Best Fly Fishing Gear and Techniques for Winter Steelheading

Last updated on July 16th, 2021

angler fly fishing for winter steelhead

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When people think winter fishing, most imagine setting up a shelter, drilling a few holes, tying on a jig and seeing what they can catch for dinner. While ice fishing is entertaining, there’s something to say about bringing the fly gear out on a sunny winter day. The fish don’t stop, so why should we?

The bites aren’t going to be as ferocious and winter fly fishing requires extra gear you wouldn’t otherwise need. It’s a great chance to improve your angling skills and keep from getting rusty over the long winter months.

With the cold right around the corner, here is a list of the best gear and techniques for steelheading in the winter.

Clothing and Gear for Steelhead Fishing in the Cold

The first and most important clothing item is a pair of waders. It doesn’t matter if you’re floating the river or fishing along the bank. Waders are going to most water away from your body. Some anglers opt to have a pair of summer waders that are breathable. In the winter, neoprene waders are a great choice. You’ll have no trouble staying warm and dry.

If you’re using stockingfoot waders, a pair of reliable wading boots should be on the top of your list. You don’t want to risk slipping and falling into the frigid water. You’ll find plenty of websites as well as brick-and-mortar retailers that have great affordable options for your next adventure. Korkers wading boots are wonderful due to the interchangeable outsoles. 

From there, people have their personal preferences for jackets, hats and gloves. Layers and moisture-wicking clothes are going to keep you out on the water the longest. You will sweat regardless of temperature. Whether you’re fighting a fish or stressed because you can’t buy a bit, be sure to layer well.

One of the most difficult things to find is a solid pair of fly fishing gloves. They can’t be too thick because of how often anglers use their hands, but they need to be waterproof due to the wet fly line. Berkely has a pair of neoprene fishing gloves that are affordable and do exactly what you need.

Sunglasses are one of the final aspects of your outfit that many anglers neglect. The winter sun reflecting off of the snow and water makes it nearly impossible to see. Chances are the river isn’t going to be clear enough to sight fish, but the sunglasses will help keep track of your indicator. Missing a bite because you can’t quite tell if your indicator bobbed shouldn’t happen.

A good set of polarized sunglasses will do the trick. If you are a fly angler, you likely already have a pair. This is more of a reminder than anything!

Fly Rods and Reels

steelhead rod and reel

When it comes to fighting “the fish of a thousand casts” you need to be confident in your setup. The bites can be few and far between in the winter. A solid steelhead rod and reel can last decades. If you find an obsession with winter steelheading, be willing to invest! You won’t regret it.

There are three options when it comes to fly rods and steelhead: single-handed, switch and spey.

Fly Rods

Single-Handed Rods

Most would suggest a 10’ 7-weight single-handed rod. You can get away with an 8 weight as well, but be aware of the extra weight it’ll add. The 7 weight will have enough power to fight the steelhead and you’ll have the joy of seeing the rod doubled over. You don’t necessarily need a ton of casting power when it comes to winter steelheading because the drift is so important. The more fly line you have out, the harder it is to perfect the drift.

Using the single-handed 7-weight also allows you to fish in multiple ways. You can drift nymphs in the smaller water as well as the wider rivers. Swinging streamers on a 7-weight for steelhead can be tough, but doable. If you plan on doing more swinging than drifting, invest in the 8-weight.

You can spend as little or as much as you’d like on a fly rod. A solid rod that won’t break the bank is the Orvis Recon. This rod gives you casting power but doesn’t feel like you have no touch. You can also purchase the entire set-up with a reel and weight forward line at a reasonable price.

Switch Rods

Another option would be to use a switch rod. A switch rod allows anglers to fish either one-handed or two. They run between 10’6” and 11’6”. They’re not quite as long as a spey rod and are still manageable to use with one hand. This rod will allow you to drift nymphs under an indicator as well as swing beefy streamers.

These are great rods to use in smaller tributaries. The length allows you to hold your rod high above the water to get your fly down to the bottom and minimize drag. The versatility of the rod makes it worth it!

A great choice would be the Orvis Clearwater 8-Weight 11’ Foot Switch Rod. You can purchase a whole outfit that gives you a Battenkill V reel with an 8 weight switch line for a bit more.

Spey Rods

The final and most traditional choice for winter steelhead fishing is a spey rod. These are necessary for the big water you may find on the west coast. When you need to make 30 to 40-yard casts, no rod will be able to do it like a spey rod. However, you are limited in the types of water you can fish. A great option to cover all types of situations would be to get a  13’-13’6” medium-fast action 7-weight. You’ll be able to handle all sizes of fish and water.

Maxcatch has a nice option that won’t cost you an arm and a leg. It’s a great rod to purchase if you’re just getting into the world of spey fishing.

Fly Reels

Single-Handed Reels

As far as reels are concerned, it’s important to find one to match your rod. Also, be sure to purchase a large arbor reel. You’re going to need quite a bit of line once you hook into a steelhead. Those dime bright steelhead had an amazing amount of fight in them even in the dead of winter.

If you’re using a 7-weight rod, be sure to purchase a 7-weight reel. Also, the fly line you choose matters as well. For steelhead, you want a 15-20 foot sink tip to reach the bottom. Again, make sure it matches the specifications of your reel.

Switch Reels

Anglers must purchase a reel that’s two sizes larger than the rod’s line weight for switch rods. It’s important to do this for the balance of the overall setup. It’s also important to have to find a lighter reel if at all possible. If you’re switching between spey casting and one-handed casting due to the types of water you’re in, carrying a heavy reel all day gets exhausting.

As far as the fly line is concerned, be sure to have a switch line. Rio has some of the best fly lines available. It allows you to drift nymphs as well as throw those large streamers.

Spey Reels

 Again, if you’re using an 8-weight spey rod, go ahead and use a 10-weight reel. The spey lines are going to be thicker than the traditional fly line and as a result, take up more room. A mid arbor reel is a must when spey fishing. For a challenge, use the traditional click-and-pawl type reels.  You’ll have to control the reel and the pace at which the line is being taken. These reels get anglers in touch with their roots. The amazing sound of the steel gets every angler excited.

Winter Steelhead Techniques (Along with Flies)

steelhead fly fishing nymphs and streamers

There are two main techniques for catching winter steelhead. Both are going to be effective, but each takes quite a bit of time to master. Now, geography makes a big difference in what technique you’ll be fishing. If you’re on the west coast (best coast?), you’ll be swinging flies. If you’re fishing a Great Lakes tributary, you’ll be nymphing.

Rule #1 for steelheading is to find slow-moving water.

They don’t want to have to fight a strong current. They need to save their energy for feeding. The slower and deeper the pools you can find, the more fish will be stacked. When fishing these pools, don’t skip out on the transition zone. This is the part of the pool where the water slows down right below a riffle. These are great holding spots in the winter.

 Swinging Streamers

When swinging streamers, the rivers are likely larger, deeper and require you to cover more water. So, before you commit to a technique, be sure to know your location. For swinging steelhead flies, you’ll need a heavier spey or switch rod. You won’t have to worry as much about the wind or getting as tired as you would with a single-handed rod.

Cast your fly straight across toward the top of the pool, let it drift down and swing towards the bank. Be sure to let the fly do the work. If you see the fly line leading the charge, mend it upstream so the fly can be the first thing the fish see. Once the fly has swung almost completely downstream, start stripping up towards you. In the winter, fish don’t need aggressive strips. Slower drags are going to coax bites.

If the water is high and dirty, wade in as little as you can so you don’t walk through fish. Also, keep your casts short. You only need about a 20-yard cast to be effective in dirty water. The fish will be hugging the bank. Also, if this is the case, use a sinking tip line. It’ll get your fly to the bottom at a faster rate. Using a switch rod in these conditions is the best option.

If the water is slow and clear, look for those pools or seams. Spey rods are solid in this case. You may need to hit a seam that’s 30-yards into the river. A 12’ to 15’ sinking tip will get your fly down and lead to an efficient swing.

Best Streamers to Use:

  1. Egg Sucking Leech
  2. Glo Bug
  3. Max Canyon
  4. Rambulance
  5. Guide Intruder
  6. Pick Yer’ Pockets
  7. Foxee Dog

These flies are all extremely popular in the steelheading community. Again, when the water is darker, try a darker fly with a small bit of flash. If the water is clear, show off all the flash you can.

Nymphing for Steelhead

 When fishing smaller tributaries, you’ll be fishing with nymphs. The water isn’t as deep and you need finesse over power. Go ahead and use a single-handed rod or a switch rod. There isn’t as much need for casting power and more of your focus is on the perfect drift.

 Your “perfect” drift time is extremely short in most cases. Cast upstream 10-yards at about a 45-degree angle and pay close attention. How is your fly line? Is it ahead of your fly? If so, mend upstream. We want the fly to do the work. Let it float right in front of you until it starts swinging, then go ahead and strip.

Keep your rod tip high so the fly gets to the bottom of the stream. Watch for the slight tug on your fly line and enjoy the fight!

Best Nymphs to Use:

  1. Agent Orange
  2. Bead Rubber Leg Prince Nymph
  3. BH Lifter
  4. Lingerie Egg
  5. Pat’s Rubber Legs
  6. Thunder Eggs
  7. Steelhead Beads 12mm

These are the best nymphs to use in the smaller tributaries. It may require tying a small split shot on to reach the bottom. Also, an indicator is a must. The bites in the winter are subtle so watch for the quick bob. 

Being successful while fly fishing for winter steelhead requires the right gear, technique and, of course, practice. You aren’t going to get where you want unless you put in the effort. It’s not always ideal, but the first time you hook up, look out because you’ll always have the itch!

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