Steelhead fly fishing: the sole reason many people choose to fly fish. These beautiful sea-run rainbow trout grow upwards of 20 pounds and give you some of the best fights of any fish in the world.

It took me three years to officially target Steelhead in my favorite fly fishing destinations. Part of me was intimidated by all of the work that went into it and how skilled I needed to be to land one of these fish.

However, after a few hours of fishing, I learned that it’s just like any other type of fly fishing. With practice and a willingness to learn, you’ll land fish.

And believe me, when I landed my first Steelhead I opened up an entirely new world of fly fishing that I find to be some of the most entertaining angling possible.

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What is Steelhead Fly Fishing?

Steelhead fishing is done in rivers along the coasts and Great Lakes in the United States. These fish are sea-run rainbow trout. They migrate to the ocean as juvenile fish and make their way back to freshwater when they’re ready to spawn.

Steelhead fish species caught on a fly rod on a river

The heartiest anglers target these fish. They often run in the early spring or winter so conditions are difficult, but it makes landing a fish that much more rewarding.

The Best Steelhead Flies

Choosing the right Steelhead fly patterns can be difficult. The river you’re fishing is likely full, muddy, and a bit intimidating. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to choose a large flashy fly.

Steelhead will find your fly as long as it fits the water and conditions!

Pink Egg

Egg patterns are a staple for Steelhead fishing. As long as your egg patterns have the yarn along the outside that emulates the substance that holds the eggs together, it will be enough for the steelhead.

Pink egg great fly for steelhead fishing

Some fly shops call these Nuke Eggs. If you have a choice between a traditional egg pattern and a Nuke Egg, go with the Nuke.

Guide Intruder

These flies are the perfect Steelhead fly. They’ll stand out in full rivers and provide anglers with a peace of mind that even if the fish aren’t feeding, they at least see your fly.

They’re flashy, large and have plenty of weight to reach the lower portions of the water column.

Egg Sucking Leech

The Egg Sucking Leech is an extremely famous fly that is used both in the worlds of Steelhead and salmon.

Egg Sucking Leech Fly on a fly rod in a river

They have the bright material near the head of the hook that imitates an egg as well as the Wooly Bugger representation that trails behind it. It’s a perfect combination of fly and works great in a variety of waters.

Steelhead Nymph

Steelhead love an egg, but they also love a nymph. These fish commonly feed on stonefly nymphs and other subsurface larvae, so make sure you have a sufficient amount of nymphs in your fly box before heading out on a Steelhead fly fishing trip.

Best Fly Boxes filled with steelhead nymphs

Hoh Bo Spey

Steelhead anglers would get frustrated if this fly wasn’t on the list. No matter the time of year or water conditions, the Hoh Bo Spey is going to catch you Steelhead. They aren’t weighted and they’re quite easy to cast.

If you’re looking to cover quite a bit of water, use the Hoh Bo Spey. You won’t have to worry about it falling as low in the water column and can be precise with where you would like to cast it.

How To Fly Fish Fish For Steelhead With a Pink Egg

When fishing eggs, you need an indicator. These are best fished when dead drifted and when you’re in a swollen river, you need an indicator to help you determine whether or not you’re receiving hits.

Steelhead Caught Fly Fishing in Canada

Depending on the size of the water you’re fishing, you may need to choose a larger egg. Also, be sure to match the color of the water with your egg. These fish are extremely smart and can pick out when something doesn’t look realistic. If it’s dark water, use a darker egg and vice versa.

How To Fly Fish Fish For Steelhead With a Guide Intruder

These flies are best fished when you’re swinging them. Their dumbbell eyes help them reach the lower portions of the current so cast upstream and let the fly swing across the current.

If the water is extremely dark and muddy, use a purple or dark blue fly with a bit of flash. It won’t look too unrealistic and still help the fish find it in the water.

You’re going to cover quite a bit of water when you use the Guide Intruder so don’t be afraid to move up or downstream fairly often.

How To Fly Fish Fish For Steelhead With An Egg Sucking Leech

Versatility is the beauty of the Egg Sucking Leech. You can swing this fly, dead drift, and even fish it in a tandem rig.

fly rod with egg sucking leech steelhead fly attached

If you are fishing it with a tandem rig, be sure your smaller fly is an egg. This duo is extremely successful when fly fishing for Steelhead. You can tie the egg pattern around 12-18 inches behind the Egg Sucking Leech.

Be patient when you fish the tandem. If you let it sit in the water before you start stripping, you’ll find that Steelhead will strike it at the last second.

How To Fly Fish Fish For Steelhead With a Hoh Bo Spey

This is a smart fly to use when you know the Steelhead are in the shallow water. The other flies in your Steelhead box are likely going to have dumbbell eyes or other types of weight so the Hoh Bo Spey works in shallower water where you know it won’t get snagged.

You can drift or swing this into the shallower water and wait for the Steelhead to rise from the depths to eat. When these flies are working, they are some of the most entertaining bait to use. Seeing the Steelhead strike is amazing!

Gear To Use When Fly Fishing For Steelhead

Steelhead are big, strong, and thrive in tough conditions. As a result, you’ll have to ensure your gear can handle these difficult scenarios. Heavier flies, line and rods are going to be absolutely necessary.

man fly fishing for steelhead in winter with gear on

You’ll be battling the weather, deep and fast water, and picky fish so be prepared for a challenge. However, it’s a challenge you’ll soon forget as soon as you hook into one of these monsters.

Rod

Traditional Steelhead anglers are always going to recommend a Spey Rod. These rods are powerful, allow for long casts, and can handle the long runs that the Steelhead are famous for.

However, as rod technology has improved, the need for a Spey rod has diminished. You can use a 4-piece 8-weight or 9-weight single-handed rod and be just fine. You’ll lose out on a bit of the casting power, but other than that, you’ll handle anything that the fish throw your way.

Different Types of Fly Rods Side By Side

Depending on your preference, you can make either work. It may be best to try a few different types of rods before you make your decision. An 8 or 9-weight 4-piece single-handed rod is going to be more versatile and work for a variety of different types of fishing.

Companies are also beginning to produce Switch Rods. These rods are a cross between a spey and single-handed rod. They’re a bit longer and found in 7-10-weights. If you know you’ll be targeting larger fish, these are great rods to use.

Line

You need different line options when targeting Steelhead. Weight forward, sinking and floating lines will all work in specific scenarios. Depending on where you want your line in the water column, you’ll need different lines.

Different Types of Fly Fishing Lines on Reels

Sinking line is great to use when dead drifting. This will ensure your line reaches the bottom of the water column and gains the attention of those fish sitting on the bottom searching for eggs. If you’re using lighter flies, sinking line is great.

Floating line is great to use when using heavier flies in shallower water. The floating line will ensure that you aren’t going to get snagged on structure deep in the water. You can keep your flies higher and have a higher rate of catching fish.

Weight forward line is a great choice for something in between floating and sinking. Only the final 15 feet will sink so you can swing flies with this line quite well. You’ll be able to stay in almost every part of the water column depending on the weight of your fly.

You can also use Skagit and Scandi Head lines. These are also known as shooting lines. They work well and are only around 15 or 20 feet long.

Tippet/Leader

Steelhead are strong and have teeth. As a result, you’ll want 0 or 1x leader and tippet. You’ll be using heavy flies, fishing fast water and fighting fish that give you every ounce of their strength.

fly line leader

Don’t risk losing a fish so be sure to use heavy leader and heavy tippet. More often than not you’re going to fish cloudy water so you don’t need to worry about spooking fish.

How To Fly Fish For Steelhead

There are two primary ways people target Steelhead: swinging and dead drifting. Within these methods, there are a variety of variations that are going to lead to you catching Steelhead.

Fly Fishing For Steelhead in a River

The most important thing to understand when fly fishing for Steelhead is when they’re going to run. If you target Steelhead during a part of the year when they’re not in the river, you’re going to leave empty-handed.

Spey Casting for steelhead on a river

Throughout the United States, Steelhead run from late fall into early spring. Most rivers have a peak two months when the Steelhead are in the rivers. In the Great Lakes, the Steelhead are found from March until April.

On the west coast, you can find Steelhead in the late fall. It varies by region so be sure you do your research before you head to the river in hopes of catching a Steelhead.

Swinging

When swinging for Steelhead, it’s important to understand that these fish are chasing your fly. If you’re swinging, you must know that the Steelhead are likely feeding and are suspended a bit higher in the water column.

Many people think that swinging flies means that you’re trying to stay near the bottom and attract those fish. This isn’t the case. When swinging, you’re going after the fish that are aggressive. They’re in search of food and willing to chase after your fly.

steelhead fishing on a river swing casting a fly rod

If you know the fish are suspended, use floating line and weighted flies. This will prevent you from snagging as well as allow you to fish closer to the banks.

Since many Steelhead run in the winter, they’re not going to be as aggressive as they would be in the summer. As a result, you’ll want to have the fly swing a bit slower. Don’t over mend because this will slow the fly down too much.

Cast your fly around at around a 45-degree angle upstream towards the opposite bank. Let the fly drift downstream and across. This will cover quite a bit of water and likely flow right past quite a few Steelhead.

Let it swing naturally in the current and don’t mend in hopes of making it move faster or slower. Let your fly lead the way and the Steelhead will find it. If the water is high, stay closer to the banks.

Dead Drifting

Dead drifting for Steelhead seems anti-climatic. These fish are extremely aggressive and once hooked, do everything in their power to unpin themselves.

Dead Drifting For Steelhead

When dead drifting, you want to find a bit slower moving water so you can work to mend the drift and make it appear more natural. If the current is too fast, your fly line will get in the way and prevent the fly from drifting naturally downstream.

If dead drifting, you ideally want at least a nine-foot rod. This will allow you to high stick the fly if needed. You want the fly line to be parallel with the fly because this will allow the fly to make it’s way downstream in a natural way.

Cast almost directly upstream and be prepared to mend and strip. As the fly drifts downstream, mend so the fly line stays parallel with the fly and strip in the slack.

When a Steelhead strikes, the last thing you want is to have too much slack in your line. You’ll miss the hook set if there is too much slack.

As the fly drifts past you, be prepared for one final mend and hard strips towards yourself. The Steelhead may not hit it on the drift, but as it drifts downstream let it hold in the water and strip towards yourself a few times. The Steelhead along the banks may strike this fly.

Fly Fishing For Steelhead in a Small Stream

There’s something amazing about landing a Steelhead out of a stream that is only 10 to 15 feet wide. These Steelhead have found a tributary off of a river and swam up it due to their desire for calmer and cleaner water to lay their eggs.

Fly Fishing On a Small Stream

These fish will spook and you may have only one or two shots at them. In salmon and Steelhead fishing, the saying “the first one in the hole catches the fish” is true. As soon as you run a fly over these fish 10 or so times, they know what is coming.

As a result, if you can sight fish for them, do it. Be prepared to make longer casts. If they sense any sort of danger, they won’t eat! There’s a reason these fish have survived for so long. They know how to hide and protect themselves in the midst of danger.

You may have two or three casts over these fish before you give them a break. If you know that dead drifting or swinging has worked, try these methods. Otherwise, try one or two floats of each. In smaller streams, dead drifting is likely going to work better.

Look for cut banks and deeper pools. This is where the fish are likely going to sit. It may feel as if you’re fishing right on top of these fish, but they’ll still strike. If the drift is presentable, you won’t have any trouble getting one to strike.

The deeper the pool, the more fish will be stacked in it. It’s going to blow your mind that a fish that size is going to hold in those streams. If you can manage to find a  small stream for Steelhead fishing, do it. It’ll be an experience you won’t forget.

Fly Fishing For Steelhead Tips & Tricks

Steelhead are a tricky fish. They’re often found in big water and take time to learn. Don’t be discouraged and take these tips with you as you begin your next fly fishing adventure.

Steelhead fishing spey cast on a river with a boat

Don’t Forget About the Banks

As the water levels rise, the fish are going to push towards the banks. This may require you to stand more in the middle of the river for fly fishing and fishing towards the banks. It feels backward, but it’s an extremely useful method.

These fish want to sit on the banks and dart out into the current after their food. It’s a safer feeding method for them so don’t be afraid to give it a try.

Look For Pools

If you can find a portion of a river with riffles that lead into a deep pool, you’re in business. The fish will sit on the front edge of the pools waiting for food to drift into them.

Savegre river costa rica

Cast into the riffles and let your fly dead drift into the pool. Be prepared for an immediate strike. It won’t take long for one of the Steelhead that are stacked in the pool to strike.

Focus On Eddies

Eddies are another great place to target Steelhead. There are going to be deep portions of these eddies surrounded by shallower riffles. If you can swing a fly through these portions of the river, you’re likely going to land a fish.

Don’t Complicate Things

Steelhead aren’t unlike many other fish. They want structure, ample access to food, and safety. Yes, you see many videos of anglers targeting them in massive rivers in awful conditions, but it’s manageable.

Look for seams, deeper pools, and any sort of protection that the fish might like. If you find one of these things, you’ll likely find fish.

Hold On For Dear Life

When you do hook into a Steelhead, there are a few things to remember. First, the fish is going to run. Be sure you’re prepared with the drag set at the proper level and have a solid angle to fight it.

Steelhead fishing on a fly

These fish are going to jump, provide head shakes, and go on long runs. If you can, fight this fish upstream. The current combined with the pressure you’re providing will tire this fish out at a faster rate.

Keeping consistent pressure is important. These fish will tease you into thinking they’re not going to run anymore. You’ll get them close, but as soon as they see you, they’ll take off again. Apply the most pressure when the fish aren’t running.

Best Destinations For Steelhead Fishing

Steelhead are found on both coasts and in the Great Lakes area. These are all wonderful places to visit and try your hand.

British Columbia

British Columbia may be the Steelhead capital of the world. Be sure to visit the Fraser, Kalum and Skeena Rivers on your trip. Read more about Fly Fishing in British Columbia.

Fly Fishing On The Campbell River in British Columbia

New York

Steelhead will run in from the Atlantic Ocean. The Au Sable and Beaverkill River systems are great ones to visit when looking to catch Steelhead. Read more about Fly Fishing in New York.

Michigan

Great Lakes run Steelhead are beautiful. Visit the Muskegon and Pere Marquette in the early spring and see what you can find. Read more about Fly Fishing in Michigan.

Why Start Steelhead Fly Fishing?

Steelhead are the ideal fish to target on the fly. They make you earn everything, Plus, you get to visit some of the most beautiful locations in the world when targeting these fish.

Steelhead Fly Fishing Fish Species

Conclusion

If you can land a Steelhead on a fly rod, you can consider yourself a quality fly angler. Nothing about catching these fish is easy and as soon as you land your first, you have a lifetime hobby.

Be willing to make mistakes, fail to land fish, and end long days in frustration. All of the time you put in to these fish will pay off in the long run and make lifetimes of memories.

Some images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock.

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Angler’s Guide On How To Fly Fish For SteelheadHow To Fly Fish For Steelhead