This was originally published on May 12, 2015 and was update on Feb 21, 2022.
There’s something about the repetition of waiting for that first tug on the fly line. Of the power of that pull and excitement of trying not to lose a downstream screaming fish. It’s like being on a skateboard, tied to your friend’s bike and he’s going as fast as possible. You are a little too afraid to touch anything or jump off, worried that it might result in a huge wipeout.
The blood is pumping, as the fish goes into the backing, and you struggle to get closer to shore so you can follow the fish and run if needed.
Are there any steelhead fly fishing tips to assure that I land this fish?
You finally slow the fish down and begin to make some ground. After 10 minutes, you have the huge steelhead within viewing distance below you. As you bring it up closer, it makes one last surprise run and spits the fly.
Shit….shit…..shit – The feeling of disappointment is powerful. You won’t forget about that fish until you get your next opportunity to hook into one. That’s steelheading. I’ve got 100’s of my own stories and many more from friends and guests on the wet fly swing podcast.
The wet fly swing is about the pull. The power. The pleasure of hooking…… and landing a steelhead. It’s about standing in a run for an hour as you watch the sunrise over the cliff and feel that first warmth of the morning.
It’s about getting up at 4:30 am to be ready for the first fish or skipping dinner because you had to be in that evening run.
It will become a passion.
There are different methods for steelhead fishing. There’s indicator fishing, nymphing, and sinking lines with large flies, along with others. But, the most common, easiest, and most enjoyable is the wet fly swing.
I will walk you through this technique and provide a few tips to remember that will help you catch more fish.
The technique is super simple. I’ll get into the terminal tackle at a later point, but want you to understand the technique first.
November 2020 – I updated this blog post to include a few links to recent steelhead podcasts we produced at the Wet Fly Swing Podcast. We have over 40 hours of steelhead content from some of the greatest steelheaders in the world.
Steelhead Fly Fishing – How to Read Water
The Water – The first part of catching fish is finding the right water. Look for water in the 3 to 6-foot depth range that flows at a pace of a walk. Also known as a glide. Not to fast and not so slow. Fish will be holding in and around areas where there is broken water.
Places where there is a break in the current is key. This is not always easy to see since the obstructions are below the surface. You need to either fish the water to find these buckets, watch someone else hook fish, pay a guide to take you out, or do more research of your own on reading water.
At the 1:16:45 minute mark of our podcast with Swing the Fly Magazine, Zack Williams talks about reading water here:
How to Swing Flies for Steelhead
The Technique – The wet fly swing is implemented by casting downstream and across the river at a 45-degree angle. After making a cast, it’s good to make one mend to get your fly in proper presentation and speed. As the fly swings across the water, keep your rod tip low and follow the fly across as it goes towards the hang down (End of the run.)
There are many different mends you can make for different steelhead conditions and I won’t cover those here. Please take a look at our back podcast catalog for more on mending.
After the hang down, allow the fly to sit there for a few seconds as fish will strike occasionally. Take a step or two downstream and repeat the same cast. it is in this fashion that you cover a run systematically. You can easily spend an hour or more casting and stepping your way down.
Although we focus on swinging here, many of the tips also apply to nymphing.
If you are in the Great Lakes and need more specific tips from a super guru there, take a look at the Rick Kustich Podcast here: Advanced Fly Fishing Tips with Rick Kustich.
The Fly and Line – For Summer steelhead, this technique uses a floating line with a steelhead pattern. You can also use many different sinking lines, but my preference is the floating line when applicable (sun off the water for certain rivers and in certain conditions).
But, the river and conditions will dictate when and how you fish.
The Deschutes River, for example, runs South to North, and as such the sun angle during the days is in the eyes of the fish. Tom Larimer describes some tips to catch summer steelhead during the day so don’t discount daytime fishing completely.
The Clearwater River, on the other hand, is not affected by the angle of the sun and many people believe day time fishing is best. Zach Williams from Swing the Fly Magazine talked about fishing during the day and the Clearwater River in a recent podcast.
RIO Products has a number of good spey lines and resources if you want to dig deeper into the spey game. Simon Gawesworth, RIO’s manager talked about the history of the company and provided some tips on choosing a steelhead line and new spey lines on the podcast.
For summer steelhead flies, I like to use small flies in the #6, #8 and #10 range tied sparsely. Steelhead have amazing vision even in low light conditions so don’t be afraid to go small. Now, let’s get into a few tips that will help you land that next fish.
10 Steelhead Fly Fishing Tips
1) Stay on a hot fish – a tip or tap is a steelhead
A common mistake people make when swinging flies for steelhead is not recognizing the tips and taps of a steelhead plucking your fly. Make no mistake, these are steelhead and you should spend time working that fish.
If you get a tip, put the same cast back to the fish. Take a few steps upstream and work back over that fish. Jack Mitchel was on the Wet Fly Swing Podcast and talked about covering the heads and tails in the winter. So, instead of spending all day in one run, just hit the top and ends where most migrating fish are holding.
2) Spend more time on the buckets
Once you begin to figure out the runs and start hooking fish, you will find that steelhead hold in the same water year after year. Remember those runs and concentrate your efforts on those buckets as you fish the larger run.
Try giving it an extra cast or two in those hot spots before moving down. Is there a little ledge that always holds fish – spend more time at this spot. One of the greatest steelheaders in history, Trey Combs was our guest on the podcast where he reinforced this by noting that you should learn every square inch of the run down to the pebble.
3) Bow to the Steelhead
When you get your next pull from a steelhead on a swung fly, “bow to the fish” before anything else. Like being on stage as a conductor, pounding through Mozart symphony #29, and before leaving to the standing ovation – you give a nice bow.
Do this same bow for the chromer on the end of your line before you do anything else. This will allow the fish to take your fly and will avoid pulling it from the mouth of this ultra-powerful, broad-shouldered anadromous rainbow trout. Find out how to swing a fly for steelhead with Jerry Darkes in episode 170 here.
4) Use a Proven Steelhead Pattern
Find out what a good proven pattern is for the river you are fishing. You can experiment with new flies when you have the river dialed in. But, when starting out, talk to someone to find out what pattern is good. Here is a link to some good patterns.
Patterns are important and the color is important when choosing a steelhead fly but don’t let it take you over. At the end of the day, just choose a fly and fish it. The fly is not the most important part of steelheading.
5) Let the Steelhead Trout Run
Remember that you have a lot of backing on your reel and you shouldn’t freak out when the fish is taking a huge run. If you have to, follow the fish downriver to keep up with it.
But let the fish run. Once it slows down, pump the rod to you and then reel to the fish.
6) You Need Patience, Persistence, and Passion for Steelhead
These key attributes are key for steelhead fly fishing. There are times when fishing will be slow and understanding this should help you get through these long periods. The fish of a thousand casts. You are not alone.
7) Find a Fly Fishing Mentor
If you want to save a lot of time finding fish, find someone who has the skills. You could stop by your local fly shop to see if there is some knowledge to pick up there. If you have extra money, paying a guide will obviously help. Look for my link to a map with fly shops around the world. Send an email here to request it.
If you are interested in connecting with a great trout spey mentor check out our podcast with Captain John McCloskey who broke down the steps to getting started with trout spey in episode 89.
8) Start in close for Steelhead
A mistake many anglers make is walking over the water in close. Before you wade out across the run, make a few casts in close and swing it through. After covering the close in water, work out to a distance that allows you to cover the outside part of the holding water.
“Ankle deep and 20′” was a great quote by Scott McGarva and also strengthened the idea to start in close when fishing for steelhead.
9) Sharpen Your Hook and Check Knots
You may put in hours of time swinging flies, before getting than one hook up. You need to make sure not to miss the opportunity, so keep your hooks sharp. An easy way to check is every once in a while, drag the point of your hook across your fingernail in a perpendicular fashion. If it slides easily, you should sharpen your hook.
A sharp hook will catch and carve into your fingernail slightly.
If there is a wind not or frayed leader, fix your leader. These are weak points that will break with time.
10) Use an Open Clinch Knot
This knot is a must when swinging flies for steelhead. As the name suggests, it’s an open loop and give the fly more action. Another benefit of the open clinch – it avoids turning your fly at a 90 degree angle to the knot. Use it and you will catch more fish.
Future Steelhead Fly Fishing Topics and Wet Fly Swing
I will be sharing success stories from around the world so you can gain some insight on what you’re getting into.
I remember the first steelhead I landed on a fly rod like it was yesterday. How about you? Send me a message here if you have a first steelhead (or atlantic salmon) story and I’ll share it with the community.
The first steelhead that I landed was on a fish that my dad had hooked. After a short time, my dad looked at me and asked if I wanted to land the fish – As an experienced 10 year old trout fisherman, I said you bet. I would never forget that moment. Even after taking long steelhead breaks up until my 20’s, I always had that story in my mind. It would be a number of years until I got addicted to steelhead.
My vision for the WetFlySwing.com is to create a healthy online community for people who want to learn about steelhead fly fishing.
It is for the beginner to fly fishing. It is for the fly fisher who has spent his life fishing for other species, and it’s about the traditional fisherman who are ready for another challenge.
I will be providing tips and tools, resources and relevant information, expert interviews and ideas to help develop your skills. I hope you have time to join the community and catch more steelhead.
What to expect from Me and the next Steelhead Topics
I know how difficult steelhead fishing can be. I’ve been in that steelhead run for hours on end, with nothing to show for it other than a tired arm. That’s steelhead fishing. If you added up the time spent casting vs fish landed, I’m guessing it’s up there with the most challenging of fish to target.
I want to help cut through your learning curve, connect with a community who can help and save you time and $ along the way.
I will be covering every aspect of steelhead fly fishing, from fly tying to rod building. From expert interviews to video tutorials. I will be an equal part curator and original content. I hope this becomes the ultimate online steelhead resource for you.
Steelhead Fly Fishing Tips Conclusion
You should now have a feel for swinging flies for steelhead and have a few tips to help you get started. I want you to get started today. Plan out your next step in preparing for a steelhead trip. Read more content on my site here to prepare then get out and start practicing. If you are experienced then tell me what your next trip is.
Life is short, so don’t spend it living someone else’s dream (Steve Jobs). It’s your time to shine and get connected. If you need a few more steehead fly fishing tips, leave a comment below and get some help. If you liked this article, click on the button below to get tips delivered to your inbox.
Grab the Steelhead Tips PDF Quick Guide Here
These are the Best Steelhead Tips from our Podcast Guests!
I, too, have experienced the frustrations of trying to catch a steelhead on a fly. I have been out 7 or 8 times this year (from the bank) without a fish. My friends who fish with split shot and a bead from boats do pretty well. To me, it’s in the fishing…the catching is just frosting on the cake. I’ll admit, it would be nice to feel a tug on my line sometime. Enjoy your website.
Hang in there Albert, you’ll pick one up on the swing. And when you do you’ll have one spot and one pattern to build off from. The next fish will be a little bit easier. Just try and be a little better today than yesterday and you will be good.
good morning Dave , I have came across your page by accident ,I’m happy to say I’ve been in the game since 1978and every time I get to send a fly into to the river it feels like the first time . I’ve learned over the years to expect the unexpected and if I’ve learned any thing about steel heading I’ve haven’t learned what would take multiple life times to truly get comfortable with this amazing gift to the river. your page is accurate honest and in every sense of the term first class and I’m looking forward to your philosophy on the subject. the past few years top water waking fly techniques keep me memorized to the run as the fly swings early fall steelhead pools,, I have had very limited success but the excitement anticipated a take is the best, any advice or tips will be welcome ,and thank you for taking the time to make us better fly fisherman -fly woman on the river
all the best
I’m glad you found us and found some use in the post. If you haven’t heard the podcast, I recommend checking it out. I interview a new expert guest each week. The first 30 or so episodes are all steelhead. Here’s a link to one where we touch on skating flies. I am now into a fly tying season and know a guest covering skating would be amazing. Here’s a link to the episode: http://wetflyswing.com/north-umpqua-fly-fishing-dean-finnerty/ – Please check back anytime if you have questions.
I’d like to send you a very short story about why I fish for Atlantic salmon here in Quebec. How would I do that?
Hey Richard. I can’t remember if we had followed up on this one.
Nice article, waiting for your another blog.
i read your content, that’s really awesome good job, you can follow this type of article on this platform.
This is an interesting article. I know the tips here will come in handy during our fishing trip. I can’t wait to use them.
Hi Dave, I see you write a topic on how to read water. I wanted to know which water is best for fly fishing – saltwater or kayak?