Fly fishing for steelhead is challenging and exhilarating in equal measures. There’s nothing quite like the feeling when you hook one of these beasts with your fly!
Although steelheads aren’t fussy when it comes to eating, they don’t like to chase their food, especially during the spawning season. That means you’ll need to brush up on your presentation and dead-drifting skills. A few carefully chosen fly patterns will also boost your chance of making a catch!
From wet flies and intruders to old classics that have stood the test of time, we’ve covered all of them here for you. Stock your tackle box up with some of these productive flies before you hit the water for some steelhead fishing!
How to Fish for Steelhead?
If you want to fly fish for steelhead, you need to know a bit about how these fish behave. This knowledge will help you pick out the best flies and catch more fish!
Egg And Invertebrate Fly Patterns
Steelhead almost always spawn in the spring, and when they’re running, their mind is on one thing: Getting to their final spawning destination. The result is that they don’t focus on eating and won’t chase after aquatic insects or baitfish. However, they will eat a floating egg that the current carries to them.
The closer to spawning season, the more urgent the fish will be, and the harder it will be to tempt with your flies. In fact, these hardy fish can go months without eating if necessary.
At times like these, having a few eggs or invertebrate flies in your tackle box is essential. We’ve listed some of the top egg and invertebrate fly patterns below!
Dead Drifting Technique
You’ll see a lot of success by dead drifting these flies through the water and waving them right below the steelhead’s nose. While they won’t be on the lookout for prey to chase, they won’t ignore a tasty bite right in front of them.
Cover the Water
Another essential technique is to cover the water with your fly rods, so that you can get your fly right to the fish. The colder the water, the less the fish will move. When the water conditions are below 34 Degrees F, you will need to get your fly inches away from the fish, or it just won’t strike.
Intruder Fly Patterns
Other productive fly patterns are intruder flies. This term refers to any small fish that might swim into the steelhead’s spawning territory. To prevent this potential predator from eating their eggs, they will quickly swallow it down in an instinctive reaction. You’ll find our top intruder fly recommendations below.
Flashy, bright, and colorful flies also work well with steelhead on certain days. Go for these types of flies if you are dealing with murky water conditions where the visibility is low. On clearer days, more natural-looking flies tend to work well.
Now you know some of the theory of what works and why, let’s get onto our recommendations of the top steelhead fishing flies!
Even if you’re a confident steelhead angler, you might find some inspiration in some of these new patterns we’ve been using. Or perhaps you’re heading out for your first steelhead fishing trip! Whatever your skill level, it can be tricky to narrow it down to a few flies.
But no need to look any further! We’ve got a selection of the top steelhead flies for you. Just fill up your fly box with these great patterns, and you’ll be all set for some steelhead epic fishing!
Lady Ga Ga Intruder
Now you know why intruder flies work so well, and the Lady Ga Ga is one of the most flamboyant. This intruder fly imitates a smaller rainbow trout and is guaranteed to provoke an aggressive reaction!
Steelhead fish will gobble down any rainbow trout lurking around during spawning season, so they don’t inseminate the eggs. And with bright blue and white colors, there’s no missing the Lady Ga Ga intruder fly.
First tied by experienced steelhead guide, Travis Johnson, it’s particularly effective in clean, clear waters. But there’s also a purple and pink version with copper flash that’s a killer fly in murky conditions. Make sure you pack a handful of these flies in sizes 1 and 2.
Egg Sucking Leech
The Egg Sucking Leech is the ultimate winter steelhead pattern: What greedy fish could resist this combination of a leech and an egg in one bite? This fly looks just like a leech eating an egg, and will be sure to tempt the steelhead to make a strike.
Whether or not leeches actually eat eggs doesn’t matter. Steelhead aren’t known for their reasoning powers! But this fly combines two of their favorite foods. The Egg Sucking Leech is often tied in black or purple with a contrasting pink or orange egg section.
This fly is also very versatile. It’s up to you whether you dead drift it, set up a double nymph rig, or swing it out onto the water. One thing’s certain: this pattern is sure to catch you those winter steelhead.
Pink Nuke Egg
You can’t go steelhead fishing without taking some Pink Nuke Eggs with you. This is one of the top salmon and steelhead flies – if you dead drift it past a lurking steelhead, you’ll soon feel the strike.
Although steelhead don’t move much during the spawning season, this is one meal they won’t ignore, especially when the current brings it right to them.
This fuzzy-looking fly is an excellent imitation of a fish egg, thanks to that thin yarn used which creates that convincing veil around the nucleus.
One of the more advanced egg patterns, it works well in all water conditions. Fishing in high, dirty water? Just go bigger! If the water is nice and clear, you can aim for a realistic size and color. It’s simple but productive – that’s what we love about the Pink Nuke Egg!
This fly pattern might be a controversial suggestion, so if it’s not your thing, feel free to skip it entirely! The Death Roe is a bead and hook steelhead pattern which mimics a salmon egg. Many fly anglers don’t consider this to be proper fly fishing, as there’s no fly tying involved. But there are some real advantages to using the Death Roe bead pattern.
It’s about as close as you can get to a real salmon egg, but less harmful for the fish if they swallow the Death Roe. While a traditional egg fly will lodge far down their throat, the Death Roe will only get as far as the corner of the fish’s mouth. Egg patterns work wonders for steelhead and salmon, but the Death Roe will kill less fish in the long run.
The Squamish Poacher is a fantastic fly for winter steelhead, but you don’t just have to save it for the winter months. Originating out of British Columbia, Joe Kambietz created this fish to imitate prawns, and it does that convincingly. You can use this prawn fly in all sorts of waters and throughout the fishing season.
You can tie your own Squamish Poacher using orange and hot red bucktail. Accentuate this with some pearl flash, copper wire for the rib, and clear green bead eyes.
Rig it up on a sinking line in the colder weather to get down to the steelhead, or fish it higher in the water column depending on what the steelhead are doing. Either way, it’s one of the top steelhead flies for all seasons.
Veteran fly fisher, Tyler Kushnir, came up with the Raging Prawn as a prawn steelhead fly variation. It’s a killer fly that you can use to fly fish steelhead come sun or rain, winter or summer. Whatever the conditions are, it seems that steelhead can’t resist this distinctive pattern.
If you want to have a go at fly tying your own Raging Prawn, you’ll need a short shank straight eye bait hook in size 4 – 6. Team this with natural peccary hair for the feelers, orange thread, soft orange tubing, and pheasant rump hackle. Use orange marabou for the wing and orange budding for the body.
This bright fly stands out even in dirty water, making it one of the flies steelhead will chase when visibility is low.
The Cat Toy isn’t just useful for steelhead; it works for everything from smallmouth bass to brook trout.
This is one of the flies steelhead just can’t seem to ignore – no matter how lazy they’re feeling! It might be the realistic color; it might be the natural movement in the water. Whatever it is, all we know is that the Cat Toy catches plenty of steelhead and salmon!
If you’re not getting any bites, give this fox-hair fly a whirl. You might be surprised at how effective it is! For fly tying the Cat Toy, the materials you’ll need include:
- a straight eye streamer hook,
- rabbit hair (spun into a dubbing loop),
- flashabou for the body,
- and bead chain for the eyes.
The Kilowatt is a fantastic leech fly, which is one of the most effective flies to use in low light conditions. Leeches have always been effective for both steelhead and salmon, and the Kilowatt is no exception.
Cliff Watts came up with the Kilowatt, drawing from his experience of 30 years of fishing for steelhead on the fly. The result is a black and blue fly that the steelhead go crazy for, and that won’t snag or break off easily! Originally designed for and fished on the Skeena system, you can use it much further afield with success.
Created by Dana Sturn, the Thompson Stone is a tube fly that mimics golden stonefly nymphs. These little bugs are found in abundance in the Thompson River, but it’s also an excellent choice for rivers all across the US.
The Thompson Stone is also a fair representation of the October Caddis Pupa, making it even more useful and versatile for a fly angler.
Keep your eye out for local insect life. If you see any stonefly nymphs, this is a clear indication to tie this fly on! Use it to its full potential by swinging it out to the head of a run or fishing it in pools surrounded by boulders.
Flashback Hare’s Ear
If you’re all about fishing a fly on the swing, then go for the Flashback Hare’s Ear nymph fly. It’s gaudy, flashy, and bound to catch the attention of the steelhead and salmon. Work on perfecting your drift, and you’ll catch plenty of steelhead.
The most effective Flashback Hare’s Ear patterns are sizes 12-14; they’re small enough not to be off-putting or unnatural. Dead drift this before a steelhead, and see what an effect it has!
You can also tie this fly yourself by gathering the required materials and watching a YouTube tutorial video.
Steelhead Flies FAQ
What is the best weight fly rod for steelhead?
The best weight fly rod for steelhead would be a 7 weight Spey rod, or an 8 weight traditional fly rod.
What is an intruder fly?
An intruder fly is a fly that provokes a fish to attack when the fly enters their territory. This type of fly works particularly well for territorial fish such as steelhead, especially during the spawning season. These flies are designed to create an aggressive response, rather than looking like a tasty bite to eat.
What colors do steelhead like?
Steelhead like a variety of colors, but some of the top choices are purple, black, blue, and other dark colors.
The Wrap Up!
So now you know everything you need to know about steelhead flies! Whether you’re planning a summer fly fishing trip or you’ll be fishing in fall or winter, you’ll find the right fly for your situation. You’ll have plenty of success when you stock your fly box with egg patterns, intruders, and flashy attractors!
Now it’s time to head out and hit the water! Grab your rod, gear, and flies and have fun fishing for those epic steelhead.
Drop us a comment to let us know what your favorite steelhead fly is, or give us a suggestion for our next article. Happy fly fishing!