Fish are hard to read. It takes time to learn what they want and they’ll test your patience in every way possible. There are few fish more difficult to read than Steelhead. They provide anglers with the ultimate challenge. If you land one of these fish, you did something right. The first step to landing these fish on the fly rod is having the proper flies.

I started fishing for Steelhead just a few years ago. Each time I head out to the river, I learn something new about these fish. My fly selection, however, is the most important decision that I make. I want to make sure I don’t have to worry about my fly choice and I can focus on my drift.

When fishing for Steelhead, do your best to stay patient. These fish are going to frustrate you, but you’ll eventually learn. Make sure you’re prepared to have some trial-and-error experiences.

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What is a Steelhead Fly?

A Steelhead fly is any that’s going to capture the attention of a Steelhead. You’ll be surprised at some of the patterns that prove to work best. They most often sit in the bottom of the water column and meet Steelhead where they like to sit.

Steelhead fishing on a fly

They imitate everything from eggs to trout minnows. Steelhead like to feed on active prey if at all possible.

What Makes a Great Steelhead Fly?

Great Steelhead flies are hard to find. You’re often fishing in high and murky water so it can be difficult to find things that truly work. However, if you can find a pattern that is a solid egg or minnow imitation, you’ll have some success. You need to make sure your flies are attractors!

Understanding What Steelhead Eat

Steelheads are not too picky when it comes to their diet. This doesn’t mean, however, that they’ll eat everything you throw at them! These fish eat quite a bit so make sure you have a solid understanding of what’s in the water you’re fishing before you make your fly choices.

Insects

Steelhead will feed on flies; especially those that run during the summers. Stonefly nymphs are a common option for anglers wondering what to use. The look of a Stonefly nymph causes the predatory response in a Steelhead to fire.

Fish Eggs

Fish eggs are a favorite of Steelhead. As the Steelhead and Salmon head up rivers and streams to spawn, they start dropping eggs. Steelhead love to eat these and if you ever eat a Steelhead, you’ll see their stomachs to be full of them.

Small Fish

Steelhead love to eat small baitfish. Small trout will often hang around Steelhead and some are eaten. Therefore, it’s important to carry around some streamers that imitate these baitfish.

Basic Types of Steelhead Flies

Steelhead flies are not too uncommon in the world of fly fishing. Many trout flies that you use can work for Steelhead. However, there are some unique options that you must have in your box to ensure you’ll land some of these fish!

Dry Flies

Dry flies are flies that sit on the surface of the water. They often imitate insects that are hatching on or near the water. These flies are often found on the surface in the mornings and evenings in the midst of hatches. Be sure to play close attention to the surface of the water to see if fish are feeding.

Nymphs

Nymphs imitate a hatching insect. The insects are in the midst of the pupa stage. As they hatch, they begin to shed their covering and feeding on the bottom of the lake or river. Fish love to eat these flies!

Streamers

Streamers are the third most common type of Steelhead fly that you’ll find. These flies can imitate baitfish, larger insects and any other sort of living thing you’d find under the surface of the water. These prove to be the most successful when you’re targeting some of those larger fish!

The Best Steelhead Flies for Fly Fishing

When you’re targeting Steelhead, it’s important to know what’s working in your river! Visit your local fly shops or do some research online before you begin fishing. Each river is different so it’s imperative that you understand what has been working.

A selection of steelhead flies in a fly box

There are, however, a few basic Steelhead flies that have proven to work anywhere where you would find these fish!

Best Dry Flies for Steelhead

Again, dry flies are not the most common way to fish for Steelhead, but it works. Many anglers don’t even bother using dry flies when they target these fish. Don’t miss out on this great opportunity to land a few of these fish on the surface!

Mouse Rat

Using Mouse Rat flies for Steelhead is an underrated technique. Mice are great forms of bait for these fish. There are a few things to remember if you are using a mouse pattern to fish for Steelhead.

First, you need to use a mouse fly near shore with quite a bit of weeds and reeds. Mice will climb on these weeds and fall into the river. Fish wait near the reeds for this to happen! As soon as they hear the splash, it doesn’t take long for them to feast. Cast up along shore and start skating the fly back across the river towards you.

Be prepared for a massive strike. Steelhead know that they have to hit a mouse hard to make sure it doesn’t get away. This is an exhilarating way to fish for these monsters!

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Wulff Bombers

Similar to the Royal Wulff, Wulff Bombers are a large dry pattern that works great for Steelhead. You’ll find these flies in sizes 2-6. As a result, you need to make sure you have the equipment to cast these as accurately as you would like.

These are great skating flies. Cast upstream like you would a streamer and let it drift across the surface of the water back towards you. It’s also important that you’re using a floating line. As soon as these flies start diving in the water column, you’ll not have as much success. Cover this fly with a floatant as well. 

Hoody’s Hangers

These flies are a bit more discreet than a traditional Steelhead fly pattern, but they’re extremely effective. I have landed several Steelhead on this pattern. This pattern is fun to watch. It’s very active on the surface and that’s exactly what you need when targeting Steelhead.

The foam body ensures that it won’t fall in the water column. 

Best Nymphs for Steelhead

Nymph patterns work great for Steelhead. They might not look as large as many of the other Steelhead patterns you’ll find in anglers boxes, but they have their time and place when targeting these fish. Remember, few things are off limits when trying to land a Steelhead.

Copper John

The Copper John is a classic pattern in the world of fly fishing. It imitates a Stonefly and that is a guaranteed success when targeting these fish. On top of it all, the Copper John gets low enough in the water column. This can work great as a dropper pattern on your rig. You can fish it below an attractor or even an egg!

Multi-fly setups are never a bad idea when targeting Steelhead. The more bait you have in the water, the better your chances.

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Hare’s Ear Nymph

The Hare’s Ear Nymph is another option anglers must have in their boxes. If you aren’t sure what size of fly is going to work, fish this as a trailing pattern. Put your attractor pattern as the main focal point and let this one float behind. You’d be surprised at how many times the Steelhead hit the trailer!

This has just enough flash that it will stand out in the dark and messy water. You’ll often be in water that only has a foot or two of visibility so make sure you are able to stand out best you can.

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Nuke Egg

The Nuke Egg is perhaps the easiest way to fish for Steelhead. Tie on an indicator and let this fly drift down the river. It doesn’t have much weight to it so you don’t have to worry about getting snagged. Fish fly in the slower moving water. You can pay close attention to the indicator to see if you receive a bite.

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Best Streamers for Steelhead

Streamers are the most common used patterns for Steelhead. On top of that, they’re extremely successful. When you fish streamers, you have the potential to land some massive fish.

Guide Intruder

The Intruder is an awesome pattern to use if you’re wanting to fish streamers. These imitate Rainbow trout and have dumbbell eyes to make sure you’re low enough in the water column. This is a perfect fly for that ugly water! 

Wooly Bugger

You’ll see this fly on every single list that I write! The Wooly Bugger is going to work in every situation that you ask it to perform. It has enough size and action to attract the fish. You can tie it with a beadhead or without depending on the conditions.

On top of it all, you can swing or dead drift these flies to fit your needs.

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Egg Sucking Leech

The Egg Sucking Leech will land trout, salmon and Steelhead. Depending on where you need to be in the water column, you can use this pattern with or without dumbbell eyes. Cast this fly upstream, and start making short strips as it floats down the river.

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Hoh Bo Spey

If you’re seeing Steelhead in shallow water, use the Hoh Bo Spey. It’s light and won’t find itself snagged on things throughout the river. You can move this fly around quite a bit to fit your needs.

Conclusion

Steelhead are the fish of a thousand casts. They’re hard to read and some days all you can muster is one! However, make sure that you have a good grasp on the fly patterns that are working on your body of water!