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 Steelhead Fishing and Patterns For Eastern Streams
Eugene Macri

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© 2017 E. P. Macri Jr.

Winter and spring steelhead fishing in streams coming out of Lake Erie and Ontario Blue Charm Steelhead and Salmon Fly from www.flyfisher.comis a bit different than Western steelhead fishing. The methods and steelhead patterns used out West by fly fishing anglers and on some midwestern waters do not actually lend themselves to streams like you find coming out of Lake Erie or Lake Ontario. The smaller waters require a different approach and different understanding of the fish and the environment. One of the major differences with fishing for steelhead in these smaller waters is that the fish respond to environmental changes much quicker than they do in larger waters in my opinion.

The first problem is one of fishing pressure. In some of these waters you have anglers literally lined up shoulder to shoulder. In larger Western waters you may not see a guy on any given day or he may be hundreds of yards from you. On some waters out West you will find anglers fairly close together, but there's much more water to fish as compared to these Eastern streams. Anglers moving around on the small streams will cause the fish to behave differently than if they were not heavily fished for.

You can be successful on these streams with a modified approach. This approach is based on all these environmental factors. The first problem is that if you understand how the fish react to the fishing pressure then you will know which techniques and methods to use to have a great day on the streams. So let's begin by talking about different things that cause the fish to change their behavior.

The first thing the causes fish to change their behavior in the streams is the volume and/or depth of the water. If the stream comes up or down it will cause the fish to change their behavior. Now if the water has been static in its level then a change in water level in a rising stream will cause the fish to feed. However, even if they are feeding many anglers fail to catch the fish because of the methods, techniques and improper flies they are using. Another factor which influences the fish greatly is the lighting conditions. Bright sunny days may often put the fish down while cloudy days will often cause the fish feed. This will also greatly influence the fly selection that the steelhead take. Water temperature either rising or dropping also turn the fish on or off. A combination of these factors rising or lowering of the water, lighting conditions, and temperature changes are usually the triggers that the best steelhead fly fishermen understand on these streams which enable them to catch the maximum number of steelhead per day.

Now let's talk about turbidity of the water. The turbidity or color of the water is often a tremendous factor in why steelhead will move or strike a fly. One of the less talked about things however, is that steelhead because they are rainbow trout are not dummies. They will learn which flies have been coming through that particular section of a stream and after a while they will refuse to hit them. Many steelhead fishermen on these Eastern streams forget that they're really just fishing for trout, bigger trout in the winter and that the only flies they use are variations of egg flies. There's nothing wrong with using egg flies, however if these are the only things you use and you expect to consistently take steelhead from these heavily fished and environmentally changing streams you will not catch as many steelhead is if you tried some of the things I'm going to mention.

On this website there is an old article I posted years ago on early-season flies for trout. These early-season went flies are tied similarly to many steelhead flies from out West. However, these are secret patterns! If you tie these flies on smaller hooks let's say sizes 8, 10, and maybe even 12 and fish them properly you will find that you're going to catch many more steelhead than other fly fisherman who may not be catching very many.Steelhead flyf from

Now let's talk about methods and techniques for winter and spring steelhead using the secret wet fly patterns. The first thing you have to understand is that how the fish are moving or responding to your fly and other people's flies. Are the fish actively moving towards the fly or do you have to hit them in the mouth with it?. One thing that I have learned over the years when fishing for Rainbow trout as compared to Brown trout or even Brook trout is that rainbows can be agitated by color and motion into striking. This is your first fundamental secret of fishing for steelhead and that this technique will work on them when all others fail.

Next, what size tippet and leader are you using? Does it matter for these fish? On occasion it does! I'm not saying you have to go down to a 6X tippet or even a 5X tippet but you should understand that on some days either the limpness, diameter, and/or color of that tippet together may cause you not to get strikes. So always keep that in the back of your head that that leader may have some effect on how and when they take that fly depending on the environmental conditions of the water. I can honestly tell you that on some streams that I have fished for steelhead that maxima brown type tippet material was rejected by the trout over and over again compared to a different brand that had a different glow or color mainly a clear tippet. The limpness of that tippet on certain days will also cause your fly to behave in a manner that will restrict the number of strikes you get.

Steelhead Fishing Walnut Creek PA from

So make sure that you have tried different leader combinations because how that fly drifts either upwards or downwards in that current will cause the fish on particular days not to strike. How are you going to fish the fly? There are three major ways of fishing these wet flies for steelhead trout that I have found effective. The first method is to fish the wet fly like a nymph directly upstream with weight pulling the line in as the fly sinks. This is particularly effective when the fish are not moving that much. Especially on the days when they will not take an egg fly properly and they must be hit literally in the mouth with the fly. There are many variations of fishing this fly directly upstream. One of them is when you can see most of your quarry and the fish are holed up in pools. By carefully manipulating the tip in the line and with the proper drift you can literally agitate these fish to literally rise and come up and take the fly off the bottom.

A second method is the traditional downstream wet fly method. This method works when I have found when the fish are moving around a lot. This is the typical three fourths downstream cast, and following the line with your rod tip at an angle as the fly drifts. You cast this way as the fly swings and many fish will take it on the swing. On  these days when they are moving use a variety of twitching and rising techniques. Now the main problem with this method is that you must have a pretty heavy tippet because all the weight of the fish is against you. On some days the fish are hard to hook. I recommend this combination: lighter wire hooks and weight. Because the lighter wire books seem to penetrate quicker than heavier hooks when fishing this method.

The third method is basically a method used is used in salmon fishing. In this case you are basically casting across the stream and mending line as you go downstream. This method works when the steelhead are not taking very hard;  you must be very subtle and in some instances you're basically hand striking the fish. This is a very delicate method of fishing and in some cases you're actually using a slip strike. This method works when you can get fairly close to the fish. Furthermore, this method sometimes requires lighter tippets.

Now a few words about using the secret wet fly patterns on the site. You should have a method to your madness. You should also keep a little book with water conditions: including temperature, depth, color or turbidity, fishing pressure movement of fish, air temperature, fly choice and results. Over time you'll build up a database and it will help you greatly in fishing for steelhead. Now my recommendations on which flies to use. I like to use this combination: 1) heavy flies versus sparse flies. What does that mean? What it means is this I want to try a number different patterns there are heavier dressed versus sparse dressed patterns. This is very important because this simple thing telling you whether they're going to hit heavier patterns versus sparse dress patterns may tell you everything you need to know for catching those steelhead that day. 2) bright patterns versus dark patterns. This is the next selection that you must make and it is also very important because this may tell you something about how well the fish can see that particular day or how far they will travel to take a fly. 3) the steelhead's reaction to the method you are using fishing. What does this mean? This means how are they reacting to your fly. Which method is getting you the most action. Now sometimes fly fisherman can get too smart for themselves. Let me give you an example. Often times you can take a heavier pattern on a downstream drift and by properly twitching the fly get the fish to come up for it. Now this may tell you something about the steelhead or it may not tell you something about the steelhead because trout no matter which species can sometimes be individualistic. You should try at least a couple of the methods with a couple of the fly patterns to see which one they are taking the best. Furthermore, during the day the environmental conditions may change and thus you will have to adapt again. However, usually you will find that if you hit upon a proper fly combination and pattern and the proper method they'll take that for some time. Now why did they hit the smaller wet flies as compared egg flies which usually work very well? Well they hit them for a number of reasons: 1) most fly anglers are usually using bigger flies 2) they are susceptible to a smaller fly with color and agitation as compared to an egg fly which tends to just bounce up and down on the bottom. On some streams these flies are so deadly on some days that they will out fish egg flies 20 to 1  and 3) you can do more things with these wet flies as compared to an egg fly which is usually best on a dead drift.

Now for my super technique: use this technique at your own risk. Take a larger fly like a streamer or even a double egg like type pattern with marabou on it.Now tie a small dropper off the hook shank of about 8 to 10 inches. Now attach one of my small secret pattern wet flies to this. Fish this in the methods that we talked about including a slight strip when fishing downstream. This method and technique has been known to take steelhead when nothing else will. Make sure you change the color combination and thickness of the fly patterns because this too will make a difference. Sometimes a thicker streamer and a sparse fly will work better than thick patterns or two skimpy patterns.

Well these are just a few of the techniques I have used faithfully over the years for getting steelhead to hit when your standard variations of fishing egg flies and other things don't work. I hope you try them and I'd love to hear from you about your results. Tight lines and good steelhead fishing.


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