January 11, 2024
When targeting winter steelhead, choosing a winner from the vast selection of flies available to anglers these days can be overwhelming. These chrome giants are elusive, and the wild rivers where they live add to the challenge. Long droughts between grabs on the fly test our mental fortitude and only increase our anxiety when choosing a fly. However, in my opinion, confidence in fishing a chosen fly far outweighs fly choice. This is a game of finding fish by covering water with a confident presentation to elicit a strike.
It wasn't until about 10 years ago, when I purchased my first spey rod and went on a few guided trips with Fish the Swing owner and head guide Jeff Hickman (fishtheswing.com), that I learned how to confidently swing flies down and across the river current for winter steelhead. Since those trips, I've gained confidence and thinned my fly box to a few purpose-driven styles.
Modern steelhead flies have changed a lot since the early days of sparsely tied spey or hair-wing patterns on heavy-wire hooks, but the principles behind the successful design of those flies is still noticeable in many of the newer patterns. Understanding what makes a successful fly—and how to fish it in the changing river conditions you will encounter throughout the season—will prove more valuable than a simple list of new patterns.
RODS AND LINES
To cast and fish your fly confidently, having the correct rod, line and sink tip combination is important. I suggest taking a lesson from a friend or guide to learn the casting stroke while trying out a rod or two. Single-hand rods and traditional casting can be used to pursue winters, but brushy streams and tight casting situations limit the angler's ability to make back casts. As such, newer Skagit-style, two-hand rod techniques have come into favor among steelheaders. Any reputable fly shop in the Pacific Northwest should be able to set you up with the right rod-and-line combo. The shorter shooting heads, like the Commando Head from Olympic Peninsula Skagit Tactics, work well with my casting stroke in both tight and open situations.
Keep the sink tip choices simple as well. Hickman made it even simpler for me when he chopped 3 feet off my store-bought 12-foot sink tip while rigging my rod for a day on an Oregon coastal river, producing a 9-foot section of T-11 sinking line. ("T-11" stands for 11 grains of tungsten in each foot of line material.) When I asked where I should use this new tip, Hickman replied, "Everywhere." And so I have, landing both winter- and summer-run steelhead with it in numerous rivers since.
When my "everywhere" tip is not enough for the deep tail-out I am fishing, I switch to a heavier sink tip before using a heavier fly. My sink tip arsenal, from deep to shallow, includes a dredger of 12 feet of T-14, a lighter 12-foot section of T-11, the 9- foot "everywhere" tip and an early version of Rio's iMOW tip, with 5 feet of floating and 5 feet of T-11 integrated into one tip. Bottom line: Don't get overwhelmed by sink tips. Four is more than enough, and changing them is easy using the loop-to-loop connection system common in fly fishing.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT FLY
Probably the most important lesson I took from my trips with Hickman is that the sink tip should do the work, and weight added to a fly will decrease its action.
When choosing a fly, I consider weight, action and size based on the depth, speed and clarity of water I am fishing. Three fly styles work best for me—the unweighted marabou tube fly, the shank-style fly and the intruder fly. To fish these patterns confidently, cast across the river flow while angled downstream between 45 and 75 degrees. Increase the angle based on the time needed for the fly to sink to the strike zone depth. Mend if necessary to straighten the line, then lead the line with the rod tip slightly out front during the swing to remove any tension. The sink tip and shooting head should work the fly effortlessly across the run. Take two steps between casts to continue downstream and cover the entire run.
Marabou Tube Fly
Low, clear water conditions call for an unweighted marabou tube fly. Two contrasting colors of sparsely wrapped marabou tied on a very short, half-inch section of plastic tubing is weightless and productive. Attach a rubber hook guide on the rear end of the rigid tube and thread it onto your leader. Tie on a size-2 or size-4 octopus-style hook with a clinch knot for a tighter fit or a loop knot for a looser trailing hook. In both cases pull the knot snug into the hook guide to secure the tube to the hook. On the "everywhere" sink tip, this pattern has excellent action in slower currents, with the light strands of marabou undulating in a flowy, enticing dance.
In swifter, deeper currents you'll need to sink the fly to depth before leading it across the river into likely resting water. Here, I choose a shank-style fly, in which the weight of the hook shank acts to sink the fly effectively against the resistance of the fly materials. Traditional heavy-wire hook shanks with a turned-up eye used for classic spey-style patterns still work well for this need. These days a shank-style fly means no tube and a trailer hook secured using wire, monofilament or a braided line. In these conditions I use Hickman's Fish Taco. The original is tied on a heavy-gauge spinner wire with a hand-turned eye and provides just enough weight to get the fly to depth. A sparse dressing of ostrich herl laid back to the trailing hook with a solid dose of flash finishes this fly at a 3- to 4-inch length. The underbody of dubbing, with a contrasting hot butt common in steelhead patterns, is over-wrapped with a light hackle to keep the herl and flash flowy in all conditions.
Increasing weight means adding lead or bead-chain eyes. Today's intruder-style flies use a heavy-wire, double-looped hook shank topped with weighted eyes and a trailing hook. The long shank provides room to create a fly with a large profile using contrasting materials that flow well under tension. The fly-tying world has taken intruder-style fly patterns to an amazing art form, incorporating a kaleidoscope of options to address weight, action and size.
My first trip with Hickman was on a river near Portland, Ore., where broad runs provide excellent conditions to swing flies for bright steelhead. After a morning of learning and a healthy lunch, we zoomed into a side channel, stopping the jet boat just above its connection with the main river channel. The size of a small river, the side channel had a deep and slow outside with an easily wadable and good swinging inside. Being that it was my friend's birthday trip, he stepped out and fished the inside first while I waited to clean up the untouched outside. When I was up, I used Hickman's rod, rigged with an intermediate-sink-rate shooting head and no sink tip and a flashy black Fish Taco. After three well-placed casts, I felt the fly stop about 3 feet down in 5 feet of water, followed by the forceful thumps of a respectable wild hen steelhead.
RIVERS OF STEEL
Top destinations for winter chromers
- Oregon: The North Umpqua's 32-mile fly-fishing-only section, framed with magazine-cover scenery at every run, will challenge anglers of any level. The Sandy River drains the west slopes of Mount Hood and provides classic riffle pool water in the upper river and large, expansive runs in the lower, making it a fly-fisher's dream. Strong winter steelhead runs after the removal of Marmot Dam have been a plus.
- Washington: The Skagit River is where two-hand fly-swinging techniques for winter steelhead were born in the U.S. Giant runs let you cast forever, and protective management decisions and regulations have been working to sustain this run. The long drive out to the Olympic Peninsula in winter to experience the wonder of the half-dozen West End Rivers is well worth it for avid fly anglers. These waterways that drain the west slopes of the Olympic Mountains include glacial-colored rivers like the Hoh and Queets and clear rainforest rivers like the Sol Duc and Bogachiel.
- California: Winding along highway 101 south of Eureka, the emerald water of the South Fork Eel River has too many perfect-looking, unfished runs for you not to spend a day or two swinging flies for fresh chrome.