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Steelhead Nymph Fishing

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The following is an excerpt from a book on steelhead fly fishing currently being written by Michael Gorman.  As yet, completion of the book and the publishing date are not finalized.  Stay tuned.

Nymph Fishing for Steelhead
by Michael Gorman  copyright (c) 2003  All rights reserved.

Chuck Beck /  steelhead fly fishing / steelhead fly fishing guide    The deadliest of all fly fishing methods is nymphing.   Most fly anglers employ this technique for trout.

    However, this is the only fly fishing strategy that enables the angler to consistently catch steelhead year-round.  Even in the toughest of fly fishing conditions, when the sun is high overhead on a hot July day or the water is frigid in January, nymph fishing for steelhead will catch fish.

    To a fly fisherman a nymph is a reference to an immature aquatic insect that lives the majority of its life among the rocks, wood debris or vegetation along the river bottom.  There are dozens of insect families giving rise to hundreds of various species.  Just as resident trout do, young stream-reared steelhead eat aquatic insects for the year or two they live in freshwater before swimming to sea where they dine on the ocean’s bounty of small fish and crustaceans.

    Nymph fishing for steelhead is a reference to a technique rather than a specific type of fly being used.  Though nymph fly patterns which specifically imitate actual immature stoneflies or mayflies, for instance, that populate many steelhead streams, some may replicate salmon eggs, or flashy psychedelic morsels that looking nothing like an insect from this planet.  These latter patterns are referred to as attractors.  They are not meant to imitate anything specifically, but, instead, arouse the steelhead’s interest to the point that it will strike it or attempt to eat it.

    Every steelhead nympher has her or his favorite fly patterns.  These can change constantly.  New effective steelhead flies are created constantly.  Last year’s all-star may be relegated to third team this year.  Flies in favor can change as quickly as women’s fashion.

Above, Chuck Beck with 32" nymph-caught steelhead

    As far as my personal fly patterns I let the steelhead decide.  I’ve fallen in love with some beautiful, intriguing steelhead flies that have little or no fish appeal.  If “the dog don’t hunt” it’s of no use to me.

    Having fished and guided steelhead for more than 25 years, usually more than a hundred days in a calendar year, I have a few observations about steelhead and their fly preferences.  For some of them I have no logical explanation.  I just try to follow the rules and preferences that the fish lay before me. 

    The good steelhead anglers I know experiment constantly with nymph fly patterns.  I do the same.  Fishing with multiple flies facilitates trying new flies paired with an “old reliable”.  I’ve discovered that steelhead fly preference can change constantly, often week to week.  Occasionally preferences can change on a day-to-day basis.  This can be driven by such things as changes in water temperature, light intensity, water level, water clarity, weather, insect activity, and the presence of spawning salmon.  I cannot understand the impetus for change in most cases.   Except for spawning salmon, I am unable to predict what the exact fly preferences will be.  A bit of trial and error experimentation is often called for.

    Something I am at a complete loss to explain is how preferred fly patterns can change from year to year.  All environmental conditions --- as far as I can perceive --- can be identical to the corresponding conditions for the same time period of the previous year but the steelhead as a group will show a distinct preference for a different “old reliable” fly that was a mediocre producer the year before.  As an example, I’ve seen years when a Bead Head Prince produced fair results, then, next year --- same time, same water flow --- it’s the “go to” pattern.  The steelhead can’t get enough of it.  What’s changed?  I’m at a loss.  Another example is a change in preference for a different color of the exact same fly.  I fish a rubber leg stonefly almost constantly as one of my steelhead nymphs.  I used to have a bias (because the fish did) for a golden brown color.  Then, it fell out of favor, replaced by black.  Then black lost out in favor to chocolate brown.  Each year I give all colors a chance to prove themselves, but one will tend to dominate year to year.  This is a head scratcher.  Mysteries like these keep The Game interesting.

Some Favorite Nymphing Fly Patterns

                    steelhead nymphs /  steelhead fly fishing / steelhead fly fishing guide

    Because steelhead have great vision, big flies are not necessary to intrigue them.  My clients and I have landed scores of steelhead on small fare. 

    Those individual steelhead that have survived migration in and out of their home river, in addition to a year or two in the dangerous open ocean, have acute senses.  Seeing danger in time to avoid it is imperative.  A size 14 fly, or smaller, does not go unseen in relatively clear water by a steelhead six to ten feet away.  The fish may not be interested in the artificial bug, but the fly is on the visual radar screen.

    As I indicated earlier, I am a proponent of small flies.  Whereas larger flies may put off a willing fish, he or she might be induced to take a non-threatening smaller one.  Size can be critical.  Experiment.

    When the sun is bright, I lean towards bright reflective or metallic-bodied flies.  Nymphs and wet flies that contain mylar tinsel, Flashabou, Krystal Flash, shiny bead head, or metallic wire can prove especially effective.  In less intense lighting I prefer darker patterns that offer contrast with the stream bottom.  Egg flies, which I fish just like nymphs, are an exception. 

    There are many nuances to nymph fishing, but the prime directive is to present the fly in such a manner that it drifts slowly, naturally along the stream bottom.  A willing steelhead, holding near the bottom, merely has to move slightly left or right to intercept the artificial.  Minimal effort is required of the fish, and most are reluctant to move very far, especially when the water is cold.   

    In light of our objective --- a slow, deep drift of the fly --- let’s start at the beginning by considering the best choices for fly line and leader.  Though it seems counterintuitive, a floating fly line is used for effective nymphing.  To this a 9’ – 10’ leader is attached.  I prefer fluorocarbon because of it’s enhanced “invisibility” to the fish.  The tippet will typically range in diameter from 3X to 0X (0.009” – 0.011”), depending on the sizes of the flies to be used.  In terms of breaking strength we’re talking 8 – 15 lbs.

    In virtually all situations lead wire or lead shot is employed in the system to get the flies to the depths in moving, sometimes swift, water.  The weight may be incorporated into or onto the fly as it is tied.  Lead wire wrapped on the hook before the fly is tied is one possibility.  Lead dumbbell eyes or a heavy bead placed at the head of a fly hook before the fly is tied are also weight-adding procedures.

    If the angling regulations allow, lead shot may be pinched onto the leader.  I use the removable type in sizes BB and 3/0.  It is important to always match the amount of weight to the combination of current velocity and depth being fished.  Too much weight, the flies are always dragging or stuck on the stream bottom.  Too little weight, the flies drift over the heads of the fish. 

Steelhead Nymph Leader Setup

nymph leader / steelhead fly fishing / McKenzie River Fishing Guide    To present the fly to the steelhead, the line is cast upstream, generally at an angle of 45 to 60 degrees.  The flies must be allowed to sink on a slack line as the drift back toward the angler.  Most, but not all, of the slack is removed as the fly proceeds downstream.  Should none of the slack be removed, the angler will not be able to quickly and effectively set the hook.   Conversely, if the line is tightened because all slack is removed the flies will drift too high in the water column, not staying down in the steelhead’s zone.  Additionally, lack of any slack my cause the flies to drift unnaturally fast in the current, which can be a deterrent for the fish, too.

    A mend is a manipulation of the fly line by the fisherman to slow the drift of the fly, minimizing drag, preventing the fly from coursing too fast in the current.  The angler lifts his rod tip high and flips (repositions) the fly line upstream of the nymph.  Multiple mends may be necessary during a single drift.

    Underwater observations and sight-fishing to visible steelhead has shown me that steelhead may hold a fly for a mere second or less before they expel it.  An artificial fly does not have the texture, taste and smell of a real food item, so a fish tends to immediately expel it.  For the fisherman to immediately detect the strike, then react quickly to set the hook, is imperative.

    A nymph angler cannot depend on feeling the strike as the steelhead takes the fly on a slack line.  By the time the line would be tightened to that degree the fish has made its exit.  However, there may be a visual indication of the a strike to alert the angler to set the hook.  Some will watch the tip of the floating fly line.  If the line, which has some degree of slack in it to keep the flies drifting near the bottom, hesitates, stops, or is pulled under the surface, the rod tip is immediately raised to drive the hook point home.   A brightly-colored  line is a great aid.  All my floating lines are yellow, orange, fluorescent red, or pale green.


                    indicator steelhead nymph fishing /  steelhead fly fishing / steelhead fly fishing guide
 Josh Cuperus indicator nymphing

    Now, let’s circle back to answer the question “Why not use a sinking fly line, or sink-tip, to present the fly along the stream bottom?”  Keeping in mind that our prime directive is to present the fly in a manner whereby it drifts slowly and naturally with the current, know that the subsurface portion of a sinking fly line must remain slack just as the leader must remain slack to keep the flies drifting naturally.  Instead of  merely having to pull the leader tight to indicate a strike, the slack in the sinking fly line must also be tightened by the biting fish so the angler knows to set the hook.  The delay is usually too late.  Additionally, sinking fly lines, or the sinking tip, is invariably a dark color, and very difficult to see.  A visual indication by the fly line that a steelhead has intercepted the fly is improbable.

    The majority of nymph fishers utilize a floating strike indicator.  This is attached on the upper  portion of the leader, anywhere from two inches to two feet from the fly line.  Synthetic yarn, cork, and adhesive styrofoam are examples of materials commonly used as strike indicators.  While riding the current, if the indicator deviates in any way from its natural drift the hook should be set.

    With rare exception I always fish two flies on the leader.  As individuals, fish may prefer one fly over another, so I give them a choice.  Additionally, since many steelhead will strike a fly only if it comes a few inches of them I like my increased odds with the second.  If one fly does not pass close enough to the steelhead to interest it, the other fly may.

    Indicator position on the leader is important.  Ideally, I prefer to locate my indicator so that distance between it and my uppermost (dropper) fly is 1 ½ - 2 feet greater than the water depth.  Since the water depth varies from one fishing location to the next I will change the distance often.  Too much distance between flies and indicator, and the delay between the interception of the fly by a fish and the hesitation or sinking of the indicator is increased.  Too short a distance, the flies may float over the head of a fish that may strike a fly if it was at eye level or drifting along the stream bottom. 

    The upper fly is referred to as the “dropper fly”, often secured to the leader by means of a short “dropper line”.  The dropper line can be created in a variety of ways.  My preference is to cut the leader at the desired point then rejoin the line with a surgeon knot.  The surgeon knot (see illustration) is simple, fast to tie, and retains 95%of the original line strength.  Once the knot is tied, instead of trimming both tag ends, trim only one; leave the tag that points away from the rod tip.  This is important because the mechanics of the knot are such that if you choose the wrong tag to trim, and secure the dropper fly to it, the knot will break with a strong strike.

    I know some very good nymph anglers who secure the uppermost fly of a two-fly setup by tying directly to the leader with a clinch or turle knot.  Then a 15” – 18” section of tippet (lower portion of the leader) is secured to the bend of the hook by means of a clinch knot, with the second (terminal) artificial tied on to complete the system. 

    Having experimented with securing the lower fly by tying the tippet to the bend of the upper hook, I am not a believer.  Though it makes changing flies and tippet length fast and easy, I believe there is the possibility that a striking steelhead may not be fully or securely hooked on the upper fly.  The fish may bump the line at the hook bend with its snout, pushing the fly away as it tries to bite it.  Or, the hook point may not fully, deeply penetrate the mouth, being partially blocked or deflected by the presence of the line secured at the hook bend.  

    Now, if an angler has two dozen steelhead strikes in a day it may be no big deal to lose a few fish because of the reasons I’ve mentioned.  However, if an angler gets only three, two, or one strike in a fishing day, he may wish to assure, as best he can, that the steelhead stays hooked.  I, of course, would invite every fly angler to experiment with a variety of dropper-creation methods.  But the next time you lose a precious steelhead opportunity as the fish throws the fly or you miss a solid strike --- Doh! --- you may wonder if the line secured to the hook bend of the upper fly was the problem.

    Let’s review the water type to seek out to successfully locate a holding steelhead that might bite the fly.  Be very particular since you cannot catch fish where they are not.  Look for flows that approximate a “walking pace”.  I know this is not a very precise description of the desirable current velocity, but you are looking for a unidirectional flow of a leisurely to average walking speed.  There may be exceptions, but start your search with a common sense estimation.  If the surface waters are slightly choppy or riffly, so much the better.

    For effective presentation of the nymph find water you estimate to be three to six or seven feet deep, just over your head at the extreme depth.  Even though steelhead may hold in shallower or deeper water than my suggested range, three to seven feet maximizes your chances when we factor in stealth, line control and detection of a subtle strike.

    The third consideration to enhance locating a likely hot target is underwater structure.  Boulders, ledges, scooped depressions, and transitions from shallow water to deep can all be appealing resting areas for steelhead.   Swirling eddies immediately behind exposed midstream boulders intrigue the inexperienced angler.  Remember, look for unidirectional, not swirling, multidirectional currents.  Depending on its shape and surrounding depth, exposed boulders may have steelhead holding in front or on either side of them.  Fully submerged boulders do not present this eddying problem to the same degree.

    An experienced steelheader also learns that preferred steelhead lies change as the river flow increases or decreases.  Yesterday’s hotspot may no longer hold fish as the water drops or rises.  At any water level seek out those locations that fit the three general parameters I have suggested.  

    It’s time to fish.  Let’s take it from the top.  If on foot, I prefer to position myself at the downstream end of the run I have chosen to fish.  Since fish face into the current I am approaching them from behind.  With quiet wading I can get relatively close to a steelhead’s position without alarming it.  When fishing from a boat I start at the upstream end of the run and fish it downstream.  Because the fish are facing me, and I have a much higher profile standing in the boat I cannot get as close to the fish as I can while wading.

     Most of the time I am unable to visually locate the fish, so I must very methodically cover the likely holding water.  Assuming I can wade close to the water I’m fishing, my first cast may land the flies no more than 20’ away.  The cast is angled upstream at 45 to 60 degrees from straight across the current.  As the flies drift back with the current toward me they should quickly sink.  To that end I gather some of the slack by merely raising my rod tip on a short cast, but not all of the slack.  Leave about two feet of the floating fly line on the water.  In so doing I have an excellent balance between too much slack and too little.  a few seconds after the flies hit the water I mend the fly line.  Once the line and flies have passed my position on their journey downstream I begin to slowly lower my rod tip to give back line, maintaining a little slack until the current finally pulls the whole system tight at the end of the drift.

                             antiam steelhead /  steelhead fly fishing / steelhead fly fishing guide

                                       Above, nymph-caught steelhead, South Santiam River

    Sometimes the angler can get a startling surprise as the leader tightens in the current and the nymphs rise off the stream bottom, lifted toward the surface by tension against a swift current.  Just as some steelhead are willing to attack a swinging wet fly, some will intercept a rising nymph. 

    When a steelhead takes a simple, sparse-bodied size 12 nymph just as if it was a meticulously-tied, elaborate wet fly, I am forced to ponder how important --- at times --- the fly pattern is compared to the determined aggression of a particular individual steelhead that may be willing to attack anything that invades its personal space.  Often, it seems, the chief determining factor in eliciting a striking response from a certain steelhead is the attitude of that fish.  The moral here: do not be too quick to lift the nymphs from the water for the next cast until they’ve had a couple seconds to swing up and hold in the current.  Often I’ve had a client wait before making their next cast as I give them instructions or reminders.  Sometimes lightning strikes as the nymphs hang high in the current.  Fish on! 

    Effective nymphing is a short-line game, usually played out within thirty-five feet of the angler.  From your initial position make a dozen good casts of varying lengths, then move up- or downstream by about a rod length and start your casting routine again.  A typical first cast is no more than a rod-length of fly line.  Repeat the cast but change the angle slightly.  For the next two casts lengthen the line a couple of feet.  Make two casts, then lengthen until you’ve reached your maximum effective fishing distance, or you’ve covered the good fishing water.  Be thorough, and don’t ignore the short casts.  Sometimes a steelhead will hold in the water underneath your rod tip.  I've seen it happen many times, and if you ignore the water closest to you, you may pass up a willing biter.  Which leads me to a story.

When Is Close Not Close Enough?

    I had a rare Busman’s Holiday on the Rogue late one fall day.  A client (who was immediately was promoted to the rank “former client”) called to make a last-minute cancellation for our scheduled fishing trip.  So, I had the chance to fish with my friends Jeff and Rick.  Jeff is a longtime friend and client, and Rick was the same, in addition to being a very, very good Montana fishing guide.

    I’m on the oars.  My buds are fishing.  They were landing the occasional trout but the biting steelhead were hiding from us during the first hour of the trip.  Having stayed on the move, drifting with the current and casting as we went, I was headed to the specific location where we would anchor for the first time.  In a deep slot that preceded a small rapids I wanted my guys to spend some time covering the water very thoroughly.  This particular spot always held steelhead.  I was convinced that the right drift of the fly would entice at least one to bite.

    Even though my friends were good anglers, I could not refrain from dispensing the occasional technique reminders about the angle of the cast, the distance, the timing of the mend, the extension of the fly’s drift, blah, blah, blah.  

    In the right piece of water, a steelhead may lay undisturbed quite close to the boat.  An angler who does not make a short cast to discover such fish will never catch them.  Among many of my reflexive instructions to Jeff and Rick was to make sure a few short casts were made so as to drift the fly near the boat.  As they cast I watched.  They made many good presentations in likely water without results.  When they had convinced themselves that no fish were to be had, I politely inquired if I could make a few casts before pulling anchor.

    I grabbed my nymph rod and stood to cast.  Eight to ten feet of fly line hung below my rod tip.  I angled the cast upstream in such a way that my line and fly would, essentially, drift directly beneath my rod tip.  Yes, on my very first cast the strike indicator hesitated.  The hook was set, the battle commenced.  A six-pound hen was soon in the boat.  My point was illustrated.  No need for a second cast.  I pulled anchor to drift on.  I don’t remember whether my friends laughed or cried.

    As a grizzled steelhead gunslinger, I fashioned the fingers and thumb of my right hand into the crude semblance of a western  Six Shooter.  Holding the pretend forefinger barrel vertically near my mouth, I slowly blew the smoke from the one deadly shot, finger-twirled the imaginary gun, and re-holstered.  Nothing needed to be said.  Nothing was.

    Cover the water thoroughly.mark clements /  Tom Clements photo / steelhead fly fishing / steelhead fly fishing guide

    Successful nymph fishing for steelhead is a network of small, but extremely significant, details.  Pay attention, be creatively adaptive, and persist.  Remember the steelhead make the rules.  To catch them on a consistent basis, be open, be experimental, and expect to be surprised from time to time.  They lead the dance, the steps may be intricate, and you must learn to follow as best you can.     (End of rough draft chapter) 

                                                                   Right, Tim Clements with nymph-caught Rogue River steelhead  (Tom Clements photo)

A Few Steelhead Nuances
Successful steelhead flyfishing, like the Devil, is in the details.  “Nuance” is an appealing term to me because it implies subtlety in the details.    Subtle adjustments.   Exacting finesse.  The way a woman can tilt her head ever so slightly to enhance her attractiveness as she converses with a man with whom she is intrigued. 
In a broad river expanse steelhead hold in very specific locations, whether we are talking about Oregon, British Columbia, or The Great Lakes streams.  Steelhead are the same wherever they live.   These are well-chosen positions the steelhead find the hydraulics, light, perceived proximity to cover, and general comfort to their liking.  This eliminates 99% of the water into which you could cast.  Exact holding locations are money, IF the angler can locate them.  If such a location allows the fisherman to visually observe steelhead holding there time after time when he fishes the river --- assuming the river flow levels are generally the same each time --- a pot of steelhead gold has been found.  Most of the time preferred holding locations are discovered when the angler consistently hooks a steelhead in the same spot time after time as the water is fished “blind”, where holding fish cannot be seen because of the depth, light, or rippled or “broken” nature of the water’s surface.  Some locations are obvious with a little experience.  Others are subtle and difficult, remaining hidden from many of the much-experienced.
Some reliable steelhead holding locations may be undiscovered by the majority because they fish a likely spot from a vantage point that does not allow them to present the fly, lure or bait in a way that will interest the steelhead enough to cause it to strike.  The offering drifts too fast, too far left or right, or too high in the current to entice.  Where you stand as you cast, or drop your boat anchor if floating the river, can be the difference between fishing success and failure.   

An example is in order.  I’m thinking of a favorite tailout on a favorite Oregon river where exact casting position is critical.  In mid stream is a huge rock which splits the river.  The left channel is too fast and shallow to hold a fish comfortably.  The steelhead naturally ascend a rapids and rest in the deeper right channel.  This channel is replete with submerged boulders which break the current, offering the fish comfort and protection during its travels. 

There is quiet water off the right bank, an easy and obvious place to drop anchor and fish from a stationary boat.   I’ve watched  scores of skilled boating anglers park here to fish the channel.  On many occasions I’ve done exactly the same thing, having my steelhead flyfishing clients probe the run from the obvious and easy vantage point.  One of my clients hooked five steelhead fishing the right channel from the right-hand side, from the obvious and easy position that all boating anglers choose.  It can be a very good vantage point to present the fly to the fish.   But as the river flow continues to drop throughout the late summer and fall, success becomes scarce.  Some good anglers and fishing guides who often fish this run get discouraged.  They begin to bypass fishing the channel and move down river.  I love to see this.  Warms my cold heart.Candy for a steelhead

Preferably, other anglers are out of sight when I backferry (row backwards with the oars) to hold my driftboat without anchoring in the swift water at the lower right side of the right channel, just before it spills into the rapids below.  It’s work, and it’s tricky.   The currents will constantly attempt to force the boat out of the position where I want to hold it.  If I end up too far left, the boat is pulled into the channel, and on top of the fish.  If swept too far right, my clients cannot get an accurate and correct drift of the fly.  I’m riding a fine line and continuously making little rowing adjustments to keep the boat in the perfect fishing position.  One of my clients will often hook a steelhead if they are attentive to the strike.  I watch each cast while simultaneously tending our position.  Experience has told me which casts have a chance to drift the fly correctly to a fish that may be willing to bite.  I have the clients re-cast immediately if the fly has little chance of drifting into the Sweet Spot.   Even fishing behind other boaters who’ve hammered the channel, I would estimate we hook a steelhead here 50% of the time.

Then I have a move that I have never seen another boater or guide make.  I row the boat back upstream, careful to stay out of the main channel, then slide the boat to the left side of the deep channel.  I let the boat drift down to the lower end of the channel, to the point where the water is swift, barely above the rapids.  Backferrying here, again, is a tricky chore.  The currents tend to move me out of position if I'm not careful. 

The fish-holding spot I am seeking is very small, very specific.  The steelhead tend to hold behind a particular boulder which I can see, though I cannot see the fish in the riffly flow.   The right cast will produce a steelhead strike about 80% of the time.  If you have any steelheading experience, this is an outrageous degree of reliability for hooking a steelhead.  The angler in the front of the boat is always the one to hook the fish.  The angler in the rear of the boat may be more skilled but cannot get the right vantage point to present the fly.  If I dropped the boat farther downstream to accommodate the client in the stern I would be swept into the rapids.

    So, let’s recount the nuances.   Lower water flows often cause steelhead to hold in a different portion of a dependable fishing hole.  It is imperative to pinpoint where the specific, often small, Sweet Spots are located.  Emphasis: specific locations.  Experimentation is necessary to locate the subtle and difficult spots where a steelhead may rest.  Additionally, it may be tedious and tricky to position the angler in the necessary vantage point from which to make an accurate and good drift of the fly to the fish.  Whether wading or boating, a position a few feet in one direction or another can make the success difference.  The fly must be near enough, slow enough and deep enough to prompt the strike.  This is often a game of inches.  If the fly drifts a few inches too far right or left or above the holding fish, it won’t take.  The strike can be quite subtle.  Be alert, and be quick. 

    Some of the steelhead fly fishing nuances I did not address here were those involving fly patterns, the exacting nature of the leader and tippet, and the subtleties of an effective fly presentation..  Another time . . .


Contact Information


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Michael Gorman
330 NW Autumn Place, Corvallis OR 97330
Mckenzie River fishing guides & Rogue River fishing guides specialists

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