Winter Steelheading on the West Coast





Fly fishing for winter steelhead on the West Coast takes a healthy dose of determination, perseverance, patience, and on any given cast, luck. There are few short cuts, fewer guarantees, and perhaps days, where you might as well gone to work. But it is an experience, an adventure, and growing in popularity.

Several things make winter steelheading a challenge unlike any other in fly fishing. Of course there is the weather, always, always, always be prepared, watch you wading closely, one wrong step at best will shorten your day. Since winter steelhead travel a fraction of this distance as their summer counterparts, weather also means coastal storms, and mountain storms. Storms mean abrupt changes in water levels and clarity. Get to know your river(s) intimately. Large rivers with glacier water can take a week to clear up, while small tributary creek can be fine the next day. Larger rivers also can carve new channels after a particularly large storm, changing the very bed you wade on.

Besides weather the days are shorter, which puts a premium on fishing efficiently. For many fly fishers this means covering as much water as possible. But steelhead are creatures of habit and tend to lie in the same water year after year. (Unless their favorite holes have been changed by aforementioned storms). While traveling steelies are caught, holding steelies are where the action is. A good steelie hole will produce more fish on a stretch of river, than all the rest of the water combined. Because of the lack of daylight hours, a good steelie hole on a big river will most likely be choked with guides, making access to these cherished spots competitive. But tributary creeks and medium sized rivers offer some great fishing for those willing to find it.

To identify holding spots, one must think like a steelhead. They are a model of conservation, biding their time until water levels, temperature, and internal conditions match up for them to arrive at their spawning beds. They need resting water, tail outs of classic trout riffles, or holes with gravel bottoms work well. Rapids above and below this sweet water is ideal, a place to pause before and after the strenuous task of passing fast water. Look for cover, hanging tree branches (look for flies in them too), a large boulder or two. And if there is an upriver tributary not too far, you have got all the makings of great steelie water. Heck even two of these features is worth a cast or two.

When the rains come, what is bad news for the large rivers can be good news for the smallest of creeks, allowing the steelie to feel more secure with the additional flow. Once the discolored water passes this can be some of the best few days of fishing. In fact if you can learn a river system, complete with tributaries you will find yourself knowing exactly where to go on any given day. The nuances you learn will greatly increase your success. And that will pay dividends year after year. For flies use bright colors when the water is turbid, carcass flies, Dredgers, Dolly Llama work well. For some reason smaller patterns work better in the coldest days, black woolly buggers is a standard go to pattern all winter long.

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The Blog of Big Y Fly Co: Winter Steelheading on the West Coast
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