Steelheads are something special to say the least, and if you have ever hooked into one then you already know that. However, taking one with a fly rod is an experience in and of itself, and is even better when done in the winter months. Steelheads are the biggest challenge and there are many anglers who have confidently stated that they cannot be taken on flies, but that just is not the case.
In fact, fly patterns have been used for steelheads for centuries and were successful long before fishers knew anything about graphite casting rods, spinning reels, or monofilament line. While it may not be easy, catching steelheads on fly gear is not nearly as daunting of a task as some experts would have you think.
If you don’t believe it then consider this. There are thousands of guides out there who find ways to put winter fish onto fly fishing lines on a regular basis. They do this by simply putting their clients into spots where the steelheads are located, provide them with the right tackle and teach them how to present their lures.
Does this mean you have to employ fly fishing guides in order to find success on the winter waters? Not necessarily. All you have to do is employ the techniques that they use and get into the right areas.
So let’s get into it.
Using the Wet Fly Swing for Winter Steelhead
When fishing for steelhead in waters that are deep and wide, the wet fly swing is one of the best techniques to use when searching for steelhead in winter. It consists of casting your fly at a downstream angle and letting it swing across the current. When utilized along with sink tip lines and heavy flies this technique allows you to get to the bottom quickly and work your fly right along the steelhead’s nose.
While many winter experts seem to have fallen in love with long, two handed rods, a 10 foot single hand 8-weight rod still remains as the best option for winter steelheads. It allows you to cast heavy flies while still having enough control over the fly to drift your fly properly.
Using Sink-Tips in Winter
There are basically two separate categories for sink-tips that can be used for winter steelheads. There are examples such as the type 3 or type 5 that are short and light and then there are heavier and longer types such as Teeny Lines. Type 3 to type 6 sink-tips are best suited for water that is waist deep while heavier water will require longer, heavier tips. On top of that, be sure to keep the leaders short when going after these trout and should range between 3 to 6 feet and be close to 10 to 12 pound test.
Fly Patterns for Steelheads
There are far fewer options in terms of fly patterns in these situations, but there are still more than enough to confuse beginners and keep experts entertained. What makes it easier for beginners is if they try to separate all the fly patterns into sub categories. Better yet, when you start out you can try just sticking to traditional patterns such as egg patterns. These traditional patterns are effective in all kinds of water and their heavy hooks allow them to sink quickly even in the heaviest of water.
Over time though, patterns such as rabbit strip leeches have become more popular than traditional patterns as they are incredible durable and have excellent motion in the water. Stick to egg patterns such as Glo-Bugs are great in cold water that has great visibility.
Reading the Water in Winter
Once you have your fly pattern selected, it is important to learn how to read the water and find out where the steelhead are holding.
Tail-outs near the downstream area of pools are usually where steelheads like to hang out and this is a spot that is easy to work utilizing the previously mentioned wet fly swing. Other than that, pocket waters can also be rewarding as well as any downstream that is covered by trees or near snags and boulders.
Presenting your Fly for Steelheads
The goal of swinging your fly is to show your fly right in front of the steelhead’s nose, and the best spot is right on the broadside of the current. In order to do this you want to hold an upstream position and cast at a downstream angle to the targeted area. Will your angle will change from cast to cast, your goal is to keep it at 45 degrees as much as you can when starting out.
When presenting your fly, try to feed the sink-tip with a few feet of line and let it hang for a while downstream. Depending upon how much line you want to shoot out when casting, gather all the line you need in the hand you do not use for casting. Roll your cast so the tip is at the surface, slowly lift it off the water and use a normal back cast as you send the slack forwards.
Do not forget that the sink tips need to be brought to the surface before you can cast them in a conventional manner. As soon as the line lands you need to toss out an upstream mend which will create slack to let the fly sink. Follow the line with your rod high until you feel a tug and then lower your rod slowly. This will let the leader and the fly sink deeply and stay in line.
At the end, swing the line through the holding water and wait for your steelhead to strike.
For an added effect, let the fly hang seamlessly in the water near an obstruction or slot then strip it back in upstream and roll cast it towards the surface.