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Maximizing Your Chances to Catch Steelhead

By Steve Buckner
Inside The Tackle Box
(click image for detail)

In my previous article, I wrote about where Steelhead are found and why they are attracted to various stretches of a given river system.   Moving on from there, Iíll describe another set of variables that must be considered to give you a better chance of hooking a Steelhead.  By knowing where Steelhead can be found and then taking into account this next set of variables youíll start to bring more fish to hand.

Steelhead are not hard to catch because they are necessarily fussy about what lure is placed in front of them.  If you ever have the opportunity to look inside the tackle box of a gear angler, youíre likely to find a rather strange assortment of spin-n-glows, lures, plugs, spinners, and corkies.  This assortment of man-made objects have all proven themselves effective as a means of enticing a Steelhead to strike.  In addition to the aforementioned gear, gear fisherman may also use cured salmon or steelhead eggs and/or sand shrimp.  On further examination, one lure may be shiny, one may be dull, one may be bright and another dark.  The difference in size from one lure to another may be astonishing.  Bait has natural oils and gives off a scent that may attract a Steelhead.   But why would a Steelhead strike an orange fluorescent Hot-Shot?  It stands to reason then that a Steelhead may decide to strike almost any object that is placed tantalizingly in front of the Steelheadís nose.  The same philosophy holds true as it applies to fly selection.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of effective flies that can be used to entice a strike. 

While determining fly selection, also remember that unlike trout, Steelhead have generally stopped feeding once theyíve entered fresh water so matching the hatch is out.  The truth is that we really donít understand what triggers a fish to take our offering so in general, pick a fly and then continue to fish with it.  Unfortunately this approach wonít offer the trout enthusiast much comfort, because the trout enthusiast is focused on matching the hatch.  Keep in mind that there is no ďmagicĒ fly.  The sad truth is that a Steelhead is just as likely to take a hook wrapped with yarn as it is to take an elegantly tied spey fly.  The next few paragraphs will provide some suggestions and guidelines but after youíve chosen a fly, you should continue to fish with it and avoid constantly changing flies as it wastes precious daylight.  (One exception would be if youíve had a fish strike and then refuse, it often pays to switch up flies.)

Although there are no hard and fast rules, Steelhead fly selection is usually based around water conditions so letís have a look at what we generally experience in the Pacific Northwest.  Many northwestern rivers flow from glacial fields and almost always have some amount of silt present and never or rarely run completely clear.  The color of the water flowing from glacial fields has the look of a liquid elementary school chalkboard.  It is greenish/grayish in appearance.  In general, all rivers will run brown at high water, then to greenish as the water level begins to drop, and then may run clear after a few days to a week of little or no rainfall.  Water clarity will play a role in determining fly color and size.     

For greenish water and water with limited visibility, you want your fly to stand out so large flies in size 1/0 or 2/0 are a good choice.  Steelhead are not going to be spooked by large offerings under such conditions.  As for color of the fly, bright maribou flies and/or dark flies are generally a good first choice because they can be distinguished from other debris floating down the river.  Everyone has their own favorite fly patterns, but those that provide movement and action will entice more strikes.   This movement and/or action is probably the single most important factor responsible for triggering a strike.   

When the water is low and clear, especially during summer and fall, large flies may very well spook Steelhead.  Smaller, more drab patterns will usually out produce large bright flies.  Steelhead are routinely caught using flies tied on size 6 hooks.  Many Steelhead fisherman carry a Summer fly selection and a Winter fly selection, the difference being mainly the size of the flies. 

Rain is an important variable in the Steelhead equation.  As the rain falls, the rivers begin to rise and this triggers Steelhead to migrate high into their native streams.  The rising water and the flush of minerals instill a sense of urgency in Steelhead to migrate upriver.  They may move upriver quite quickly and theyíve been documented to travel over 20 miles in a 24-hour period.  While rising rivers signal upstream migration, dropping rivers tend to set up ideal fishing conditions.  After moving further up their natal rivers, Steelhead become more aggressive.  You want to time your trips to target Steelhead after the rains have raised the river and when the water is beginning to drop.  During the winter months, this may give you a very short window to target Steelhead, especially if you only have weekend days off.  Especially during the rainy winter months, once you factor in the rains, your days off, and good water conditions you may have only a few days per month with ideal conditions. 

To help you determine the flows for your favorite river, you can check the flows of most river systems by taking advantage of information available on the Internet.  The United States Geological  Survey, USGS, is the agency responsible for posting real time data related to the affects that weather plays on our river systems (check out  By utilizing this site, you can observe hydrographs on many river systems.  The hydrographs detail water flows over time and you can use them to your advantage to find optimum fishing conditions.  As previously mentioned, optimum conditions are those where the river is falling, or dropping into shape after significant rainfall.  In addition to government sites, there are numerous Fly Fishing forums where you can ask questions about your favorite watershed before heading out the door.  It pays to do some research before you leave home. 

Light plays another important function in being successful although its affects are much more pronounced during the hot summer months.  Some runs are situated such that the sun shines directly into the Steelheadís eyes at various times of the day.  Fish do not have the benefit of eyelids and direct sunlight can be blinding.  You should make it a priority to fish those runs that are shaded, or fish them when the light is either off of the water and/or coming from behind the fish so that the fish actually has a chance of seeing your fly.  Vegetation along the river can provide shade and you may be able to entice a fish to a fly by fishing in the shaded areas during mid-day. 

A few final considerations . . . 

Because of the long hours required to hook into Steelhead, every effort must be made to minimize the time it takes to cast and maximize the time your fly spends in the water.  It doesnít matter how good the fishing is, if your fly isnít wet it wonít catch fish.  If youíre using a single-handed rod, donít make more than two or three false casts before letting your fly settle on the water.  

Tie good knots and learn how to tie them fast.  Iíve observed anglers taking 10 to 15 minutes while trying to tie on a fly.  Just like casting, learn how to minimize down time. 

Keep your hooks sharp.  You donít get too many opportunities to hook into a Steelhead so you want to make sure that when it does happen you put the odds in your favor.  Through the course of the day your flies come in contact with many objects that dull the hook.  Check the hook often and make sure that it is kept sticky sharp. 

Pick a run and fish it through thoroughly but it is also important to remember is not to spend too long fishing any one location.  

The number one rule is Donít give up!!!  It takes persistence to catch these fish.

Steve Buckner
The Northwest Flyfisherman

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