In Pursuit of Big Steelhead

Big steelhead you say? That will usually get some attention from fishermen. Steelheading on the fly is one of the greatest challenges out there, but also offering one of the biggest rewards. Confidence is one of the most important factors of the steelheading game. As a flyfishing guide, I stress this to my clients from the first phone conversation to the morning of the trip. Patience is another aspect. Steelheading is hard work and you must be willing to put in long hours. But, if you love fishing, this will not be a problem. If you are looking for the challenge of big steelhead, then March is one of the best times of the year to fish. The weather usually turns in our favor with less rain; air and water temps rise, streams are uncrowded, and the big March natives are heading home to their natal rivers.

Big Steelhead

Ok, now that you are armed with extreme confidence and limitless patience, we have targeted the month we are going, let’s talk tackle. For the “March natives”, I would recommend a nine to ten foot, eight weight fly rod. A rod with medium-fast action and a strong butt section is best as you will be using heavy sink tip fly lines or heavily weighted flies attached to long leaders on floating lines. Oregon law requires that all wild steelhead must be released which is another reason for choosing an eight-weight rod. This heavier rod allows you the opportunity to land the fish quicker making it safer for the fish. I suggest a disc drag reel rated for an eight-weight rod. If you want to experience a real challenge, select a single action reel with exposed rim. (This is what is referred to as the “knuckle buster” approach.) You will need a “steelhead taper” floating line. These lines have a long front belly section, which aids in roll casting on small streams and casting larger flies when you need to throw long casts. The floating line method works well when you’re fishing small stream pocket water using the dead drifting method with a strike indicator and long leader. (This is a very effective method, as most small stream fishing situations don’t allow the traditional wet fly swings.) Sink-tip fly lines are needed and I recommend a five foot mini-tip (which is great for small stream steelheading) or a twenty four foot, 325 grains sink tip for big water (like the Nestucca River) or fishing high water situations on small streams. Shooting head systems are a great choice as you have the ability to change heads for different water types without having to pack extra spools. Leader choice is important. For floating lines, use a nine to twelve foot leader. When using the five-foot mini-tip line, a six-foot leader is your best choice. If using a 325-grain sink-tip line, normally you will need only a three to four foot leader. Tippet sizes with a ten to fifteen pound rating are recommended for most conditions. I do not feel steelhead are leader shy.

There are a lot of flies out there for winter steelhead, keep it simple! Pick a few patterns and stay with them. My favorites are the PaintBrush, Glo-Bugs, Salmon River MVP, Pink King, Green Butt-Orange and Pink Articulated Leech. (Remember to pinch down the barbs.)

Now we are all geared up and ready to go fishing! We just have to pick which stream. My favorite winter steelheading stream is the ##@*###. (If you can figure out that secret river code then definitely go there.) I can tell you there are many good systems that hold decent runs of the big “March Native Steelhead”. I would search out smaller streams with good upper watersheds. These streams offer good habitat for these big guys to continue their life cycle and present us with an opportunity to fish for them.