Steel Swinging: Simpler Sink-Tips
When I first started swinging flies, it was more about going through the motions. I got caught up in the fact that I could throw much larger flies for Lake Erie Steelhead. Like many before me, I got addicted to the grab.
At that time, I was willing to wait for the strikes no matter how far and few between they were. The truth was, there were a few factors I didn't take into consideration that would increase my odds of success during each outing.
A few years ago I took the right steps and attended several spey-casting and presentation classes. I tried as many new Skagit lines as I possibly could, and I dialed in on the switch rods I felt comfortable with and could cast well.
Many anglers were building their own custom sink-tips for the various tributaries they were fishing, whereas others would buy pre-made tips offered from several manufacturers.
This is where swinging became very confusing. Depending on who you asked, it seemed everyone was doing something different. My question was: What type of sink-tip did I really need and why?
Before more on that subject, here's a brief glossary of terms to help orient you within the swinging lifestyle.
A Few Definitions
Spey cast: The spey method of casting allows an angler to quickly and efficiently execute a change-of-direction cast that moves the fly from downstream at the end of the presentation (dead-drift or swing) back upstream to the target without making an overhead back cast. In essence, a spey cast is a change of direction with a "dynamic" roll cast.
Skagit line: A short, high-floating fly line developed with all its grain weight located in the head on the line. The purpose of a Skagit line is to provide the energy to cast heavy sink-tips and large flies.
Sink-tip: A tungsten-coated line that's attached to the front of your Skagit or floating line. These tips come in multiple sink rates and lengths to adjust to the depths and flows of the rivers you intend to fish. Manufacturers list the inches-per-second sink rate on the package. Typically we use T-8, T-11 and T-14. The number given is the inches-per-second sink rate.
Leader: The section of fluorocarbon or fishing mono from the sink-tip to the fly. I tend to tie on a 10-inch piece of 15 pound fluorocarbon, attached to roughly 24 inches of 12-pound fluorocarbon with a loop-to-loop connection.
Switch Rod: Switch rods are longer than single-hand rods, but shorter and smaller in scale than two-hand rods. They provide anglers with the benefits of a longer rod and the leverage of two-handed casting, on a scale to match the smaller- to medium-sized rivers throughout the Great Lakes region. They're designed for overhead casts and to handle the torsion of change-of-direction casts (spey casts) made with one or two hands on the rod.
Sink-Tip Systems: Easy, Complete
Lake Erie tributaries are typically very shallow. They vary in size and are dependent on precipitation and runoff to sustain flows. Anglers who are consistently successful here constantly make adjustments to rigging to stay in target areas. In the past, this is where I had trouble choosing the right sink-tip, and always seemed to be a little off. I wasn't hitting the mark, nor putting my fly exactly were I wanted it to be all the time.
Here's my rule of thumb: In terms of depth, I always want my fly to swim between the bottom and 18 inches above the bottom.
The good news for anglers is today, there exist complete sets of sink-tips to simplify and cover all the situations you'll encounter while swinging flies for Lake Erie steelhead. The system I like comes from Rio, which offers over 20 different sink-tips in its popular Skagit MOW Tip product line. These sink-tips were developed by Skagit casting and fishing experts Mike McCune, Scott O'Donnell, and Ed Ward (hence the M-O-W acronym).
Skagit MOW Tips come in a multitude of tip lengths and sink-rates to cover all the water types I fish. They cast and work equally well with all Skagit lines, and give me the ability to be more precise with my presentations. I've found that if I needed a little adjustment, it was as simple as switching from a weighted fly to a pattern with no weight added.
Rio color codes the lines so they're easy to catalog, and that makes it easier to find a specific tip while fishing.
If you're learning still, as I feel most of us are, this sink-tip system is a great way to get you dialed into your equipment, and it should reward you with a few extra grabs.
Remember that sink-tips are just one of many tools of the trade – not a substitute for learning the water you intend to fish. You'll need to scout and note the varying river depths, the locations where fish are likely to hold, plus know how the weather, water-level fluctuations and seasons will effect where and how you fish.
The more time you invest in your casting and presentation skills, the better. Also, keep an eye out for free clinics and local spey claves. Spend a few afternoons with an instructor, or seek help at your local fly shop. Remember, we all love to fish, and we're willing to help.
A Few Resources
Although options seem endless, if you're on a budget and want to experiment with sink-tips, Skagit lines and Spey casting, here are a few recommendations.
First, don't invest any money without visiting a local fly shop or outfitter that specializes in these methods. Take the time to cast several different rods and line combinations to feel first hand which setup is best suited and most comfortable for you.
Second, explain where you intend to fish and ask for recommendations on everything you'll need. Most outfitters and fly shops have demos available and are willing to demonstrate or show you how to get started.
Lastly, hire a guide versed in spey casting and swinging flies. All good guides will provide the equipment you need included in the cost of the trip. This is an invaluable resource to an angler looking to learn. Not only will you get an introduction to swinging flies, you'll do it on the river, where you'll see first-hand the types of water you should be fishing, and which sink-tips and fly patterns are producing strikes. If you're lucky, your guide may point you in the right direction or show you some productive public water stretches as well.
Here are a few links I've found useful. They're focused on education and offer everything from how-to videos to line recommendations and expert advice.
If you're looking to purchase Rio products, check out Chagrin River Outfitters, located in the heart of Ohio's best steelhead tribs. Chagrin River Outfitters specialize in swinging for steelhead.