Article Steelhead Nymphing Strategies

Zen Piscator

Supporting wild steelhead, gravel to gravel.
Steelhead Nymphing Strategies
By Andy Simon and Mike Davidchik

Nymphing is a fun and effective way to take steelhead under many different conditions. Knowing how to nymph effectively will open up water to a fisherman that they have never been able to cover before.

While we know that mature steelhead do not metabolize food while they are in freshwater, it has been proven that they feed, extensively. During my own research, stomach samples of steelhead have turned up nymphs, most commonly caddis, followed by mayfly, and rarely stoneflies. Eggs, small fish such as sculpin, and adult October caddis have also been observed.

Mike (Steelie Mike) weighs in on the issue; Some sub-species of steelhead in rivers like the Rogue in Southern Oregon and the Feather and Trinity in Northern California have steelhead that come back to freshwater each year. These fish, called half pounders, are very aggressive fish and actually feed while in freshwater. These steelhead return each year of their life cycle and feed while they are there. The first year they return, they are trout sized and can be very aggressive; however they are not mature enough to spawn yet. Their second year they are sexually mature, however they still carry their instincts of feeding in freshwater and can be very aggressive to a well placed nymph. Rivers such as the Upper Rogue can at times have many steelhead in them. However the river is not suited well for the traditional wet fly swing. This is why the nymph fisherman has an advantage. Fishing from a drift boat here is the most effective way to catch steelhead. Matching the hatch comes into play and can lead to multiple fish days.


A natural presentation can be important when targeting steelhead. These fish have seen hooks during nearly every part of their journey in life except the open ocean. Sometimes a bright colored pink fly, fished deep, will do more to spook a steelhead than entice it. Contrary to popular steelhead fishing methods, my friends and I do a lot of dead drift nymphing with small nymphs and soft-hackles in the size 8-14 range. Dark, drab, imitative flies, fished, as a nymph would naturally drift along the bottom will often pick up wary fish when they snub more intrusive offerings.

As steelhead move further away from the ocean, they begin to revert back to their old habits as stream trout, both in appearance and behavior. Many believe that this fish feed compulsively not as a way to obtain calories, but simply as old instinct, and as a way to entertain themselves. Stories of atlantic salmon playing with weeds drifting in the current and steelhead bumping sticks as they float downstream add credence to this theory.

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Steelhead nymphs can be fished many different ways, from static dead-drift to a fast paces downstream swing. I have even caught a couple fish stripping rubber legged flies upstream in preparation for another cast.

However, the most effective techniques for my friends and I has been the static dead-drift. This is accomplished much the same as one would nymph for stream trout. When using a strike indicator, I will usually cast upstream using a tuck cast to bring the nymph(s) under the indicator. Upon landing, the flies will not be affected by drag from the indicator, causing them and the leader to sink very rapidly. Fishing along the bottom is very important in most situations, so keeping your flies there longer adds up to more fish hooked.

Mending is another very important facet of the technique. A drag free drift will help keep your nymphs in the strike zone longer and looking more real while they are there. If you notice the line is pulling the indicator downstream at an unnatural speed, pick the line off the water and flip it upstream of the indicator. Drag is a common occurrence while fishing a seam where your flies are on the slow current side and you are standing in fast water, trying to slow your drift down. Often, the indicator will be downstream of you and the line will be moving slower than it, causing the indicator to drag and the flies pulled out of the strike zone to the surface. This can be remedied by flipping line downstream of the indicator or by simply feeding more line out of the guides, and piling it above in the indicator with an underpowered roll cast. Keeping the flies drifting unhindered by the current is of utmost importance, so by default, you must be a confident and skilled mender.

Mike elaborates on the technique: The strike may be subtle or just a slow movement of the indicator. Although summer fish may be aggressive and hammer you fly, winter fish on the other hand often just peck at the fly. Cold-water conditions slow their metabolism, so winter steelhead are slow to move to a fly. When these sluggish fish take the nymph, the indicator may just wobble a slight bit out of its normal trajectory. However nymphing for steelhead in cold water is a very valuable technique. As stated winter fish are slow to move to a fly because of decreased metabolism. Due to this, steelhead will be more likely to take a fly that is placed right in front of them. They will not have to move as much as a fly that is swung to them with the wet fly swing. This is why nymph fisherman frequently catches higher numbers of steelhead then fisherman swinging traditional patterns.

Small water often lends itself to nymphing, but tactics will need to be modified to fish it effectively. When fishing small water less than 30 feet wide at most spots, I often forgo the use of an indicator and instead tightline nymph. This method requires careful line control as most strikes are felt with the rod, rather than seen. While tightline nymphing is easier than indicator nymphing, if you have never done it before, it is a challenge.

Cast your flies (usually heavily weighted, more so than with indicator nymphing) upstream with the same tuck cast, and as the flies land, instantly come tight to the flies with your rod and guide them downstream through the drift with your rod. You want to start the drift with your rod pointed directly upstream, and finish the drift with the rod pointed directly downstream. Because of the heavily weighted flies, you should feel bottom during most of the drift. You don't want drop the rod low enough that the flies snag over bottom, but low enough so they periodically tick rocks. The hook set is accomplished by a wrist snap directly downstream, followed by a burning reel and screaming fisherperson.

Swinging can be an effective technique during certain situations, and Mike has put the method to use while fishing nymphs more often that I. Here is what he has to say: When using your indicator, you can also swing you flies at the end of the drift. Your flies will rise to the surface at the end of the drift, just like during a wet fly swing. At times this natural movement of a bug emerging to the surface is all it takes to get a fish interested. Aggressive summer steelhead will often be enticed when added movement its put into the equation.

Sometimes fish will not respond to a dead drift fly for reasons unknown to man. However, this is most commonly seen under overcast skies. During these conditions, I usually remove the indicator if I am using one and swing slow and deep with the same nymphs. This technique proved deadly on the Grand Ronde later last year, and my buddies and I noticed many spey fishermen converting to more imitative flies, which improved catch rates. As usual with the swing, a strong hook set is not needed. When you feel the strike simply tighten up on the line until you establish a firm connection.

Reading the Water

The ability to understand where steelhead lie during given conditions is undoubtedly the most important skill in a steelhead fisherman's arsenal. Anadromous fish do not use the same lies as fluvial (stream and river resident) fish. Fluvial fish will select lies than allow them to feed easily, and are willing to fight a little more current and expose themselves a little more than anadromous fish to accomplish that. Anadromous fish, on the other hand, will commonly lie where the current is soft, and where they have shelter, regardless of how much food is available to them. Steelhead favor deep slots and seams, which provide cover in the form of large rocks and deep water. Long slow tailouts are also a favorite lie because of the moderate currents available. Log-jams, root balls, and undercut banks all harbor steelhead, but keeping one out of the snags while hooked can be a huge challenge. A simple rule of thumb is; if a system holds bull trout and steelhead, they will often use the exact same spots in the system. If you see bull trout or are catching them, at any time through the year, remember the spot, because it is likely to be holding steelhead, or will be holding steelhead during some time of the year.

An interesting exception to the deeper water rule regarding steelhead is riffles with larger bolders. These are areas where fish can hold behind rocks, where the current is really mellow. While they might be sitting in water than is only a foot and half deep, there will usually be deep water close by in case the fish is spooked. I tend to favor this type of water for nymphing because you can easily work different pockets, and the fish tend to be very aggressive. During the warmer months of the steelhead season (September, October, March, and April around Walla Walla) the fish are often extremely eager to engulf a nymph or egg, and the fight is usually amazing. A hookup followed by a warp-speed retreat downstream into deep water accompanied by a few jumps is commonplace. The landing ratio in this type of water is often low, but each fight leaves you breathless.

Covering Water

When fishing a larger system such as the Deschutes, Clearwater or Grand Ronde I often place multiple drifts over the same spot because fish will sometimes be stacked tight into certain areas and will sometimes be lying at different depths. On the other hand, when fishing small water less than 50 feet wide on average, one or two drifts over a likely spot is almost always enough, and will tell you if there are fish in the area. In skinny water, steelhead hold in defined areas, and almost always on the bottom. I have also noticed that steelhead in small water are more aggressive, and usually take on the first or second good cast.

Oo a large river, fishing through a long run more than once can often pay. I will often times start at the head and work to the bottom, focusing more casts on the pockets and slots. If I get a hookup I will usually move through the run a few more times looking for additional takers. On small water however, I have seldom taken more than one fish from a section of holding water during the same day, however I find it hard to pass by water I have just taken a fish in. One exception is if you hook a steelhead and it comes off just as the fight is getting started. Often times you can get this fish to come back, either right away or on your way back through the pool later in the day.

Hooking, Fighting, and Landing Techniques

Hook-sets are not to be taken lightly when targeting steelhead. These fish have large, tough mouths, so a firm hook-set is key to setting the stage for a successful battle. If at all possible, try to set downstream of the fish by lifting the rod sharply downstream while stripping line. This combination strip-strike has been my most successful setting method. If the nymphs are downstream of you, do not set by lifting the rod, but instead by sweeping it to the side. Lifting the rod will pull the fly upstream and out of a steelhead's mouth before it can establish a firm connection.

Keeping solid, smooth, heavy pressure on the steelhead, as with any large fish, is the best way to land them. Many fish are lost by people who don't tighten up properly, causing the hook to simply drop from the fish's mouth.

Steelhead are large and powerful, and they will do what they wish while on your line. Trying to stop a fish from running or turning downstream often equate to a lost fish. When the fish is doing its thing, lay off. It will most likely stop before that backing knot, and when it does, start reeling.

Often these great fish go air born, which is cause for deep concern to the angler. Loosing a steelhead in mid-air has happened to nearly all experienced angler, but many times this can be avoided. I try to ease up on the pressure when a fish is in the air. Bowing the rod towards the fish has been most effective method in my experience. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, but it is the best method I have tried for jumping fish.

Besides the hook-set, the most common place to loose steelhead is during landing. The fish is tired and stressed, however steelhead posses uncommon endurance, and usually manage one more run when you are convinced they are finished. In a fly fisher's haste to land the fish, they often up the pressure, which leads to some sort of tackle failure and a prematurely freed steelhead. Holding the rod high above your head can provide a big angle change on the hook causing it to pull free. I have done best by keeping the rod to my side and walking the fish back into shallow water. This way, it receives smooth, solid pressure, and the angle of the line pulling on the hook stays the same as during the fight.

If I am not going to keep the steelhead, I try to keep it in the water and remove the fly quickly for release. Photos of fish in the water look great, but lifting a fish out of the water for a few seconds carefully also does little harm. While reviving the fish, support its belly under the water with on hand and keep a gentle hand on its tail. Move the fish into the current and face it upstream. Do not move the fish back and forth in the water; instead just hold it steady until it kicks off.


Nymphing Gear

Rod: I like a slower action stick, as they seem to mend very well- a 6-9 weight depending upon the size of the river and size of the fish. Lengths from 9 to 11 feet are perfect because the longer rods mend more effectively. A spey rod is also ideal for nymphing, but that's a whole different game.

Reels: I think above anything a true large arbor reel is very important in steelheading. The ability to pick up line fast and keep that all-important pressure on the fish is key. Also, when a fish is taking line the spool spins more slowly with a large arbor, leading to less knuckling busting reel encounters. I've put a healthy burse on my hand from a spinning reel handle that made it tough to double haul for a few weeks.

Line: A high floating line with a long belly is the most important aspect of a nympher's gear. Sure, you can get it done with a standard weight-forward or double taper line, but having a line with a thick, heavy, high floating head will make mending easier, not to mention casting a cumbersome rig. I really like the Rio Nymph line for this application, it just fishes well, and casts relatively unburdened compared to other lines even with split shot and large flies attached.

Indicators - I have used everything from dry flies to store bought red and white plastic bobbers (to enervate some local spey freaks) as indicators. Here are a few of my favorite:
The Macram Yarn Indicator - Great for light flies and lighter biting fish, will respond to the slightest of strikes. However, these can be hard to cast in larger sizes, also can be hard to see because heavy flies or split shot can sink even large ones with ease. I use this indicator on smaller waters mostly and during low water periods where heavy flies fished deep and long drifts are not needed.

The Corkie - A favorite for big water, these things can float an anvil in bigger sizes, and even when sunk are very visible. I don't so much care if my indicator sinks, but I need to see it, no matter where it is. Corkies get the vote for big water and big flies fished deep. However, Corkies can be tough to cast on smaller rods. Also, it is sometimes difficult to get these to stay put on your line. Rather than fussing with toothpicks, I usually keep about a foot long butt-section in my leader made of 30lb amnesia, which I tie the Corkie to with a single surgeons loop, keeping it in place for good.

The Large Dry Fly: early in the season large dries such as October caddis adults and big grasshoppers make great indicators. They will not stay on the surface or be very visible with large nymphs attached, but for lighter nymphing they are the ticket. You also have the chance of a steelhead eating your dry, which happens more than one would think.

Leader: I normally just use a non-tapered piece of 15lb Maxima or 20lb Rio Flouro-flex plus, from 4 to 12 feet in length depending upon the depth of the water I am fishing. A non-tapered, thin piece of mono or flouro used for the leader will sink much faster than a tapered leader. A tapered leader's thick portion rests at the surface of the water, which is a problem. The current at the surface of a river is always faster than the bottom current, so these thick sections of leader cause the flies to drag in the slower bottom currents, and rise to the surface.

Tippet: I never go less than 8lb test while targeting steelhead and normally use either 10lb maxima or 15lb fluorocarbon. Stronger, thicker tippets roll out better, and let you play fish quicker and more effectively. Since steelhead have a high tolerance for thick line compared to most trout, using heavy tippet usually does not decrease catch rate. Connecting your fly with a loop knot will solve the problem of thick tippets dampening a flies natural action

A Quick Word on Knots

The kind of knots one uses for steelhead are very important because breaking strength changes hugely from knot to knot. Also, a given knot may work better with one type of line than another, with fluorocarbon needing special care because of the possibility of reduced knot strength. My favorite fly to tippet knot is the uni-knot, for its speed of tying and strength. I use a double uni-knot for attaching tippet to leader also, because it is much stronger than a blood or surgeons knot. The Pitzen knot is a favorite of mikes because of the higher strength rating. This is a great knot to attach dropper lines with because of it is stronger than the uni-knot.

Some Notes on Flies

Fly selection for steelhead depends greatly on time of year and location. Since I am covering techniques mainly used on the Snake and middle Columbia river strain steelhead, my fly patterns are somewhat specialized.

Early in the season (August to November), I mainly focus on patterns imitating food found in a steelhead stream. As the season progresses and the fish move towards spawning time, flies imitating the eggs of steelhead increase in effectiveness. Also, as the season nears spawning time, steelhead drop eggs at an increased rate. Even well before the fish will spawn hens will be dropping eggs, which show up in the drift. It seems steelhead reflexively will go out of their way to eat an egg, so it is important to capitalize on this opportunity.

This list includes the flies I most commonly use for steelhead in my area. Most major categories of nymphs and attractor patterns are represented.

The Copper John
  • Hook: size 4-12 caddis nymph hook, 2x heavy
  • Tail: 2 Biots, splayed from hook
  • Body: Copper Wire, in brass, olive, red, or purple
  • Wingcase: Thinskin, with a coating of UV knot sense
  • Legs: Centipede legs
  • Thorax: pure mylar dubbing or ice-dub
  • Weight: Gold or Tungsten Gold bead, and lead wire under Thorax
  • The Copper John is my most effective pattern, probably because it imitates so many different bugs at once. The red and olive versions alone cover most caddis, stone, and mayfly nymphs. Heck, if you put enough bright red dubbing in the thorax, it would probably pass for an egg. Thank you John Barr, I owe you a few steelhead fillets or something.
Wired Stone
  • Hook: size 2-10 straight or curved shank nymph hook, 3x long
  • Tail: 2 biots
  • Body: Variegated wire, most useful in black/red or copper/red
  • Wingcase: 3 pieces of thin skin, cut to shape
  • Legs: 3 sets of biots
  • Thorax: pure mylar dubbing or Gartside secrete stuff (not ice dub, needs to be more spikey)
  • Weight: Lead wire through thorax, and gold or black bead
  • I don't follow the recipe exactly for this one, but my version has always worked well for me. The profile of a stonefly is represented shockingly well in this fly. Fished with an egg, this fly completes the perfect steak and eggs breakfast that steelhead like so well later in the season.
Prince Nymph
  • Hook: size 4-14
  • Tail: 2 rubber legs or biots
  • Body: Peacock ribbed with gold tinsel
  • Wingcase: Two white biots layed flat along the body
  • Legs: Brown hackle swept back wet fly style
  • Weight: Glass or Gold bead, lead wire optional
  • This is my favorite low water steelhead fly. The attractive, general profile this fly gives looks like a whole lot of bugs, both terrestrial and aquatic. I think the white coloring of the biots is very important, something that steelhead really like. I have also had success fishing this fly on the swing with a dry line.
The Short Buser
  • Hook: size 2-4 4x long streamer hook
  • Tail: Black rubber legs, cut long
  • Body: Very buggy mylar dubbing
  • Legs: 3 sets of very long black rubber legs
  • Weight: Brass bead or lead eyes, and a gross amount of .30 lead wire
  • The Short Buser is a very large, very heavy pattern. It is the only fly that I have ever caught a steelhead on my first cast of the day with, so I like it. This fly is stupidly easy to tie, nothing more than a dubbing brush and a lot of rubber legs. The Buser is usually my point fly when fishing high water. It will sink the other flies without the use of split shot. The Buser presents a big profile and a lot of movement, while hugging the bottom in large currents. I loose a lot of these flies, so it important to be able to tie them fast. You can pound off one of these babies in around 2 minutes if you weight and bead a batch of hooks before you tie. This fly makes a loud crash when it lands often times, sending scowls of disproval from fellow fishermen, until they see you set the hook midway through the drift.
The generic egg:
  • Hook: egg or saltwater gamagatsu
  • Body: krystal egg or glow bug yarn, spun and clipped
  • What can I say- super simple fly that takes fish, one of the best for late in the season. Beads fishes as a simple tube fly will also take fish when egg flies are working.
Double Bunny
  • Back hook: Gamagatsu octopus or siawash hook, size 2-6
  • Front hook: 3x long streamer hook, size 6
  • Connection: 40lb super line, doubled
  • Body: Two rabbit strips, connected with bunny's milk
  • Head: Purple Polar Chenille and lead eyes
  • The Double Bunny is a great leach/minnow imitation that really slithers through the water. I think it is a simpler tie than the MOAL leach, while being equally effective. Purple, black, and olive/white are my favorite colors to fish the double bunny in. Steelhead dislike minnows, so this fly will sometimes get slammed when the fish pass up other nymphs. Putting a pink or deep orange bead in front of the bunny loose on the line can up the catch rates, and has for me.
A Balance

Steelhead are very hard to catch in most cases. This is not because of the intelligence of the fish, but rather the low number of fish per mile. We should be grateful that the Fish and Game Department does not publish fish per mile counts concerning steelhead. Depression is widespread enough, and fishermen on prozak are a sorry lot.

Nymphing will help increase the catch rates of fisherman, but I have only felt it was unfair a few times in a few hundred trips. When there are low water conditions, it is possible to take large numbers of fish from a pool that is difficult for steelhead to pass until the water rises. On small rivers, it has gotten to the point where I have taken the same wild fish more than once. When things like this start happening, it is time to move on and give these fish a rest. I don't much care if they are hatchery fish, but in my mind things change when there are wild fish in the equation. Around here, true wild fish run much larger than hatchery fish, posses deeper bodies, fight harder, and are often in better conditions. I would rather take one 12-lb wild fish than ten 5-lb hatchery fish. For this reason, I do my best to minimize my impact on wild fish, because I just really want more of them to be around. I suppose I could stop fishing rivers where they frequent, but I think there are better ways. I feel like I am preaching to the choir, but doing things like helping out with your local Fish and Game branch or conservation groups with either time or money, picking up trash, and helping stop poaching makes a big difference. There are much bigger issues that are, for the time, out of our control. However, anything done to help is infinitely better than nothing.

Enjoy nymphing for what it is, a difficult, engaging, fun and effective method for taking steelhead. If it objects to your moral or traditional fundamentals, by all means pass it by. The object of fishing is to have fun, so do what does.

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