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12 Best Steelhead Flies

by Matt Straw   |  January 3rd, 2016 2

 Best Steelhead FliesWhat is the perfect steelhead fly? The answer requires a look: At the calendar; Out the window; At the river in question; And maybe at a couple websites that provide flow rates and history.

Steelhead flies don’t come off the vice with a list of applicable conditions attached, so we need to  mentally download those parameters. Steelhead flies have seasons to some extent, too. But within the four seasons of the human calendar are conditions like water levels, water clarity, daily and hourly changes in light levels, many fish spawning, none spawning—all and more affect fly selection.

The seasons of steelhead don’t show up on the human calendar. Instead of Summer, they have Open Water—though summer runs are fairly common out West and rare but possible around the Great Lakes. Fall is a choice: Stage, run, or remain “at sea” (or lake).  Running up rivers is optional in fall and winter—not an urgent thing, but a choice based on conditions like flow level and temperature of both air and water—unless, as in very long rivers like the Skeena system in British Columbia, steelhead need to begin running in fall to cover those distances in time. Spring is spawning time. The need to spawn can only be thwarted by extremely horrific conditions (like volcanic eruptions). Run mode becomes urgent in spring, so urgent steelhead will overcome 100 year floods and record droughts to access ancestral spawning riffles.

Within those seasons, urgency and conditions anoint certain flies. Steelhead, being the aquatic world’s version of ascetic monks once they enter rivers, do not need to eat for months on end. They store plenty of protein and energy out in the big water. What that means to the fly fisherman: Steelhead need to be triggered to strike much of the time—especially when the need to move, find gravel, and spawn is not urgent. Steelhead can generally be counted on to feed casually—opportunistically—on free-drifting invertebrates and eggs. If, that is, the fly hits them right on the nose, suggesting the need for incremental coverage of the water. When those tiny forage items are scant or unavailable, triggering is required.

These facts suggest at least four groups of flies: 1/ Flies with materials that attract with color and action to trigger a response; 2/ Dead-drift imitations of eggs; 3/ Dead-drift imitations of invertebrates found in the river, and 4/ Compromises between the other categories—flies that attract with flash and color on a dead or slightly animated drift yet do not closely resemble any naturals. These last could also be called “classics,” including famous ties like the Green-Butt Skunk and Steelhead Woolly Bugger. Trout fishermen often find the fourth category interesting. Why dead drift or twitch something unnaturally gaudy, or far larger than the naturals the fly may suggest? Steelhead are less selective than trout that live their lives out entirely within the confines of a stream and tend to respond better to brighter colors and larger versions at times. Look at it this way: Steelhead are fish of the world—travelers that have seen things stream trout never will. Stream trout are like barefoot cousins down on the farm.

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