Techniques for Steelhead Alley & Links to Gear

You do not have to use an indicator rig to catch Steelhead on a fly rod!

  • You can tight line nymph
  • You can “roll the bottom” with nymphs and split shot like Joe Humphreys and feel your takes
  • You can European-style nymph; Frenchies, Iron Lotuses, and Sexy Walt’s Worms all catch Steelhead
  • You can swing spey flies; Intruders, Senyo’s Stray Dog, etc . . .
  • You can swing woolly buggers and other trout-sized streamers
  • You can swing and strip large articulated streamers; there are cooler guides than me tying and fishing Blane Chocklett’s Gamechangers
  • You can dead drift streamers
  • You can jig streamers
  • You can use a hopper-dropper rig
  • You can use a dry-fly dropper rig

The gear set-up for any of the aforementioned tactics is as follows, you can adjust to your preference:

  • Favored rod weight for the region: 6, 7, or 8 weight single-hand fly rod. You do not need your Salmon River rod for Erie Steelhead. If you intend to strictly swing for Steelhead many switch rods are a 5 weight in this region, even a 6 if you plan to fish larger rivers in Ohio or New York.
  • A reel to match, do not over line your reel. For example, 6 weight rod requires 6 weight fly line on a reel rated for a 6 weight line.
  • Fly line: often overlooked yet integral to your rigging. I utilize a weight forward taper, floating line for almost all situations. Orvis Bankshot is a great fly line for roll casting in Erie, Pennsylvania Lake Erie tributaries. Make sure to have backing connecting the fly line to the reel arbor.
  • Leader, a tapered leader ranging from 6-11 feet. I typically utilize a standard 9 foot tapered leader. Sometimes a polyleader, or sinking leader is utilized to get streamers down. Split shot is used as weight; use surgeons knots on your leaders/tippet as stoppers for your split shot, false casting promotes sliding of the shot. Never use an overhand knot in your leader as a stopper! That weakens your line’s breaking strength.
  • Tippet
  • When fishing streamers use upwards of 12 pound test line
  • Nymphing means 3X or 4X tippet and patience to land your fish; I think 6X and lighter is an unnecessarily hard fight on the fish unless you intend to harvest. Light lining fish often leads to break-offs.

Steelheading Techniques, East Coast style

I use multiple techniques prior to switching to an indicator rig (bobber set-up). More often than not, anglers use indicators that are too large and too bright. They slap the indicator—or even the fly line—on the water when they land the cast and spook fish they intend to target. Indicator fishing is very effective when used appropriately. However, numbers-wise, it is more effective to tight-line/euro nymph a run, even in deeper sections. It is very easy to miss the hook set with any bobber set up—many anglers notice the fish that took their nymph before they see their indicator stop or dunk.

Steelhead have white mouths—if you see a white mouth in the vicinity of your fly, set the hook! Anglers should set the hook at any disruption or unnatural movement of the indicator and hold a high rod position. Anglers should do this even if they set the hook and feel stuck. Occasionally, the angler has actually hooked a fish and it just takes another moment of tension for the fish to give a head shake or any indication of having been hooked. If it appears a Steelie, or perhaps a small pod of Steelhead, are moving away from your indicator rig/drift you need to adjust what you are doing— perhaps the indicator is too bright or too large, or you have drag in your presentation. Fish can learn and an indicator set up is the most common fly presentation in Steelhead Alley; try to have a variety of methods in mind when you fish for Steelhead.

I prefer to use Corq or Air Lock indicators. There are many on the market and I recommend finding what works for you. I have linked the Corq’s in my Amazon Shop. I have also linked the tapered leader, the tippet rings, and the tippet brand I use.

Another possible alternative to a straight-up bobber is a New Zealand Strike Indicator Set-Up! These wool indicators float extraordinarily well and do not spook fish. The name originates from their point of origin—the crystal clear waters of New Zealand! Those beautiful streams and reservoirs are home to enormous and very cautious trout. There are lots of New Zealand Strike Indicator Kits available with numerous wool colors included. For a more cost effective, though wanting, NZ-style indicator in a pinch, consider using white globug material coated in floatant. Think of it as a hillbilly New Zealand strike indicator! White McFly egg foam can serve this purpose if needed as well.

How I recommend rigging a bobber set-up:

Your tapered leader connects to your floating fly line via a loop-to-loop connection. I then tie a mini barrel swivel to the end of the tapered leader. Attach a 12-18” section of tippet to the barrel swivel (or tippet ring). Your fly goes on the end of the tippet, but if you are using an indicator I recommend a tandem nymph rig, or a tandem rig with a nymph and an egg. Your indicator goes between 1/2 and 3/4 the depth you are fishing. If the water is moving slowly you need less leader between the indicator and the flies because your flies will have an easier time sinking. If the flow is up you need more line between the indicator and the flies so that your flies have time to sink down into the strike zone. Add weight to your rig as necessary to achieve your desired depth with your fly/flies. Split shot is the #1 method of adding weight to your fly rig. The more split shot on the line the less you ought to be false casting!

If this leader is too unwieldy for you then cut off about a foot of the top, thickest butt section of the tapered leader. Tie in a perfection loop and then create your loop-to-loop connection. If you want to forgo the tippet ring until you have worked down the thinnest section of the tapered leader then do that. When I use an indicator set up it is on deeper, slow moving pools and I find I need a 9-12 foot leader so I can fish small nymphs. Size 20 is not too small for Lake Erie Steelhead.

Stealth rigs below . . .

A dry-dropper rig made of a size 8 Yellow Stimulator and a GPS Caddis. Put floatant on the dry fly before you get it wet! Desiccant is a pain to get out in a winter breeze.

The Dry Dropper Rig

Is it “gin” clear water conditions, but you really want to hook a fish? Then try a dry fly, nymph dropper. Hexagenia Mayflies are a Mayfly species native to the Lake Erie region and a fabulous bug to “match the hatch” with. Winter Stoneflies hatch in afternoons during a time of year not much is flying around—these insects are easily noticed on the snow and near the banks of creeks. Tie on a dry fly imitating a Mayfly and a dropper imitating a caddis, stonefly, or nymph stage of a mayfly such as a Hare’s Ear Nymph. When the dry fly dips or moves in any fashion other than the water’s natural flow, set the hook with authority.

Tight Line Nymphing / Pre-Euronymphing Nymphing

Tight line nymphing is highly effective method to catch trout. The angler must adeptly wade into range slightly downstream of their intended drift zone. When the line is cast out the angler must maintain a tight line, with no slack in it in order to feel the nymphs drift through the run. Some anglers tie wool or yarn on their leaders as a sight indicator. Other anglers go simply by feel as they guide their nymphs through the intended strike zone. You have your fly line in one hand and your rod in the other, but both hands are held very close together.

Euronymphing instructional videos are available on the Fly Fisherman website and feature George Daniel. Euronymphing for Steelhead is not uncommon these days! A 5 weight Euronymphing rod is plenty suitable.

Knots to know:

  • Clinch knot
  • Improved Clinch Knot
  • Perfection Loop
  • Rapala Knot
  • Blood Knot
  • Triple Surgeon’s Knot
  • Arbor Knot
  • Albright Knot

These are certainly not all the fishing knots out there, but this list is a great start and will get you fishing.