Choosing colors in the world of winter Steelhead.

A lot of options… What to pick???
Well shit. Choices, choices…. I have heard and even said,”Steelhead will eat anything. Your car keys, a cigar butt”. When the conditions are good and all the stars are aligned then yeah Steelhead will grab anything. In reality 9 times out of 10 the conditions are never right. High and blown out, low and cold as hell. East winds or snow so thick you can’t see the end of your Spey rod.
Don’t let water conditions keep you from fishing. Even low water they can be had.
Now there are all kinds of flies for every occasion out there and every sink rate sink tip you could ever dream of. I do know one constant about Steelhead. The fish can’t eat what they can’t see!  Now this is where my theories may differ from the rest of the world. So listen closely.

This happy client took this fish on a dark brown (like tree bark) temple dog style fly.


Lets start with low water. Low water is usually cold and clear. Low water is caused by a lack of rain or the fact that in the upper stretches of the river system is freezing. In both situations produce low water which can be the toughest for catching Steelhead. Cold water dormancy starts at around 40 in our local waters. Now with all this in mind, lets talk fly selection. Just like you can see all things that happen in your field of view, so can a Steelhead. These fish see in clear water like you see on a clear day. With this in mind it does not take a lot to get the fish to notice that something is there. The fact is that super bright flies do not seem to produce as well as more natural or natural tones. Olive, tan, Brown, even white. Now normally I would say that the colder the water the larger the fly but in super low water the fish will take smaller patterns and I believe that flies in the 2 to 2.5 inch range work best in these types of conditions.

In these less than perfect conditions I felt fly size was the key to taking this fish.

Now lets say the water is on the drop. The river is lower than the mean average flow and is clear but still not unlimited in the water clarity. Maybe 6 to 9 feet visibility. This is where large flies have produced the best for me. The fish seem to be holding in deeper water as the river drops but are still a bit active. This movement of the fish to deeper water is in anticipation of the river dropping. With the water temp hovering right around 40 the need for a larger offering is a great way to entice these chrome machines to a fly. I have landed fish as small as 22″ on flies that were 12″ long so when it is time it is time. A good winter Steelhead fly box should be very diverse. These big flies are usually darker colors like purple, black, or blue. Maybe a bit of flash highlights of even a bright butt of orange or pink. What ever you prefer. 

The perfect conditions are sweet.

Super Sweet!!! Just ask Sean.

Now we have the perfect conditions! The river flowing is green and has 3.5′ to 5.5′ of visibility, the water temp is 41 to 43 degrees. This combination of conditions is unbeatable the fish are moving and with the lower visibility the fish take on a more curious nature. There is not really a bad color scenario the fish are moved into slower water on the sides of the main flow and usually in reach of a fly cast. Also moving fish hold high in the water column which make them more susceptible to the swung fly. I will note that on most rivers the perfect conditions are slightly higher than the mean flow the slightly higher water  flow is what causes these perfect condition. The water rising above the mean mark is a product of rain, or melting snow or both. so this warming water makes the river giving it that perfect Steelhead green color that every Steelhead angler wishes for day in day out. If you see these stars lining up, don’t go to work, skip out on the family…. Just get out on the river!


The big dark fly paid off in the super off colored water conditions. That day we had maybe two feet of visibility. Tight to the bank.

Now the last part of the river equation now the river is high… has lost it’s green. Traded this Steelhead Paradise into a river now in the grass or willows with a faint tan or brown tinge. But upon a closer look we wade out in the coffee creamer looking water and see that there is 18″ to 2.5′ of clarity. All hope is not lost. In actuality you may have lost some of your favorite runs but The good high water runs are at there best. This high water period pushes the Steelhead to the only place they can be, the edges of the river. Close to the bank. Now here is where most anglers go wrong in high water. They fish Super heavy flies and tips. This is not a great way to go. I am sure as in all thing said about steelhead someone will point out a specific run on one of their favorite rivers that they have taken fish on heavy flies and tips. Steelhead rules are never set in stone. I say try everything and see if it works for you and your river systems that you fish. I use the same light tip I fish at lower flow. Depending on the type of turbidity I pick my fly color accordingly. If the stream particulate is bright and reflective I use flies that don’t reflect light. The absence of light is the key to getting the fish to see your fly. Black, dark red, purple, these colors are the key to high water with glacial particulate or just bright reflective soil. I try not to tie flash into these flies at all. I want total absence of light, adding not so much lenght to the fly but mass. The flies 3″ to 3.5″ with a fair bit of bulk to the body work well. This light tip and lightly weight or unweighted flies works best. For one of two reasons the fly can be seen by the fish and with the light fly and light tip swings all the way into the bank. The steelhead will be there and if you are fishing and making swings all the way into the shore or willow line.
High water is not always bad.
Now I will repeat I an not saying that everything I just wrote is going to work every time but it does give you an easy place to start and might have shed some light on questions you may have had. As a Steelhead guide for the last 9 years and Steelhead angler for the last 16, I have kept great notes and tried to learn to fish in all water conditions. The above is just a condensed version of mt notes over the years. Good luck!!!!
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