The Running Line Technique:
Catch More Salmon River Steelhead

          There are many Great Lakes tributaries that have runs of Steelhead. One of them is the Salmon River in Pulaski, New York about 30 miles North of Syracuse. This river is a well known tributary of Lake Ontario. It is my Steelhead fishing home. Why? It’s within a day’s drive of most Northeast and Midwest locations. The Salmon River has many plusses: it is situated in picturesque farming country, there is convenient road-side access to each bank, and many excellent reasonably priced accommodations.

          Malinda’s in Altmar, NY is where I like to stay. Her rooms are conveniently upstairs from her excellent fly-fishing tackle shop and come equipped with a fly tying table and light for after hours fly-tying. Many Salmon River Pools are within easy walking distance from Malinda’s, among them: the lower fly-fishing catch and release only zone, the Schoolhouse and Wire Hole Pools, plus other pools. Steelhead fishing on the Salmon River is relatively inexpensive and absolutely world class. What higher praise is there?

          There are many fishing methods to present flies to Steelhead. Some are more effective than others. The running-line method is my favorite but is not considered “traditional fly-fishing” and, per NY State regulations for the Salmon River, is not legal for this River’s upper and lower fly-fishing/catch and release only zones. Nevertheless, I love to use a running line because it presents my flies in the best possible manner for cold water steelhead.

          Here are the theoretical underpinnings of the method. Salmon River Steelhead are seasonal fish of late fall, winter and early spring where the water temperatures range from the low forties to mid thirties Fahrenheit. Such temperatures slow the metabolism of cold-blooded steelhead so they have less energy to expend. These conditions force steelhead to hold as close to the river bottom as possible. Why? The friction of the water column’s bottom layer against the river’s bottom makes the current of this layer the slowest in the water column. This explains why winter steelhead will hold as close to the bottom as possible to conserve energy. Holding in higher layers of the water column means swimming against stronger currents and thus using more energy which in turn requires a higher metabolic rate than steelhead can maintain in lower water temperatures. Therefore, your best presentation is the one that puts your fly closest to the bottom where the fish are holding. The running line method with a fly-rod achieves this presentation - even better than spinning equipment!

          Here are the practical aspects of how to use the method with reference to spinning technique which the Running Line method resembles. Both spinning and the Running Line Techniques use weight (sinker or float) to lob the fly into the river. Generally, your cast should be at a 90 degree angle from the bank across the stream. I suggest you not cast too far upstream from your position because then your weight will have more slack line to fall and lodge in a crevice resulting in a hang-up. In this instance, your only hope for avoiding a hang-up is that the water is deep and the current strong enough to carry your sinker slightly downstream from your position before your weight hits the bottom. The longer casts offered by spinning equipment are not the advantage they might seem to be. The reason is line belly. Salmon River guide, Ed Martin ( is a demon on line belly.

          “Keep your rod tip high”, Ed says. “You have too much line in the water! Straighten your line! Feel your sinker lightly tapping bottom through your drift. Pull in some line!”

          Line belly is more line (slack line) in the water than can be controlled by an upraised rod tip. This extra line allows the river current to pull your line and sinker downstream and also exerts an upward pressure on the sinker towards the end of the drift so it never makes contact with the bottom and your fly never drifts naturally with the current. Furthermore, line belly can cause strikes to go undetected. The trick is to maintain a straight tight connection between your sinker and rod tip, so you will have less line in the water (less line belly), better bottom contact, and a slower natural drift through the lower layer of the water column. Remember: after completing your cast, keep your rod tip high! On long casts a good additional practice is to immediately pull in some line and keep your rod tip high to avoid line belly. At the end of the cast you might lower your rod tip to extend your drift, but not if your sinker is drifting into slower water. Then you should raise your rod tip to allow your sinker to move freely along the bottom of a slower moving current. Remember Ed Martin’s admonitions!

          The components of the Running Line system are as follows: First, the Running line is an un-tapered level fly line with a diameter ranging from .020 to .031 thousands of an inch. My running line’s diameter is 030 thousands of an inch (30 lb test) and, although quite thin, it has a standard fly line coating. These lines come in various colors - mine happens to be red. The line coating and color makes the line easier to see in low light, is softer, and easier to handle than monofilament lines of the same diameter. Second, the steelhead fly rod and reel you normally use, (typically 6 to 8 weight) will be perfect to use the Running Line Method.. Third, you will need an extra spool for your current reel or, possibly, a new reel to hold the running line and backing. Fourth, a pencil weight sinker rig (as shown in the photo) will be a good idea. Fifth, to improve your on-stream efficiency, it’s a good idea to prepare in advance an adequate supply of three-way weight swivels with pre-attached rubber tubing and pencil weights cut in different weights so you can easily change your weight as required. I recommend cutting pliers with a round punch to make a hole in the rubber tubing for attachment to the three-way swivel. The tools, materials, and assemblies for the process are shown in the photos.

          I prefer pencil weight sinkers instead of split shot for the Salmon River. Here’s why. My first sinker rig was various combinations of split shots attached above the swivel used to join the leader from my line to my leader tippet. Though I was careful, I still had many bottom hang-ups. The pencil weight rig reduced my bottom hang-ups and also provided a smoother drift than split shot. Split shot can be used but I recommend for the Salmon River using pencil weights to reduce bottom hang-ups.

          The running line terminal rig diagram illustrates my own personal preferences. Every fly fisherman has a strong personal (almost devotional) attachment to their favorite knots, so feel free to use your own knots. Per the diagram, I attach the leader that connects the running line to the size 14 three-way swivel to the running line via a nail knot. The breaking strength of this leader should be less than that of the running line and greater than that of the tippet so river bottom hang-ups result in loss of only your fly and not your entire rig. For this purpose, I have had good results using a .013 fluorocarbon leader rated at 15 pounds. Depending on the fishing situation my tippets range from .007 to .010 thousands of an inch in diameter or roughly 5 to 10 pounds. I like loop-to-loop connections but not for the running line method. Loop-to-loop connections when drawn through my rod guides interfere with the smooth flow of line necessary for smooth long casts. Captain Steve Kowalski ( convinced me not to use loop-to-loop connections.

          “Those loops are causing your casting problem” he said. “Let me attach a new leader directly to your running line”

          I agreed and my casts became easier and longer. Steve was right!

          I use size 14 three-way swivels. Some fishermen use only a two-way swivel and attach their pencil weight to one end or the other. There are excellent tying instructions for nail knots and many other knots in Practical Fishing Knots by Mark Sosin and Lefty Kreh (The Lyons Press, 1991). Finally, for the two knots on each end of the 3 way-swivel, I use a Tie-Fast ™ knot tier (see photo).

          In conclusion, floating, sink tips, and full sinking fly lines are appropriate for water column levels closer to the surface. However, fly fishermen after steelhead in very cold water should use the running line technique to reach the slower bottom layer of the water column. Pencil weights, instead of split shot, allow a smoother drift over the bottom with fewer hang-ups. The Running Line method will seem strange at first, but with a little practice you’ll make better presentations, have more hook-ups, land more Steelhead, and have more fun!



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