I’ve been getting some questions about the need for a winter steelhead fly fishing gear list for the upcoming Olympic Peninsula Steelhead Trip.
I’ll breakdown the basics today so we can assure you have the major items given rain, cold, sun, sleet, hail or any and all of the above. Because it is February in the Pacific Northwest, we prepare for any condition.
Before we jump in, I wanted to note that some of the links below are affiliate links, which means that if you choose to make a purchase, I will earn a commission. This commission comes at no additional cost to you. Please understand that I have experience with all of these companies, and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.
And please note that you can reach out to me anytime here if you have any questions about any of the products listed below.
Click below to get this guide as a clean PDF Download:
Click below to listen to the podcast for this blog post:
I. Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Gear List
- Fly Rod – Two Handed #8-9 – [our recommendation]
- Fly Line – Two Skagit heads – One standard and the other a dual or triple density line.
- Sink Tips – Various tips from 3.9 inches per second to 11 inches per second. Lengths 7.5 feet to 15 feet
- Fly Rod – Single Handed #8 if needed – 9 to 9.5 foot #8 with matching dry line
- Reel – Large Arbor
- Hook file
- Polarized glasses
- Flies and Boxes [our recommendation]
- Waders (Not Included for OP Trip)
- Boots with Studs (Not Included for OP Trip)
- Fishing License (You must purchase prior to the Trip)
(please note that if you are going on the Olympic Peninsula trip, waders and boots are the two fishing gear items that are not provided for this year)
II. Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Apparel List
- Wool Socks
- Base Layer (bottoms)
- Fleece Pants
- Shorts (Optional)
- Base Layer (Tops)
- Base Layer T Shirt
- Fleece Vest or Coat
- Raincoat or Shell
- Stocking Cap
- Hat with Brim
- Wool Gloves
- Down Jacket
III. Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Extra List
- Guide Book/Maps
- GPS or App
- Wading Staff
- Water Bottle
- Dry Bag/Pack
- Aquaseal/Duct Tape
- Water proof phone case
- Head Lamp
IV. Popular Podcasts Episodes for Winter Steelhead
- WFS 002 – Jack Mitchell (Our Guide on the OP this year)
- WFS 007 – Pete Humphries (Spey casting expert)
- WFS 009 – Simon Gawesworth (Casting and RIO Master)
- WFS 027 – Tim Rawlins (Casting Tips)
- WFS 029 – James Millard (OPST Lead)
V. The Top 4 Goto Items
(These are the 4 items, that if I had nothing else, I’d probably be able to stay comfortable and survive to catch a fish).
Before we jump into the weeds a bit I wanted to share a link to the wet fly swing resources page which includes a number of other products recommended by guests of the podcast. Click below to take a look at the other recommended fishing gear items:
Ok, let’s get into the first category……….
I. Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Gear List Breakdown
Here’s the break down for each of the above items listed under fishing gear for winter steelhead. Note, that I don’t cover it all and there is plenty you could pick up on top of this. But this should get you started if you are new to steelhead fishing during the winter.
- Two Handed Fly Rod #8-9 – There are a lot of great rods on the market so this is not an easy thing to just pick one. But for me, I have used and love Echo rods for many years. A super durable rod at a great price. Here’s the Echo Full Spey that I recommend. You get a free spey line if you purchase through this link. For winter steelhead I am using and recommend the Airflo Skagit Fist.
Here’s a quick video that walks you through purchasing the Full Spey:
2. Two Skagit heads – One standard and the other a dual or triple density line. I’ve been using the Air Flo FIST which is a triple density skagit line. You can purchase one here at the Gorge Shop. Take a look at Tim describing the FIST and what makes it unique.
3. Various Sink tips from 3.9 inches per second to 11 inches per second. Lengths 7.5 feet to 15 feet. Again Air Flo has the Flo Tips which are similar to the other brands out there and cover the spectrum. You can get custom cut tips if you need more control of your length.
Here’s a nice video with a few great skagit casting tips from Dec Hogan:
4. Single Handers 9.5 foot #8 with matching dry line. If you want to go high end you can check out the new G Loomis Asquith for one good example of one of the best rods on the market. I have not used the Asquith but the Gorge Fly Shop highly recommends this rod.
Tom Larimer who was on the podcast here (to cover summer steelhead) and is now the national sales manager for G Loomis, can answer any questions you have.
I started out fishing steelhead with a single handed rod for years before picking up a spey rod. Here’s the story of how I turned to the darkside.
5. Reel – I could list a crap load of reels right now that will work for steelhead but as you likely know a reel for steelhead has two main reasons for living: 1 – To hold a lot of line and backing, and 2 – A very good drag so you can slow down a fish that might get a little spunky on you. Love that word! Taylor Fly Fishing is one of our partner companies who have plenty of great reels.
6. Tippet – Maxima works well for me as it is stiff and super durable. I build my own leaders with an 8 lb tippet at the low end of the spectrum. I find that for smaller summer fish 8 lb works but 10, 12 or even 15 lb is common if you want to assure you don’t break off any of the monster fish you might run into.
I wanted to share my favorite knot for tying your fly to your leader, the open clinch knot:
To be honest I’m not even sure if that’s the correct name for that knot. Let’s look at what Simon Says:
7. Hook file – Check your hook periodically to make sure that it’s sharp. Mark shares a few sharpeners you can purchase as well as a tip on checking your hook for sharpness. The drag on your fingernail method. Take a look below to see how to test it:
In this video Mark from the Welches Shop describes how to sharpen your hook and how to test if your hook is sharp enough in this video:
8. vest/pack – Take a look at Fish pond or Simms for some great dry packs. Here is the Thunderhead Sling. Full disclosure – I have not used this but is on my list for Christmas list this year!
9. Polarized glasses and chums – I’m a fan of smith but the most important thing is to get a lens that works well in low light conditions. I love a yellow lens or some of the specialized Smith lenses are great. I usually bring two pairs of glasses. One for sun and one for overcast, but I know there are some lenses that cover both. Leave a comment for your recommendation if you don’t use yellow lenses.
10. Fly boxes and flies – GrabFlies.com is helping to sponsor the OP Trip this year. If you want to pick up some flies from Jeff that are specific for the OP and support the podcast, click this link. Listen to my podcast episode below with Jeff Layton:
Click below to listen to my Interview with Jeff Layton:
The Artifical Inteligence being the number 1 goto pattern for Jeff on the OP. The fish below was caught the week after he did the above podcast with me on the OP and the summary below comes from an email Jeff sent.
Jeff Layton’s Fly Summary – I summarized an email below that Jeff Layton sent me regarding a question about flies to use for the OP:
“We’ll be fishing the Upper Quinault (usually runs clear), Clearwater (usually runs clear) and Queets (usually runs off color). I say this as it means you should have
flies from 2 – 4 inches. (2.5 – 3 inches mostly)
Hook size: Strong 2 hooks like Owner SSW, or Owner SSW #1, or OPST
barbless #1. Smaller flies = smaller hooks. But if you hook a 20
pounder, a size 1 hook will do the job. A #2 could straighten, but I
have landed plenty on them.
Materials: Rabbit, Marabou, Ostrich…
Dumbbell eyes: Medium (3/16″ 4.8 mm), Large (7/32″ 5.5 mm). All depends
on the fly dressing. Flies with lots of material will need large eyes,
cones (1.4 “) or no weight at all. Note: Queets can be off color and
look deep but you are usually fishing water 2-4 feet – don’t need a lot
of weight. The other two rivers depending on flow you are fishing
buckets and may need to get down.
Shanks: 25 – 40 mm. I would say the popular thing to dress now is with
25MM shanks, with extended stinger hook using mono or wire on a single
stage Leech or Intruder.
Black Pink, Purple Pink, Black/Purple Pink – any of these. If the water
is off color, this is the fly
Black/Blue, Black/Blue/Chartreuse, Blue – any of these when the water is
clearer and also later in the winter, March, April.”
and for further fly color info, Here is a little post from Jay Nicholas on choosing the right colors for steehead
11. Waders – I’ve used Simms waders for a long time. They are one of the most durable and comfortable waders out there but there are plenty of good companies.
(please note as part of the OP trip, Jack does not include waders or boots)
12. Wading Boots and Studs – I love felt boots with studs. This gives you a little better traction on some of the slippery surfaces and pretty much better for all around wear. Rock Treads has a really great product you should check out.
13. Fishing License – You’ll have to grab a fishing license prior to the OP trip. You can pick up your fishing license and steelhead tag here.
Let’s head next to the apparel list………..
II. Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Apparel List
Here’s the break down for each of the above items listed under fishing apparel for winter steelhead. These are the items that keep me warm and toasty on those challenging and blustery days on a February morning.
The big takeaways for clothing for winter steelhead is that wool is good, cotton is bad. Synthetics can also be great. And layering is the key when heading out for winter fish. I’ll cover more details below.
Please note I’m a man and most of the links that follows are male links.
1. Wool Socks – Much of the time we are standing in water that’s cold enough to make you wonder whether that steelhead will really move to swipe at your offering. And the more you stand around the more you feel it. I like to have two different weights of wool socks. A lighter pair and a heavier pair for those extra cold days. I like wool.
There are other things like battery powered socks but have never used them. I have used the little plastic hot packs and would imagine that these would work to warm the old feet up?
2. Base Layer (bottoms) – Let’s keep working our way up. I have used many different brands but find that supporting companies like Patagonia is important. So, here’s a link to their mid weight base layer.
Here’s what Patagoinia says about this product:
- The smooth, soft face makes for easy layering and HeiQ® Fresh durable odor control keeps things fresh
- Soft, brushed, fast-drying elastic waistband for added next-to-skin comfort. Locker loop for hang-drying.
- Fabric’s diamond-grid pattern next to skin provides superior warmth, breathability and moisture-wicking performance
- Gusseted crotch for comfort and unimpeded mobility
- Functional fly and flatlock seams to minimize chafing
- Stretch for added comfort and improved fit during movement
- Fair Trade Certified™ sewn
Sounds pretty F’ing good right? I typically stick with a mid weight but you could go heavier if you need extra warmth. I’m kind of a hiker when out and love staying mid so I can cover some ground without getting too hot.
3. Fleece Pants – Let’s just stick with Patagonia on this one. Here are the R1 Fleece Pants. I still have an old pair of Patagonia fleece pants that I’ve worn for about 20 years. The elastic waist band is worn out put I still use them because they are the perfect mid weight layer. I can run a marathon in them or sit in the icy cold with my waders and still be good and comfy.
4. Shorts (Optional) – I love wearing a pair of shorts as my third layer on my lower half. I will have the base layer, then a pair of shorts, then the fleece pants. I find that it gives a little more warmth where you need it, but keeps your lower legs free to move and not get too hot. The upper body is a little different. Let’s get into that next.
5. Base Layer (Tops) – I like to work a 3-5 layer process for the top and depends on how nasty it is out. Remember how I noted layering at the top of this section? Take a look below for my 5 Step Layering Process Summary. Same product as the base layer bottom above.
5 Step Layering Process for Winter Steelhead
1st Layer – Long Sleeve Mid Weight Base layer of polypropone or similar material
2nd Layer – Short Sleeve Mid Weight T Shirt
3rd Layer – Fleece Hoodie
4th Layer – Fleece Vest or Jacket
5th Layer – Rain Jacket or Shell
6. Base Layer T Shirt – I think this is kinda like my shorts layer (#4 above). Not totally needed but do love when you get a warm day and you can peal off everything accept for your first layer and T-Shirt layer. Again, a good poly or fleece material so you stay warm even when wet.
7. Hoodie – I’ll be honest and tell you that the hoodie is my #1 goto piece of clothing on and off the water! There’s something about tossing the hood on or off based on the conditions and it gives you just the right amount or un-amount of warmth to the head and neck. By the way, did you know that the majority of heat loss comes from the back of your neck. Is that really true? I don’t know but do know that I love a good hoodie on my head.
8. Fleece Vest or Coat – This is the 4th layer and an important one on those cold days. If it’s not super cold I will go with a fleece vest or switch to a fleece jacket if it’s frigid. I have been wearing my North Face Denali Vest for so many years and it’s freaking amazing. Love the two upper pockets, big pockets and high collar.
It also looks like North Face has brought back their Denali Jacket now under the retro title. I also loved my blue Denali full sleeve jacket. Literally wore holes in the sleeves.
9. Raincoat or Shell – The 5th and last layer in the process and maybe the most important. I’ve used just about every type of rain shell but find that a mid to heavy is my preferred. I also like to have a shorter wading jacket style to you can keep the pockets dry when wading deep. I’ve used Simms for years and most know that they make some of the finest gear in the biz.
10. Stocking Cap – A nice warm and wool cap is what I prefer. If you can find a wool cap with a little fleece liner to keep in soft and less itchy go for it. Wool is the best material for the wet and cold so you should try to find wool. Here’s a recent wool blend cap that I picked up from Mt. Hardwear:
11. Hat with Brim – Unless it’s really cold you will usually catch me wearing a baseball style cap. Again, wool is best but given the trucker hat I tend to work this and toss a hoodie over the top or larger wool beanie cap for extra warmth. Of course I’m going to promote the Wet fly swing Trucker cap here.
12. Wool Gloves (fingerless) – I should have probably started with this one since it is by far the one piece of gear that is a must have. It’s critical that my hands stay warm but that also allow me to tie knots. The Wool fingerless gloves are where it’s at and stay warm even after grabbing the caudle peduncle of a fat winter steelhead. I love a pair that REI sells and are super basic and cheap. Bring two pairs of these so you have a dry pair for the next day. Here are the Fox River Gloves I Love:
On that note of holding the caudal peduncle when landing a fish – Here’s an article on landing fish the right way.
13. Down Jacket – If I’m being honest with myself, I guess this is a luxury item? I’ve still got the orange Columbia Sportswear Jacket that I wore for years including on the Babine River trip aka – 12 cold ass days with hairy stinky guys trip.
The trip was cold, and wet, did I say cold? But having that down jacket with my waders in the morning gave me some hope. I would wear other fleece during the day and save that jacket for getting off the water.
When back at the tent, I’d strip off the semi wet fleece (more from condensation and hiking than leakage) jacket and slip into the puffy warm of goose down against my skin. You can stuff this down super small so you might as well toss one in.
As of late, I’ve been using Mt. Hardwear. Make sure to get the jackets that aren’t too puffy. I’d go with this one with the hood right now.
Now, onto the extra list……..
III. Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Extra List Breakdown
- Guide Book/Maps
- GPS or App
- Wading Staff
- Water Bottle
- Dry Bag/Pack
- Aquaseal/Duct Tape
- Water proof phone case
- Head Lamp
- Knife or multi-tool
1. Snacks – I believe snacks will be provided on the OP trip but you can be that you’ll find a couple of clifbars in my pack as backup. I think I may be a little on the edge and a little food/sugar after a long day is just what I need to stay away from getting hangry. I also love a little hot broth as well.
2. Guide Book/Maps – You won’t have to worry much for the OP trip since we’ll be with a guide but a guide and/or map of the river can be very helpful. Even on rivers I know very well, I enjoy marking new spots on a map and keeping an eye on our path.
I was once called the cartographer so there’s that Shannon.
3. GPS or App – I use a great app on my phone called Topo Maps by Phillip Endocot and have used OnXHunt App which has some really great landower information. Topo Maps is free and allows you to mark locations with decent accuracy. Short of a nice full on GPS unit like a Garmin, either of these apps will do the trick.
4. Wading Staff – I’ve always been an anti-wading staff guy. Like I’m too bad ass for a staff. This changed last year and not because I fell or almost died or something. But because I caught more fish that day I first used one. They are great for tough wading but they also help you to hold tight in areas that may normally not allow you to fish.
5. Water Bottle – Not a heck of a lot to say here but will note that I feel like I never drink enough. Between coffee, IPA and kombucha I always feel like I’m good.
6. Dry Bag/Pack – You need a way to keep your stuff dry during the day. a place to keep some backup clothes, lunch and maybe your phone or camera. I use a dry bagpack that was actually produced by an old friend. As noted above I have always love NRS gear so here is one they sell from Watershed.
7. Aquaseal/Duct Tape – It never hurts to have backups. You never know when a little glue and duct tape might save the day. A little tip if you want to always have duct tape on you – wrap some around a water bottle 20 times and now you have a roll that sticks with you.
8. Water proof phone case – If you are a leave your phone in the car type of person then you may be able to avoid this one. But if you are like me then you likely have your phone with you to take pics. I’ve talked about fishing photos with Brian O’keefe on the podcast here so I won’t argue wheether the smart phones have made us better or worse photographers but did want to share another product from NRS that will keep your goods dry:
9. Camera and/or Phone – Let the battle continue! Are you a mac or pc person. What was that famous apple commercial about the two millennial’s……..
I was a PC person and then became a Mac. It started with an iphone and now can’t imagine using anything else. But, I digress.
10. Headlamp – I have this weird thing with headlamps as well. Instead of turning lights on around the house, I click on the headlamp that’s around my head most nights. And if it’s not on my head I love how the Petzl Zipka also turns into a watch light, or at least that’s what I call it (it fits perfectly around your rist). I don’t go anywhere without my Petzl and neither should you.
11. Knife – I have about the same amount of knives as I do headlamps which means I probably have some type of a problem. Right now I’ll tell you that Gerber is my goto knife. They are local, small and clean plus they keep their edge.
12. Net – I was never a net guy. Still really not now but do appreciate the value of the net for the angler and for the fish. If you are new to steelheading then a net and a fishing partner will help you and may protect the fish.
and now a few podcast episodes………
IV. Popular Podcasts Episodes for Steelhead
WFS 002 – Steelhead Fly Fishing Interview with Jack Mitchell from the Evening Hatch:
WFS 006 – Trey Combs Interview – Steelhead Flies and Fishing, Blue Water Fly Fishing
WFS 009 – Simon Gawesworth Interview – New Spey Lines, Spey Casting and RIO Products
WFS 014 – Olympic Peninsula Steelhead with Jeff Layton | Fly Fishing Gear at Grab Flies.com:
WFS 27 – The Line Speed Jedi – Tim Rawlins Interview | Spey Casting, Kamloops, Alaskan Pilot
WFS 029 – OPST Pure Skagit Interview with James Millard | Steelhead, Commando Heads, Bugs
Conclusion for Winter Steelhead Gear
Shhhhhwoooo! Did that feel like a lot to you? I put some energy into that one but I feel like it’s a good resource especially if you are new to winter steelhead fly fishing.
I shared the best products and resources as well as a step by step guide to make sure you have the right items for winter steelhead fly fishing. If there is anything I left off the list please leave a comment below.
If you’re interested in the right spey rod for steelhead, Click here to see the Spey Rod that has helped me improve my spey cast and find more steelhead at a super reasonable cost (You also get a free spey line if you pick-up the Spey Rod here). By the way, the link above is an affiliate link, which means I earn a commission if you do end up purchasing through that link. It’s at no extra cost to you, and please if you have any questions related to this product, please let me know and I’d be happy to answer them for you.