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Swinging Flies for King Salmon


LEADBrad Elfers and Dave McKenna with a double king on the swing in Southeast Alaska. KINGS: DOING THE SWING
Swinging for kings isn’t a dance from the 1930’s, nor is it a 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. Brute strength and mind-blowing runs make kings one of the hardest fish to land on the fly. To take one of these beasts on the fly is a challenge, to take one on the swing is king.

There are many fly-fishing techniques that are effective for kings. Three of the most popular are:
  • Stripping streamers
  • Nymphing
  • Swinging
Stripping streamers is a good technique for fish that are milling around in slack water or sitting in water that is too slow to effectively swing a fly. Nymphing works well on holding fish in deep pools. This is especially effective 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 of your arms” take. The anticipation of the tug is what swinging is all about. One moment you are in La-La Land, the next moment things are happening so fast that if you blink, the fight is over.
King2Sharol Roys with a chrome bright King Salmon in Juneau, Alaska.
HOW TO SWING
Swinging is not 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 downstream 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. If the fly hasn’t been smashed through the swing, be patient and finish out. Kings will often 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 begin fishing, cover the water close in and then slowly work your cast out. Even though kings prefer to hold in deeper runs, on occasion they can be found in shallows. 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.

The general rule is to cast down at a 45, but this is just a general rule. The speed of the swing is determined by the angle of the cast. Aggressive fish may be enticed by a faster moving fly, while less aggressive fish may require a slower swung fly which hangs in their face. To create a faster swing, try casting at more of a 90 degree across the current. This will create more drag on the belly of the line in turn speeding up the pace that the fly is swung. To slow things down, cast the line at less of an angle. Casting down at 30 degree across the current will leave less of the belly for the current to grab, which results in a slow swing. Immediately after making the cast, use up river mending and a high rod tip position to allow the fly to sink. Once the fly is in the “zone,” drop the rod tip and start the swing.
KingMatt Roys with a fly caught King Salmon.
WHERE TO FIND KINGS
Many major rivers throughout Alaska have king salmon 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. Rivers like the Kenai can be more difficult to find a king on the fly due to heavy fishing pressure, fast current and milky water. Then there is the Nushagak, a giant river with one of the largest run of kings in Alaska. Epic, 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 throughout 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 transition from shallow to deep water with moderate current so that you can get the fly down into the strike 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 their weird 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 switch rod. Each rod has its advantages and disadvantages and choosing one will depend on personal choice, water types and strategy.

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

Advantages:
  • 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.
Disadvantages:
  • 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.
  • It is harder to mend large amounts of line.

SPEY RODS
AKA double-handed or two-handers are popular in 12 ½ - 15 foot 9-10 weights.

Advantages:
  • Much less effort is needed to make long cast
  • Larger mends are easier to make
  • Easier to throw big flies and heavy sinking lines when using Skagit Shooting Heads
Disadvantages:
  • They are difficult to fish on small water
  • Two handed rods are challenging to fish from a boat
  • Limitations of fishing techniques. Due to their length, swinging is the most common technique used with Spey rods. Stripping flies and nymphing, while possible, are not ideal when using a Spey rod

SWITCH RODS
Switch rods are short two-handed rods that average 10 ½ to 11 ½ feet in length with 8 and 9 weights being most popular for kings. Switch rods can be fished by either overhead casting or Spey-style casting and switching between the two styles is easy.

Advantages:
  • Versatility.  Both overhead and Spey casting can be done
  • They are easy to fish from a boat
  • They work well on both small and large rivers
Disadvantages:
  • Not as easy to fish in all techniques as a single hander
  • Do not cast as far as Spey rods
CHOOSING A LINE
Kings generally hold near the bottom of the river and prefer deeper runs and pools. They are also generally reluctant to come up for a fly.  So you will need a fly line that gets the fly down to the fish. Luckily there are more great lines for king fishing than ever before.

On some rivers, like the Karluk River 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 Kanektok, may require heavier tips to get your fly down. If you are fishing a single hand fly rod, a multi-tip fly lines is a great way to cover all the bases. It is good to have 15’ tips in floating, intermediate, type 3, type 6 and type 8 sink rates to cover as many fishing situations as possible.

As far as switch and spey rods are concerned, a Skagit head system is the most versatile and easy to cast. It is comprised of a thin running line, a Skagit head that matches the grain weight of your rod, and a variety of sinking tips that loop on the end of the Skagit head. These tips can be as long as 15 feet but typically run 10 feet in length. Today there are many styles of Skagit Shooting Heads that vary in length from short/compact to traditional/long. The longer heads pair well with standard Spey rods, while some of the short/compact heads can be used with traditional 9’ single hand rods.

REELS
If ever there was a time to spend a few extra bucks, it is on your king reel. A good reel with a smooth drag is an absolute 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. A good reel can make the difference between beaching a king or falling to pieces and becoming “the grown man that cried.”

FLIES
There are a lot of flies to choose from when targeting kings on the swing. Here are some general rules of thumb when choosing flies.
Early Season:
  • The big and bright rule. Try pink and fuchsia flies on bright days and chartreuse on dark days. Tidewater fish are particularly fond of pink, orange, chartreuse and chartreuse/blue flies.
  • Strung out patterns tied with stinger hooks are preferable. They swim enticingly and when you do hook up there is less hook length for the fish to lever against.
Late Season:
  • Think dark. Purple, Black/Red, Black/Orange and Black/Blue flies are deadly. These colors are particularly good when you are fishing the middle and upper sections of the river and the fish have been in for awhile.
  • Fish smaller patterns when kings are sulking.
Also consider the weight of the fly. Having some weighted flies is a good thing. The lead eyes definitely give big king flies extra action in the water. However, by the time you’re into hour 4 of a king session and fatigue starts setting in, those lead eyed flies start getting challenging to cast. Have some light weight patterns along that you can swap out when the going gets tough. If you choose your sink tip carefully, the line will get your fly down in front of Mr. King.

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. 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.
FLIES
  • Stu's Ostrich Intruder
  • Party Girl
  • Squidro
  • Megawatt
Full List of Swinging Flies 



SINGLE-HAND SET UP
  • Sage Motive
  • Echo Boost Salt
  • Winston BIIIX
  • Hatch 7 Plus
  • Nautilus CCF-X2
  • Rio Versi-Tip Fly Line
FULL SINGLE HAND SET UP



SWITCH ROD SET UP
  • Sage X
  • Hatch 9 Plus
  • Nautilus NV
  • Rio Switch Chucker
FULL SWITCH ROD SET UP



SPEY ROD SET UP
  • Echo King
  • CCF-X2 Silver King
  • Airflo Skagit G2 Head
  • Rio MOW Tip
  • Ridge Running Line
FULL SPEY ROD SET UP

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