Hangout and Hangdown for More Steelhead

By Scott Richmond

My first fly-caught steelhead was on Oregon's Clackamas River. I don't remember how long ago it was, but I think Ronald somebody was president.

Here's how it happened. I was between Fish Creek and North Fork Reservoir, in a lovely tree-shaded slot I'd never fished before. There were two large midriver rocks. I worked my fly along the current seam next to the lower rock. After ten casts, I felt I'd covered the water but gotten no takes. The fly finished its swing, and I left it hanging in the water about fifty feet downstream from me while I looked upstream, wondering what to do next. I was paying no attention at all to my fly; after all, the cast was done.

After a brief time--five seconds? twenty seconds?--I became aware that my rod hand was being pulled downstream. I turned and saw the fly line zipping away from me. I'd hooked a steelhead!

The fish was small--about four pounds--but it illustrated a vital point: when you're casting for steelhead, the hangdown is important!

The Hangdown

The classic steelhead tactic is to cast about forty-five degrees downstream, mend line upstream, and let the fly swing slowly across until it stops. Then step downstream and do it again (and again and again and again . . . ).

But before taking that downstream step--after the fly stops swinging--there's the hangdown. That's when the fly is not going anywhere; it's just waving in the current.

The hangdown a crucial phase of the presentation, yet many steelheaders omit it. Bad idea.

Why It Matters

Here's how steelhead usually move to a fly. The fish is resting in one spot. The fly swings past its nose. But that's not usually when the steelhead grabs it. The fish follows the fly for a few feet, then takes it (or not . . . ).

The fish may follow the fly all the way to the end of the swing. Then it might sit there thinking fishy thoughts before either returning to its original lie or suddenly deciding to eat your fly.

How often do they sit there--nose on the fly, mouth closed? More often than you want to know. How many of those "movers" will eventually take the fly that's hanging in front of them? A lot.

In my experience, at least thirty percent of my steelhead take the fly on the hangdown. That tracks with what I hear from a lot of fishing guides.

Run the math: that means that if you don't have a hangdown, you'll catch a lot fewer steelhead.

Why do some anglers omit or shortchange the hangdown? I think they're too eager move on to the next cast. Just standing there doing nothing seems so . . . I don't know, like bait fishing.

How to Hangout and Hangdown

You'll get some debate about how long to do a hangdown. I opt for ten seconds. Usually I'm holding on to my wading staff, so I tick off the seconds with my fingers: thumb to pinky, then pinky back to thumb. Do it however makes sense to you, but don't rush it. Give it a full count.

Now here's the problem. When the steelhead grabs the fly on a hangdown, most anglers want to set the hook--just give that rod a big upwards jerk! Unfortunately that usually rips the fly right out of the fish's mouth. The correct response is the opposite of your instinct: push the rod toward the fish. If that's too hard for you, try doing nothing.

So next time you're chasing the silver goddess of the Northwest, don't forget to hangout and hangdown!

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).