12 Best Steelhead Flies
January 03, 2016
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 spawningâ€”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 categoriesâ€”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 worldâ€”travelers that have seen things stream trout never will. Stream trout are like barefoot cousins down on the farm.
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 ruleâ€”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.