Absolute truth is..............the fly always catches the fisherman before it catches the fish. Probably 80% of the flies out there resemble nothing on god's green earth, plus steelhead don't eat. So we have conundrum stacked on conundrum. Easy - like zen is easy - answer, is presentation. Get the fly to the fish. Simple, huh?
I remember a backpacking trip when i lost my flybox, and I only had the one box, in a river. Shit out of luck. But I had some baithooks, you know the old fashioned ones with the double barbs, in my pack. So I tied some flies using tinfoil and threads from the holes in my jeans, and fished, and caught fish, and et them too. Good trip.
Presentation...........after the fly has caught and landed YOU.
A wise man once said, "The fly that will not catch a steelhead has never been tied". Back in the days when I used to gear fish, one of the more popular lures was simply a bit of yarn tucked into the egg loop of a snelled bait hook. It was after hooking many a winter steelhead on just such a rig that I finally convinced myself that a fly would be just as effective. My first fly-hooked winter fish came to a Purple Peril.
Getting the fly in front of the fish is more important than what fly you're using. If you want a modern perspective on fly fishing for steelhead, take a look at Dec Hogan's new book, A Passion For Steelhead; he explodes a few myths like that of having to bounce your fly along the bottom to fish it effectively with today's sinking heads and tips it's not necessary to fish heavily weighted flies.
While styles and fashions in steelhead flies change with the passage of time (I remember going through a marabou spider phase when that's all I fished for a number of seasons) I find I enjoy fishing the more traditional patterns that have been around for a while (some of them dating back to the 30s). The Skykomish Sunrise, Polar Shrimp, Purple Peril and Brad's Brat. One of my favorites is Frank Headrick's Hellcat, a very classy-looking fly, developed in the 50s and one of the first to use some of the then-new fluorescent materials.
The Hellcat! Never forget the hellcat. You made my day Preston. Bob Headrick gave me 4 of Frank's originals one day and they still sit in my precious things box. Next to some flies by Walt Johnson and a few other Hall of Famers. There might even be a few by that "other" Johnson you run around with. What's his name? Thanks Preston. Coach
PS There are different camps on this one, and each can put a convincing argument out, but I am a presentation is most important guy. I have been on a big articulated non-weighted fly crusade for a few years now. My flies often look like adolescent gartner snakes. I prefer materials that dance and breathe. I think we all do. That doesn't mean I know anything or that is the way to go. Presentation and depth (fish look up) seem to be what I believe in today. That could change today also. That's steelheading and why I love it. Nobody's wrong if it works for them! And we all know alot of things work if the fish are in any numbers. Well, sometimes alot of things work. That's steelheading also. Sometimes nothing works. For weeks, months.bawling: If it aint broke, don't fix it!
Yep, doesn't matter what fly you throw, It only has to have these requirements...
The right color (Purple, Pink, White, and black. Sometimes all in one fly)
The right size (I go real big)
The right action (strike triggers)
Presented at the right speed (not too fast not too slow)
Presented at the right depth (at or just above eye level of fish)
That's all it takes, of course you do have some "hot" winter steelhead, but most are lethargic. Most are coming in already "ripe", and for lack of a better term, their "harmones", are kicking. Invade their space and your fly will get eaten.
Hey, I've had tons of success with marabou flies for hatchery fish. Hell, have had luck with most other flies at one time or another. But guess what lands TONS of steelhead for the gear guys? Marabou jigs and yarn tailed/chenilled bodied jigs. No scent added, just run like they're tied. I've actually tried running them like a jig setup (no jig head, but leaded eyes on a floating or slow sink line). Have worked pretty good.
Could put up some color combos if you'd like. Most of the places I'm fishing is SW WA or out on the coast.