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Surface Flies for Steelhead -

By Dennis Dickson - Fly
Waller Waker
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It seems like most anglers proceed through a timely progression of flyfishing. I was no different. Now I have to admit something, and I will do so right off the get go. I flyfish steelhead. I live for it. It defines me, I judge all other fish, both fresh and salt water, by steelhead. From Atlantic Salmon to Striped Marlin, I have been fortunate to swim a fish or two. And if it will swim well and take a fly, I will cast to it. But a lovely stream, a little solitude, a chance of raising a fish that could kick my butt. Well, life doesn’t get better than that.

Anyway, The progression goes; first you want to catch a steelhead, then you want a catch a LOT of them, then you want a really Big one, and finally you want to catch him......but in a manner that pleases you. In Trey Combs book , Steelhead Fly Fishing and Flies, he talks of such an experience for Deschutes steelhead. I couldn’t agree more.

My first experience with steelhead on a surface fly came more out of desperation than design.

It was a mid summer evening. The population of Stilly summer run looked promising as I had already swam a dozen or so fish and it was only the 10th of July. I was working my way downstream on the North Fork, from French Creek to Boulder Creek, and stopped in to fish a seamy little run that held an occasional fish. I had worked my way to the tail out and was about to pull out, when this steelhead rolls right out in front of me not ten feet away!

“How did I miss you? ” I thought, while I slowly backed out of the pool. He rolled again.

“Your mine.” I chuckled. Obviously, a hot fish. (Means aggressive.)

I got in above him and swam my favorite streamer over his lie. I waited for the pull....nothing. Did he move? As if on cue, he rose again. I noticed at this time there was a Caddis hatch coming off. I didn’t cast again, I watched. A few moments later a bug floats over his window. He rose and took it. As I was only standing 25 feet away, I saw everything. Little hen about six pounds.

At this point I wasn’t sure what to do. Deer Creek fish are suppose to rise, hatchery fish are not. I cast to her again......nothing. She rose again. I was shaking so bad I was just about beside myself. I took a deep breathe.

I rummaged around in my box and managed to come up with a ratty old Tom Thumb from a lake trip in B.C. This bedraggled hair wing had seen better days but it was all I had and at least it would float.....sort of. I greased it up and laid it out on the water, over shooting her holding water by at least a foot. Little Miss steelhead didn’t care, she lifted up like it was her last meal and engulfed the fly. I was so shocked that the fish had actually taken the fly, I just stood there slack jawed until the line came up tight, with the little hen thrashing on the other end. Hello? I woke up and leaned into her. She broke the surface.

I didn’t exactly land her, as the hook pulled out as I was sliding her across the shallows. Didn’t care. Back in those days I was still killing most of my hatchery fish, and this way, I wasn’t going to have to make a decision, she made it for me. I just reeled up broke my rod down, and hiked back to the truck. By the time I got there my face hurt, like the way it does, when you realize you have been smiling too long, during a really funny movie. It was a good hurt. I wanted more.

I started reading everything I could get my hands on, about surface steelheading. John Fennelly’s book Fisherman Paradise got me jazzed, and then there was Roderick Haig-Brown, who is like my Ken Griffey of flyfishing.

As I became more comfortable in my ability to take steelhead, I found I did not need as many steelhead, I just wanted to catch them my way. I became intrigued with surface presentations. Things I have found:

The fish: There has been a lot of talk about the merits of hatchery VS wild steelhead. I am not prone to generalities but I will make this one. Summer fish are better risers than winter fish, and wild fish are better risers than hatchery fish. I have my own ideas on why this is so, but I won’t bore you with detail, now. I will illustrate though, on three different rivers. The Stilly Deer Creek summers, the Wenatchee, and the Grande Ronde. I would often fish two or three anglers on my guide days. Quite often, I would have the first angler go through with a surface presentation, and the follow up rod with a sinktip. The sinktip would take 3 to 4 hatchery steelhead for every wild fish, where the floating line would account for nearly a 50:50 ratio. This has held for all three rivers for........well, until they closed the Wenatchee down. My point? Doesn’t matter how many hatchery steelhead are planted, wild fish are better risers. If you are serious about pursuing steelhead on surface flies, target wild summer fish. You will do no better.

The River: Steelhead rivers are like women. They come in lots of shapes, sizes and personalities. If your experience, (and confidence) is on a river the size of the Stilly, and your buddies drag you off to the Thompson, or the Snake, for your first surface steelhead, you might be a little overwhelmed. You might be happier on the Snoqualmie or the Grande Ronde, or the Kispiox. Even a third class burglar will case a joint. Check it out. Kind of goes hand in hand, but wading can be as easy as the Skagit, or as death defying as the North Fork of the Umpqua. Come equipped know what to expect.

Equipment: Your rod in many waters will depend on the waters you choose. General rule: Bigger the water, bigger the rod. Some guys gear to the size of the fish. I don’t. If I am fishing a smallish stream with a reasonable backcast, I will fish a lighter rod. If a big fish can beat me. That's cool, that's why I came.......but it doesn’t happen often.

I may be fishing the 4 to 6 pound Grande Ronde fish but down on the Snake River, and I will bring out my eight weight every time. Why? Because if I am punching out some line in those afternoon cross winds, the five weight just isn’t comfortable. Fish comfortable.

Reading water: I know I have mentioned about the fact that there is lots of water that steelhead will hold in, but only some waters that you can flyfish effectively. Now we go a step farther. Of the pools that you flyfish steelhead, there about 10% of this, that I will target with a surface fly.

I apologize for being redundant. Dickson says: “Steelhead are interested in taking the fly in two zones, right in the surface and right on the bottom. Pay attention now: bottom is defined as the TOP of any prominent rock the steelhead is laying around. If its a rock the size of your fist, you better be dragging the fly close to it, if its a boulder as big as chair, then the top the that rock is the bottom. Why is that important to a surface steelhead? This is why. Imagine you are fishing a classic run in the upper Skykomish River that dumps into a long stretch of heavy water. Mr. steelhead has fought his way up through this fast water and is now resting in the boulder garden tail out of this pool. Now look at a cross section of his holding water and think about the Dickson Truism “ Right on the surface and right on the bottom.” How close to the surface does the rocks come to the surface? Sometimes only inches. If we measure the cross section from the tops of the rocks to the surface, the reason this is such a hot “taking place” is because there is little to no dead water between the tops of the rocks and the surface. Now, I have risen steelhead through an eight foot water column but it is rare. Look for streamy lies at the heads and tail outs with prominent rocks close to the surface.


Much discussion has been made on subject of presenting surface flies. I am not going to bother you with a lot of mumbo jumbo. I will tell you the secret of triggering steelhead to the surface is FLY SPEED. Fly speed is defined as how quickly does the offering pass through the window of the holding steelhead. I have found it effective to use the analogy of the kitten and the string. Imagine your fly is a string and you want to slowly pull it across holding position of the steelhead. Just like the kitten, if your fly putters across his window, its all most like he can’t help it. He has to take a swipe.

So how do you know which angle to cast and how far? How for is easy. Cast far enough so that the steelhead can see your fly come into his window and leave. Think about the kitten. You want for him to see it with both eyes if you can. What angle to cast? Tuff question. Varies with every step you take in every pool you fish. Rather than trying to describe what the fly should look like crossing the water, let me tell you what it is not. If you were to cast across a fast current to a slower seam the currents will pull on your line and make it belly. The line will load and whip your fly around, too fast and very unnatural. Across stream is good. A fly pulling downstream is bad. Imagine your fly to tethered to the end of your rod tip. If you can cast across stream and maintain a straight line between your rod tip and the fly, that's about perfect fly speed. More across in flatter water and well downstream in heavier currents. How much to mend? Mend means to “fix”, and when a portion of your line starts to belly one way or the other, you need to mend to keep it running straight to the rod. Now let me explain something. You are MUCH better off to not mend at all, than to mend poorly. So how do you know if you mended poorly? Easy, your fly jumps. (Exception is fishing Skaters). Better to angle your next cast a little more downstream next time and let it swing. My experience is, anglers try to mend far too much and too hard. If you anticipate a mend on your next cast.... Stop your rod a little higher on your forward stroke (Reach Cast can really help) and tract your fly along with the higher rod. As your fly enters the faster seam, simply lower the rod tip and it will dampen the swing. Mend by keeping the elevated rod position and push you rod forward (giving a little slack in the line) and roll your wrist which will flip the line. Remember, mend means to “fix” and you are only trying to straighten, not over mend the line.

Steelhead love to follow so let the fly complete its swing. I tell my anglers if the line is swinging, don’t touch it. When the fly straightens down below you, and you are thinking it has completed its swing, say to yourself “and this is where he gets it.” Can’t tell you the number of times I has seen steelhead follow the fly right over in the sand in a couple feet of water, to take the fly as it completes the swing,........... on a bright day!

Daylight: Anytime you can fish with the light off the water is good. Dark days are best, mornings and evening shadows are next, bright and sunny with the sun not in their face is OK.

Steelhead quirks: You will find oddities in behavior characteristics on many rivers. The Grande Ronde steelhead, for example, prefer a dry fly on the surface, when its sunny out. When evening shadows come, you will raise more fish with a wet fly in the surface making barely a “V” as it tracts across the pool. Don’t know why, just works.

Steelhead takes comes in all shapes and sizes. No two are quite the same, that is so wonderful about the sport, it is so visual!

I am reminded of fishing a gentlemen a day on the Wenatchee River. We were just starting out, and I always fished the bridge pool, before floating down to Sleepy Hollow.

I was explaining how the steelheading would proceed, and he was casting along while he listened. All of a sudden this Wenatchee River steelhead launches itself out of the river, and like some six inch trout, crashes down on his little bomber! The guy screams and jerks back on the rod, breaking off the steelhead.

“Wow! I said. “Did you see that!”

At this point, the client was really pissed! I looked him.

“Everything all right? ” I asked.

He looks at me and says really angrily. “ You didn’t tell me they were going to do that!” Must have frightened him.

Anyway, I have seen everything from the big brown “Anti rise” where your fly just disappears, and the reel starts cranking off, to the belly flop rise where it looks like someone just dropped a three pound rock on the end of your line. I have actually seen a steelhead get so upset, he knocked the fly up into the branches of a sweeper over hanging the river.

Now the hard part. No matter what happens on the end of your line, you have to do.......nothing. Let me let you in on a little secret. When that ten pounds of silver rolls over your fly right in front of you, the LAST thing you want to do is ......Nothing. See Mr. steelhead is a large fish and he doesn’t know this fly is on the end of a tether. He thinks it should come in on the suction of the rise. If you even flinch, you can take it away. I tell anglers, pretend like he is going to drown it then turn and eat it. You know its time to tighten when your reel turns, not before. It is soooo much fun, but it takes nerves of steel.

When I am working my way down the pool, its important to maintain the same amount of line , the same couple steps, as you methodically work your way down the pool. Its the constant sameness of cast, step down, cast, step-down, that catches the fish. Why? Because your fly is covering all the water.

Karma: I love flyfishing women. They don’t have any preconceived notions about how or what will happen. If I tell them that the steelhead will come to the surface and eat the fly, then that’s what they believe. I had a gal on a Grande Ronde trip who was high rod one day, handling five steelhead, and her husband and his friend fished hard for two fish, using sinktips all day! Neither men had the confidence steelhead would rise. It was so cool.

Anyway, when you are fishing, try to envision this steelhead rising up and taking down your fly, and how you maintain your nerves of steel, and let him take it down. The watermanship of maintaining the straight line to the fly, is enough to keep you on your toes.

The Closer Technique: Let the fly complete the swing. If he doesn't rise again, at the end of the swing. Strip your line in. DO NOT reel, strip your line in. It is very important to know exactly, how much line it takes to put the fly back over his "window" (where he came up for the fly)"Show him something different" I like to fish October Caddis style of dries, which vary from a Rusty Bomber, (a waking fly) in broken water to a Sofa pillow (skater pattern) in smooth currents. The idea, is I am fishing on the surface, not in.

"The Closer technique" is showing a completely different fly in a different manner, than the original. Now that the steelhead has shown at the fly (a player), I change the fly to a wet fly (usually on an open loop knot), fished in the surface, not on.

Presentation is critical: You have stripped in your floating line. Work your cast back out, holding the last 6 feet. The idea, is to show the fly, 6 feet short of the steelhead. Let it swing through. Let out 3 feet line you are holding, nothing additional off the reel.If your mouth isn't dry, and a little weak at the are not among the living.

Cast again, and let the fly swing thru again. Take your time, make a good cast.

The slow train wreck: This is the do or die cast. If he doesn't come for this one, he usually won't come at all. Work out all the line you were carrying, and you will bring the wet fly over the same window, he rose to the caddis. It is called 6'.......3' .......then in the widow. This is the presentation.

Hang in there: As your fly swims over his window, you will probably see the boil, but not always. Let the line tighten, and the steelhead will begin the take line off the reel. Listen for it. "When the reel turns, he is yours." Don't Jerk, your reel drag is preset, simply sweep your rod off to your shore, and wait for the explosion. He's on.

Flies: I purposely mention flies last. Lets go back to the Kitten and the string. If I were to ask you if you were too pull a string in front of the kitten, would he strike it, you would say “Yes”. If I were to ask you “Does it matter what color the string is?” I will bet you would say the same thing I would say. “I don’t it really matters, as long as you got it in front of him and could get his attention.” See.....its not the fly.

We get hung up over flies because we fish trout. Trout eat flies because it imitates food. Kittens and Steelhead hit strings and flies because it gets in their space. Will they trigger on hatches? Sometimes.

Flies and Strategies:

I have a little different strategy when I am fishing a floating line, than when I fish a sinktip. First, when I fish along the bottom, I am expecting to hook any to all of the available steelhead. (Never happens but its a good karma) When I am fishing a surface fly, I am looking for a “Player”. A fish that will show at the surface to the fly. Often they get the fly, but sometimes they don’t. I could write another article on the ritual I use in resting and presenting flies to these “Follow Back” fish. Essence; Rest them, then show them something completely different. Some steelhead are surface oriented, many are not. Find the player.

Different flies have different profiles, and create a different action on the water. Bulky deer hair flies called “Wakers” have a big silhouette and float well. They make a lot of disturbance as they plow their way across the surface. I fish Bombers and such, in broken water, where most other surface flies would sink.

Skaters, like overdressed dry flies, tippy toe their way across the currents. Wulfs and Stimulators, work well particularly in flatter water. Fish these flies in any water you know they will ride up well. Some anglers will clip the bottom hackle, as the stiff dense hackle tends to work as a weed guard, not allowing the steelhead to find the hook point.

A fly I used to fish primarily as a followback fly, that I have now found myself using more and more as a first fly through, is a riffled hitched greaseliner. The Greaseline fishing is a terminology used for a slender bodied wet fly, where the flyline and leader are greased to the fly. Incorporated with a riffle hitch, this light wire hook skims in the surface while it struggles to straighten itself - being pulled from the side. You can riffle hitch almost any fly. Traditional steelhead patterns on upturned eye hooks, such as Skunks, Max Canyon, and Freight Train, are but a few wet flies, that work well with a riffle hitched . The concept is; after tying a conventional knot through the eye of the hook. a double half hitch is tied behind the eye so the fly is being pulled from the side. The farther back the riffle hitch, the more the fly hobbles as it crosses the currents. It does matter which side you place the hitch. To remember, bring your fly up to face level. Now point your fly upstream, place the riffle hitch on your side of the fly.

Many anglers don’t go through all the fuss of these surface flies. They tie seductive wet fly patterns with webby hackles, and fish them just under the surface, on a floating line. The advantage here is, you are not trying to keep a fly up and floating well, you don’t have to worry about which side of the river you are on to riffle hitch your fly, and you seldom actually see the fish before he has taken the fly, so you don’t pull it away. Some guys like it. Personally, I like the visual of surface flies......but that's me.

Muddlers are best of all worlds. They can ride the currents nearly as well as a waker, you can fish them in all currents, with their buggy profile. Riffle hitch them and they can really dance. Pure versatility. But remember surface flies are only strings. Find your water, fish your fly with confidence, and jump the cat. You will be amazed how much fun you will have!

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