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: