Some anglers say catching steelhead in the fall is just dumb luck. Aaron Jasper says that with the right patterns and strategies, hooking two or three fish will turn into catching 10!
We all do it: our alarms go off in the morning, we wipe the sleep from our eyes, and then we check our social media accounts to see what transpired overnight. There, sandwiched between a clip of your friend’s baby tasting carrots for the first time and a joke about a dancing dog, you see an online friend holding a freshly caught, chrome-bright steelhead. When I see this I experience feelings ranging from jealousy to excitement, and quickly contact fellow anglers to get the scoop. Very soon, emails and texts come pouring in asking, “When are we going?”
Early-run steelhead, bright as newly minted coins, get my blood flowing. Knowing why the steelhead are available and how to target them makes the difference between just being lucky and enjoying real success. This article offers a framework explaining why fish that spawn in early spring enter a river the previous autumn, and how to catch them.
LESSON 1: Why Steelhead Enter the River In Autumn
Fall-run anadromous rainbow trout (steelhead) do not enter the river to spawn; they are there to eat the eggs of other spawning salmonids. The first of these fish are salmon. With the exception of Lake Erie, Great Lakes tributaries have runs of salmon numbering in the tens of thousands. Steelhead have a highly refined sense of smell—they can pick up a scent with a concentration of only three parts per billion—so when salmon enter a stream, steelhead are not far behind.
When salmon initially enter a river, a few steelhead will accompany them. These fish, however, usually enter and exit the stream to return to the lake or estuary on a daily basis. Salmon begin spawning in mid-September and continue through late-October and into November. This activity, of course, depends on the specific location; salmon from Lake Superior spawn much earlier than those from Lake Ontario. When spawning swings into full force, the majority of the steelhead will follow, seeking the eggs of the salmon and accompanying brown trout. The salmon and trout drop their eggs, effectively producing a chum slick. This mass of eggs is a buffet for the steelhead.
HOOK: Tiemco TMC200R, size 10 or 8.
THREAD: Light brown 6/0 (140 denier).
TAIL AND LEGS: Sili Legs, barred tan.
BODY: Golden stone hare’s-ear dubbing.
BACK AND THORAX: Thin Skin, mottled golden stone.
RIB: Black wire.
LESSON 2: Understanding When Steelhead Move and Feed
Steelhead, like many lake- and ocean-run fish, live in deep water to escape predators. Entering a shallow stream that has heavy fishing pressure makes them extremely vulnerable, so they migrate mostly at night. This results in fish holding in safer areas, such as the tailouts and heads of pools.
When the water flow increases due to rain runoff or a dam release, the depth of the stream will increase and the clarity of the water might decrease. This is when steelhead are more apt to move during the day. And keep in mind that steelhead, like other trout, do not have eyelids; during sunny days they often sulk on the bottom to avoid the bright, uncomfortable light.
In the fall, look for steelhead near the gravely redds of spawning salmon and brown trout; they will be waiting to feed on the drifting eggs. Also, salmon and brown trout often spawn in specific areas of a stream, which also condenses the steelhead into those same areas. When you find these spots, you could be in for one of the best days of fishing of your life.
FILOPLUME WIGGLE NYMPH
HOOK: Your favorite jig hook, sizes 12 to 8.
BEAD: Black nickel tungsten, size to match the hook.
THREAD: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
REAR BODY: Nymph-Head Wiggle-Tail Shank.
TAIL: Light brown hen hackle.
BODY: Pheasant tail filoplume feather.
THORAX: Brown hen hackle fibers tied on each side for legs.
LESSON 3: Basic Nymph-fishing Techniques for Fall Steelhead
There are two main techniques used for fishing nymph and egg imitations to Great Lakes steelhead: bottom bouncing flies with split shot, and fishing with a strike indicator. (Although I generally refer to fishing with nymphs, everything I say applies to using both types of flies.) Each style of fishing has its time and place, and both are productive in the right setting.
Bottom bouncing gets the flies to the streambed quickly, and is effective in faster runs and pocket water. Indicator nymphing works extremely well in areas where the steelhead are spread out, low-gradient riffled water containing no precise spot for the fish to hide being one example. When indicator nymphing, stay farther back from the fish; this makes it less likely they will detect you. Also, using an indicator will enable you to achieve longer drifts and cover more water.
HOT-SPOT SUCKER SPAWN
HOOK: Daiichi X510, sizes 12 to 8.
THREAD: Pink 6/0 (140 denier).
BODY: Glo-Bug Yarn, cream delight.
SPOT: Glo-Bug Yarn, red.
LESSON 4: Basic Tackle Selection
I use two types of rods when fishing nymphs for steelhead. I prefer a single-handed, 9 ó- to 10-foot-long rod for fishing smaller rivers and streams. This rod should be built for a 6- or 7-weight fly line. For larger rivers, I like using an 11- or 12-foot-long switch rod built for a 6- or 7-weight line.
There is one rule when choosing a fly line: Keep it simple. For a single-handed rod, the RIO InTouch Trout/Steelhead Indicator line is perfect for turning over your leader and fly. For the switch rod, I select RIO’s InTouch Switch line. Both of these lines are a dream to cast and mend, and they fish well in many scenarios. All of the fly line companies, however, make specialized lines for nymph fishing and switch rods, so you have plenty of great choices.
HOOK: Tiemco TMC200R, sizes 10 to 6.
THREAD: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
LEGS AND TAIL: Spanflex, black.
BUTT: Ice Dubbing, chartreuse.
BODY: Black hare’s-ear dubbing.
RIB: D-Rib, black.
HACKLE: Black and chartreuse hen hackle.
The need for a leader with a thick butt section is critical for turning over a clunky steelhead rig. I like a leader with a heavy, five-foot-long butt section, and a quick taper down to a lighter tippet section. This leader cuts down on tippet drag and allows me to use lighter weights to get my flies down to the fish.
When making your leader, start with a two-foot-long piece of 20-pound-test Amnesia. To this, add a three-foot-long section of 10-pound-test Maxima using a blood knot; you’ll place an indicator on this section of the leader. Next, tie a tippet ring to the end of the Maxima using a clinch knot, tie a five-foot-long section of 2X fluorocarbon to the tippet ring, and then add another tippet ring. Placing your split shot above the second tippet ring will prevent it from sliding to the fly when fishing. It also makes changing tippets easier because there are no complicated knots.
Now add the tippet. I generally use a two- to three-foot-long piece of 3X fluorocarbon. If you are allowed to fish with two flies (check the local regulations), simply attach another two-foot-long piece of 3X fluorocarbon to the hook eye of the first nymph.
What happens when you want to bounce the fly off the streambed at the end of a tight line? Simply remove the indicator and continue fishing. This leader works for both forms of fishing.
DERRICK’S OG CADDIS
HOOK: Daiichi X510, sizes 14 to 10.
BEAD: Black nickel.
THREAD: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
RIBS: Gold wire and D-Rib, chartreuse.
BODY: UV Tracer Squirrel Dubbing, olive.
THORAX: UV Tracer Squirrel Dubbing, black.
LESSON 5: Choosing Strike Indicators and Split-shot
Each indicator has its proper time and place. I prefer using a trapped-air indicator such an Airlock or Thingamabobber when I am fishing at close range.
Yarn indicators work best for fishing at greater distances. The yarn traps air, making it easy to see the indicator at a distance. A yarn indicator, properly treated with floatant, is also extremely puffy and rides high on the surface. The only drawback with a yarn indicator is that it is not ready to fish out of the package; it should be treated with a floatant such as Mucilin and then brushed out with a piece of Velcro to make it as fluffy as possible and trap more air.
HOOK: Standard nymph hook, sizes 14 to 8.
THREAD: Brown 8/0 (70 denier).
ABDOMEN, LEGS, AND TAIL: Brown pheasant tail fibers.
RIB: Blue wire.
THORAX: Nature’s Spirit UV Tracer Squirrel Dubbing, hot spot pink.
Before I met my friend Torrey Collins, I was a proponent of using lead split shot, but tin shot is a win for us as well as the environment. Torrey acknowledged the slight differences in the sizes but then explained how tin shot bounces off rocks, whereas lead shot tends to drag on the bottom and get caught in cervices more easily.
When fishing nymphs for steelhead, keep weight selection simple. For the majority of nymph-fishing scenarios, size BB works best. When fishing shallow, riffled water up to about two feet deep, one BB might work; however, when fishing water three to five feet deep containing a moderate current, you will most likely have to add more weight. For higher-water situations and bottom bouncing, I will commonly use three to five pieces of BB split shot. Of course, you can use larger shot to achieve the same weight as multiple pieces of BB split shot, but I like to keep it simple; when I am standing streamside in the dark, it’s too cumbersome to fiddle with a container containing six sizes of split shot.
When pinching split shot onto your leader, avoid placing them in the same place. Putting even a few millimeters of space between the weights will help prevent snagging in the crevices of rocks and losing flies.
As mentioned previously, place the strike indicator on the brown Maxima. When making adjustments to the indicator, make sure the distance between the indicator and the split shot is twice the depth of the water. When you are using an indicator in combination with a nymph, you are really fishing the split shot; with the exception of pattern selection, what happens past the last split shot is largely out of your control. But, when you carefully separate the distance between the fly and indicator equal to twice the depth of the water, you can present your fly to match the speed of the current near the streambed. You will notice the indicator slow down during the drift because you will be tight to the split shot. This enhances strike detection, which is essential to catching more fish.
ORANGE KRYSTAL METH
HOOK: Daiichi X510, sizes 14 to 8.
THREAD: Fluorescent orange 6/0 (140 denier).
BODY: Pearl Diamond Braid, fluorescent orange.
LESSON 6: Nymphs and Eggs for Catching Fall Steelhead
Don’t get fancy with fly selection. Migrating steelhead are new to the river environment, fresh from the lake, and aggressive. Unlike salmon, steelhead can feed heavily after entering rivers and streams.
Of course, not all steelhead are the same, and no two nymphs are alike. Some steelhead will enter the stream on a mission and swim straight upstream. These fish will take the same nymphs you normally use to catch trout. For these early fish, caddis larvae, mayfly nymphs, and stonefly nymphs all suffice.
HOOK: Your favorite jig hook, sizes 14 to 10.
BEAD: Black nickel tungsten, size to match the hook.
TAIL: Fluorescent pink arctic fox.
ABDOMEN: Ice Dubbing, peacock.
RIB: Chartreuse wire.
LEGS: Chartreuse rubber legs.
THORAX: Ice Dubbing, peacock.
Before the salmon start laying eggs, they must make their redds. The females fashion redds by fanning the gravel with their tails and bodies, dislodging many insects from the streambed and providing ready meals for the steelhead. I remember one early season when a large green caddis larva imitation was the hot fly on New York’s Salmon River.
Once mid-September hits, and the salmon and brown trout begin spawning, it’s time to try egg imitations. Carry two distinct sizes of egg flies: larger patterns for matching salmon eggs, and smaller flies for simulating trout eggs.
HOOK: Tiemco TMC2457, sizes 14 to 8.
THREAD: White 8/0 (70 denier).
EGG: Glo-Bug Yarn, your choice of mixed colors.
Choosing the correct color of egg is sometimes as important as selecting the right size. For fishing early in the morning, bright-colored eggs—chartreuse, cerise, or florescent orange—often work best. Once the sun rises, more subdued colors—white, pale yellow, pale pink, and light shades of orange—become more productive.
Most anglers think catching a steelhead or two in the fall is simply luck. But, if you use these guidelines and target them, hooking two or three steelhead will turn into catching 10!