There are a number of techniques that work well for catching steelhead on fly tackle. Swinging streamers and soft hackles in the spring when they are spawning is a favorite. Drifting egg patterns is a good bet all through the season.
Another, often overlooked, technique is also one that should be in every steelheader’s arsenal; nymphing.
Fishing nymphs for steelhead can be a very productive fishing method and works throughout the season. If you are proficient at nymphing for trout, the same techniques and concepts work for steelhead.
Steelhead nymphs are second only to egg patterns in terms of popularity. Once eggs are no longer available steelhead will shift their attention to nymphs.
Steelhead runs are a lot different than salmon runs. Steelhead enter the tributaries in the fall and remain there all winter, and there is also another run again in the spring during the spawning season. Unless they are actually spawning, steelhead feed while they are in the streams.
Most of the Lake Ontario tributaries have a variety of food items for steelies to prey on, including the nymphal forms of aquatic insects. The lake tributaries have a variety of macroinvertebrates including some mayfly and stonefly species, usually plenty of caddis, plus the technically non-insect oddities like tubifex worms that feed on rotting salmon carcasses.
It seems odd that a 10 pound steelhead is going to grab and eat a tiny stonefly nymph or a small aquatic worm, but they do so regularly. I can remember a couple of trips where nymphs were the only thing we could get them to hit.
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 stonefly 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 flies 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 flies 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 flies 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 flies.
However, there are some subtle differences between the two presentations. The first is that you do not need to keep your flies 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 flies 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.
Some anglers like strike indicators, and others do not. I’m in the camp of really liking them for one simple reason; they produce visual fishing. Its fun when you are a kid and see that bobber dip under, and it’s even more fun when you are an adult and see the strike indicator dive under when a steelhead is on the other end of the line. They are great in lower water with mild current speed. If things are ripping, then another technique is called for.
There are a couple of other advantages to the indicator. With it, you can adjust the drift and get a lightly weighted fly to bounce just up off the bottom where it will be at eye level for a steelhead.
The other advantage is that with the tricky currents you are often dealing with on a steelhead stream, the indicator gives a visual presentation to see if the fly is moving at the speed of the current or being dragged downstream.
If the fly is dragging along the bottom faster than the current, the fish are not going to hit it. Nymphs have to move at the same speed as the current for the fish to hit them.
My favorite indicator is the Thingamabobber, and I carry them in a couple of sizes and colors. They hold in position on the leader and are easy to adjust. They also float very well and are very durable.
I’ve never been a big fan of the “chuck and duck” style of fishing that evolved on the Lake Ontario streams, but if you can’t beat them, join them. Fishing a nymph or any other fly on a tight line using a split shot to get the fly down is often the most effective way to fish, especially when the current at the surface is moving much faster than the current on the bottom where the fish are holding.
This is especially true for cold weather fishing. The whole idea is to cast out, and make a quick mend upstream so the fly is actually moving downstream slightly ahead of the fly line.
If a fish grabs, you feel the fly stop and then set the hook. The trick to this presentation technique is using only enough split shot to get the shot to tick on the bottom but not get hung up all the time. It also helps to have a long leader (check the fishing regulations).
Fly line is important. I use a dark olive colored Wulff Triangle Taper line, so the front end is basically the front of a double-taper line. When fishing nymphs on a tight line, typically there isn’t a lot of fly line out and you manipulate the line to keep as much of it off the water as possible and also use mends to keep it from dragging the fly faster than the current.
Often you are fishing about a rod’s length of fly line plus the leader, and you plunk it in upstream, it is in the zone in front of you and you follow it downstream till the fly is dragged toward the shore. It takes awhile to get the hang of this, but approaching it with the idea that the fly needs to match the current speed is the goal.
The basic leader rig that I use for steelhead is 10 feet or so of 10 pound test fluorocarbon leader material tied to the fly line with a loop connection and a small, black barrel swivel on the other end (tied so there is about 4 inches of tag hanging off the swivel for attaching split shot).
From there I tie about three feet of tippet between the swivel and the fly. The straight 10 pound test leader does not turn over on the cast quite as well as a tapered leader, but the heavy butt section and taper sections on a tapered leader will often spook fish in crowded conditions.
Fly patterns for steelhead nymphing are fairly simple. I like the Rusher’s Nymph and Jim’s Wing Dinger, both of which look like a small, black stonefly. I also carry some Hare’s Ears Nymphs in a couple of colors, Pheasant Tails, and simple caddis larvae patterns.
I also carry Jim’s Not Much, which is a tiny red worm pattern and it often works when nothing else does during the harsh winter months. If you cover the basic colors like black, gray, tan, white, and olive, you are all set. The nymphs do not need the level of detail that you are going to need for a finicky trout; they just have to be in the general shape and color of the real bugs.
There are a lot of anglers who fish the Lake Ontario Tributaries for steelhead, and we all enjoy those spring days when swinging soft hackles or streamers brings jarring bites from steelhead.
Yet, those days are typically few compared to the times when they are finicky and not hitting well. Fishing nymphs for steelhead often is the difference between landing one, and getting skunked for the day. These same techniques also work well for drifting egg patterns too.