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Nymphing for Steelhead: The Ultimate Guide for Winter Steelhead

Many northern fishermen pack their fishing gear up after November. King salmon season is over, better luck next year. But for steelhead fishermen, the fun is just beginning. Steelhead may not grow to be as big as salmon, but they put up just as good of fight – especially on fly gear. And especially if you’re nymphing for steelhead.

If you’re an experienced northwest fisherman, you’ve probably heard of nymphing for steelhead. But what is it exactly? And what do you need to go nymphing for steelhead? We’ll cover all that and more below! See nymphing for steelhead is one of the most effective ways of catching the fish from October to May.

That’s right, one of the best times to catch steelhead is during the winter! Which means that you can continue to fish when everyone else has given up. As long as you come prepared to fish in the winter (we’ll cover what you need for that too), you’ll have a blast.

We’ll first start out with a brief overview of what steelhead are, then get into how to go nymphing for steelhead in the winter.

What are Steelhead?

Steelhead are a type of native rainbow trout that migrate to the ocean as young fish and return to freshwater as adults to spawn. They have streamlined bodies that are silver with less of a rainbow tint than rainbow trout have. Baby steelhead look basically like rainbow trout.

Author Note: Their pilgrimage to seawater as young fish allows them to reach much larger sizes than mainland rainbow trout, with some reaching up to 30+ pounds! This makes them even more fun to catch on a nymphing setup.

Often different colonies steelhead are categorized into “runs” by state according to how many trips they make to the ocean. The more runs they make to the ocean before spawning, the larger they grow – just like salmon.

Steelhead begin hanging out in rivers as early as August and September before spawning between October and May. This spawning season is when you’ll want to go nymphing for them. 

Where to Go Nymphing for Steelhead

Southern California Steelhead

Before we dive into the best nymphing set up for winter steelhead, we thought it makes to give a quick overview of where to find steelhead. We have a much more detailed article on how to fish for all types of trout, but here’s a quick summary of the best places to go nymphing for steelhead.

  • Steelhead trout can be found in both the ocean and in rivers, but you’ll want to go nymphing for them in rivers.
  • Nymphing works best in the parts of the river where there aren’t a ton of underwater obstacles.
  • As you’ll soon learn, you want your nymph to be able to dead drift a long distance down the river. This not only allows you to cover a lot of water, but it also is a more relaxed way of fly fishing.
  • Look for broken water that is out of pace with the rest of the river. This is a common spot for nymphs and eggs to end out of cover and a hunting ground for hungry steelhead.

What Gear Do I Need to Go Nymphing?

Now that you know exactly what steelhead are and where you can find them for nymphing, let’s go over the gear you’ll need. It’s worth noting that a steelhead swinging fly rod setup will also work fine, but if you’re specifically buying gear to go nymphing this is what you should get.

Fly Rod and Reel

We like fishing with a 9 or 10 foot steelhead rod that is eight weight. This size rod will give you the strength to combat a tough steelhead, while still having the agility to cast your nymph into smaller spots on the river. It’s also light enough that you will feel a tentative steelhead bite and be able to react in time.

Author Note: You can also work with an 11 foot rod if you want to give yourself a bit more range in casting. You just won’t have the same dexterity and sensitivity to feel bites as you would with a shorter rod.

For reels, most medium-sized or entry-level fly reels will work. If you already have a salmon fly fishing setup (perhaps for bead fishingarctic grayling, or saltwater fly fishing) this will work great. 

Fly Line and Nymph Leader Setup

Steelhead trout

Setting up your line for a nymphing setup isn’t very complicated. After loading your backing onto your reel, add a 10 lb leader that is the total length of the rod you are using with an additional 30”. If you want to add a little more dexterity you can shorten the leader by 6” to 12”.

Next, add a small barrel swivel and tie on another 30” of tippet. Then add your nymphing fly and you are good to go!

Fly Patterns for Nymphing

We always like to ask a local tackle shop what flies are working well for steelhead, but we also always have the below fly patterns in our tackle box too. These are pretty common patterns you should be able to find at most fly shops

Don’t forget to buy several in case you lose or break one!

  1. Pheasant-tailed Nymph
  2. Glo Bug
  3. Rubber Leg Prince Nymph
  4. Holy Grail
  5. Steelhead Hammer
  6. Hare’s Ear Nymph
  7. Tunghead Stonefly

Master The Technique

Now that you have all the right gear and flies to go nymphing, let’s go over the actual technique for nymphing. As we mentioned earlier, the goal is to achieve a long dead drift of your nymph through the water where the steelhead are. 

Cast your nymph up river above where you think the steelhead are at. Let your nymphs sink and drift through the water. Be sure to follow where the nymph is with your rod tip! This will ensure you feel any bites or bumps while the nymph is drifting.

The colder the weather, the more often the steelhead will be hanging out in the deeper portions of water close to the breakwater. Cast your nymph above these areas and let it slowly drift through them. You don’t want your line to be tight, but it should be completely slack either. 

If you get lazy and let your line go too slack, you won’t be able to feel a tentative steelhead bite your nymph. The opposite is true if you keep your line too tight. The nymph won’t look natural while drifting through the water.

Author Note: If you have been casting your fly for 30 minutes or so and haven’t gotten any action, feel free to move downriver to other locations that look promising. You can also try mixing it with a Glo Bug or bead fly if you have them. 

Sometimes simplifying changing the color of your fly can make all the difference while nymphing for steelhead.

Additional Tips for Nymphing for Steelhead

Steelhead trout or Rainbow trout close-up floating under water

On top of what we just played out above, here are some additional tips you should follow while nymphing for steelhead. Some of these are no-brainers, but should still be said just in case.

  • If you miss a potential bite, cast your nymph exactly as you did before. Steelhead in the winter often hole up in the same location and are lazy.
  • Be sure to sharpen your hooks before each time you go fishing! You don’t want to lose a fish because your hook was dull.
  • If you aren’t getting any bites, try switching to a smaller fly. Sometimes steelhead are nervous about biting large flies (even big fish) so try sizing down and see what happens.
  • Scout the locations you plan on fishing ahead of time to see where the good spots are. This will save you time and energy on the day you plan on fishing.
  • If someone was just fishing a spot and left, don’t be afraid to fish right him/her. You don’t know what his setup was or if he was doing something incorrectly!

How to Stay Warm While Nymphing for Steelhead

Having warm clothes may seem like a no-brainer when fishing during the winter, but we’re always surprised at how cold we get when casting in the middle of an icy river.

 We recommend over layering that way you can take stuff off if you get too hot. We start with a solid base layer – get insulated moisture-wicking underwear. After getting insulated long underwear, pick out a pair of waders that will not only keep you dry – but will also keep you warm.

Even if the temperatures are above freezing, you’ll be standing in very cold water sometimes up to your knees. This is a recipe for getting very cold very fast.

Match that with an equally warm jacket or parka, wool socks, and a warm hat. We also like using finger-less gloves when fly fishing in the winter. The finger-less gloves allow us to still be dexterous when tying knots or adjusting flies but keep our hands warm from the cold. 

If you decide to skip getting waders, then make sure to get waterproof and extra warm boots. Your extremities will be the first to get cold, especially if they get wet.

Parting Thoughts 

Nymphing for steelhead in the winter is arguably one of the most exciting fishing experiences you can have after October. Some pros even argue that it’s their favorite time of year because there are so few people around.

We hope after reading this article you now know how to get started nymphing for steelhead. It’s definitely a skill that takes time and practice to see results, so your best bet is to get out there and start fishing! If you would rather spin cast for steelhead, check out our article on the best spinners for steelhead.

If you have additional thoughts or comments on how you like to fly fish for steelhead, hit us up in the comments below. 

Happy Hunting!


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