March 5th, 2001

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Chrome Rush!
The Quest for Northern California Winter Steelhead

By Thomas C. Duncan, Sr.

Steve Vigil  with a nice fish from the Trinity river
Like the miners in days of yore headed for the river with tools, a steady hand, and a peeled eye, you see them come out every year when the water is ready. These idealists are not carrying dredging equipment and pans looking for the odd nugget of gold, though. Instead, they are toting heavy fly rods, boxes of unseemly-sized flies, and they seek the elusive prize of chrome. Winter-run Steelhead, that is.

The Steelhead is the anadromous form of the Rainbow Trout, oncorynchus mykiss, and is one of the most pursued fish in the Pacific Northwest. California is blessed with a substantial number of fisheries that support the ocean-going salmonid, and each winter, a mass of flyfishers head to their favourite spots to try to bring the creatures to the fly. Bundled under layers of wool and toasty synthetics with heavy neoprene waders and overloaded vests, they rig up their heavy rods with stout tippets and drag their flies through the water hoping for the reward of a weighty tug and the sight of a silvery opponent coming to hand.

The task is not an easy one, but the Steelheader doesn't mind. Many laugh, but the dedicated flyfisher does not let it daunt him. Nevertheless, perhaps we can simplify the effort, and make it a bit more productive. Let's break down the hunt for the salty sojourners to see if we can make the reward as sweet as the toil.

Finding the Fish

The first task we must tackle is to determine where the Steelhead are. The simplest way to make this determination is to consider the travails of the fish. Coming from the ocean, the Steelhead must fight its way upstream, battling against the current to find its way to its birthplace to spawn. Thus, much energy is expended in its travels home, and along the way it must stop to rest. This is where we will find the quarry.

Fast water giving way to a slower section of water

Look for slack water just below heavy, rushing water where the fish will have a chance to stop and rest. Often they will wait there until they deem the time correct to move up. Good places to look include typical pools and runs just below riffles, but be careful not to let your attention be solely focused on those spots. A riffle or a fast run may include an area of slow water behind a large obstruction where a Steelhead will prepare itself for the task at hand, so don't be afraid to throw a fly in those slack areas as well.

It is sometimes possible to see larger fish milling about in the water, but this is not always the case. Either way, a pair of good polarized glasses is invaluable to the Steelheader. When you think you see movement or a flash of silver, cast to it! It may be nothing, but often it is our peripheral vision catching the sight of a moving fish. If not, there is no loss.


While one can catch Steelhead on minimalist equipment, it is far easier and more advantageous to both the fish and the flyfisher to "size up" for the fight. A 7- or 8-weight rod is the best way to go, in my opinion. This enables you to cast larger and heavier flies more easily, to cast farther with less effort, and is less taxing on the fish when they are hooked.

Most of the flies we are going to use are going to be in the #2 through #8 size range, and while we may reach down to a #12, we are more likely to size up to a #1/0 or #2/0. It is far easier to cast these with a rod that is equipped to handle heavy flies such as the rod weights I have suggested. It is also more advantageous to the presentation of the flies as it gives you more control during the cast.

As well, there is more casting in the pursuit of Steelhead than there might be in the average Trout excursion due to the nature of the Steelhead's "take ratio." It is also likely that casts will average farther than most other types of flyfishing, Saltwater excluded. For myself, a long cast when fishing for trout may take 55-60 feet of line off the tip of the rod. In Steelheading, though, it may be necessary to extend that to 75 or 80 feet! I know some who regularly use the entire length of their line, but at that length it is hard to control the line and the fly. Regardless, when you make a few dozen 75-foot casts in a day, it is certainly much easier to coax the line out of an 8-wt. than a 6-wt.!

Finally, when fighting the fish, the heavier line weights give you more power to subdue the fish more quickly. A long fight is hard on the fish, as we will discuss later. A high line-weight rod will have the strength in the butt section to bring the fish to the angler in an expeditious manner while still being sensitive enough to feel what the fish is doing.

As far as recommendations go, I like the Sage RPLxi for its high line speed. I like to do the minimum of extra casting, and the quick stroke of the RPLxi allows for long casts with minimal effort. The Lamiglas Ti2000 is a new rod on the market that has the advantage of a Titanium butt. This not only makes the rod lighter to the hand, it makes you more aware of your casting stroke by virtue of its increased sensitivity, and in turn, this leads to better attention to accuracy. I have a rod built up from a Coyote Rod Co. blank that is a powerful rod as well, and handles the fighting aspect like a heavyweight in the ring. Pick a rod that is comfortable for you to cast, and will fill out each of these needs. Test-casting as many as you can will help you to determine which is right for you. Remember -- we each have our own styles and preferences, so as long as they are technically correct, don't get caught into thinking any rod is the best.

Your reel should be sturdy, be able to hold a substantial amount of backing, and have a dependable disc drag. When Steelheading, the main purpose of the reel ceases to be simply to hold line, and becomes a part of the "fighting apparatus." A fish with the feistiness of a fresh Steelhead can wreak havoc on a poorly made reel, so make sure the reel you use will not let you down! I have been using a Galvan 3.5 Wide-Arbor, and have been very happy with its smooth action, ability to hold miles of backing, and tough drag. Teton and Redington are now making reels that are rather inexpensive, yet have qualities of high-priced equipment for the budget-minded angler. Abel and Tibor have great reputations and a price tag to reflect them.

A shooting head system is helpful to be able to change the depth of water you will be fishing quickly and easily. When you consider that you can keep 7 different densities of line in one wallet system, it makes keeping six spare spools with you practically unthinkable. Casting shooting heads requires the ability to double-haul well, which may be a drawback to the beginning angler. I like a full-line approach when I am fishing narrower waters as the shooting heads can cause some strange positioning for casting a short ways.

Your tippet should be stout with no nicks, knots, or abrasions. Most Steelhead leaders have a butt section diametre of .026 to be able to turn over large flies, and taper to no less than a 3x tippet. More than likely, a 2x or stronger will be used, especially where the massive King Salmon are present, and a potential taker of your fly. Adjust the length of the leader to the depth you intend to fish, much as you would when Trout fishing.

Concerning clothes, warmth is of the essence. Heavy neoprene waders under which are long johns, sweats, or commercially produced wading liners will keep lower joints from freezing. A Polypropylene undershirt will help keep the upper body warm, and wick away moisture from the body. Be sure to keep that natural heat outlet called your head covered, and don't lace your boots too tight -- lack of circulation will freeze your feet!

Fly Selection

The fly is the aspect of the hunt on which we concentrate the most, and rightly so. There are two major problems we encounter when picking flies to go into our boxes in the shop and on the bench, and which come out on the water: First, we don't know what really makes a Steelhead strike. It is one of the great mysteries of nature which may never be solved, and it frustrates the best of the fly anglers. There are those who claim to know exactly what it is, but they do not. I have witnessed some of the few who dare to profess such knowledge go fishless on select days, which negates their own claims. As an old man of the river once told me, "They may think they know now, but by the time they're my age they'll know better."

The second problem is that there are more patterns than you can shake a stick at, so narrowing down the selection is critical. Most rivers have patterns which are the standards to use. The famed Klamath, for example can be fished using the Brindle Bug and Assassin almost exclusively during certain periods of the winter. Often, things are not so simple, though, so we must sift through the wealth of patterns available to us and determine what the best fly to use in which situation is.

Black and Purple with a little flash added can make for a great fly

The most popular colours for Steelhead flies are Black, Orange, Purple, Red, and Chartreuse. The overwhelming majority of flies will sport one of these colours as its main shade, or combine some of them to contribute to its look. Pink colours such as Magenta, Cerise, Shrimp Pink, and other similar hues also find their ways into the schemes of many patterns. There is no problem with having these colours dominating the Steelhead fly market, but we must be careful how we become dependent on fly patterns rather than fly styles. The Steelhead will not be selective to the take of a fly as a landlocked Trout will. Thus, it befits us to carry flies with a different intent than on a Trout trip. I recommend the following system:

Carry flies in three different shades, dark, medium, and light. Instead of having a lot of, say, black flies, or red flies, pick a couple patterns that are on the dark end of the colour spectrum, a couple patterns on the other end that are light-coloured, and some to fill in the middle ground. A box full of Skunks, Silver Hiltons, Black Diamonds, Undertakers, and Green Butt Skunks doesn't give you many more options than would a box filled with Purple Perils, Freight Trains, Spawning Purples, Ferry Canyons, and Street Walkers! Each of these are effective flies, but they are mainly black and purple, respectively. This doesn't allow for much flexibility, but a box that contains Skunks and Silver Hiltons to round out the dark end, Comets and Polar Shrimp for the light end, and some Purple Perils, Spruce Flies, Burlaps and Royal Coachman Bucktails for the middle would allow you to choose from several different shades. More often than not, switching from a Skykomish Sunrise to a Polar Shrimp won't make that much of a difference, but tying on a contrasting fly such as a Signal Light might. Light conditions and environmental colour schemes might make the difference in how the Steelhead views the fly.

The bulk of the fly is also a matter to be considered. Not only does it affect the sink rate of a fly, it makes a difference in how much fly the fish sees! Five-parter flies are the most popular style of Steelhead flies available to the angler today, but there are many patterns which give fish the view of a more subtle silhouette and body. The Fall Favorite, for example, has colours which are found in many other patterns, but has a very slim profile in contrast to the five-parter. On the other hand, John Shewey's Spawning Purple is intended to have a very broad profile to be picked up very easily by the fish. George Cook's "Alaskabou" patterns are generally tied on size 1/0 hooks, and cannot be missed by any fish within the remote area. On a clear day, when casting to a skittish fish, though, this may work to your disadvantage. A slim fly presented under the opposite conditions, however, may be completely lost in murky water to lethargic fish.

Don't underestimate little-used colours as a change-of-pace to stimulate fish that have been fished over a great deal. I have developed flies such as the Icy Blue Spey and Spag L#&233;omann that cover the colours blue in the former, and yellow in the latter. I also use a bear hair-winged variation of the traditional Claret and Black wet fly, and Dec Hogan's Olive Garden which are also seldom applied shades. Presenting something a fish might not expect might be a good way to catch the picky ones off guard, and incite them to take the fly. On the other hand, sometimes a fish that just doesn't want to move can be excited by a fly with a great deal of flash such as a Flash Fly, bright, vivid colours like a Popsicle, or a fly that uses some of the new holographic mylar products. Anger can sometimes cause the fish to strike at the fly and capture it in their mouth resulting in the coveted hookup.

Nymphing for Steelhead is becoming more popular with each passing season, and it is a technique all of its own. Having a few Stoneflies, Mossbacks, Assassins, and other big nymph patterns along with an indicator setup might just save the day. Don't be afraid to put beads on your nymphs, or any other Steelhead fly for that matter! In the 1980's Eureka guide Mike Kuczynski began putting beads on standard Steelhead patterns, and it has become a standard way of fishing on the North Coast. Patterns such as Silver Hiltons, Brindle Bugs, and really just about any pattern improves its success rate when a bright, shiny bead is added. Not only does it get down where the fish are, it is highly visible, and stimulates the aggressiveness of the Steelhead. What more can a person ask? As with Trout nymphs, it is not the panacea for all aspects of Steelheading, but it can make a huge difference in your success rate.


Much has been written about the presentation of the fly to Steelhead, so I'll not go into it in great detail here. A simple wet fly swing will take care of most situations quite adequately. When you have established your spot in the river, work every square inch you think might produce a Steelhead for you, then move down and continue presenting. Stay alert as your fly passes about 2/3 of the way through the drift. The excitable Steelhead will often take the fly as it begins to "drag" when the line tightens and the leader straightens.

Be sure to mend often to keep the fly as visible as possible to the fish. It is not always easy, but it is really necessary. Keep the running line upstream of the fly!


The key to fighting the fish is to walk the fine line between getting the fish to hand as quickly as possible, and not being in such a hurry that you lose a fish that is not tired enough to quit yet. Often a fish will die if played too long, and as a result, California law requires the rapid retrieval of Salmon and Steelhead. We should not need this law if we are informed sportsmen, however. It is ultimately unsportsmanlike to extend the struggle of a fish beyond reasonable means.

The keys to fighting the fish start when you feel the take. When the hook has been set, just let the drag on your reel do the initial work for you. Keep your hands away from the rapidly spinning reel handle and let the tightness of the drag, as adjusted by you, hold the fish close enough to retrieve. When you can begin the process of reeling, take the handle firmly, let the rod bend far into the butt to get the maximum power and reduce chance of breakage, and start cranking! If the fish takes off again, try to keep it close, but don't put your fingers in danger of injury. When the fish has been netted or landed, get it back in the water as soon as possible. If pictures are to be taken, have the photographer ready before the fish is out of the water, get the shot, and return the fish. Never just drop a Steelhead back into the water. Instead, revive it as you would any other fish, holding its head into the current and gently moving it back and forth, forcing oxygen into its gills. When it is ready to go you will feel strength return to its body, and it will work its way back to its resting spot. Give thanks for that experience, and move to the next holding spot.

Most of all, have fun with Steelheading! It can be incredibly frustrating, but the rewards are incalculable. If we go out with the intent of having a good time and being safe, we can leave happily, and may actually have the memory of a big fish or so to take with us. Keep a level head, a tight line, good footing, and have fun on the Chrome Rush! Thomas C. Duncan, Sr.

Credits: Thomas's article originally appeared on the Fly Fish Northern California website We thank them for sharing it with us!

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