Fly Fishing for Winter Steelhead

By Rich Youngers

 

 

 

Fly fishing for winter steelhead consists of two techniques; the wet fly swing and the dead drift.  In all reality the dead drift method will take more fish than the traditional wet fly swing.  Though, nothing beats the “grab” from a steelhead on the wet fly swing.  This “grab”, that we search for keeps us out on the river under the harshest conditions.

 

Tackle

A nine to nine and a half ft. single hand rod with a medium fast to fast action is the best choice for winter steelhead fishing.  If you want to pursue steelhead with a double handed rod then a rod in the 12’6”- 13’6” in 7-8 wt. range.  Switch rods are also coming into the picture for steelhead fishing. The best two sizes would be an eleven foot seven-weight or eight-weight.  

Fly lines for winter steelhead fishing can vary but no need to get to technical.  For dead drifting egg patterns with split-shot under a strike indicator the best choice is either the RIO Steelhead & Atlantic Salmon or the Scientific Anglers Steelhead taper. The reason for these two lines are that they have 63-66ft head which allows roll casting in tight spots, good turn over with the above mentioned technique and the ability to single hand rod spey casts which come in handy fishing costal rivers.  Another line system that works well for the traditional wet fly swing method is the shooting head system.  Depending on the water level, you can use a floating, intermediate up to a type six head connected to a floating shooting line.  Shooting heads are 24-30 feet in length with various tapers and grain weights depending on the manufacturer. 

  

Chasing steelhead via the wet fly swing is the traditional method that has been practiced for many years.  When a steelhead takes a fly fishing this method you want to make sure your arm is securely fastened to you arm socket.  The hits are hard and every time it’s different.  You’ll never get used to the take, guaranteed!

Fly Patterns

There are so many fly choices available and it can be challenging to select patterns to attract northwest steelhead. I love tying and admire all the different steelhead flies, but most flies are tied to attract fisherman's eyes more than the steelhead. Basically, try to keep your fly selections simple, especially when just starting.

If the river is on the high or colored side, and your swinging flies, use bigger, brighter flies like the Orange or pink Pick’yer pocket, General Practitioner, Red Rocket, and Jumbo Critters. When water is that perfect “steelhead green”, use a smaller more subtle shade of pink such as a BH Cabellero Egg, BH Lifter, and the Clown egg when your dead drifting patterns and the Home Run, Veiled Assassin, Hot Bead Veiled Assassin, and the Polar Shrimp.   

 If the river is on the high or colored side, and your swinging flies, use bigger, brighter flies like the Orange or pink Pick’yer pocket, General Practitioner, Red Rocket, and Jumbo Critters. When water is that perfect “steelhead green”, use a smaller more subtle shade of pink such as a BH Cabellero Egg, BH Lifter, and the Clown egg when your dead drifting patterns and the Home Run, Veiled Assassin, Hot Bead Veiled Assassin, and the Polar Shrimp.   

Finding Good Water

Look for water depth of three to six feet with the current moving at a walking pace. Underwater structures, such as rocks and ledges, can be important holding lies.  Steelhead will also hold in the transition zone where the current change from fast to slow.  Steelhead will never hold in back eddies or stagnant water.  Tailouts are important holding lies also especially at sunrise and sunset.

 Presenting the Fly

The traditional way for many years is the “swung” fly method.  This is done by a 45 degree angle downstream cast and throwing a good upstream mend.  This is very important when using sink-tips or sinking shooting head systems as you want to get the sinking part of the fly line straightened out so the fly and sink-tip will be in-line. You should only have to mend once through the swing under most conditions.   When working a new run, cover the water below you first. There are times that steelhead will be right at your feet just off the bank.  Strip off about 20 feet of line and make a few casts to cover the water below you.  Once you have worked the water below you, strip off about three feet of line and cast down and across again.  Make three casts and swings then strip off another three feet of line and repeat.  Once you have stripped off as much line as you can cast then you start taking about a three feet step downstream every third cast with the amount of line that you have out and work through the rest of the run.   I figure if you can’t get a steelhead to strike within three casts in the same spot he is not there to begin with.  You want to keep moving. 

When dead drifting for steelhead you want to look for what is called “pocket water”.   This water consists of narrow runs through boulders and ledges and this type of water is not the same water that you could swing a fly through.  Dead drifting a fly is a very good method on the small coastal streams.  To present the fly to the steelhead, the line is cast upstream, generally at an angle of 45 to 60 degrees.  The flies must be allowed to sink on a slack line as the fly drifts back toward the angler.  The slack is removed as the fly proceeds downstream by keeping the rod high and stripping in the excess slack.  If none of the slack is removed, the angler will not be able to quickly and effectively set the hook.   On the flip side, if the line is tightened because all of the slack is removed, the flies will drift too high in the water column, not remaining down in the steelhead zone.  Fishing with a floating line and dead drifting egg patterns under a strike indicator, the leader of choice is a 9’ 1X-2X tapered knotless leader. To this you will add 18” of tippet of 1X-2X fluorocarbon. Nine feet of leader would probably be enough; however by adding the tippet, the knot stops the Split-shot from sliding down to the fly. You want to keep the Split-shot about 18 inches away from my fly. With this system a strike indicator works the best. Start with the indicator 2 times the depth from your fly. Do not allow the indicator to suspend your fly. Cast with open loops, you do not want that Split-shot to hit your rod, or your head.

 Run Timing

 

Coastal winter steelhead starts in late November with hatchery fish and they usually run through the end of January.  The wild steelhead run starts with a few fish coming in January and then the runs builds in February and continues through mid-April.  Some of the smaller coastal streams close for steelhead fish at the end of March.  Always check the Oregon state fishing regulations.

 

 


 

 

Thanks for stopping by Creekside Flyfishing Guides & Outfitters. 

350 Liberty Street SE, Salem, Oregon  97301.  

E-mail:   flyfish@creeksideflyfishing.com   

Phone:  (503)-588-1768 or (1)-(877)-273-3574.

 

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03/23/2010