Now that I've moved to the northwest, I have the pleasure of fishing for steelhead during six months of the year. In this first steelhead post, I will take you through the equipment and methods I use, at least while nymphing. In future posts I will share my four most reliable steelhead nymphs, the basic approach and angle I take for each potential holding lie, and tips on steelhead biology and behavior that can help you plan the timing of a trip as well as the water you target.
Thislast fall I started spey fishing, which I have really enjoyed, but when the water temperatures drop and steelhead are less willing to move to the fly, the reliable way to target them is with nymphs. Even when swinging conditions are ideal, it is likely you will still catch more steelhead with nymphs than on the swing. However, having experienced it myself quite a few times this season, there is definitely something special about the spey cast and the tight line grab of a steelhead. I already look forward to future seasons of temporarily infiltrating the Fellowship of the Swing. However, I suppose I'm still childishly impatient because I’m not the kind of angler who is willing to spend hours or days fishing a method I know is not likely to produce when I know another will.
Mark Hammond's first steelhead caught via a Euro-nymphing presentation.
As with resident trout, European nymphing has been the most reliable and versatile way to target steelhead for me. Switching over from one nymphing method to another for steelhead can be difficult because the opportunities to receive positive reinforcement from your quarry, on technique and choice of flies, are far fewer than on a typical trout stream. Therefore, if Euro-nymphing is foreign to you, it is probably easier to build up confidence Euro-nymphing for trout than it is for steelhead. When I started fishing for steelhead back in 2009, I already had great faith in the effectiveness of Euro-nymphing for trout after a couple of seasons of irrefutable results. So when I joined my friend Scott Berrett on our first trip to the Salmon River in Idaho, it was an easy choice for me to start and stick with Euro-nymphing, and it didn’t take long to experience my first steelhead coming to the net. In the ensuing years I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of great steelhead trips and I feel like I’m starting to become familiar with their habits and the most consistent ways to target them. While I’ve written a short 3 part series on Euro nymphing previously (Euro-nymphing 101 parts 1, 2, and 3) and the tactics and the explanations in those posts are essentially transferable, the pursuit of steelhead requires a few adjustments to be consistently successful. Below is some advice on fishing for steelhead. Most of it applies directly to Euro-nymphing but much of it is applicable to steelhead fishing in general. Almost all of my experience has been with inland summer-run steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss gairdneri) except for a few steelhead I caught while in California. Therefore, it may not fully apply to coastal winter run steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus). However, in talking with other anglers, winter run steelhead are also susceptible to nymphs, so I assume my advice will be applicable to them as well.
Say ahhh...a lovely hen steelhead showing her pearly whites for the camera after falling to a Magneto Stone on a Euro-nymphing rig.
Rods: Thankfully, longer rods are being built lighter and better these days and more manufacturers and anglers are realizing their benefits. It wasn’t long ago that a well-balanced 6 to 8 weight rod was difficult to find in a length greater than 9 feet. Longer rods will help reach across currents, achieve greater distance from the angler to the fish, and provide more ability to mend at distance if you’re chucking a strike indicator rig. These days, I do all of my steelhead nymphing with 10’ 7 or 8 weight rods. If you are mainly fishing a trout river that gets the odd steelhead, it is possible to land steelhead on lighter tackle, especially in cold water when they are lethargic. I landed a half dozen this winter on a 10’ 6” 3 weight Cortland Competition Nymph Rod and 5x tippet while trying to target trout. They were a nice surprise. However, targeting steelhead with overly light tackle is not advisable, both for the health of a steelhead if you plan to release it (please consider keeping hatchery steelhead for genetic reasons) and for your own hooked to landed ratio.
Reels: Most reels nowadays have drags that are sufficient to stop a steelhead smoothly so that isn’t the most important concern when choosing a reel. To me, finding a reel with the correct balance is the most important facet because longer rods can cause forearm fatigue if they are unbalanced. If the reel is too heavy, your outfit will wear out your shoulder high sticking with it all day long. If it is too light, the rod will feel tip heavy and your forearm will have to work overly hard to stop the rod at the end of a cast and to be able to hold the rod high and steady through the drift. This may sound silly to some of you but I have a unique connection with this problem. I previously spent three years on and off in physical therapy to treat tendonitis caused by earlier heavier rods, which were not balanced well. As a result, there were several years in competitions where a prescription level of ibuprofen was my performance enhancing drug. Therefore, my recommendation is not to brush aside rod and reel balance, especially with rods 5 weight and higher that are 9' 6" or longer.
Leaders, rigs, and fly line: I fish a Tactical Fly Fisher thinnest or thinner leader while Euro-nymphing for steelhead. The smaller diameter butt sections on these two models help me achieve less sag when fishing the increased distances and water depths that often accompany nymphing for steelhead. However, the heavier flies I usually fish make casting very difficult if you are unused to the lack of turnover power that a long Euro-nymph leader exhibits. The heavier flies are also able to counteract some of the horizontal sag and force which gravity tries to induce on your leader, and thereby your drift, when fishing a Euro-nymph rig a ways beyond your rod tip (15+ feet). Therefore, if you are a Euro-nymphing novice, I highly recommend trying a slightly stouter leader configuration like my Tactical Fly Fisher thin leader, with a 20 lb test Maxima Chameleon butt section. It’s still light enough you can achieve dead drifts at a decent distance but the stiffer butt section will make casting a heavy 2-3 fly rig easier.
A Euro-nymphing leader recipe for steelhead. The butt section varies between 20, 15, and 12 pound test on my thin, thinner, and thinnest models. The dropper tags are simply "waste ends" of the triple surgeon's knots which originate from the leader connected to your rod, not the tippet you are adding.
I always pair my Euro-nymphing rigs with a Cortland level 0.022” Competition Nymph Line. I tie the leaders I sell on the site long enough that you can try to fish a typical fly line and not have it leave the reel very often in order to eliminate the drift and strike detection killing sag that heavy fly line induces in between your guides or beyond your rod tip. However, the tactile grip advantage of having a fly line reduces the possibility of line slipping between your fingers on the hook set, or while playing a fish, and makes stripping in slack much easier. Because steelhead have hard mouths (it’s in their name after all), it can take a significant hook set to penetrate the hook deeply enough to attain a secure hold in their mouth. Using a thin fly line, which you can grip better than a monofilament leader, greatly improves that effort.
The Magneto Stone living up to its name by fooling another steelhead with a Euro-nymphing approach.
Steelhead obviously require stouter tippet than your average trout. I generally fish 2x tippet, though if the water is clear and I mainly expect smaller one-salt steelhead, I will drop to 3x for a better sink rate and drift. Because steelhead often hold in fairly deep water and thicker steelhead tippet (2x-3x) sinks much slower than what I normally use for trout (5x-6x), I tend to fish a longer distance between my sighter and first fly for steelhead (5-7 feet) than I would for trout (3-5 feet). As always, this distance should be adjusted based on the depths and velocities of the river you are fishing. It can be adjusted by adding tippet at the tippet ring and then blood knotting to the terminal tippet you already have connected to your flies. If you need to fish shallower water again after adding tippet, simply cut off the tippet at the blood knot junction, remove the added tippet at the tippet ring, and reattach your terminal tippet (the tippet connected to your flies) to your tippet ring. This will reattach your original tippet length, minus the waste incurred while tying the knot. During the fall and winter, when the water is low on my local rivers, I usually fish two flies in all but the deepest pools. When the water rises in late winter and spring, I often add a third fly to attain greater depths and counteract the increasing velocity. Again because of greater depth and tippet size, my steelhead flies are normally tied with 2.8, 3.3, and 3.8mm tungsten beads and a shank full of lead wire on a size 8-12 hook, whereas most of my trout flies are typically tied with 2.3 to 3.3 mm beads and are several hook sizes smaller.
If you’ve read this post you may be thinking, “well what good is all this steelhead equipment going to do me if you don’t share how to use it?” Don’t despair, in my next post we’ll investigate steelhead biology, holding water, approach, and drift technique with a Euro-nymphing rig.