Why You Need Specialized Gear
Wild endemic steelhead are much sought after trophy fish that are actually rainbow trout that have spent part of their lives growing up in the Pacific Ocean. They are not gregarious or school fish by nature. They are basically antisocial, which means that they don't like to be in proximity of other steelhead. They are normally in dispersed populations unless certain conditions force them to be together. Even then it is usually for short periods of time.
The techniques employed for catching steelhead can be varied. The way to ensure success in catching steelhead with flies, is to be able to cover a lot of water during a day's fishing. The anglers who have the most endurance have an advantage. Even when steelhead runs are at their peak, steelhead angling is not a casual sport. In order to be a successful steelhead angler, you must be relentless, and some of your gear should be specialized.
Minimizing casting fatigue can be a real factor. Good casting skills burn less energy than poor casting skills. You can not buy casting, or fishing skills. You must earn them, by learning them. Do not think for a minute that catching steelhead consistently will be easy. It is not that kind of sport. Learning from good teachers is essential, for shortening your path. Our Steelhead Spey Schools can save you years of frustration, and put you on the road to success.
There is no substitute for good gear, but the will-power is supplied by each student. Possibly the most to gain from the sport is the strengthening of your will and expanding your insights. Steelhead are magical creatures that deserve total respect. And they will command your respect by the time you have caught very many of them.
A light weight powerful rod that casts smoothly at all ranges is essential. There are several kinds of fly rods, and the factor that determines which kind you will need will be determined by which river you will fish the most. Some rivers are fished from boats, others are not. Fishing from a boat takes entirely different gear than that which will be used when wading.
Single Hand Rods
Nine foot to ten foot rods are most popular when fishing steelhead or salmon from a boat. These lengths of single hand rods are most popular when wade-fishing for steelhead in small coastal rivers and creeks. That is because the average steelheader wades deeper than does most trout or bonefish anglers. As an angler wades deeper, the window between the rod tip and the water surface narrows. This leaves less room in which to perform both back casts and forward casts. The longer the rod, the more it elevates the casting plane above the water, which opens the casting window. Often vegetation on stream banks leaves little room for an aerosolized back cast, so roll casts and Spey casts are necessary to be able to place the fly in the proper fishing attitude. Spey casts and roll casts are subject to all the same limiting factors as aerosolized back casts. Deep wading very much limits the margin for error in forming a D-loop behind you. That is why Spey rods tend to be over 12-feet long. A new classification, called "switch rods" bridge the gap between Spey rods and single-hand rods. They may be fished with one or two hands. Switch rods are normally 10 1/2 to 11-feet long. Steelheading is a game of long casts while wading in moving water. A longer rod enables more line control after the cast has been made. Controlling the fly is always of utmost importance.
Your fly rod should be balanced with the average sizes and weights of flies you are throwing. We have found that 7/8/9 weight rods are most practical for the widest range of conditions. Seven weight rods are nice for small streams or even larger rivers on calm summer days. A long, light rod is nice for fishing floating lines and small wets or waking flies. Eight weight rods fit the widest range of conditions you will encounter when fishing for steelhead with a single hand rod. Nine weight rods are an advantage on large windy rivers or when runs of larger than average fish are expected. Larger flies are more comfortable to cast with larger equipment. A nine weight might be a better choice when fishing British Columbia rivers. In all cases, multi-piece travel rods are most popular.
Two Hand Rods
On our local rivers which have un-manicured banks, being able to roll cast long distances is a huge advantage. Two handed fly rods of up to fifteen feet long are the most efficient on rivers where the average cast is over fifty feet. Many local anglers have adopted the change of direction roll casting called Spey casting. The two-handed concept of fly casting is very old. It is recorded in writings from early bronze-age China and figures prominently in English fly fishing literature for the last 500 years. It only gained wide spread favor on American salmon and steelhead streams beginning about 1990. Since then, it has revolutionized the way large rivers in North America are fished. Now fly fishing for steelhead is truly practical year round on larger rivers. Two handed fly rods work well with a wide variety of fly lines. As a matter of fact, changeable tip fly lines for two-hand rods have changed the sport of fly fishing for steelhead as much as the adoption of the two-hand rods themselves. "Two-handers" take the labor out of fishing with sinking tip lines. Sinking tip lines are usually more productive than floating lines in fishing periods with cold water or bright sunlight. In the modern era, nearly as many anglers fish for steelhead during the winter as they do during the warmer seasons. Today the most popular size of Spey rod is 13-feet long and is rated for a 7-weight line. This size of rod is appropriate for most larger western steelhead rivers during most of the year.
Selecting a Steelhead Reel
When encountering steelhead, the reel becomes much more than a place to store the line. The reel may have to feed and retrieve long yardages of fly line and backing. Precise, smooth, low-inertia drag-systems pay for themselves. Reels with waterproof drag systems are best. You will probably never use over 5 pounds of drag pressure when playing steelhead. Three to four pounds of drag pressure is most common. Smooth operation and being totally reliable are the two most important factors when choosing a reel. The reel as a component is the greatest factor which determines the difference between victory and defeat when encountering large fish.
Steelhead reels should hold a fly line and 150 yd. of backing. Sealed ball bearings take less maintenance than bronze bushings. Disk drags are proven. Anodizing outlasts any kind of coating finish. Machined frames are stronger and more durable than castings. The less moving parts the better. The fewest total parts the better. Steelhead reels get wet a lot. Don't hesitate to call for advice: 1 (800) 266-3971.
How to Select a Fly Line for Steelhead Spey Fishing
Because of the variety of river conditions one may encounter, each angler using a single-handed rod should be equipped with a floating fly line if they are going to nymph fish either while wading or fishing out of a boat. If an angler is wading, shooting heads for both single-hand and two hand rods are most popular.
Anglers using two-handed fly rods use shooting heads and changeable-tip line type systems almost exclusively. Working in The Fly Fishing Shop we get asked a lot of different questions about Spey lines. What is a Skagit line? What is a Scandi line (Scandinavian shooting head)? Well the Skagit floats, does that mean I can’t use it in the winter time? These are all good questions and unless you work in the fly fishing industry, the answers may not be apparent.
Prior to 1980, Spey shooting heads did not exist (at least on a commercial basis). All Spey lines at the time were long double-taper or long belly weight-forward lines. Around 1990, two-hand (Spey) rods started to become popular with Pacific North West steelhead anglers. At that time, all two-hand rods were either of European origin or copies of them, and were designed for Atlantic salmon. These rods were long and heavy to cast the long-belly lines that were available.
After 1990, anglers in Norway and Sweden started fishing for Atlantic salmon on their home waters with shorter rods and shooting head fly lines. The flies used for Atlantic salmon are normally not much larger than big trout flies. Lines developed for these flies needed to present them delicately to fish holding in clear water. Thus, the Scandinavian shooting head (Scandi Line) started to evolve.
During this same period American anglers started using similar tackle for steelhead. Although Atlantic salmon are similar to steelhead, they are not the same. Most Atlantic salmon enter their rivers during the spring and summer, as do a portion of our steelhead, but the largest runs of coastal steelhead enter their rivers during the winter when the water is very cold. Winter steelhead do bite flies, but seldom rise to them. In other words, the fly must be presented near the bottom of the river. Also, most of the time winter steelhead seem to prefer large flies over small ones, and Pacific Northwest rivers are steep and brawly with natural landscapes. To make presentations with large flies, to fish that were often holding deep in the water, and often in rivers with limited back-cast room, changes in casting dynamics were needed. A whole new approach to tackle and casting technique started to evolve. Rods got shorter, and lines became more compact to facilitate the turn-over of large flies and heavy sinking tips. The development of what is now called the Skagit line had begun.
Much development of these early made Pacific Northwest Winter Steelhead Spey lines were conducted by Mike Kinney, Harry Lemire, Ed Ward, and Dec Hogan.The first (commercially made) changeable tip weight-forward Spey lines made in the United States were developed by members of The Fly Fishing Shop in Welches, Oregon. It was called the Launcher Line and had an integrated running line and with a 12’ sinking tip, the head measured 42’. It was very much like the modern Skagit line. For various reasons production of this line ended in 1994.
The Spey line that most anglers in the Pacific Northwest started with was the Windcutter, produced by RIO starting in about 1992. It became the standard and remained in this position until about 2000. This line had a 55’ head and was a complete departure from previous traditional Spey lines that had heads that were 80’ - 100’ long. This new line with the shorter head revolutionized Spey casting. Now you could operate in more confined locations and more easily cast sinking tips and bigger flies. Since then the heads on Spey lines have been getting even shorter and in some cases, flies keep getting bigger.
The biggest advancement in Spey fishing has definitely been with shooting head type lines. When Spey fishing first became popular on local rivers, normal rods were 14’ or 15’ long in 9 or 10 weight sizes. This was a tradition that arrived with English tradition, which was still married to long belly lines.
Recently in the Pacific Northwest, we have had another big jump in line development. The head portion of Spey lines have been shortened again. The majority of anglers are fishing lines with heads between 35’ and 45’…enter the modern Spey shooting head. With these lines, there are basically two approaches to casting. You can use line speed to load the rod or you can use the weight of the line to load the rod. Here is where the Skagit and Scandinavian lines differ.
First we should talk about the differences between the lines themselves, and what they are used for. If you look at the diagram you will notice that both lines are almost the same length, but the profiles (the shape of the line) are completely different. The Skagit line is a heavier line with little to no taper made for turning over large flies and big heavy sink tips. Skagit lines are made to have sink tips attached to the fronts of them. They do not have any front taper so the power is not dissipated by the taper of the line. The attached sinking tip provides the taper.
Scandinavian lines have a long front taper and are made to turn over longer leaders and smaller to mid-sized flies. They are not made to cast heavy sink tips and bigger flies. They are more suited for summer fishing, i.e. floating line work with long leaders where a delicate presentation is required. Scandinavian lines when cast, are made to have just the leader anchored to the water. When casting these short shooting heads you should try to use a short casting stroke pulling with your bottom hand to attain higher line speeds and maintaining your anchor.
The Scandinavian Head weight should be 15%- 20% lighter than a Skagit head for the same rod. If you are fishing a rod that requires 400 gr Skagit head, you would want to use a Scandinavian line around 340gr. This is just a general rule and there are plenty of exceptions.
For our local waters during the winter, I end up with multiple heads for all my rods. Skagit heads of 22'-24' are most commonly used, such as Airflo Skagit Driver or RIO Skagit Max are best when fishing under and around obstacles. As shorter rods of 11'-12.5' have become popular Skagit heads have become available in shorter lengths to accommodate them. Heads such as the OPST Commando, RIO Max Short and Airflo Skagit Scout lines are used by many anglers. These lines are available from 15'-20', depending on the brand. This allows an angler to fish smaller water more comfortably.
For summer fishing on rivers where steelhead will rise to the surface, you will want to get a Floating Scandinavian shooting head, such as a RIO Scandi, Airflo Rage Compact, or Beulah Elixir for fishing rivers like the Deschutes when you are fishing smaller flies and long leaders. If you fish a reel with a running line that has a loop in it you will be fishing the most versatile system available. Acquire a set of sink tips in different densities and lengths for the Skagit lines and an assortment of polyleaders for the Scandinavian line and you are in the game. Did I mention that buying two heads is the same price as buying one line? This system can also be the most cost effective.
How to Select Leaders for Steelhead
Warning: Many of the new small diameter monofilament tippet materials have not passed the steelhead test.
Maxima Chameleon , Maxima Clear, and Maxima Ultragreen are the only tippet materials sold on small spools which are 100% reliable in the ten pound test rating. For steelhead fly fishing you need tippet material of at least .011 to turn over steelhead size flies at long range. The material should be hard and abrasion resistant. Most serious steelhead fly anglers tie their own leaders from Maxima. We've got the best prices on Maxima.
If you don't wish to tie your own, RIO knotless tapered "Steelhead/Salmon Leaders have passed all tests with us on the stream.
Leaders for your floating line should be 9' long for single-hand rods and 10.5' to 15’ for two-hand rods. We believe that a leader with a tippet diameter of .011 gives the most advantage in the widest variety of angling situations. If a dropper is to be included, use the tag end of either the 12 lb. or 15 lb. test sections. Leaders for your sinking tip line should be 4'-6' long. Fresh steelhead are rarely leader shy, but steelhead that have been fished over can become wary. Carry a spool of 8-pound Maxima with you, just in case. Smaller diameter tippets do allow the fly to move around in some currents more freely than do larger diameter tippets.
You should carry a complete kit of leader making material as well as tippet material. A complete kit would include the following sizes of Maxima on 27 yard spools: #40, #30, #25, #20, #15, #12, #10, #8, #6. Carry (2) spools of #10. Keep your leader kit organized and away from light and extreme temperature changes.
Comradeship And Good Manners In The Age Of Discovery
There is nothing better than a good fishing buddy, and even better, mine is my wife. Family members make great fishing buddies. Steelhead fly fishing can become a family sport. Most of all, fly fishing for steelhead is a sport of discovery. There are no bad places where wild steelhead live. Wild steelhead demand clean water in clean environments. As such, these places can be in high demand. Treat other anglers kindly, and try to enhance rather than limit their good experiences on the water.