Tidewater King
Kings: Doing The Swing

By Mike Cole

Swinging for kings isn’t some dance from the 1930’s, nor is it some hush-hush party for adults.  Swinging for kings is one of the most exciting and rewarding ways to fly fish for king salmon.  King Salmon are the largest of the Pacific salmon, averaging 20-35 pounds, with the world record coming in at an astounding 97.4 pounds.  To take one of these beasts on the fly is a challenge, to take one on the swing is king.  Shear brute strength and mind blowing runs make kings one of the hardest fish to land on the fly.

There are several fly fishing techniques that are effective for kings.  Three of the most popular are stripping streamers, nymphing and swinging.   Stripping streamers is a good technique for fish that are milling around in slack water and back eddies.  Nymphing works well on holding fish, especially in smaller systems, when a king might not be as likely to move for a fly. One of the most exciting ways to fish kings is on the swing.  With swinging it is all about the “tug.”  The “tug” can happen from the moment you mend the line to the end of the swing. It can be subtle or a full on “jerk the rod out your arms” take.  The anticipation of the tug is what swinging is all about. One moment you are in La-LaLand, the next moment things are happening so fast that if you blink, the fight is over.

How To Swing

Swinging isn’t hard to do.  Set yourself up at the top of a run.  Once you are in place and ready to fish, cast your line quartering down stream at a 45 degree angle across the river.  Make a large upriver mend to hold the fly and allow it to drop in the water column.  Once the line tightens up, drop the rod tip to the water and follow the line with the rod tip through the swing.  Be patient and finish out the swing. Fish may follow the fly through the swing and hit it when the fly stops or on the first few strips when you are getting ready to cast again.  When you start fishing, start close to you and slowly work out making a longer cast each time, adequately covering the water.  Even though kings prefer to hold in deeper runs, they sometimes will be in shallow.  Don’t blow your chance at an easy fish by skipping over shallow water. After covering the water from your starting position, take two to three steps down and start again.  If after fishing through the run you feel like there are fish holding there, change flies and start at the top again.  Try a different color or different size fly.

Where To Find Kings

Most major rivers throughout Alaska have king runs.  Some of the more popular rivers are the Alagnak, Naknek, Karluk, and Kanektok. Two of the most prodigious rivers are the Kenai and Nushagak.  Some of these rivers, like the Kanektok, are very swing friendly while others, like the Kenai, due to it heavy fishing pressure, fast current and milky water, make taking a king on the fly more challenging.  Then there is the Nushagak, a giant river with the largest run of kings in the world.  Large, long runs with slow to medium flow coupled with huge numbers of salmon make the Nushagak an awesome river for swinging flies.

Where To Swing Flies

Good swinging water can be found through out most rivers, from the upper reaches all the way down to tidewater. To target kings as they move in from tidewater, try focusing on runs 4-8 feet in depth that lie between shallow flats and deep pools. This is where the kings will start to hold.  Just before, during and after the high tide is the time to look for fish moving out of tidewater.  This is a great time to catch “chromers.” To target holding fish, look for runs that gradually transitions from shallow to deep with moderate current so that you can get the fly down into the zone.   A lot of fish will sit at the top and bottom of these runs and pools. Shallow fast runs that drop into deep pools can be hard to swing because of theirweird current seams, up wells and eddies.

Choosing A Rod

There are three choices of rods when it comes to fishing for kings and all of them can be used for swinging flies. They are the standard single handed rod, Spey rod and the new switch rods.  Each rod has its advantages and disadvantages and choosing one will depend on personal choice, water types and strategy.

Single-handed rods in 9 foot 9-12 weights are most commonly used. 


· They are very versatile and will work well on most king waters.

· They are easy to use out of a boat.

· A 9 foot 4 pc. rod breaks down to 30”making it easy to travel with. 

· Their relatively short length makes them easier to use on small streams and rivers.


· More false casting is needed to get the line out.

· More effort is needed to cast long distances.

· More space is needed for back casting.

· They are harder to mend large amounts of line with.


Spey rods (a.k.a. double-handed or two-handers) are popular in 13-15 foot 9-10 weights. 


· Much less effort is needed to make long cast.

· Larger mends are easier to make.

· It is easier to throw big flies and heavy sinking lines.


· ’They are difficult to fish on small water.

· Two handed rods are challenging to fish from a boat.

· Limitations of fishing techniques.  Because of their length, swinging is the most common technique used with spey rods.


Switch rods are fairly new to the scene. Switch rods are short two-handed rods that average 10 ½ to 11 feet in length.   Switch rods can be fished either with over hand casting or spey casting and switching between the two styles of casting is easy.


· Versatility.  Both over head and spey casting can be done.

· They are easy to fish from a boat.

· They work will on both small and large rivers.


· Not as easy to fish in all techniques as a single hander.

· Do not cast as far as spey rods.


Switch rods are quickly becoming popular in Alaska for salmon and steelhead.  Check them out!

Choosing A Line

Kings generally hold near the bottom of the river and prefer deeper runs and pools.  In many rivers, especially larger systems, this makes choosing the correct line crucial.  Luckily there are more great lines for king fishing than ever before. On some rivers, like the KarlukRiver on Kodiak Island, fishing a floating line or a light sink tip with a heavy fly will put you in the zone. While other rivers, like the Nushagak or Kenai, may require heavier tips to get your fly down.  Multi-tip fly lines are a great way to cover all the bases. Rio’s Dredger line comes with 24 foot heads that are great for large rivers where kings are holding in deep water. Rio’s Versi-tip is a great line with 15’ tips in floating, clear intermediate, and type 3, 6 and 8 sink rates. It fishes well on both small and large rivers.

As far as switch and spey rods are concerned Rio has a great selection of multi-tip lines like their Skagit series and Wind-Cutter series lines.  If you need a sink tip that drops faster than the manufactured tips that come with the multi-tip lines, Rio makes a build-your-own tip line called T-14.  T-14 drops like a rock and is a good choice for those kings sitting in deep, tight pools.  If the kings are holding in runs that are on the far reaches of your normal casting range, you may want to look into Rio’s Outbound Integrated Shooting Taper. A great line for long distance casts that fishes incredible well.


A good reel with a smooth drag is must for kings. There is nothing worse than losing a big king to a reel seizing up or watching your fly line swim away.  The reel should be able to hold a few hundred yards of 30lb. backing. Galvan’s Torque series are a nice reel that is light in weight.  Ross’ CLA and Momentum series are both top quality reels, along with Nautilus’ CCF and Abel’s Super Series.  A good reel can make the difference between beaching a king or falling to pieces and becoming “the grown man that cried.”

Choosing the Best Flies

There are a lot of flies to choose from when targeting kings on the swing.  Here are some helpful insights when choosing flies.

Early Season:

· The big and bright rule. Try pink and fuchsia flies on bright days and chartreuse on dark days.

· Strung out patterns tied with stinger hooks are great. Dolly Llamas, Intruders, Jumbo Critters and Super Prawns are a few of the best.

· Big leeches like Hareballs are very good, too.

Late Season:

· Think dark. Purple, Black/Red, Black/Orange and Black/Blue flies are deadly.

· Jumbo Critters, Thundermoals, Signature Intruder and other “big uglies” can do the trick.

· Fish smaller patterns when kings are sulking. Egg Sucking Leeches and Hareball Leeches are a good choice.

As the long glorious days of June and July come to Alaska it is time to roust your 10 weight from its winter hibernation. This time when you head out, think about swinging a fly. If you’re curious about Spey or switch fishing, now’s the time! More than likely there will be a river nearby where a swung fly will give you a good shot at hooking a mighty king. When that happens hold on and enjoy the ride.