True story. A few days ago, I was fishing with my buddy Dylon Hoelzli on Elk Creek near Erie, PA, and overhead a group of guys talking about how could there be so many fish in the streams, yet so few of them willing to bite. These five guys were bantering back and forth and one of them said, “The best steelhead fly I know of is called The Magnet. It’s red with silver tips.”
“Oh yeah?” another guy said. “Is this like a streamer fly?”
“No,” the first guy replied, “it’s horseshoe-shaped and doesn’t even need a hook. It doesn’t catch anything else. It doesn’t work on brown trout or brook trout. It doesn’t even work on rainbow trout. The Magnet only catches steelhead.”
There was a moment of silence. A couple of guys groaned. I may have laughed out loud.
In some ways, every day of steelhead season is akin to the opening day of trout back in the spring. When fishermen gather a little too closely, and go a little too long without catching anything, you never know what wisecracks you’ll hear next. But eventually, the conversation always circles back around to one thing: what are they biting on?
Steelhead are finicky, unpredictable fish whose moods change from day to day, and sometimes minute to minute. Catch one on a pink egg pattern and you’ll think you’ve got them figured out. Catch another on that same pattern and you’ll think you’ve struck gold. And then you won’t catch another fish on that pink egg for the rest of the day.
It’s easy to misinterpret this to mean that steelhead are smart, but I think their finicky nature is more a result of situation. Steelhead enter the creeks this time of year to spawn. Feeding isn’t at the top of their to-do list. And if you think they have to feed eventually, consider this little nugget I also overheard on the stream and later verified through research: spawning steelhead can go 2 to 6 months without feeding on a regular basis.
This lack of need to feed means they can afford to be selective. There are days when fish target specific colors or presentations. There are also days when they’re just feeding on a whim, plucking whatever catches their interest at that moment. It begs the question, what flies should you have in your fly box to ensure that you have what they might want on any particular day?
My steelhead fly box is amazingly simple. I don’t carry a huge variety of patterns. Rather, I have a handful of patterns in several different colors. I’ll list a few of my favorites here for fishing the Lake Erie tributaries for steelhead.
It may surprise you, but I think the deadliest patterns for Erie steelhead are the everyday nymphs used when fly fishing for trout. Prince Nymphs, Pheasant Tails, Copper Johns, etc. I have these on me in sizes 12, 14, and 16. When water levels are up and a little off color, I’ll throw a size 12. As levels drop and the water clears, I’ll scale down to size 16s if I’m not getting as many hook-ups as I think I should.
Another favorite pattern is the Sexy Walt, which I tie on a jig-style hook and in two colors. The first is simply a Walt’s Worm tied with fire orange thread with a silver tungsten bead on a size 14 jig-style hook. This is a killer pattern that produced two very nice steelhead for me the other day on literally back-to-back casts.
The second Sexy Walt I tie is with a purple Micro UV Polar Chenille collar. This goofy little pattern is downright deadly on steelhead and trout, and works when nothing else will, especially on those sunny days when water levels are low and clear. I tie this one with a gold tungsten bead, again in size 14 on a jig-style hook.
A major “sleeper” nymph to carry is a white Hare’s Ear Nymph in sizes 14 and 16. This one catches a surprising number of steelhead.
Of all the fly patterns available, these basic nymphs will produce the most consistently – at least, they do for me. Every fly fisher probably has their “confidence flies”, and it just so happens these are mine.
No doubt, egg patterns make up the majority of the steelhead fly box. In fact, when most anglers think of steelhead, the first thing that comes to mind is egg patterns. Egg patterns are an essential part of any steelheader’s fly box, and if you can figure out what color the fish are keying on, you can have a banner day.
With egg patterns, I don’t carry a ton of different patterns, but I do always have a number of different colors. Here’s a short list of what’s in my fly box:
Y2Ks in size 12. Whether I’m fishing for steelhead or trout, I don’t go anywhere without a bunch of Y2Ks in my box. These are hands-down my favorite egg patterns, and I always have them on me in at least three color variations: Pink/White, Pink/Cheese, and Chartreuse/Orange.
Eggstasy Eggs in size 10: Fluorescent Oregon Cheese, Fluorescent Salmon Pink, Chartreuse, and White. Eggstasy Eggs are probably my second favorite egg pattern of all. The roe yarn used to tied them has excellent movement in the water, almost appearing to swell and contract as it drifts, very much like a soft, natural egg.
Truth be told, Y2Ks and Eggstasy Eggs make up the majority of egg patterns in my steelhead box. But since I tie flies and have access to so many other materials, I feel almost obligated to stock up on more than what I actually need. The nice thing about selling flies, though, is that I get to see what a lot of other fishermen use, and the following are strong sellers:
Glo Bugs with Blood Dot in size 12: Late Pink, Cheese, and Pale Blue.
Nuke Eggs in size 10 and 12: Chartreuse, Cerise, and Orange.
Estaz Eggs (or Cactus Eggs) in size 12: Chartreuse, Pearl, Hot Pink, Salmon, and Orange.
Crystal Meths in sizes 12 and 14: Pearl, Orange, Hot Pink, Chartreuse, and Blue. If you want less flash, Sucker Spawn is a good option, but I am partial to the Crystal Meths. I like flashy stuff for steelhead. However, I do tie up a lot of Sucker Spawn in Pale Yellow, Orange, Chartreuse, and White for other fishermen.
Let’s be honest, you could spend a fortune stocking up on egg patterns alone. The best way to get a good variety of patterns at a reasonable cost is to purchase an assortment like the ones offered in The Fly Shop – I apologize for that shameless bit of self-promotion there, but I'm only human. A number of online outlets also sell assortments that are worth checking out, and some of them are quite good.
(Two assortments for Erie steelhead are available in The Fly Shop. CLICK HERE to see what's available.)
If you’re wondering what colors of egg patterns generally work and when, here’s a screenshot of a post that Dylon made on his Facebook page. Dylon runs Hooked Outdoors Guide Service and has extensive experience with these things, and he offers these color preferences based on water conditions.
I never go anywhere without at least a handful of streamers, too, mainly in the form of Wooly Buggers. Two colors in particular are excellent for steelhead, Black and White. I carry both in size 8. Sometimes stripping a streamer over their heads can get fish to strike out of impulse or evoke a territorial response.
Egg Sucking Leeches are also must haves. I like three options for these: black with a fire orange/red head, black with a chartreuse head, and purple with a shrimp pink head. I tie all three in size 6. For these, I like the classic single salmon hooks with the turned-up eyes because I think you get a little better movement out of the tail, but they can be tied on regular 3x-long streamer hooks, too.
Oddballs and Outliers
The main thing to remember when filling a fly box for steelhead is that almost any fly can catch fish. Steelhead are weird like that. They have fickle tastes, and off the wall colors can sometimes really shine. For instance, Crystal Meths in Blue, Purple, or Black can be effective simply because they’re so different from what they usually see all day. Never underestimate the power of the change-up, as sometimes the best way to figure out what a steelhead wants is to show it what it doesn’t want first.
Another good change-up fly is the Squirminator, which is a sort of mash up of a Squirmy Wormy and Glo Bug. Good color combinations are Fluorescent Green and Chartreuse as well as Hot Pink and Roe.
I could probably go on forever with lists of flies that will catch steelhead. If you have a favorite pattern or color, feel free to post a comment at the end of this article. I’d be happy to hear about your personal go-to patterns.
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