Fly Fishing for Steelhead: A 101 Guide

Fishing for Steelhead is a test in diligence, and not a numbers game by any means. Regarded by many as the “Fish of 1000 casts” these majestic fish are a true sight to behold and make even the most seasoned anglers giddy with excitement at the thought of the pursuit. So here is our take on Fly Fishing for Steelhead: A 101 Guide

The Fish

The Steelhead, scientifically known as Oncorhynchus mykiss, is a remarkable and highly sought-after species of fish primarily found in the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest (California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska). Belonging to the salmonid family, which includes salmon and other trout species, the Steelhead is renowned for its  anadromous nature, meaning that some Steelhead act like salmon, choosing to live part of their lives in the ocean. Unlike Salmon however, Steelhead do not die upon their return to the freshwater in order to spawn. 

Steelhead are a favorite of anglers worldwide due to their impressive size (10 – 20lb), beautiful colors, and impressive, acrobatic fight once hooked. These large, beautiful creatures often inhabit and thrive in some of the most rough conditions.  

The areas where steelhead live present a formidable challenge, demanding sturdy gear capable of withstanding tough conditions. To conquer the weather, fast-flowing waters, and discerning fish, equip yourself with robust flies, lines, and rods. The following guide will outline the key gear you’ll need for a successful steelhead fly fishing expedition.

The Lines

Selecting the right line is crucial when pursuing steelhead. Sinking, and floating lines each serve specific purposes. Tailor your choice to the desired depth in the water column.

Skagit and Scandi Head lines, known as shooting lines, are often viable options preferred by anglers who fish on the swing due to their ease of use and are typically around 15 to 20 feet in length. These shooting heads are often paired with different tips, or leaders that come in various sink rates in order to reach the desired depth and fly speed

Single handed sinking lines are ideal for dead drifting, ensuring your line reaches the bottom to entice fish searching for eggs. Floating line pairs well with heavier flies in shallower water, preventing snags on underwater structures and improving catch rates.. 

The Rods

Avid steelhead anglers often advocate for Spey Rods due to their power and ability to facilitate long casts, crucial for handling steelhead’s spirited runs. However, advancements in rod technology have broadened options. A 4-piece 8-weight or 9-weight single-handed rod can suffice, though sacrificing some casting power. Experimenting with different rod types can help you find what works best for you. An 8 or 9-weight 4-piece single-handed rod provides versatility across various fishing scenarios. Consider Switch Rods, a hybrid of spey and single-handed rods, ranging from 7 to 10 weights for targeting larger fish.

The Reels

The Sage Spey Reel for spey rods or if you are looking for a “crossover” (good for ALL fly fishing) the Galvan Torque Reel.

The Tippet/Leader

Given steelhead’s strength and sharp teeth, opt for a 0 or 1x leader and tippet or a single class line of 15 to 20lb.. These heavy-duty components are essential when using large flies, navigating swift waters, and engaging in challenging battles with the fish.

The Fishing

  • Swinging: When swinging for steelhead, remember that these fish are actively chasing your fly. They are typically suspended higher in the water column, indicating a feeding state. Use floating line and weighted flies to prevent snags and fish closer to the banks. In colder months, slow down your fly swing to account for reduced fish aggression. Cast upstream at a 45-degree angle towards the opposite bank, allowing the fly to drift downstream and across, covering a wide area.
  • Dead Drifting: Despite its seemingly passive nature, dead drifting is an effective technique. Choose slower-moving water for a more natural drift. A nine-foot rod is recommended for optimal high sticking. Cast almost directly upstream and be prepared to mend and strip to maintain a natural downstream drift. Keep minimal slack to ensure a successful hook set.

Fly Fishing Tips & Tricks For Targeting Steelhead

  • Focus on the Banks: As water levels rise, steelhead tend to congregate near the banks, making it beneficial to position yourself in the middle of the river, casting towards the banks. This counterintuitive approach aligns with the fish’s feeding behavior.
  • Target Pools: Riffles leading into deep pools are prime steelhead territory. Cast into the riffles and let your fly drift into the pool for a high chance of success.
  • Exploit Eddies: Eddies with deeper sections surrounded by shallower riffles are excellent places to target steelhead. Swing your fly through these areas for a high likelihood of a strike.
  • Keep It Simple: Look for natural features like seams, deeper pools, and protective structures that attract steelhead. Focus on these elements for successful fishing.
  • Be Patient: Steelhead fishing takes a lot of time and effort. These fish are not easy to catch. Steelhead fishing is not a numbers game. Even the most avid of anglers may go many days on the water without touching a fish, even in the best of conditions. However, if you do find success, know that it will be a moment in your angling journey that you will remember forever.

Chasing Steelhead on a fly is a testament to your angling prowess. Embrace the challenges, learn from mistakes, and savor the triumphs. Steelhead fishing at its core will take you to some of the most beautiful regions of North America, from the  renowned rivers of the Pacific Northwest to tributaries of the Great Lakes. Embark on this adventure for not only the thrill of the process but also the opportunity to immerse yourself in some of the world’s most pristine angling locations. 

The Clothing

The clothing that you bring with you on your trip for steelhead will make or break your trip. We have a list of MUST HAVE clothing items in order to make sure your trip is warm and successful.