4 Most Important Principles of Steelhead Fly Fishing

Updated on January 11, 2019
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CS is an lifelong, obsessive fly fisherman who is forced to work as a fish biologist and conservationist in Pullman, Washington (Go Cougs!).

There is a lore that surrounds steelhead. Fish of 10,000 casts. The Old Gods of the River. Ghosts.

Anyone who has chased them knows exactly why. The first few months (or more likely, years) of steelheading are often an exercise in futility, numb fingers, and more than a little blue language.

But all it takes is one. One magical, perfect moment when everything comes together, and you find yourself gently cradling one of these powerful fish, hand shaking and heart singing. After that, you’re never the same. You’ll fish for other fish, but you’ll always dream of steel.

To make these dreams come true, there are 4 major fundamentals you have to internalize and master. There are variations for every river, but that's up to you to figure out. Cut the learning curve in half by internalizing these 4 basic truths before you hit the water.

After you land your first steelhead, you’ll still fish for other fish, but you’ll always dream of steel.

The Rules of the Game

1. Steelhead loathe bright, direct sun. Remind yourself that for the last 1-3 years, these fish have been living in the permanent twilight of the ocean’s depths, and now suddenly have been forced into brighter, shallower water than they’ve seen since they were babies. This means they are most comfortable, and fishing is best, on cloudy drizzly days, dawn/dusk, or in spots where the sun is off the water. If you know what you’re doing, night can be shockingly productive too, but I would definitely not recommend this for beginners.

2. Don’t measure your success by number of fish caught. Don't underestimate the need for mental discipline to be successful. Beating the water for days on end without so much of a bite can kill anyone's morale, make you complacent, and when lightning finally strikes, you'll be caught too off-guard to set the hook like you should. Steelheading is first and foremost a mental game, and if you want to ultimately land one of these fish, you need to be in the right head space.

The "skunking=failure" perspective only leads to feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy. If there's a surer recipe for killing your motivation to keep fishing, I don't know one. Instead, your goal should be “I’m going to fish this water well,” and if you do, it was a good day. That’s all you can ask of the sport. You will be blessed with fish from time to time, but you can’t survive the mental game with that being your only goal.

3.You don’t need to match the hatch, but you do need to match the conditions. There is an old saying that the best steelhead fly is the one tied onto your line. Rookies drive themselves insane switching flies every 5 minutes. This isn’t trout fishing, and steelhead are rarely selective. You can be doing everything right, with the right fly, in front of fish, and still not get a bite. The key is finding the right fish, not finding the “magic fly”. It doesn’t exist.

Instead, assess the river when you get there, pick your fly to logically match the conditions, and start covering water. High and murky water usually means bigger, darker flies; low and clear means small and light. If it’s cold (45 degrees or colder), fish flies that get deep and slow; if it’s warm, (50 degrees and above), faster and shallower. If you’re nymphing, it’s hard to beat the old classic Steak ‘n’ Eggs (large stonefly trailed by an egg or bead).

And that’s about all there is to it. The old classic, intricate steelhead patterns were tied to impress fisherman, not steelhead. A beautiful, world-class Silver Doctor with all the flourishes is no better than a large, black String Leech or Egg-sucking Leech that took 5 minutes to tie. For example, on my home waters of the Grande Ronde steelhead are generally much more likely to bite natural-colored flies than the bright pink flies of the coast. That said, our steelhead do seem to particularly like flies with purple in them, so who really knows.

At the end of the day, the fly you are confident enough to fish all day is the right fly.

3 Steelhead Fly Fishing Books Worth Their Weight in Gold

The Complete Steelheader: Successful Fly-Fishing Tactics
The Complete Steelheader: Successful Fly-Fishing Tactics

Most steelhead references could be summarized with the sentence "the author tells you some anecdotes about all the steelhead he's caught." These three resources are blessedly thin on this, and heavy on useful details for anglers of all experience levels.

 
Steelhead Fly Fishing
Steelhead Fly Fishing

Number 3. This is The Bible for steelhead anglers. Some anecdotal waxing, but this classic belongs in every steelheader's library.

 

Most Important: Finding the Right Water

4. Maximizing the time your fly spends in front of fish is everything. You will often go hours or days without feedback, so knowing that you’re showing your fly to fish, even if they’re not biting, is vital. This is the main purpose of a guide; they know where the fish are, and they will make sure you’re there too. If you’re on your own, here’s the basics.

  • The colder it is, the slower the water you should be fishing: If the snow is flying, focus on the belly of holes, slow runs, and sluggish water (slower than casual walking speed, but not still). The inverse is also true; warmer water means fishing closer to the head of the pool, faster current seams, and runs moving about casual walking speed.
  • Tailouts in the morning, head of the pool in the evening: The logic here is simple. Steelhead like to migrate at night, so in the morning they will more likely to be resting in the shallows, and they will want to rest after charging a rapid. As the light gets brighter, they will move deeper and darker, and when the light fades again, they will stage at the head of the pool in preparation for charging the next rapid. This applies more in the early part of the season, as they don’t tend to migrate as quickly in the cold winter months.
  • They’re resting, not feeding: You’re looking for spots that a tired fish would like to sit, or is resting up in preparation for a big push. Not feeding lies where you would look for trout.
  • If you don’t know where to start, find the biggest, strongest rapid or falls you can. Fish will pause on both sides of these chutes. Fish the first deeper, slower slots or pockets you can find downstream of the rapid, and the first holding water you can find upstream. For example, a deeper channel in a tailout, a slower slot adjacent to the main current in the pool’s head, or the lee of a boulder in either situation are prime.

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