Winter Steelhead Fishing

Louis Basl with an early Winter Steelhead from the Little North Santiam River – November 2014

Winter Steelhead are showing up in good numbers on the coastal rivers this month and are working their way inland to the tributaries of the Willamette River system. From now until early spring, these fish are the primary target for Oregon anglers.

On the coast, you’ll find a mix of both hatchery and wild fish.  Make sure you know the difference!  Wild fish are listed as an Endangered or Threatened Species in most of the Pacific Northwest and need to be released unharmed! Hatchery fish in Oregon will generally be missing their adipose fin, clipped when they are fingerlings and prior to release into the river system.

Inland, most of the steelhead in the system from January through April are wild and cannot be retained, however, you will find a few holdover hatchery summer steelhead from last year or very early returning hatchery fish from this years run.

Know how to identify fish and know the regulations for the river you are fishing! You’ll save yourself a load of legal problems.  More importantly though, you’ll be helping the threatened/endangered wild steelhead to continue on it’s journey to spawn and create the next generation of fish.

Image courtesy of

For the most part, I consider myself a “traditional” fly angler.  But when it comes to catching winter steelhead, one of the most effective methods is using a bead under an indicator.

I like the selection of beads available from in the 8 mm and 10 mm sizes and stick to the pink, orange and red color variations.

The new indicators from AirLock are awesome!  They are easy to put on, take off and adjust as water depth changes.

Be sure to “peg” your beads above the hook.  Fish will generally inhale the egg, but if your bead is pegged, you reduce the chances of hooking a fish too deep and causing internal damage.  As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the fish you catch in the winter months will be wild fish that need to be released.

I prefer a single hand  7 or 8 wt. rod with WF floating line for throwing beads.  Use 9 ft. 0X tapered leader and 0X tippet.  Size 4 or 6 hooks are the norm.

Swung files for winter steelheading are generally large, colorful patterns.  You are often fishing in high, off-color water and need to get the fish’s attention.  Intruders, leaches and big hairwings are just  the ticket in the winter months.

Bunny Matuka’s from Oregon Outdoor Excursions

The Bunny Matuka fly fits the bill nicely.  Tied on Alec Jackson 1.5 steelhead/salmon hooks, this fly is big.  With the full length Rabbit Zonker wing, this fly has a lot of movement and displaces a bunch of water.  I like to tie it to the leader with a loop knot for even more movement.  A little krystal flash along the wing gives it just enough eye catching sparkle.

A couple of my other favorite patterns are the Metal Butt Skunk , a variation on the old Green Butted Skunk pattern and a very old traditional pattern – the  General Practitioner.

In my opinion, fly color is in the “eye of the beholder”.  Ask 10 steelheader’s what their go -to color is and you’ll get 7 different answers.  I like dark colors myself – Black/Blue, Black/Red, Black/Purple.  As a change up, Pink/White/Silver combinations are a good choice.  But take a trip with my good buddy Rich Youngers and my guess is he’ll be tying on something that’s Pink/Yellow or Pale Salmon to the end of your leader.  Pick something that looks good to you and fish it with confidence!

Presentation of the fly is 10 times more important than the color.  Put the fly in front of the fish at the depth and speed that it prefers and you’ll get some grabs!

Unless the river is low and clear, I recommend using sinking lines or sink tips on a floating line when swinging flies in the winter months if using single hand rods.

I prefer 7 or 8 wt. spey or switch rods for swinging flies to winter steelhead.  Most often, you’ll see me with a 13′ 6″ – 7 wt. spey rod rigged with a short Skagit shooting head.  I carry a variety of tips from intermediate to full sink for varying water conditions.

Neither method (beads or swing) is effective when the rivers are blown out.  Keep a close eye on the river levels.  Every river has a “sweet spot” and you can tell pretty easy when that is. That’s when you find every parking lot full of trailers and every turn out with a rig or two parked there.  When you see that, go online and look up the river level (flow / depth).  Lock that in your memory bank.In general, you want the river to be dropping and beginning to clear from brown to green (aka Steelhead Green).

Get out there when the conditions present themselves and start racking up the casts. Eventually you’ll get a grab.

Tight Lines!




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