Nymph Fishing for Winter Steelhead

Jay Peck

Big fish are taken on small
Big fish are taken on small flies

When it comes to winter steelhead fishing, egg flies get a lot of attention, and rightfully so. However, our fly boxes need to have a healthy selection of nymphs to complement the egg flies. To understand why nymphs can be as important as egg patterns, you need to understand what is happening with the natural eggs in the river bottom during the winter.

By the time mid-December rolls around, the rivers settle into the normal winter fishing pattern. The surplus of salmon eggs that have been drifting loose in the river are now all but gone. What is left is securely buried in to the river bottom. For these eggs to go adrift, it takes a surge of high water to knock the eggs loose from the river bottom.

We have a tendency to complain about constant fluctuations in water flows during the winter, but these fluctuations are actually important in keeping the fishing fresh. The fluctuating water flows draw in fresh fish from the lake and reenergize the steelhead that have been sitting in the pools throughout the river. Another advantage to continuous water fluctuations is that the river bottom is stirred up during a high water event. When this happens, a lot of food is sent adrift providing feeding opportunities for the steelhead. Obviously, this would include both eggs and nymphs.

At first, the eggs will be at the top of the menu for the steelhead. But as water flows come down and the surplus of eggs go away, nymphs become more important. The water levels do not always need to come down. A constant flow of water will do the same; that is, allow the stray eggs to settle out and not be available for the fish to feed on.

Predicting when to fish with nymphs is easier than one might think. Simply give the water flow about a week to stabilize or drop. The egg bite will wind down and the nymph bite will start up. As the winter season progresses, each pulse of high water will stir up fewer eggs and more nymphs. Keep in mind that the nymph population will continue to grow throughout the winter. By late winter, nymphs can make up the bulk of the food that is available to the steelhead.

You may not think about winter as a prime time for fishing nymphs. The winter months are prime growing time for aquatic insects. Every bug that will be hatching in the spring and through the summer is growing in the rivers through the winter. Some of these aquatic insects are more active than others, and as a result, they are available for the fish to feed on.

A classic example of this is stone flies. These insects are predators, and so they are actively crawling around the stream bottom hunting for food. This activity makes some liable to becoming dislodged and sent adrift. This is one reason why stone fly nymphs are so effective in rivers such as the Salmon River. Other insects such as Caddis larva will connect themselves to the edges of rocks and allow the currents to bring food to them. Obviously, being tied to a rock goes a long way toward keeping you in one place -- not as prone to becoming a meal. These are two examples of the extremes; most nymphs fall somewhere in between.

Fortunately for us, we do not have to precisely imitate every single type of nymph that swims in our steelhead rivers. Good general purpose nymph patterns will work just fine. In fact, it is hard to beat a black stone fly nymph. What is important is to match the general size and color of the average size of the nymph. This is easier than it sounds.

For most rivers, fly size ranging from a 12 to a size 8 will work just fine. There are lots of nymphs in the rivers this time of the year that are smaller than a size 12. Over the years, I have found that when it comes to steelhead fishing, one needs to show these fish a fly big enough to consistently get their attention. This is not to say that at times smaller flys will not work, it’s just that the larger flys have a tendency to work more consistently. When it comes to color, think earth tones, such as dark olive, black, and hare’s ear. Brown will match most of the colors of the nymphs living within the typical rivers and streams.

Steelhead are not that selective when it comes to feeding on nymphs. A good general attractor pattern is often all it takes - remember that black stone fly nymph. I have had great success by taking black stone flies and adding a flash back and rubber legs to the fly. Some of the most productive steelhead nymphs are traditional trout patterns jazzed up. This can be done by adding a little flash to the bodies or incorporating some of the steelhead's favorite colors to various parts of the fly.

Another consideration with fly selection is that we are also talking about catching a large fish. Using somewhat larger flys and larger hooks also increases our landing percentage. This is why often the smallest nymphs I use are size 12. I also tie my nymph patterns onto heavy wire hooks, often referred to as “2X heavy”. Standard trout hooks are often made from lighter wire and will bend easily with a big fish.

We always like to talk about what flys we are using. However, when comes to catching fish, it is more about the presentation. On any given day we can catch fish with six different patterns, as long as they are presented properly. Obviously, this is no different when it comes to fishing nymphs for steelhead. Drifting nymphs is similar to drifting egg flys.

However, there are some subtle differences between the two presentations. The first is that you do not need to keep your flys as tight to the river bottom as you do with egg flies. Nymphs have a tendency to get knocked loose and drift slightly above the river bottom. As result, the flys do not need to be drifted as close to the bottom with constant contact. I refer to this as a soft drift– your fly is close to the bottom, but does not need to constantly hit the bottom.

This will take a little practice to achieve and some constant adjusting. But remember, you need to keep your fly within the nymph’s zone, which is the bottom six inches of the river. Another consideration to keep in mind is that nymphs are living, crawling, swimming creatures. Letting your fly swing a little on the end of the drift can often trigger a take.

One of my favorite methods of presenting nymphs during the winter is to use strike indicators and long fine leaders. The long fine leaders give me the chance to get my flys down fast, allowing me to cover more water efficiently. The strike indicators are used more as a tool to control and extend the drift, rather than to detect takes. With a little experimenting and some practice, you can learn to swing a fly both vertically and horizontally through the water. This often imitates the natural movement of the nymphs during the winter– a little presentation trick that steelhead find hard to resist.

Jay Peck is a fishing guide, fishing the Lake Ontario tributaries- the Salmon River for Chinook salmon and steelhead from September to October, and then Sandy Creek in Monroe County and lower Genesee for brown trout and steelhead from November on. He then fishes the Salmon River from mid to late spring for steelhead. To contact Jay, e-mail him at or go to or at Coleman’s Fly Shop (585) 352-4775 or e-mail

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