Late Fall Steelhead Tactics

November 27, 2023 By: Kubie Brown

Image by Dan Favato

Late fall brings with it a tidal wave of activity. The upcoming holidays sends people out in a mad rush of shopping, decorating, and preparing food. The kids are out of school, the relatives are on their way, and if you aren’t careful, you can be swept away in in a hurried frenzy of unbridled chaos. Yet if you’re a fly angler, there is another autumn surge that sees many an angler break away from the holiday hubbub and head toward the nearest river—the fall steelhead migration.

Every year before winter rears it’s ugly head, the anadromous rainbow trout along the West Coast and the adfluvial fish in the Great Lakes migrate out of the massive bodies of water they call home into river tributaries to prepare for the spawn. These migrations offer anglers their first and often best chance to hook into one of these massive silver monsters. Though the two steelhead species are very different in size and location, the fishing techniques used to catch them are the same.

How to Locate Steelhead

Finding steelhead can be a real challenge. The fish migrate in small pulses, pushing upstream on their way to their spawning grounds. This causes the fish to spread out and to hold and move only in certain areas. For the most part this means that there will be very few steelhead in any given river at the same time, meaning you must work for your reward.

As steelhead are migrating upstream against the current, it’s best to think of the river as a giant treadmill. Areas of faster current where the fish must work hard to get upstream aren’t going to be very productive. Slower water on the fringes of these faster moving currents such as deep pools, pockets of slow water around structure, and long slow moving runs are perfect places for steelhead to pull over to rest and are great places for anglers to target. Pay special attention to any spots that are between 3 feet and 10 feet deep where the current is traveling at roughly a fast walking pace. These are ideal spots for steelhead to hide.

Fall Steelhead Equipment

The set-up for steelhead is a simple affair. While 9 foot fly rods will work, a 10 foot rod or even a 11 foot switch rod is often a better bet as the extra length will help with mending and line control. Steelhead are strong fish and often have the current working for them when they’re hooked so you’re going to want a beefy set-up. A 7-weight to 8-weight rod paired with a reel with a good drag system is perfect for helping you control the large fish. As the fish generally aren’t leader shy except in extremely low-clear conditions, your leader and tippet should be likewise as heavy in the 12lb to 25lb range. You’ll also want to bring a load of different size split shot to make sure your flies are getting into the strike zone quickly as well as some large strike indicators that will ensure your flies are drifting just off the bottom when nymphing.

Nymphing for Fall Steelhead

Nymphing for fall steelhead is by far the most productive way to catch the steelhead you’re after as it allows you to slowly work sections of water with your flies right in the fish’s face. It’s a great technique for fishing in deep holes and through short, slow-moving runs where steelhead like to wait for a fly to drift past their noses.

Nymphs and other flies for fall steelhead can vary, but as a rule it’s good to go big. This is because steelhead don’t really feed when they’re in the tributaries and merely strike at objects as they drift by. So you want to use nymphs that draw attention. Large stonefly patterns like the Beadhead Batman and the Rubberleg Stonefly are always a good bet as well as any sort of bright pattern like the Psycho Prince. You will also do well using egg patterns like the Clown Egg and the Nuclear Egg.

Set up your nymph rig by first tying a length of tippet to the main leader so that the fly will be drifting half again as deep as the water (i.e. if you’re fishing in 4 feet of water, use a 6 foot leader in 6 feet use a 9 foot leader etc.) Tie on your selected fly and then add a small split shot 6 inches to 10 inches above the leader. Attach your strike indicator so that the fly will drift at the desired depth and so it can be easily adjusted should you be getting snagged up too often.

Cast your nymph rig into the heads of runs and work the water thoroughly by dead drifting your flies along the bottom. Remember to work the water closest to you first and then gradually cast further and further until you reach your casting limit before moving downstream to the next pool.

Swinging for Fall Steelhead

Swinging streamers for fall steelhead is not as effective as nymphing but will definitely put you in contact with more active fish. You can swing streamers on the same single-hand rods you’d use for nymphing, but many anglers prefer to use 7-weight and 8-weight Spey rods, especially when fishing on larger rivers, as they cover more water.

As with the nymphs, the streamers you use for fall steelhead should be brighter and gaudier than the patterns you use for trout. Though articulated patterns will work for this, you’re often better using specially designed flies like Intruders or single hook patterns like Wooley Buggers or Egg-Sucking Leeches as they simply plane out better in the water and make for better presentations.

Though you can use regular leaders when swinging for steelhead, it’s often better to use polyleaders with designated sink-rates so you can better control your depth. You can attach these leaders directly to your fly line and then add a 2 foot to 4 foot length of tippet to the leader before tying on your fly.

To swing the streamer properly, you’re going to want to cast across and downstream at a roughly 45-degree angle and then make a sharp mend to allow your fly to sink before letting the line come tight in the current so that it drifts across the run and comes to rest directly downstream. As with nymph fishing, you’re going to want to make short casts first and work the water closest to you before casting further out into the current. By doing this repeatedly you can ensure that you are thoroughly working the water and presenting your fly to any steelhead that may be in the mood to strike.

Tis the Season

One of the reasons we all enjoy fly fishing so much is that it gives us an escape. For a few brief moments we can detach ourselves from all the noise and spend a few hours standing in a river communing with nature. It is in that detachment that we can find the real beauty of steelheading. The fish are few and far between and to catch them you often must ingratiate yourself further into the rhythms of the river.

When you’re out there, feeling the river swirling around your waders and watching or feeling for a strike, you almost enter a state of calm, Zen-like serenity, broken on occasion by a massive leaping silver torpedo streaking downstream. It is a type of fishing that can only be had once or twice a year. When the steelhead arrive, you can’t help but celebrate the season.