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The Best Steelhead Fly Fishing Setup: Complete Guide

Steelhead are one of the most prized light-tackle fish to fly fish for in North America. They fight like crazy and grow to be much larger than other species of trout. If you thought hooking one on normal tackle was fun, just wait until you hook your first steelhead on a fly fishing setup. The ferocity of having a 15 lb steelhead on the end of your light fly fishing tackle is exhilarating.

But what’s the proper setup for fly fishing for steelhead? We’ve done the research and put together the following guide that shows you not only what the best steelhead fly fishing setup is, but also what steelhead like to eat, where they hang out, and more! Get ready to be a steelhead fly fishing pro.

What are Steelhead?

Steelhead are actually 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 silvery in color with less of a rainbow tint than rainbow trout.

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! Often steelhead are categorized into different “runs” by state according to how many runs they make to the ocean.

The more runs they make to the ocean before spawning, the larger they grow. 

Author Note: Often steelhead begin hanging out in rivers as early as June and July before spawning in October and November. They can also be caught in the winter months, but the fish are less active and more particular on the types of flies they’ll eat.

Due to artificial steelhead/rainbow trout can be found throughout the United States, and are not just relegated to Pacific Ocean tributaries and inlets.

One of the most well-known areas that host steelhead today due to stocking would be the Great Lakes, where they now proliferate and head into tributaries to spawn, with high natural reproduction levels.

The reason they are known by two different names is due to their lifestyles, with steelhead being anadromous and moving from freshwater rivers to the ocean. Rainbow trout on the other hand spend most if not all of their lives in freshwater. For these reasons, they were given different names.

Where to Catch Steelhead

Before we dive into the best fly fishing setup for 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.

  • Steelhead trout can be found in both the ocean and in rivers.
  • Depending on the time of year, steelhead enjoy feeding and living in both shallow and deep water.
  • In the spring to fall months, look for steelhead in rivers and estuaries. In the winter steelhead will often be in the ocean or near river inlets on the coast.

Steelhead can often be found around ripple areas, and areas out of the main river current like eddies, the inside corners of a river bend, and round timber and other structure.

Pro Tip: Be sure to fish around multiple different spots to find out where the fish are on any given day.

What’s the Best Fly Fishing Setup for Steelhead?

Alright, so what’s the best type of fly to use for steelhead? As with many things, the answer is that it depends. The time of year you’re fishing, if it’s in the ocean or river, even the time of day can make a big difference. We’ll cover the best types of flies for all situations.

These rigs will also work for steelhead no matter where they live, whether that be the Great Lakes or the Pacific coast.

Steelhead Fly Fishing for Rivers

Idaho steelhead trout caught

There are several different methods that work particularly well for steelhead in rivers. We’ll go through them in detail below.

The Duck and Chuck

The duck and chuck is one of the most common fly fishing techniques for steelhead in both the Great Lakes region and elsewhere in North America. Depending on if you use it in a small river or large river, there are two different setups.

Small river duck and chuck: Use a 7 to 8 ft long butt section of the #12 line attached to your running line. On the other end attach a split shot and a barrel swivel. Then attach a 20 to 26” tippet with your first fly on the end. After that, attach a 20 to 24” tippet with your presentation fly on the end of it. Using two flies increases your chance of a hookup and allows you to use two different insect types if you want.

Large river duck and chuck: For larger rivers (8 to 12 feet deep), use an 8 to 12 ft long butt section of #12 line attached to your running line. On the other end attach a snap swivel with a piece of pencil lead to help sink your flies in the deeper water. The snap swivel should be able to slide on your line to prevent snags.

After the snap swivel, thread a plastic bead onto your line, then tie a barrel swivel onto the end. Then attach a 30 to 36” tippet with your first fly on the end. After that, attach a 20 to 24” tippet with your presentation fly on the end of it.

As with the smaller river setup, using two flies increases your chance of a hookup and allows you to use two different insect types if you want.

Floating Line Method

Author Note: The floating line method is a more traditional presentation of a fly on the surface of the water. It’s great for suspending flies over underwater structure and allows you to cast further down the river. 

Start with an 8 ft 10-pound test tapered leader, then attach a split shot onto the end with a snap swivel. After that tie a 30” tippet with your first fly tied onto the end. Then add your second fly tied onto a 20 to 24” tippet. You can also add a strike indicator/small bobber to the butt section of your leader, but this is entirely optional.

Swinging Flies Method

Swinging flies can also work wonders with steelhead when the other heavier methods aren’t getting them to bite. It’s also the predominant technique when nymphing for steelhead in the winter or fishing for Dolly Varden.

Start with a sinking fly line then add 18 inches of 20 lb test, 12 inches of 15 lb test, and 30 inches of 12 lb test for a leader. Each section should be tied with a blood knot and the fly attached with your favorite secure knot.

Cast your fly with a normal swinging technique. Swinging works especially well in fast-moving water as it allows you to feel a bite on a surface fly.

General River Steelhead Fly Fishing Tips

  • Be sure to sharpen your hooks before you fish!
  • Try switching to a smaller fly if the fish aren’t biting. Look for patterns similar to local fish flies or mayflies.
  • If you find a patch of the river where fish are biting, mark it! They’ll be there year after year.
  • Fish closer to the surface in the mornings and evenings.
  • Practice makes perfect! If conditions prevent you from fishing, take some time to practice your cast.

Steelhead Fly Fishing for the Ocean

steelhead in net

You can also fly fish for steelhead in the ocean if you have the correct steelhead fly fishing setup. For surf fly fishing, find a spot on the shoreline that’s close to a river outlet. This is where the steelhead will like to congregate before they go upstream.

As far as fly setup goes, use a similar setup to the swing fly fishing method but use a different type of fly. Flies with bright colored streamers, size 2 hooks, and beaded eyes will work best for sea-going steelhead.

Many of these steelhead are actively feeding and will go after flies that look like a small crustaceans or baitfish. Cast your fly out into the surf and strip line to imitate a wounded baitfish.

Final Thoughts

Fly fishing for steelhead can be challenging. Many times you’ll be able to see the fish, but they won’t be interested in your fly fishing setup. Hopefully, after reading this article, you now know how to fly fish for steelhead in a variety of situations.

Practice makes perfect, and the more you use these rigs and methods the better you will get at fishing with them.

Author Note: If you’d rather fish for steelhead using traditional spinning tackle, be sure to check out our guide on the best steelhead rods, best trout fishing rods, and best spinners for steelhead. Catch a monster steelhead using our fly fishing advice? Share your story with us in the comments below.

Happy Hunting!


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