Copyright 2014 James Marsh
Steelhead flies are artificial imitations of aquatic insects, fish eggs, crustaceans and baitfish that steelhead
either eat, defend their territory from, or protect their redds from. I am not sure anyone will ever completely
know all the things that attract steelhead to a fly and a certain type of water, the following should help anyone
fly fishing for steelhead as well as provide a lot of information about steelhead flies.
Steelhead can be difficult to catch. Yes, they are difficult to land after they are hooked but they are more
difficult to hook, meaning trick them into taking you fly, than land. At times, fishing for steelhead takes a
thousand cast and I guess that is why they are called the fish of a thousand cast. It is a fact that most cast
made for steelhead, never get the fly within sight of a steelhead. There's usually lots of water thats' void of
fish. That written, there are ways of reducing the number of cast and determining where steelhead should be
holding at any given time. There are steelhead flies that are more effective at any given point it time than
The single biggest key to catching steelhead is to fish water that is holding steelhead. I know that sounds like
I'm trying to insult your intelligence but finding the fish is the single biggest problem. Selecting the right fly is
worthless and using the right strategy and tactics is worthless, if you're not fishing where fish are holding.
If helps to know something about the life of a Steelhead. In case you don't know, they are nothing more than
a rainbow trout that goes out to sea or out in a large lake, in the case of the Great Lakes. Rainbow trout,
from the west coast streams that drain into the Pacific, evolved to go to the sea where they were able to
acquire more food. They spend three years in freshwater streams and then migrate to the ocean. These are
called Smolts. They spend from two to three years in the ocean and usually grow to a large size. They return
to their natal stream in the spring as sexually mature adult steelhead to spawn.
The steelhead begin to look more like a rainbow trout than the silver sided fish they were upon arrival.
Anglers fish for them as they migrate upstream to spawn. When and where they are at any particular time
during this is determined by several different factors but mostly by water levels. This article isn't meant to
explain where and how you find steelhead. We have other articles on that subject. It serves only to point out
that fly selection depends greatly on where the fish are holding as well as what they are doing at
any given time. Here, we are only covering the basic types of water the steelhead usually pass though on
their way to spawn.
During the migration, they choose certain types of water anglers call "holding" water to rest. It is usually water
from three to six feet deep with moderate to slow current. They need a place to hide when resting and the
holding water should serve that purpose at least by depth. In this case, they may use much deeper water, up
to say fifteen feet deep. They cannot rest in fast current. A bottom with stones or cobble is best. This holding
water may only exist in certain areas of the stream whereas otherwise, the current may be too strong or the
water too shallow. Keep in mind, the same fish rarely stay in any one place long and finding them may be an
almost daily chore.
At Perfect Fly, we break steelhead flies down into those anglers prefer and have found success with into
Great Lake Steelhead flies and Pacific Coast steelhead flies. In many cases, they are the same flies and the
difference has more to do with angler preference than anything. We also break them down into types of flies
which are wet flies and nymphs; streamers and buggers; egg flies; dry flies; and Spey flies.
Naturally, you can fish larger, heavier flies better than small, light ones in deep water. By the same token,
lighter flies work better when your fishing shallow water. The size and color and the type of fly does matter.
On bright sunny days with some stain in the water, red and orange is a great color. If the skies are sunny
and the water is very clear, muted colors are usually better. In low light conditions and/or water that is off
color or stained, darker colors work better.
Naturally, larger steelhead flies are easier for the fish to see and it makes sense that larger flies are better in
stained or off color water. This doesn't necessarily mean that smaller flies are better in clear water. We think
the size of the fly can be a triggering factor where steelhead are attempting to defend their territory.
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