Our 10 Best Steelhead Flies & How to Fish Them

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Big Flies for Educated Trout

The Lake Erie steelhead run is an event that many of my peers don’t miss. They are usually armed with large spinning rods that can chuck a plug hundreds of feet with a flick of the wrist, and the cuts of meat they bring back from their travels always put the local trout that I spend days tracking down to shame. Be that as it may, my interest in these immense, migratory rainbow trout of the great lakes and beyond comes down to catching them on the fly.

Flies for steelhead are quite different from the flies I use for the steelhead’s less educated cousins, the common rainbow trout of my area. 

In this review, I’m going to do another deep dive into a slew of flies that were tied with steelhead in mind, big flies for big fish that have seen a bit more of the world than their freshwater counterparts.

Join me as I gather up some fantastic flies, and provide the links so you can try your hand at spinning some up yourself.

Let’s get into this!

Types of Steelhead Flies

Streamers

Streamers for steelhead mimic the same streamer patterns that are used for trout but are often even gaudier, with more action, more fuzz, and more color. Streamers are fished both with a retrieve, and on “the swing,” or, chucked downstream and arced across moving water. Some steelhead streamers mimic smaller versions of salmon flies, and to great effect.

Fly-fishing-trout-sketch

Nymphs

Steelhead do enjoy feeding on invertebrates just as much as other trout do, and nymphs for steelhead are larger, heavier versions of the flies I’m sure you already have in your box. Often, affixing a good attractor nymph behind a streamer can elicit strikes. Big hellgrammites, stoneflies, and other natural imitations work well on hungry steelheads.

Eggs

Though the mention of egg flies can usually spark a lively debate on their place in fly fishing, they are deadly effective for steelhead when dead-drifted or swung. 

Wet Flies

Though many of us tend to forget about the classic wet fly patterns that ruled the day in the golden age of fly fishing, swinging classic wet flies can still be extremely effective. 

1) The Steelhead Wooly Bugger

The Wooly Bugger is a classic, well-known and well-fished pattern, and it works just as well for steelhead as it does any other predatory, aggressive fish.

The wooly bugger is extremely versatile because it can be fished in many different ways. Whether dead-drifted, twitched or actively stripped, this fly is a consistent winner.

I always have some version of this fly in my box, no matter what type of fish I’m targeting. The steelhead wooly bugger is a beefed up, long-tailed version of the pattern, tied on a sturdy, heavy wire hook, but it uses the same materials that trout buggers are tied with (Marabou, saddle hackle, etc).

This is a total confidence fly, and it can work when all else fails. Don’t go out on the water without it.

Tightlinevideo has a great tying tutorial (seen below), so get to the vise and boot up your computer for some expert explanations on the use and construction of this fly. 

The Steelhead Wooly Bugger by Tightlinevideo

2) The Intruder

This fly was designed for winter steelhead fishing and utilizes a shank with a stinger hook.

It is a spider-style fly with great action on the retrieve and on the swing and can be tied unweighted and in any variety of colors.

High-vis colors are great for stained water, and more natural tones work just as well if you’re fishing this fly where sculpins, darters and other baitfish are established and numerous.

This fly is an effective predator fly for other species of fish as well, so this pattern can be utilized for multiple fishing scenarios. It’s worth learning, and Kevin Hospodar has created a great tutorial here.

If you’ve never tied on a shank, this is a great place to start. 

The Intruder by Kevin Hospodar

3) The Fish Taco

I first heard of this fly while watching a Canadian public access fly fishing show. The name escapes me, but this was the go-to fly that was present throughout the whole program, and I am excited to include it in this article.

This fly is simple to tie, with great action and a colorful, wispy profile.

It can be fished like any of the other streamer patterns here, and it is just as deadly on the retrieve as it is on the swing.

I hesitate to call it a “guide fly” but it certainly does have many of the characteristics of such flies–relatively easy to tie, and simple enough to also crank out quite a few at the vise.

Highly recommended for steelhead, regardless of the season. Piscator Flies produces very professional videos, making this one easy to learn. 

The Fish Taco by Piscator Flies


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4) The Golden Girl

I must admit, I am a sucker for classic patterns. But the truth is, they wouldn’t be classic if they didn’t have a darn good record for producing fish.

The Golden Girl streamer uses materials that you are almost guaranteed to have at your tying desk to produce a bright, effective pattern that excels in the Winter on the swing. These are usually tied on smaller salmon hooks for steelhead, but they’re also very good for trout when tied smaller.

This video is great, and truth be told, I learned how to tie my first fly from a Savage Fly video. Check this one out.

The Golden Girl by Savage Flies

5) The Steelhead Muddler

I love the Muddler Minnow. It is a versatile, time-tested pattern that works just as effectively for steelhead as it does for other species of fish.

Depending on the amount of deer hair used, and how tightly it’s stacked, you can get some topwater action out of this fly, but it really excels when erratically stripped, swung, muddled, and even skated.

Coneheads and tungsten drop weights can be added for depth,  and the list just goes on in regards to how you can fish this fly, and that’s part of the reason I love it.

I would not be caught out on the water without one. Kevin Hospodar is an excellent fly dresser, and his steelhead muddler is a fantastic addition to the variants of this classic pattern.

The Steelhead Muddler by Kevin Hospodar

 6) The White Death

Zonker-style flies are just as effective for big steelhead as they are for hungry browns.

This pattern is just a proven winner regardless of how it’s tied. Jeff Blood (the guy behind Frog Hair tippet/ leader material and more) goes in depth in the attached video on how to tie and fish this simplistic but extremely useful fly.

Zonker flies share many similarities, but whether you’re calling it a Slump Buster, a Bunny Leech, or any of the other myriad monikers for flies that utilize cut rabbit fur strips (or squirrel!) as the tail and sometimes the body, they all work.

Rabbit fur provides great action, so don’t be alarmed by a bushy profile, they slim down when wet.

Fish these just like you would a steelhead-sized wooly bugger–strip them erratically, dead-drift them, and swing them down and across.

The tying tutorial here is fantastic, and Jeff Blood is a seasoned veteran at tracking down and fishing for both steelhead and Atlantic salmon.

The White Death, by Jeff Blood

7) Steelhead Egg Fly

There are some fly fishers that view the egg fly with the same disdain as they do squirmy worms, mop flies, and corn flies. Personally, I think that this attitude borders on elitism, and you won’t catch me chastising a fellow angler for their personal fly selection. The thing is, these flies are deadly effective. Most fish, but especially trout, seem to have a particular fondness for devouring eggs. Sometimes they’ll ignore all other files except a large, dead-drifted egg pattern. It pays to have a few in your box even if you deem them a “last resort.” They work just as well when used in tandem with a big nymph.

Match the color of the egg to whatever might be laying them in the water you’re fishing, or model them after steelhead roe.

The Fly Fiend has never produced a bad video, their tutorial is great, and if you learn to tie them big for steelhead, spinning up a dozen for your trout box won’t take much more effort!

Steelhead Egg Fly by The Fly Fiend

8) Steelhead Candy

Here’s a cracking good fly from Holsinger’s Fly Shop. This thing is both an attractor nymph, with a trailing egg that just makes steelhead go nuts.

This fly has got it all, and I wager it will work when big streamers and other such flies will not. Tied big you could fish this fly by itself, but another egg tied with strong tippet to the hook bend will make for a super effective tandem rig.

Holsinger’s Fly Shop produces quality videos, and this one is no different. Their step-by-step tutorials are great, and you’ll soon be able to fill some slots in your box with this hybrid nymph/egg pattern. Save this one for when all else has failed!

Steelhead Candy by Holsinger’s Fly Shop

9) Steelhead Stone

Trout love stoneflies. They are present in nearly all trout waters to a certain extent, and when they hatch, it can cause trout and steelhead to feed with vigor.

A stonefly that is both large enough and close enough to the natural can elicit violent strikes from wary ocean-educated steelhead.

This is a great steelhead nymph from Fish Fray that deserves a spot in your box right beside those eggs and streamers. It has sufficient weight to get it into the strike zone, and a realistic profile, two things necessary if you’re swinging nymphs.

Stonefly patterns are productive trout patterns from early spring into fall, and this sized-up version works just as well for steelhead.

Find yourself some strong, heavy wire nymph hooks and spin up a few of these for those chromers. 

Steelhead Stone by Fish Fray

10) The Zulu

This is another classic pattern that I often find tied for trout when I pick up old fly boxes at estate sales.

While this pattern can be tied small for regular trout, it also excels as a steelhead pattern.

I enjoy Savage Flies videos because Matt is committed to highlighting classic, “almost forgotten” patterns. This is an excellent wet fly for swinging. The wool red tag is a great hotspot, and the profile is buggy and noticeable, even in stained water.

Enjoy this simple tutorial on a productive fly that deserves a place in your box.

The Zulu by Savage Flies

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What’s the difference between a steelhead fly and a trout fly?

A: Steelhead are much bigger, and sometimes more aggressive than your run-of-the-mill brown trout or rainbow. These are heavy fish. They are also ocean-educated. Their run out to sea and then back to freshwater means they’ve encountered a lot of different aquatic life, prey, and predators. Steelhead flies are different from trout flies in that they are usually tied on much heavier hooks, and are usually bulkier and dressed heavily. Flashier colors and more action are the keys, even in the classic wet fly patterns.

Many trout patterns can be adapted for steelhead use, they are trout after all, despite their time away from their freshwater homes. 

Q: What is “fishing on the swing” and why are these flies good for that technique? 

A: Swinging a wet fly or streamer is usually accomplished using the “down and across” method, wherein you launch your fly downstream, and using the current, allow the fly to travel with the current, and make a “J” shaped loop as it is pulled away from you.

The fly can then be retrieved with erratic strips or more gently, by gently gathering your fly line six inches at a time, making the fly swim like it is struggling. It’s a great technique, and it is similarly employed by spin fishermen.

The flies in this article all work great on the swing because of the materials used in their construction. This is a great technique that you definitely should learn, even if you don’t plan on steelheading any time soon.

The New Fly Fisher has a great, succinct explanation of this technique below. I highly recommend clicking the link and watching this short four-minute video. 

Reeling it in 

I hope that this article has shed some light on tying and using steelhead flies. There’s a reason that so many of my peers make that trip to the great lakes religiously, every year. These fish are a thing of wonder. Capable of awesome runs and vicious digs, a lot of my fellow anglers here in Pennsylvania equate them to salmon in regards to their power and pull. For that reason alone, getting them on the fly can be the stuff of legend.

Try some of the flies above, and consider taking a shot at these truly impressive fish this coming season. There’s a lot of great information here to start with, even if you don’t have an Erie permit quite yet.

As always, stay safe out there, and tight lines! 

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AUTHOR
Andrew was brought up fishing high mountain streams for eastern brook trout in central PA, but fell in love with all things fly fishing later in life. Now, his days are spent pursuing all of Pennsylvania's freshwater gamefish on the fly, while attempting to make the hobby more accessible and approachable to everyone.

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