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Best Guide Flies for Winter Steelheading

Favorite patterns for catching steelhead throughout the Pacific Northwest.

[by Loren Elliott]

Swinging flies for winter West Coast steelhead is a great thrill. Whether using single-hand or Spey fishing tactics, the goal is the same: feeling that heart-stopping tug at the end of a tight line. In the way, however, lie the inevitable challenges of constantly changing river conditions.

Ostrich Intruder
Front body shank: 55-millimeter Waddington shank.
Stinger hook loop: 25-pound-test wire.
Stinger hook: Gamakatsu Octopus, size 2.
Thread: Red 3/0 (210 denier).
Butt: Blue Angel Hair.
Collars: Turquoise and chartreuse ostrich herl.
Body: Copper Diamond Braid.
Front dubbing ball (behind the front collar): Orange UV Ice Dub

Rain or snowmelt make water levels, temperatures, and clarity all extremely variable during winter and spring months. Checking the flow to see the river running high can become all too familiar. Later in the season, even if the rains hold off, hot days can result in snowmelt that can quickly discolor glacial rivers. If rain or snowmelt does not create tough fishing conditions, an extended period of no rain and little snowmelt can lead to low, clear conditions and subsequently very spooky steelhead.

What’s the bottom line? During the winter and early spring, West Coast steelhead rivers are often not at optimal flows, and a successful angler adapts to a wide array of fishing conditions.

A significant part of successful winter and spring steelheading is choosing the right flies. I organize my flies according to fishing conditions because the shape of the river largely dictates a steelhead’s mood and what it will grab. Although many variables must be taken into account, and there are no hard and fast rules when selecting the right flies, my choice typically boils down to two basic styles of patterns: I have a “dirty water” fly box and a “clear water” fly box. The dirty-water box contains patterns that are larger, flashier, and heavier; the clear-water box is filled with flies that are smaller, less flashy, and lighter in weight.

THE DIRTY-WATER FLY BOX

Most of my dirty-water flies are specifically designed for fishing in low-visibility conditions. Two things happen when the water is off-color. First, steelhead are less finicky because they feel less vulnerable. Second, they have to struggle to find a fly if its physical and visual presence is not adequate to attract attention. Oftentimes, the gaudier the pattern, the better, which makes tying these flies a lot of fun. Dumbbell eyes are a welcome addition for fishing deeper runs where flies that do not sink to the fish will go unnoticed. These patterns are a great opportunity to explore your creative side.

MOAL Leech
Front body shank: Gamakatsu T10-3H cut at the bend.
Hook: Gamakatsu Octopus, size 4.
Hook connection: 20-pound-test Dacron.
Thread: Purple 3/0 (210 denier).
Body: Purple crosscut Zonker strip wrapped on the hook connection and front shank.

The Ostrich Intruder is one of my all-time favorites for fishing muddy or glacially silted waters. Because of its enormous profile, I have confidence that fish will sense it with their lateral lines even if visibility is extremely limited. Its creation is credited to Scott Howell and Ed Ward, two of the most respected steelhead anglers in the Pacific Northwest. Known for their roles in pioneering the Skagit style of Spey fishing, they helped to revolutionize winter steelheading. With Skagit casting, it became possible to throw heavy sinking tips and monster flies like never before. Many of the flies I fish when the water is high and off-color would be practically unusable without the power of a line with a Skagit head. Howell found inspiration for the first Ostrich Intruder variant in a pattern Ward was tying for catching king salmon in Alaska. The concept was to create as large a profile as possible using a minimum of materials; he wanted a pattern with a truly gigantic underwater silhouette that was still possible to cast—at least with a Skagit head.

He wrapped feathers in front a ball of dubbing, chenille, or deer hair to make them stand up and flare out. Using fewer materials makes a fly that casts easier and sinks faster, allowing an angler to fish a pattern larger than ever before. Different feathers were used in the evolution of the Intruder, but ostrich herl is a favorite because of its long fibers and incredible movement in the water.

The MOAL Leech, another killer winter steelhead fly, is the brainchild of angler Derek Fergus. Bunny-strip leeches, usually tied in the string-leech style with one or two rabbit strips secured to a long-shank hook, have been around for a long time. Because of the way rabbit breathes in the water, it looks alive even when just dangling in the current. Fergus wanted to maximize this quality by creating a pattern that had more freedom of movement. The MOAL Leech accomplishes this by wrapping the rabbit strip around a length of gel-spun or Dacron fly-line backing instead of just the hook shank. This makes an extremely flexible design that undulates in the water. Because of the design, it has a larger profile than a string leech, adding to its effectiveness in low visibility fishing conditions.

Squidrow
Front body shank: 35-millimeter Waddington shank.
Stinger hook loop: 30-pound-test Dacron.
Stinger hook: Gamakatsu Octopus, size 2.
Thread: Red 3/0 (210 denier).
Weight: Silver dumbbell.
Body: Gold Diamond Braid and purple UV Ice Dub.
Collars: Pink/purple Sili Legs.

The Squidrow, created by Skagit pioneer Scott Howell, is a great dirty-water fly. True to its name, this pattern is designed to look like a squid, one of a steelhead’s primary food sources in the ocean. This gets at the “instinct” tactic behind some steelhead fly designs, roughly imitating oceanic forage that might elicit an instinctual response borne out of life-long habit.

This fly is derived from Howell’s Ostrich Intruder, but it is tied with rubber legs. You can use a wide variety of legs, from ones with hot-tipped fluorescent ends to legs containing flashy, shiny flecks. The legs come alive when swinging through the current, and they don’t soak up water like many natural materials. You can fish a Squidrow with a stinger hook an entire season before having to replace the hook; you might swap hooks after fighting a bunch of fish or hitting several rocks, but it takes more than a couple of tussles to chew this fly into retirement.

Much like the Ostrich Intruder, the Squidrow has a large profile to push water and stand out when visibility is low, but it requires minimal materials. This makes it easy to cast. The Squidrow is a radical departure from traditional swinging flies of the last century. Although traditionalists might turn their noses up at it for looking more like a bass spinner bait than like a classic Spey fly, there is no denying that the Squidrow is a deadly winter steelhead pattern, and it always has a place in my dirtywater box.

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