Nymphing For Winter Steelhead

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Nymphing For Winter Steelhead

By: Frank Day

Swinging flies is a difficult, yet a rewarding endeavor. We know the odds are against us and that what we desire is one of the more difficult pursuits within fly fishing. While I will always swing a fly as a first option it is nice to have a second option to follow a swung presentation. It’s no secret that items dead drifted several inches off the bottom are pretty effective at catching steelhead. Although classically drift fishing has been done with spinning tackle it is perfectly adaptable to fly tackle as well. That will be our topic for today; nymphing for winter steelhead.

Nymphing for steelhead is a great second option as a follow up for stubborn fish. If they aren’t aggressive enough, or if it’s too cold to move and intercept a swing increasing the convenience factor of the offering with a deep slow dead drift can often produce where the swing did not. Having that second option to ensure water coverage can pay off. I’ve seen many steelhead taken behind a swing with a dead drift.

Tackle for nymphing is covered by a wide range of rods. A 9-10’ 7-9wt single handed rod is a great starting point and where many of us who adopted the swing began our steelhead fly fishing journey. Switch rods in the 10-12’ 7-8wt are a great double handed option. Longer rods can be beneficial in lifting and turning over large indicators, weighted flies, and split shot. Longer rods also aid in mending and line control. You can catch more fish with a well controlled drift than without, and a longer rod can help achieve this.

With the different lengths in rods different lines are necessary for them to perform at their fullest. A line built for an 11’ rod doesn’t function as well as it could on a 9’ rod and vice versa. For single handed rods the Rio Xtreme Indicator Line is a great choice. It’s available in a 5-9wt and features a very aggressive taper to achieve dynamic turnover and mend easily at distance. For switch rods I prefer Rios switch line. Just to clarify I am NOT talking about the switch chucker. The switch chucker is essentially a fully integrated skagit short and it will turnover a heavy nymphing rig but is not designed to mend in the way necessary to present a dead drift for an extended length. We’re talking just the straight up RIO Switch Line. It is a fully integrated weight forward line with a head that is essentially an extremely aggressive 50’ double taper. It turns over well and the 50’ of head is very easy to control as well as the first 25’ or so of running line behind it. This equates to a 75’ long effectively controlled drift. The effects and water coverage are deadly!

Reels on indicator rigs are nothing too crazy, standard large arbor disc drag reel is perfectly capable. If you’re more into click and pawl reels those are perfectly suitable as well. At the end of the day if it’s smooth and reliable, and properly balances your setup, it’s probably up to the job.

The offering on the ends of these setups can vary but generally large bright nymphs and egg patterns are most successful. Beads are commonly used under indicator setups in place of egg patterns such as a glo bug as well. Large double bead stoneflies, copper Johns, princess nymphs, agent orange or onyx, or a double agent are all excellent flies. Where allowed two flies fished in tandem can double the odds of your drift.

Rigging is fairly simple. The same sort of nymphing leader setup you prefer for trout up-sized is perfect. As a general rule of thumb I use fluorocarbon leader when nymphing because it sinks quickly. Split shot can always be added to get down quicker and remain in the lower water column as well. For indicators a large Thingamabobber or Airlock is a great choice. It is best to carry several colors. As light levels and reflections from your surroundings change certain colors will be easier to see than others. Carrying several allows you to pick the color that’s most visible in a particular scenario. Your indicator is your link to your flies. If you can’t see it you can’t catch fish.


Nymphing for steelhead can be a lot of fun. Don’t let the “cool guy” swing is the thing mentality keep you from having some fun and catching a few fish. Dust of your old 9’6” 8wt and get out there! If you have any questions regarding indicator fishing tackle stop by on your next drive up highway26 or just give us a call at 503-622-4607. Best of luck and we hope to see you on the water.

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