My favorite way to chase steelhead is in small rivers and streams. One of my nameless rivers is a small stream by Western standards, especially in its upper reaches. There, following a narrow corridor through the forest, the river rushes down over a bottom of bright gravel, spills into sparkling pools and pockets and eases past long ledges of slippery bedrock. Fishermen call this stretch the Holy Water.

One day I walked out on a rocky ledge that borders a section of the Holy Water and looked down into the swift run along its edge. At my feet were three steelhead holding in the current near the bottom. There was no place upstream or down from which I could reach them with a cast, so I simply stripped the sinking line off the reel and cast upstream from where I stood.

Fly Fishing for Small Stream Steelhead

Thanks to polarized glasses, I could see every detail as the current swept the fly down toward the fish, and I watched as one of them turned calmly and took it in his mouth. I lifted the rod and the fish came out of the river in a burst of spray. In about as much time as it takes to tell it, the steelhead ran upstream, snugged my leader around an underwater snag and snapped off the tippet.

But by then I didn’t care; the sight of that fish taking the fly literally underfoot was enough reward to last me through the day. It’s not often a fisherman is privileged to see a thing like that, but such are the surprises that await the angler who seeks steelhead in small streams. Steelhead fly fishing always has had a reputation for being a hard work, double-haul, shooting-taper routine, with ultra-long casts over great, gray rivers whose secrets remain forever hidden from the angler.

Much of it really is that way, but many anglers also have discovered the rewards and intimacies of seeking steelhead in smaller streams-little roll-cast rivers that are easy to wade and easy to know in any season of the year. And in the past few years, stocking programs have brought steelhead runs to many more such streams, both in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes states.

There are always a few fly fishermen willing to argue any point, and some say that a steelhead hooked in a small stream can’t give a full account of itself. True enough, a fish can’t pull off 100 yards of line if it hasn’t got 100 yards of river, and there’s no question that the confines of a small stream can inhibit the steelhead’s standard run-and-jump routine.

But from the steelhead’s point of view, that merely adds to the challenge and requires a different set of tricks. I’ve seen fish hooked at close quarters leap right into the branches of an overhanging tree, or make a bee-line under the nearest log jam. I’ve had them run between my legs and jump so close I could have reached out and caught them in mid-air. For my money, playing a steelhead in a small stream is no less exciting than fighting one hooked in a full-sized river; it’s just different.

Fly Fishing Tactics for Steelhead

Different tactics also are required for fishing small streams. Perhaps most important is the need for a careful, quiet approach. Steelhead often are extremely wary in the low, clear water that follows a spell of cold winter weather, or the even lower water of late summer, and at such times they can easily be spooked by a careless movement or a heavy footfall on the bank.

Among the “regular” fly fishermen who used to fish it were a couple of guys who painted their faces black and wore camouflaged shirts and hats. They’d crawl through the grass to the edge of the river, cradling their fly rods like commandos carrying rifles, and peer cautiously over the bank to look for fish. If they saw any, they’d maneuver slowly and carefully into position to cast, crouching down and doing everything possible to avoid detection. Their methods may have been a little unorthodox, but they always caught a lot of fish-and they rarely frightened one away before they had a chance to catch it.

It may not be necessary to dress up like a commando, but whenever possible it’s a good idea to try “high banking” a stream before you fish it. As the term implies, this means finding some high ground to provide a steep angle of observation. If high ground isn’t available, a sturdy tree will do (just make sure it’s sturdy before you try to climb it). Polarized glasses are essential, and some fisherman also use binoculars to help pick out the subtle gray shapes of fish lying among rocks of the same color.

Read these articles on Polarized Glasses How to Select Polarized Sunglasses for Fly Fishing and 5 Reasons to Use Polarized Sunglasses Fly Fishing

Once a fish is sighted, the next step is to plan the proper approach. If you can cast to the fish without entering the water, son much the better. But if you do have to wade, the keep low, move slowly and quietly and try to keep from stirring up waves on the surface or silt on the bottom. Think of the small-stream steelhead a wily chalk-stream brown, and behave accordingly.

Sometimes, no matter how cautions you are, the fish will sense your presence anyway. Often its first reaction will be to bolt, but not always. The steelhead is a totally unpredictable animal, and unless your approach is outrageously clumsy, a fish may just decide to wait around and see what you’re going to do next.

I once came upon a handsome steelhead lying between two boulders in the shallow tail-out of a pool. I’m sure the fish saw me long before I noticed it, but it chose to stay where it was. It took only a few casts with a sink-tip line before I was able to gauge the current well enough to swing the fly within inches of its snout, but the steelhead eyed each offering stoically and didn’t move. I started changing flies after each half-dozen casts, and finally-fully half an hour after I began fishing over it-there were some little signs of interest from the fish.

One of my favorite ways to fish for Steelhead is with Streamers. Read this article – How to Use Floating Fly Line for Streamer Fly Fishing

Its full attention now was focused on the fly that swung past it at regular intervals, and it began to shift up and down in its comfortable pocket between the rocks. I could sense that something was about to happen. It was a little like watching a kid who has heard something funny but is trying very hard to keep from laughing; you know it’s only a matter of moments before he’ll break up. The trouble was, I was getting just as excited as the fish.

With trembling fingers, I changed patterns one more time and made the now-familiar cast. Two pairs of anxious eyes-mine and the fish’s-followed the fly as it swung around just under the surface. I thought I was ready for what would happen next, but the fish nailed the fly so hard it nearly pulled the rod from my hand; it was one of the hardest strikes I’ve ever had in steelhead fishing. After all that, the ensuing fight seemed anticlimactic.

An experience like that is the exception rather than the rule. More often, if a fish sees you and still elects to hang around, you can bet it’s not going to pay much attention to your fly. But don’t automatically assume anything; it’s always worth at least a few casts to determine the fish’s mood.

When and Where to Fly Fish for Steelhead

Light, plays a critical role in all steelhead fishing, but especially on small streams. Direct sunlight, even in winter, usually is enough to drive fish to the deepest parts of the deepest pools, where it’s much harder to reach them with a fly. Strong light also makes the fish more wary. Under such conditions, seek out shaded portions of the stream.

A favorite “unnamed river” used to have a pool where the river had undermined the roots of a pair of big alders and left them leaning over the stream. By mid-afternoon of each day, the sun would make its way behind the alders and cast their shadows on the river. On a bright day, it was useless to fish the pool until that patch of shade was there, but then the first angler to drift a fly through it was almost sure to hook a fish.

For a couple of seasons, it was just about the most dependable steelhead fishing I’ve ever seen-until the river came up in a winter flood and carried away the alders. After that, there was no more shade on the pool, and the fishing there was erratic at best.

Early morning and late evening traditionally are the most productive times to fish for steelhead, either in winter or summer. During those times, when the light is low, the fish apparently feel secure enough to leave the bottom-hugging haunts they occupy by day, and move closer to the surface or sometimes into shallow water near the shore.

Swing Streamers with Floating Line
Swing Streamers with Floating Line

Most fishermen know this, but it’s surprising how few of them pay attention to it. They set their alarms for the crack of dawn, charge out to the river at first light and wade right in, spooking uncounted numbers of steelhead that were lying near the bank. A wise angler always fishes the shallows first.

Some anglers report having been able to raise steelhead to a dry fly during the winter, although I’ve never seen it done. But there’s no question that dry-fly opportunities abound during the low water of late summer, especially in smaller streams where it’s much easier to see the fish. And if you’re able to locate a fish, you may have a chance to raise it to a fly fished on a traditional upstream dry-fly cast. The rules are pretty much the same as in trout fishing, except that more patience is required because it often takes a great many casts to tempt a steelhead to come to the surface.
For the same reason, it’s usually a waste of time to fish upstream if you’re not certain a fish is there.

If you’re merely “fishing the water” in hopes of finding a steelhead, then it’s much more effective to fish a dry fly downstream with a riffle hitch. The erratic, dancing movement of the riffle-hitched fly often is enough to stimulate a rise on the first cast. The downstream riffle-hitch method also is worth trying if you’ve sighted a fish and been unable to raise it with a traditional upstream approach.

Steelhead Close to River Bank
Steelhead Close to River Bank

By either method, dry-fly fishing for steelhead can produce some of angling’s most exciting moments. The sight of a 10-pound fish wildly lunging through the surface to your fly is definitely not for the faint of heart.

Another pleasure of fishing for steelhead in smaller streams is that you’re likely to find fish almost anywhere, especially in a small river with a large run of fish. The good holding places will be occupied quickly, and late-arriving fish will be forced to look around for other spots. You may find them in shallow riffles, in small pockets, or even in relatively featureless water where you’d never normally expect them to be. Don’t pass up anything.

Low Water Fly Fishing for Steelhead

During low water, a steelhead my hole up in the same spot for days at a time. But with the first rise in the river, the fish will go on the move, heading upstream. If you catch a river on the rise-during or just after a hard rain or runoff-pay particular attention to pockets in heavy riffles or the slack water behind boulders. Fish on the move seek out such places to stop and rest and prepare themselves for the next dash against the flow.

Even the smallest river can color up in a freshet. To a steelhead fisherman, a little color can be a good thing, but too much is a lost cause. The rule I follow is to wade in up to my waist, then check to see if I can still see my feet. If I can’t then it’s time to go home and tie flies. But if I can still see what I’m standing on, then I figure a steelhead should be able to see my fly. Actually, the fishing sometimes can be surprisingly good under such circumstances. Steelhead seem to abandon their normal caution when there’s color in the water, and the fisherman can take greater liberties in his approach.

This article on Steelhead Flies details what every fly fisherman should carry. 17 Favorite Flies for CATCHING Steelhead

However, small rivers can suddenly get a lot larger during freshet, and their depth and flow may increase to the point where you will need to use a high-density sinking line in some situations. I’ve hooked fish during high water by roll-casting a short length of high-density line into pockets behind boulders, then throwing several loops of slack line after the initial cast to give the fly a chance to sink before the line came tight. This method works best if you can wade out until the pocket is directly downstream.

In fact, the same is true for almost all steelhead wet-fly fishing, on large streams or small. Standard wet-fly procedure is to make a quartering downstream cast, mend the line as necessary, and wait for the sunken fly to swing in an arc, hoping it will be intercepted by a fish. More often than not, the interception occurs at the end of the arc, when the fly is directly downstream from the angler.

Often this means the fish first noticed the fly somewhere early in its swing and followed it until the fly stopped before actually taking it. It makes you wonder how many times a fish may have quit the pursuit before the fly got to the end of its swing.

death roe egg steelhead fly
death roe egg steelhead fly

The aim of the fisherman always should be to make it as easy as possible for the fish to take his fly, and the obvious way to cut down the distance a steelhead must follow a swinging fly is to get directly upstream from the fish. This isn’t always possible, even if you know exactly where a fish is lying, but most of the time you can at least wade to a stream. Then you make your normal cast and let the current carry the fly through its arc. If all goes according to plan, the fly will come to the end of its swing and stop directly in front of the fish.

Yet steelhead, unpredictable creatures that they are, occasionally follow a moving fly eagerly and then lose all interest when it stops. Don’t despair; there’s handy tactic to cover that eventuality, too: If there’s no strike when the fly stops at the end of its swing, a cautions retrieve will often bring one. I’d guess that half of all the steelhead I’ve hooked on wet flies were taken during a retrieve, but it’s surprising how seldom you see the method used.

Some fishermen seem to be in a great hurry to make their next cast, and retrieve so rapidly the end up jerking their fly away from any steelhead that may have been eyeing it. If they’d take it slow and easy for at least the first half-dozen pulls, they might end up hooking many more fish. Flies are largely a matter of personal preference, although steelhead patterns usually are bright and gaudy as a matter of tradition.

lady gaga fly for steelhead
lady gaga fly for steelhead

Many winter fishermen continue to rely on the traditional bright patterns, mostly fluorescent reds, oranges, pinks and yellows, and often add weight to sink their flies quickly in the stronger winter flows. But traditions change, and the recent trend-in the Pacific Northwest, at least-had been toward darker patterns for summer fishing. The black-bodied Skunk pattern, in half a dozen variations, may now be the most popular steelhead fly on the West Coast. Among dry-fly fishermen, deer-and elk-hair patterns have gained great popularity, and most of these flies also tend to be on the darker side.

Fly Fishing Gear for Steelhead

Heavy tackle usually isn’t necessary on small streams-and that’s another of the delightful things about fishing them. Light rods and double-tapered lines are the order of the day, and you don’t have to be an accomplished double-haul caster. You needn’t be an expert wader, either; you can even get away with hip boots if you want to, although chest waders are more practical for the occasional deep crossings you may need to make. The gentle and revealing nature of small streams also makes them ideal places for newcomers to learn the art of steelhead fly fishing before trying to go on to bigger and better things.

Except that in fly fishing, there probably isn’t anything very much better. After all, where else but in a little river can you so closely study both the steelhead and the stream? Or experiment with every chance of being able to see and measure the results?

Where else must you so diligently learn and practice the care and patience that are the hallmark of every good angler? And where else but in a small stream can you sometimes witness, close up, the dramatic sight of a strong, bright steelhead coming swiftly to your fly-perhaps even underfoot?
You’ve heard that old saying about big things coming in small packages. Well, believe me, it’s the truth


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Hi David Humphries Owner of Guide Recommended. I love everything to do with fly fishing. Casting, Tying, YouTube, writing about it and even teaching. I’ve got a FREE video workshop teaching how to dry fly fish at this link How 2 Fly Fish