base which includes:

Floating Tip – This tip is useful in summer dry fly fishing especially when casting large dries on the North Umpqua. I have not used this tip in winter conditions.

2.5ft Sink Tip- This tip has 7.5’ of a floating section and 2.5’ sinking section, great for fishing soft water on the edges. I had never used this tip until I went to Russia and steelhead were holding in the divets of salmon redds. It has since become a tip I use often.

**5ft sink tip – The 5 & 5 has a five foot floating section and 5ft sinking section. This a very commonly used tip around the world. A good fall tip.

7.5ft Sink Tip – This tip includes 7.5ft sink tip with 2.5 ft Floating section.

**10ft Rio Mow Sink Tip – This is a probably the most used winter steelhead tip in the biz.

**12.5ft sink tip – another heavy duty get down line designed to get down and stay down.

** If you are looking to save money and just want essentials get these 3 tips and you can make do.

This is what’s included in the standard kits and will be ready for 90% of scenarios. I however added a few tips to this kit for my purposes.

LCO RECOMMENDED TIP ADDITIONS

Rio 15ft Type 3 Replacement Tip - The type 3 sinks at a rate of 3-4 inches per second. I use this with a light fly and target soft water softer jiggle water. I use the 9 or 10wt tips for 500gr +. Linked below:

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Rio IMOW 5&5 Tip- This tip gets down surprising well for how easy it is to cast the intermediate section really helps get that 5ft section of tungsten down. I put this one on when I want a really versatile tip that I can sink down or not.

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Rio MOW Long Tip - Sometimes you want to try something different and dredge through a deep hole or fish the fast part of the run with the big chunky boulders in it. This 15' T-14 tip could be the ticket or maybe not.

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Rio 15ft INT Replacement Tip - The Intermediate tip sinks at a rate of 1-2 inches per second. I love this tip for fishing muddlers in the summer or slow pools. I use the 9 or 10wt tips for 500gr +. Linked below:

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PLEASE KEEP EM WET

Skagit Lines for steelhead fishing .

UNDERSTANDING SKAGIT HEADS

Traditional Skagit heads are floating. The head I use the most is Rio Skagit Max Short Shooting Head. I like this head for my 12.5ft rod, it requires minimal backcast room and is super easy to cast. There are some new systems that incorporate a sinking portion that can help you get deeper. The longer the head the more backcast room is required, and shorter heads tend to turn over more quickly and tend not to track as well on the swing. Here are the heads that I use:

This is my go to head for most of my rods. That said my longest rod is 13ft. While I am lusting over the 14ft 7wt Sage X for fishing big rivers like the lower Skeena and Eel I have not pulled the trigger on it.

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Every once in a while you need to get down a little deeper. Thats when this head comes in handy with a sink 3 section near the tip. Note this does not work with mow tips with the floating sections.

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Great all around line for the winter steelheader. At 23ish feet a great compromise in length. If you have a rod 13ft or longer this is a great choice. We tend to go to this line when the rod is at least 13'.

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Great for single handers and switch rods. These lines excel when there is very little backcast room, they are not great as a primary head as they are quite short and don't track great or mend well.

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RUNNING LINES

Much debate on running lines. We carry every running line possible, but I think only a few are worthy of your consideration.

There are 3 basic types of running lines:

Nylon Mono (flat and round) - Shoots well and requires less power in casting. It can be tangle prone. Make sure to fix any tangles while it's loose and don't tighten the tangle or tangles will become more frequent. It can be hard to hang on to in cold conditions or if you have bad dexterity.  

Fly Lines Style -It's thicker and tends to be less tangly. The weight and thickness of this style running line will cut down on your distance, but much easier to hang on to in cold conditions.

Braided- To be honest my experiences with braided are minimal and underwhelming

A hollow nylon, this stuff shoots well, knots well, and lasts. It has a 50m marker making it easy to fill two reels off one spool.

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Pretty much standard nylon mono that shoots well and is easy to hang on to. Great color that pops and helps you track your swing.

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A fly line style running line that has color changes every 10ft that will help gauge distance as you are swinging.

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Cheap and easy this Rio Slickshooter works great and is inexpensive. Great for the budget conscious angler. I like the 50lb.

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SPEY RODS

There are a ton of "spray poles" on the market and we have been fortunate enough to use most of them. I am not one to sell gear just because the latest is out, but spey rod tech has benefited so much from lighter more responsive graphites. The worst rods made today are as castable as the best rods made in 2010. Well maybe not the worst, but you get my point. We carry Sage, Winston, Scott, Beulah, Burkheimer, Redington, Echo, and Orvis.

A few things to consider:

Length - Longer rods cast further and mend better, but they are more difficult to travel with and are tough to cast in tight quarters. For most Pacific Northwest fishing situations a 12.5ft or 13ft 7wt rod is ideal.

Weight - I use a 7wt for 100% of my winter steelhead situations, but I certainly do recommend an 8wt as it comes in handy for less efficient casters. This is because there is more mass in the shooting head making it easier to cast heavy tips.

For most steelhead trips I have 2 rods rigged up, one with my fast sinking tip and maybe a sinking head and the other with a light tip. When I approach a run I will drop my rod with the light sink tip where the run slows down and I will want a lighter tip, and fish the faster tip at the head of the run. Yup, I am super lazy and have a lot of rods so its possible. On a big steelhead trip I'll usually have 3 rods rigged up with a heavy tip, light tip and dry fly if permitted. Here are a few that I have been drawn to.

This has been my go to rod, I must admit there is a bit of a learning curve, but once you get the hang of this rod it is the easiest casting spey rod I have ever laid hands on. You'll want to be a good caster to get this one.  

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Easy! This rod makes spey casting easy. I use the 12 or 13ft 7wt Sage X as my light tip rod. They are capable of casting heavy tips too but I much prefer my ignitor for that kind of work. If you want the best rod for a beginner this is it.

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Looking for a mid priced rod that will crush on the river? We really like these compact spey rods and they do pretty well in the surf too. Tim Rajeff is a great rod designer and has really delivered with this one.  

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An amazing casting rod at $399. I am really impressed with this rod. It has a quick tip that is easy to cast. It will throw heavy and light tips with relative ease. A solid choice as well.

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OTHER GEAR WE LIKE FOR SPEY GEAR

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About The Author

George Revel

Is the owner of Lost Coast Outfitters and California native who has traveled around the world with the hopes of lucking into Steelhead. George has caught steelhead in CA, OR, WA, BC, AK, and Russia.