A steady drizzle is falling from a gray sky. You are standing on the edge of a swollen river with a fly box in your hand. Somewhere in those cold and murky depths, a steelhead is lurking. Which fly is going to tempt this fish that has traveled the oceans and returned to this river, not for a meal, but for the sole purpose of reproduction?
There are a multitude of factors you have to consider including water levels, water clarity, water temperature, weather and time of the year. Picking the right fly to catch one of these chrome dragons can be daunting. These are seventeen of my favorite flies for catching steelhead.
1. Pink Nuke Egg, Size #8-#14 a Proven Pattern for Steelhead
Egg patterns are synonymous with steelheading. The Nuke Egg is tied with a thin yarn veil around it that imitates the goo that typically holds eggs together, and this subtle veil seems to draw more strikes than your average egg. The best way to fish an egg pattern is to dead drift it beneath a strike indicator.
If the water is murky, go with a bigger, more visible egg. If the water is clear, drop down to a more realistic egg in the #14 range. In terms of color, your best option is to find an egg in the current and match the color. Even when you’re fishing eggs, you have to match the hatch. It is hard to believe that a piece of yarn tied to a hook can tempt these incredible fish, but this fly is absolutely deadly when fished the right way.
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2. Death Roe, Size #10-#14 Hook is it a Fly?
Beads have a nasty rap in some fly fishing circles because they are not hand-tied, but there are several reasons to fish a bead and hook rig. These beads are designed to look just like a real salmon egg; they even have the same buoyancy. Hard plastic beads work great, but the durability and perfect buoyancy of this pattern make them hard to beat. I prefer fishing a bead and hook setup over a tradition egg because I think it is better for the fish.
Fish tend to inhale eggs, and a bead and hook setup ensures that you hook the fish in the corner of the mouth instead of burying a barbed piece of steel in their gullet. The setup for a bead and hook setup is simple: peg your egg two to three fingers above a bare hook. Make sure that you do not skimp on your hook. There is nothing more heartbreaking that throwing a couple thousand casts and then losing a big buck because your hook straightened out.
3. Guide Intruder, Size #2 or #4 in Tough Water this Fly Works
Over the years I have learned that steelhead are not fair-water fish. When the river is swollen and angry or off-color because of blown out tributaries, steelhead are more active and aggressive. Add in some drizzle and some fog and you’ve got the perfect steelhead soup. If you are fishing in these high water and murky conditions, you need a fly that is going to stand out and the Guide Intruder has the profile to do just that.
This fly comes in a wide variety of colors. Pink is hard to beat, but if the conditions are extra murky, I tie on a purple variation with a chartreuse butt. This fly is tied with dumbbell eyes which ensures that it can get down to fish in those heavier flows, and it is designed to be fished on the swing.
4. Lady Ga Ga Intruder, Size #1, #2, or #4 This Fly Gets Steelhead MAD
Invented by steelheading guide Travis Johnson, the Lady Gaga is tied to imitate a little rainbow trout. Big bucks (male steelhead) hate little rainbow trout because they will hang out behind hens (female steelhead) in hopes of inseminating her eggs.
These little rainbow trout will even go so far as to harass the bucks to draw them away from a hen so that their buddies can sneak in behind the hen. The bucks response to this juvenile behavior is savage and involves teeth, and that is why the Lady Gaga is so effective. The blue and white version works best in clear waters, while I’ve found that the pink/purple variation with copper flash works best during high water.
5. Otter’s Soft Milking Egg, #12 Steelhead Love Egg Flies
Otter’s Soft Milking Egg is effective because it is realistic. The texture of this egg ensures that fish hold onto it for a little longer than a hard plastic or epoxy egg, the sink rate is designed to mimic that of a real egg, and the translucent appearance and opaque colors are spot on.
What really sets this egg pattern apart is the ‘milking’ feature. Milking occurs when an egg is fertilized or ruptures and spills its contents into the water. Fish this egg beneath a strike indicator, make that you have a good drift, and be ready.
6. Egg Sucking Leech, Size #2-#6 Egg + Woolly = Steelhead
The Egg Sucking Leech is one of the most versatile steelheading flies because it can be fished on the swing as well as dead drifted beneath a strike indicator. Although the Egg Sucking Leech can be fished on the swing, I prefer to rig it in a tandem nymph rig. Fish will usually come over to check out the leech, and then take the small egg or nymph that I run about eighteen inches behind it.
I usually tie these in black or purple. If you are fishing this fly beneath an indicator, let it swing at the end of the drift and hang it in the current. Wait a couple of seconds and then give it a couple small strips before you recast.
7. Sucker Spawn Size 8 to 12 When the Time is Right a Deadly Steelhead Fly
Around the great lakes steelhead run during and after the major run of the redhorse sucker. Often the steelhead and suckers will be competing for the same gravel. Approaching the likely steelhead water often causes the suckers to scatter, which in turn spooks the steelhead.
Sucker spawn tends to be on the diet for those chrome beauties so dribbling these flies through dark holding water can be a reciepe for some fish in a net. Fish this pattern the same as you would the nuke egg detailed above.
8. Hoh Bo Spey, Size #2 Great for Casting to Steelhead
Whether you are fishing for spring, summer, fall or winter steelhead, you want to be sure to have a couple Hoh Bo Spey flies in your box. This fly is great because it is big enough to be noticed but it doesn’t carry the same weight that most attractor patterns do. These characteristics translate into an easy casting fly that triggers strikes in a variety of water conditions. The Hoh Bo Spey is a great option for shallower water, and it tends to skitter over structure that heavier flies tend to get snagged on.
9. Agent Orange, Size #6 for Steelhead
It is easy to get caught up swinging big intruders patterns, but nymphs can be just as productive. One of my favorite nymph patterns for steelhead is the Agent Orange. The Agent Orange pattern walks the line between an attractor and a nymph.
It has many characteristics of a stonefly nymph, but it also has a bright orange bead that stands out in the water. Another great thing about this fly is that it is heavy enough that you generally don’t have to add split-shot to your rig in order to get it down in the water column. The Agent Orange should be fished beneath an indicator, and trailing a small egg or nymph behind this bug can be really deadly.
10. Flashback Hare’s Ear, Size #12-#14 a Proven Chrome Sticker
The Hare’s Ear is a tried and true pattern that works from New Zealand to Montana, and it is a great pattern for catching steelhead as well. Summer steelhead in the PNW or winter steelhead in the Great Lakes Region are particularly susceptible to nymph patterns like the Flashback Hare’s Ear.
Large attractor patterns can put fish off, but trailing a hare’s ear behind your gaudy offering can often prove very effective. I like to fish the Flashback Hare’s Ear beneath a strike indicator in clear water conditions when the weather is clear. As with any nymph, a good drift is paramount.
11. Woolly Bugger, Size #4-#10 Okay This Fly Just Works
No steelheading box is complete without a Woolly Bugger or two Woolly Buggers imitate everything from minnows to crayfish to sculpin. I like to carry Woolly Buggers in a wide variety of colors, but I make sure that I have white, olive and black on all occasions. I have found that lighter colors work the best when the water is clearer, and darker colors work better when the water is off-color.
Given that Woolly Buggers imitate so many different types of food, they can be dead drifted beneath an indicator in a tandem nymph rig or swung through the current. I utilize both methods, and mixing in twitches and small strips during the drift and swing can also produce good numbers of fish.
12. Steelhead Bomber, Size #6-#8 a Deadly Top Water Fly
Hooking a steelhead is hard to describe, but watching a steelhead smash or sip a dry fly off the surface is something else entirely. My favorite dry fly for steelhead is the Steelhead Bomber. The Bomber is most effective during the summer and early autumn when water temperatures are relatively warm. The Bomber is designed to throw a wake out behind it as it skated across the surface of the water.
If the water is more turbulent, you need to throw a slightly bigger Bomber in order to achieve a wake big enough to attract fish. If you are fishing quieter water, or water that sees more fishing pressure, I like to throw smaller Bombers. I generally fish Steelhead Bombers on a twelve foot, 0x fluorocarbon leader, and I direct my casts across or downstream depending on how fast the current is.
13. Skagit Minnow, Size #2 a Swing Steelhead Fly
The Skagit Minnow, named for the river on which it was designed to fish, was designed to fish big water. It has a big profile and the marabou feathers that it is tied with gives it incredible action in the water.
I have had the most luck on the red/black Skagit Minnow, but the pink or blue versions are also deadly in high water. This fly should be fished on the swing, and make sure that you let it dangle at the end of the swing and then give it a couple short strips… Be ready.
14. Polar Shrimp, Size #6 a Pacific Coast Steelhead Fly
This fly has been around since the 1930s, and there is a reason why. The Polar Shrimp is classic that has caught more than its fair share of steelhead.
This fly is particularly effective for fresh steelhead in clear or low water situations. It is tied to imitate shrimp, and fresh steelhead simply cannot resist this morsel that so closely resembles a food source that they regularly gorge on in the ocean. While the Polar Shrimp can be dead drifted beneath an indicator, I prefer to fish it on the swing.
15. Pick Yer’ Pocket, Size #2 a Big Tasty Steelhead Fly
The Pick Yer’ Pocket pattern is one of my favorite steelhead flies because it looks fishy, stands out in the water, and it is easy to cast. The problem with most big ‘intruder’ style flies is the amount of material that you have to cast.
The Pick Yer’ Pocket has plenty of weight to it, but the materials it is tied with don’t pick up water-weight like marabou and rabbit do. This fly is tied in a wide variety of colors, but my favorites are pink, black and purple. I particularly like fishing this fly in off-color or high water situations. If you get a strike and miss it, switch colors and swing it over them again.
16. Copper John, Size #6-#10 a Traditional Steelhead Fly
The main reason that the Copper John is a great steelheading fly is because it is a great stonefly pattern. The Copper John is tied with different colored copper wire and a bead head, usually tungsten. All of this weight ensures that your fly gets down in water column and hangs out where those fish like to be.
Fish this fly beneath an egg or an attractor pattern, and make sure to fish it behind subsurface structures like rocks and shelfs. Steelhead rest behind these structures, and if you bounce a Copper John off their nose, most of the time you’ll end up with a piece of chrome lightning.
17. “Bear’s” Hex Size #6-#10 for Steelhead
A popular Great Lakes fly, the “Bear’s” Hex si a larger nymph that tumbles through those dark waters. A proven fly tied by a true fly tying master. I often fish this as a lead fly with an egg tied-on off the bend.
I caught my first steelhead on my third cast. I had no idea what I was doing, but I tied on an egg pattern and a strike indicator and casted up into a riffle. My indicator slipped under the water and across the current and I set the hook. Before I could really appreciate what was happening, my first steelhead was screaming downstream and I was in for the fight of my life. It has been ten years, but I will never forget that fish or the sound my reel made as she took off down stream.
I didn’t count how many casts I made before I hooked another steelhead, but I am sure the number is in the thousands. Steelhead will humble you and stretch your patience to the point where all you can hear is the river, and all you can think about is the swing of your fly.
But that is the magic of steelheading. It a solitude above all others, and just when you are about to give it up forever, there is a tug and you are hooked for life.