What 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.
By Chris Schrantz
Brian Schmidt of Umpqua Feather Merchants said he depends on this fly a lot. 'Gorgeous pattern, ' he said. 'Fantastic for light, two-handed rods. Great triggering tool when the usual suspects won't turn any strikes. '
HOOK: (front cut hook) TIEMCO 9395 (or most any straight eye streamer hook)
(rear hook) GAMAKATSU OCTOPUS
BODY: RABBIT ZONKER, FLASHABOU
COLLAR: RABBIT HAIR SPUN IN DUBBING LOOP
HEAD: RABBIT HAIR SPUN IN DUBBING LOOP AND TRIMMED
Double Down Leech
By Tim Pearson
'Leech patterns are staples for steelhead anywhere, ' says Brian Schmidt. 'This is a new version that has been very well received in the steelhead world. '
HOOK: (front) WADDINGTON SHANK
(rear) TIEMCO 2499SPBL
THREAD: BLACK 70 DENIER
BODY: HOLOGRAPHIC TINSEL
EYES: LEAD PRESENTATION EYE
HACKLE: MARABOU, ROUND RUBBER
WING: RABBIT ZONKER STRIP
HEAD: HOLOGRAPHIC TINSEL
CONNECTIONG WIRE: SPECTRA OR FIRELINE
Egg Sucking Leech
By Umpqua Feather Merchants
'This one, ' says steelheader Brian Schmidt of Umpqua, 'you can't live without€¦anywhere. Any time. Bunny strips make this fly irresistible. '
HOOK: TIEMCO 5263
THREAD: BLACK 140 DENIER
BODY: BLACK CHENILLE
WING: BLACK RABBIT STRIP
COLLAR: ACCENT FLASH
HACKLE: BLACK STRUNG SADDLE
HEAD/EGG: FL ORANGE CHENILLE
By Matt Grajewski
'It's a sculpin imitation, ' says Grajewski. 'I fish this fly on a traditional down and across swing in Lake Michigan tributaries. I commonly use a Skagit head and various sink tips. It is most effective after the eggs from the fall spawning salmon run thin. This generally happens by November, and the swing bite will remain strong through February — weather dependent. '
Shank: 35mm Waddington shank
Loop: 50lb braid
Hook: #2 Daiichi bait hook
Tail: 2-3 tan grizzly marabou feathers
Body: Golden olive estaz and copper polar chenille
Wing: tan grizzly marabou feather, copper flashabou, and bullfrog flashabou
Collar: Australian opossum
Head: Hare's ear ice dub
- Lash down the braided loop with attached hook.
- Tie 2-3 tan grizzly marabou feathers off the back of the shank, about the same length of the shank.
- Palmer forward golden olive estaz 3/4 the way up the shank.
- Palmer copper polar chenille over the top of the estaz.
- Tie in a tan grizzly marabou feather as a wing.
- Tie in copper flashabou.
- Tie in bullfrog flashabou.
- Tie down a clump of Australian opossum as a collar.
- Tie in a clump of Hare's ear ice dub and brush back.
By Jeff Hickman
Very well-known and respected pattern among Western steelhead anglers.
HOOK: (front) WADDINGTON SHANK
(rear) GAMAKATSU OCTUOPUS
THREAD: 140 DENIER
CONNECTING WIRE: FIRELINE
BODY: TRILOBAL CHENILLE SZ SMALL
TAG: ULTRA CHENILLE CHARTREUSE
HACKLE: STRUNG SADDLE
COLLAR: ICE WING, FLASHABOU HOLOGRAPHIC, GUINEA FEATHER
Green Butted Skunk
Tied by Dan Callahan
Well-known, all-time classic.
HOOK: TIEMCO 7999
THREAD: BLACK 140
TAIL: RED HACKLE FIBERS
BODY: BLACK RAYON CHENILLE
TAG: FL. GREEN DUBBING OR CHENILLE
RIB: SILVER OVAL TINSEL
WING: WHITE CALF TAIL
HACKLE: BLACK SADDLE
By Mark Hieronymous
'Very cool pattern, ' says Brian Schmidt. 'It's a ton of fun to fish with and almost impossible to fish wrong. Just keep it rolling along near bottom for the most natural presentation, giving it an occasional, nymph-like finger roll or short strip to jump it slightly. '
HOOK: (front cut hook) TIEMCO 9395 (or most any straight eye streamer hook)
(rear hook) OWNER SSW
BODY: SCHLAPPEN, 30# SPECTRA
HEAD: WOOL, ANGEL HAIR
FINS: RABBIT ZONKER
By Stan Blood.
'This terrific egg pattern is easy to tie, ' says Blood. 'I learned it at a fly shop in Nashville, Tennessee, from a fellow who fishes the Pere Marquette each April for steelhead. Oddly, we stayed at the same place (Barothy Lodge) and fished the same week for years, but never met. '
Hook: Tiemco 105 egg hook sizes 6-10
Thread: Uni-Thread 6/0 Fire Orange
Body: Glo-Bug Yarn in micro and regular sizes
The key to this pattern is to use a contrasting color of micro yarn to form the 'dot ' of the egg. For example: use a steelhead orange micro yarn to make the 'dot ' and apricot or peach to form the egg body. For the body of the egg split the regular yarn in half. Work with three or four inch long pieces when forming the egg. You'll get three or four flies.
-Attach thread to hook 1/8 inch back from eye
-Wrap thread 1/8 inch toward rear of hook and then wrap forward to your beginning point
-Attach micro yarn at the beginning of your wrap and wrap thread over the yarn to the end of your thread layer
-Wrap thread forward to the beginning point
-Make a small loop with the micro yarn by pulling it forward to the beginning point of your thread
-Trim the micro yarn
-Attach the half- sized regular yarn to the hook by placing the tip of the yarn past the hook bend and place one wrap of thread on the yarn at the beginning of your thread wrap
-Roll the yarn so all of it rests on the opposite side of the hook
-Pull the yarn toward you splitting it in half when it goes by the hook eye
-When you have evenly placed the yarn on both sides of the hook wrap the head with several turns of thread to secure the body
-Trim excess thread
-Trim the yarn above the bend using a curved scissors
Tied by Brian Silvey
HOOK: TIEMCO 7999
THREAD: PURPLE 6/0
TAIL: PHEASANT TIPPETS AMHURST
TAG: GOLD TINSEL
RIB: GOLD WIRE
WING: CALF TAIL FLASHABOU
Tied by Michael Gorman
'Probably the best selling egg pattern in the Northwest, ' said Brian Schmidt.
HOOK: TIEMCO 2457
THREAD: FL ORANGE 6/0
TAG: CHARTREUSE YARN
BODY: CRYSTAL CHENILLE
VEIL: EGG YARN
BEAD: BRASS GOLD BEAD
Steelhead Wolly Bugger
By Ray Schmidt
Schmidt is a long-time, well-respected steelhead guide in Western Michigan. 'This is a Ray Schmidt classic, ' says fly-tier Stan Blood, 'and one of his go-to flies for all conditions. '
Hook: Mustad 9672 size 4
Thread: Uni-Thread 6/0 Black
Tail: Black Marabou
Body: Peacock Herl
Body and head: Saddle Hackle in furnace color
-Make a thread base layer on the hook from the front of the hook to the bend
-Attach the marabou feather to the bend in a length equal to the length of the hook
-Do not trim the marabou. Lay it on the hook and fasten in place by wrapping thread over the feather to the front of the hook. This helps to build a fat body
-Trim the feather back from the eye
-Wrap thread to the back of the hook
-Attached the saddle hackle by the tip to the hook
-Take four or five peacock herl pieces and lay them on the hook with tips extending to the eye
-Tie the herl in place at the bend and wrap thread forward to eye and then back to the hook bend
-Trim excess at the eye. This adds another layer of bulk to the fly
-Grasp the herl and wrap with the thread to the eye of the hook secure and trim excess
-Palmer the saddle hackle forward making three or four wraps of the hackle at the eye
-Secure with thread and trim excess
-Pull the saddle hackle back with your fingers and build a neat thread head
-Whip finish and trim thread
Tied by Morgan Thalkan
Traditional Style, low or skinny water
HOOK: DAIICHI 2051
THREAD: COLOR TO MATCH BODY 6/0
BODY: ULTRA WIRE, DUBBING
HACKLE: UV POLAR CHENILLE, WOOD DUCK, SCHLAPPEN
Which is not to say steelhead can't be selective. It does pay to know which species of mayfly, stonefly, and caddis exist in a targeted stream. The knowledge pays dividends only about 2- to 10-percent of the time, but when stoneflies are seen crawling out onto dripping ice shelves in February by the thousands, imitating the size and color of the nymphal stages can be the only way to hook any fish at all for hours—sometimes days. And that's just one example.
But this isn't about 5-percent solutions. It's about having patterns in the fly box that can be counted on to hook steelhead anywhere, from the tributaries of the Pacific to the Great Lakes, in at least one of the four seasons and in at least some conditions.
Conditions play a huge role. The higher and cloudier the water, the more unnatural, large, gaudy, and bright a fly can be to be effective. A fly with contrasting colors is practically a must in cloudy water. In the lowest, clearest water, large bright flies can be effective at times, but going small and natural is the rule in those conditions and it's a good rule — especially where steelhead face heavy angling pressure. Contrasting colors become far less of a good thing in low, clear water, and color selection in general is determined by background color, which changes from river to river.
Some flies have a chance anytime, anywhere. Even when nothing is spawning in the river, steelhead can seldom resist a dead-drifting Nuke Egg or a Steelhead Woolly Bugger in the right color. The Woolly Bugger is the root pattern for quite a few successful steelhead flies. It is, in fact, a pattern that will catch anything from sea-run brookies to smallmouth bass. Fox-hair creations like the Cat Toy are pretty universal, too. Get the fly down to them, add a twitch at the right time, and it will trigger steelhead in most conditions.
Cold water demands incremental coverage. Steelhead are less likely to chase a fly even six inches in 34°F water. The fly has to hit them on the nose. In water over 42°F, steelhead may move 20 feet to hit a fly. In the dead of winter, steelhead resting in "tanks" (large, slow pools) will crush a 5-inch streamer like the El Jefe, but they remain less likely to chase. Their reluctance to move may be the very reason they lash out at gaudy, unwelcome invaders. Make each cast 6 inches longer than the last and that big streamer becomes far more effective than it should be in winter.
Nearing the daylight window that defines the spawn, steelhead become urgent. Moving steelhead at this point are all but impossible to interest with any fly. Resting and holding fish have no interest in anything but the sacred act nature demands of them. But even ascetic monks will eat at some point. Steelhead that seem entirely focused on spawning will casually accept egg patterns about to drift right right into their faces. The egg pattern at this point is as natural as it gets. Eggs are everywhere in the flow, the smell and taste adding to the excitement and urgency of the moment. In streams that have natural reproduction, it seems counterintuitive to allow anglers to pursue steelhead in the act of spawning while wading on eggs barely covered with gravel. But those steelhead milling in pools just below the spawning riffles tend to be more vulnerable to egg patterns than any others—though they will rip a streamer out of pure territorial aggression at times.
No fly box is complete without some local favorites. Every system has its vagaries. Every river has its own color and flow—its own brand of invertebrate abundance, but overall fly selection for steelhead has everything to do with timing and conditions. A good box runs the gamut from small and dull to large and bright. The following selections are meant to cover the spectrum of seasons, water levels, and clarity with flies proven to catch fish across the continent.