Fly fishing for Steelhead is a different sorta thing that draws a different sorta person and takes different sorts of gear and tactics. Generally, when an angler is in the river searching for these chrome-cast monsters it is in the months where most folks are figuring what size auger to use for drilling holes to catch fish, not what size flies.
Steelhead are Rainbow Trout that have migrated out of the rivers into big water (Oceans or Great Lakes) and then come back to the river to breed, perform the spawning migration. This happens on the west coast from Northern California all the way north to Alaska and in the East in most states that have tributaries to the Great Lakes. This trip, or ‘run’, to propagate the species takes place from about the time we humans change our clocks to “Fall Back” an hour in early November all the way through the Spring of the following year up until about Mid April.
This is truly a cold water migration, and unlike salmon, Steelhead are alive from the beginning through the entire process and then head back out to the big water. Anadromous, is the term that is given to fish that use this method of a lifecycle. This means an angler can target these fish on their way upstream to spawn and as the go back down stream or “Drop Back” and head to the large H2O.
So, with that being said Steelhead are a hardy fish and in my estimation one of the best battles one can engage with on a fly in freshwater. The gear you need to really make headway in these moments of engagement is very specific. We will briefly cover the two handed rods that some folks use but will mostly concentrate on the standard one handed fly setups that can be used with a base knowledge of fly fishing fundamentals.
Fly Rods For Steelhead
The rundown of rods that can be used for these fish concentrates on three types in all actuality. The standard Single Handed Fly Rod, the Switch Rod and the Spey Rod are all in play here.
A Switch Rod is exactly what the name states, a rod you can cast with one or two hands. They are about a third as heavy as an actual Spey rod and can be used with Skagit or Scandi Lines. For the purposes of this conversation of winter Steelhead we would load our Switch Rod with Skagit line. This line has a “heavy” tip section or “Shooting” tip and is meant to Cast big streamers or “Meat Flies”. This line turns over fast and will require a sinking or floating tip. Switch rods are a good middle ground but as my dear friend Craig (Licensed Guide and Captain) states “They excel at absolutely nothing.”
A Spey Rod on the other hand excels at one very particular thing, getting a large fly out far and down in the strike zone. This is a two-hand only proposition. They help you cast a long distance and punch through the wind. Spey casting, when done properly, is beautiful. These rods are long, topping out around 14 feet and the line is twice as heavy as Single-Handed fly line. They are purpose-built and great for the task they are intended.
This brings us to the bread and butter of fly fishing, The Single handed fly rod. The reason we will concentrate on this setup is a barrier to entry issue. Switch and Spey rods are pound for pound more expensive than a Single Hand setup that is capable of handling this game and both require a different skill set than one may have gotten from just a bit of time with a standard trout or panfish rod in their hands.
An angler would be well suited to set himself or herself up with a 10 foot 8 weight rod and quality floating line. Unlike the set ups for smaller trout and panfish the reel does more than just hold the line, it helps you fight these fish that will normally tip the scales at double digits and can jump like they are trying to win a slam dunk contest. I would suggest a stout Large Arbor reel with a solid disc drag system. The one “extra” you may want to look for is a spare spool that you can load with a sinking line, but that is not a necessity. This total setup will put you in the game for these winter run fish.
Setting Up Your Fly Rig For Steelhead
After you get that together, you will need some 9 foot 3x leaders and tippet that matches up. Get fluorocarbon, Steelies are notoriously line shy. You will need some egg-shaped strike indicators, a split shot, a landing glove and a semi-dedicated fly box. Oh and warm clothes, Steelhead are a very northern latitude fish.
Flies For Steelhead
Now the fun part, what are we throwing at these things? How are we setting them up? Lets dig in! If you’re setting up a fly box just for Steelhead these are the “Must Haves” for general purpose chrome getting. This particular section could be an article all by itself, and has been written as such before, so I am going to give you some basic categories with a few standouts in each.
The number one most imitated morsel of food in fly form is an egg, it can be a salmon egg, trout egg, or sucker egg. Some amazing patterns for this category are The Nuke Egg, The Blood Dot, Sparkle Egg, The Estaz Fly, Sucker Spawn and purists forgive me the Death Roe soft plastic egg. The later is terribly effective when drifted just above a bare hook below enough shot to get it to the fish. Yet, is occasionally frowned upon in some fly fishing circles. I actually used to work with the owner of Death Roe, and I will tell you I wouldn’t frown upon anything Mike has put out because that dude is a true outdoorsman. My personal favorite is the Estaz fly, but most folks have pinned their choice down to a Blood Dot or Nuke Egg.
Egg patterns can be fished as a dropper in some places(where legal) and are often fished under an indicator and shot. They should be fished similarly to an unweighted nymph. This is where that 10 foot rod beats out the 9 foot, especially when drifting and mending. The name of the game is less drag on the fly when possible.
Speaking of drifting and dragging the next category is very common to your fly box already, Nymphs. I have heard the rumor that 90 percent of all trout species taken every year are caught on a Nymph, I can buy that rumor because there have been years I wouldn’t have caught anything if it wasn’t for these little legged imitators. If you have the idea of how to Nymph fish for trout, Steelhead are the same just with a bigger bang.
Look through your fly box, the larger Nymph sizes in there will work for Chromers. BeadHead anything works well. So you can throw a Stone Fly, Hares Ear, Copper John, or Pheasant Tail. This is also the way I would fish the Wooly Bugger that is called Egg Sucking Leech. I don’t strip or swing that fly often, because of the nature of what it is meant to represent. Sizes you should be looking at should range from 6’s through 10’s and have multiple multiples of each in each size if possible. You will snag them, break them off and let’s face it there will be wind and trees at play here too.
Finally the most fun category of fly for winter steel are the Streamers. You will be swinging these a lot of the time but also occasionally stripping them too. Remember a lot of Steelhead Streamers are tied for Spey and Switch rods, you can throw them on a single hand but they are big and tough to turn over. I would look at anything in the Zonker category, WHite Death being a great one. Also standard Wooly Buggers, Sculpins , Green Butt Skunk and the Intruder.
IF you didn’t buy that most fish are caught on a Nymph, try this any fish can be caught on a Clousers Minnow and these cold water bruisers are no exception. This category is also what might bring the extra spool and sink tip line into play.
Tactics For Steelhead
Well, you have an idea about timing, a new setup and enough flies to drag you under if you fell in, we should consider some tactics. Remember, these are still trout. Shelter, Breeding and Food are to Fish as Live, Laugh, Love are to suburbanites in SUV’s…universal. You can target Steelhead in any place you would target a stocked trout, Eddy, Riffle, Pool, you get the picture. They tend to be line shy so I like a little bit of movement to the water, in the spring I will target some frog water but generally I like something at about the pace of a walk. I like to fish towards the head and tails of pools. Any offshoot can hold good fish, I would tend to start shallow and fish to deep. Remember to always cast close, there are a lot of fish not caught because they are simply at someone’s feet. If you understand the basics of targeting fish in lies you just need to scale that to the water you will end up on for Steelhead.
Steelhead is an all day affair, an angler who shows up before first light is fishing the coldest part of the day but often some of the best action, same with the end of daylight too. My days fishing steelhead often look something like, streamers for two hours, nymphs and eggs mid day, streamers for an hour or so before dark. Like most things in the world the big meals are at either the beginning or end of the day with some light snacking in the middle.
Well, now that you’ve read all of this, picked out your gear, flies and blend of coffee all you have to do is hit a river. You can book guides all over the areas aforementioned, make sure they encourage fly fishing, or you can bang the bank yourself. Please be safe either way, korkers, a staff and a self inflating vest are always a good idea for water that is normally this cold, icey and deep. Remember to dress for the weather, but also remember the in climate conditions are part of the draw. Bring lots of calorically dense food and warm liquids and stop by some local shops for the best local info. Now is the time to make this trip a reality, we are at the beginning of the run now and it’s on for about 6 months, get in on it!