Early Season Winter-Run Steelhead on the Fly

Early Season Winter-Run Steelhead on the Fly

It’s the beginning of January and you have been trudging your way through the snow going spot to spot and fishing as hard as you can. Precipitation has been falling as sleet and wet snow all day, but you are on the hunt for fresh chrome. You come to spot you are familiar with because you had scouted it out last week and figure it is a spot where a fish will slide into and rest. You make your cast and begin the swing. Just before your line straightens out parallel with the bank, you feel instant tension, and immediately your rod and reel are humming. You’re into a nice fish!.. It is an incredible feeling to be swinging your fly across a shallow bar and into a deep slot, and then suddenly feel the grab and run of a fresh Winter Steelhead as it tears downstream with your fly.

You may cringe at the thought of trying to catch a Winter Steelhead on the fly as many anglers have told you they are the fish of a thousand casts, and how difficult there are to catch on a gear rod, let alone a fly rod… But it is not as difficult as some anglers portray it. Yes, we will agree this is a fishery you will have to devote a lot of time and effort to, with often little reward, but as we know every day Steelhead fishing differs from one another. You may go ten trips without even a bite, and go the eleventh trip and catch 10 fish. This is how Steelhead fishing works. But with time and experience spent on the water, also comes more luck – There is no doubt about that. You cannot catch a fish if your line is not in the water, so make sure you cover as much as possible.

In previous newsletter articles we have gone over how to cover water with a float fishing rod and how you do not want to pass up any water that looks like a fish may hold in it. With Steelhead, they could honestly be anywhere within reason. Using a fly rod will limit some of your spots, but the same theory still applies. Whatever you can cover with a fly rod, cover it. Ideal spots consist of slower to medium walking speed water with depths of 1.5-6ft deep. Long sweeping runs, inside seams, side channels, and even pocket water are good areas to target, even with a fly rod.

Before we talk about their habits, we want to do a comparison between Salmon and Steelhead which will assist you in knowing how to fish for Steelhead. Unlike Salmon, Steelhead that have entered a river system are “normally” in no rush to spawn or do much, especially early in the season. As most Winter Run Steelhead do not spawn until the Spring time, you will often find them swimming upstream and constantly dropping back lower in the river system, or holding in some spots for a long period of time. That being said, it has been studied and proven that many EARLY season fish will swim very quickly to the upper reaches of a river system, so think about that fact when you make your early season outings. At the same time, these fish still must swim through the entire river to get here, so there are still chances to intercept them. It can be a common misunderstanding for most anglers as they do not look at them like Salmon. We constantly find Salmon swimming upstream for the simple fact that there are more of them, and they are on a time crunch to spawn. BUT, just like Salmon at the same time, Steelhead WILL move throughout the day, so do not be scared away by other anglers fishing water before you. This may all sound a bit confusing, but the message we are conveying is “you just never know.” Many factors come into effect if an angler catches a fish behind another angler: The fish did not want to bite their presentation but wanted to bite yours, the fish may have moved 5 feet closer to your fishing lane, the fish simply didn’t want to bite at that period of time, or the fish simply could have not even been there 2 minutes ago.


Now that we have covered water types and early season Steelhead habits, what flies do they bite this time of year? Well the answer is just about anything. As a general rule, there is no wrong in going with bigger and brighter patterns this time of year. Don’t forget you are hunting for very few fish, so you will want to make sure your fly is going to be seen. Flies that are between 3-6″ long are a very good go to, and one main colour we would suggest would be pink. Of course, other colours will work, but this is a good go-to. Matching the size, colour, and overall profile of the fly to the water conditions is crucial any time of the year. When in doubt, it is better to go bigger than smaller.


Single Hand Fly Rods

While not the most common way nowadays to fish for Steelhead, a single hand fly rod can still be a very effective tool when it comes to fly fishing for Steelhead, especially in smaller streams. This is how they did it before two handed rods!

Single Handed Rods

  • 9′ – 10′ Single Hand Fly Rods (7-9weight)

Rods we suggest:

  • 10' 7wt or 10' 8wt Redington Vice 
  • 10′ 8 weight Dragonfly Kamloops
  • 10' 8wt St. Croix Imperial
  • 10' 7wt Sage Foundation

Double Hand Switch Rods

These rods can be good tools for fishing in tight places that may have little to no back casting room, or areas that may be heavily treed in. Using a switch rod will assist with better line control than a single hand rod, and is nice if you do not want to use a longer spey rod.

Double Handed Rods

  • 10’6″ -11’9″ Double Hand Switch Rods (7-8weight)

Spey Rods we suggest:

  • Echo Swing 13' 7wt
  • Redington Claymore 12'6" 7wt 
  • Redington Dually II 12'6" 7wt
  • Sage Sonic 13'6" 7wt

Switch Rods we suggest:

  • Redington Dually II 11'6" 8wt/7wt
  • Sage Sonic 11'6" 7wt/8wt
  • Echo Swing 11'8" 8wt

Double Hand Spey Rods

By far one of the easier ways to fly fish for steelhead in most scenarios, a spey rod can make a day on the water better in many ways. Having a longer rod will assist with better line control, easy casting, and will allow you to cover water more thoroughly in a day.

Rods we suggest:

12’6″ – 14″0′ is a very standard length for fishing locally or on our coast for Winter Run fish. We do recommend matching a better size according to the river you are fishing. This means on average you will not necessarily want to be using a 14ft. rod on a smaller river, but would be better suited with a 12’6″ rod for example.


You will not need anything to special for this fishery. Match the correct size of reel for your rod and you are set. We would recommend a large arbor reel for good line capacity and and good line pick-up.

There are many affordable reels on the market that are perfect for this kind of fishing.

Here are some options:

  • Lamson Remix
  • Echo ION 
  • Lamson Liquid
  • Sage Spectrum C
  • Galvan Rush Series
  • Galvan Torque Series
  • Redington Behemoth 


The line you decide to fish will be a line that is most suitable for your casting preferences, and the bodies of water you are fishing. Whether it be a straight weight forward floating line, a switch line, or a Skagit head, it can be done.

Switch Heads/Lines

  • Rio Elite Skagit Max Launch
  • Rio Outbound
  • OPST Commando Head

Spey Heads/Lines

  • Rio Elite Skagit Max Power
  • Airflo Skagit Compact


When it comes to fly fishing for Winter Run Steelhead, sink tips can and usually are a fly fisherman’s best friend when it comes to catching fish. They come in virtually any length and sink rate you desire. There is a big misconception when it comes to sink tips though… A common fallacy with most anglers fishing for Winter Run Steelhead is that they have the idea that the fly must be tapping the bottom or part way through the swing anyway. WRONG. Yes, we want to be in the strike zone, but we do not want to be dragging our flies and sink tips through the rocks and fish. It is like any fishing method for steelhead, if your presentation, or in this case “fly” is a foot to 2 feet off the bottom, you are giving the best possible presentation to the fish, and yes, in most cases if they want to bite, they will move for it.

Sink-Tips (General Sink Rates)

  • T-8
  • T-11
  • T-14
  • T-17
  • T-20

Sink Tips (General Lengths)

  • 6 feet
  • 8 feet
  • 10 feet
  • 12 feet
  • 15 feet


While leader weights and types are always made out to be a large deal within the fishing community, they do not need to be as complicated as some make it out to be. Keep it simple is really all it takes. When we talk about fishing for steelhead, and early steelhead especially, having a light leader is not going to be the deciding factor of whether or not that fish will bite your fly. In order to actually fish your fly effectively in this fishery.


Fly selection can definitely vary day to day, but there are only a couple factors that determine what fly you should use. Size of the system or stream you are fishing, and the visibility and conditions of the water. Some very standard colours to use consist of brighter contrasts such as pink and orange. Darker colours like your blacks and blues can work throughout the season, but sometimes produce a bit better later in the season. Use what you are confident in, but the colours above all work well.

Need to get outfitted? Give us a call at 604-931-5044, send us an email at or drop by the shop #110-1140 Austin Avenue Coquitlam, British Columbia.

Let us know what you think and leave us a comment below.


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