Small Flies For Big Steelhead

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

“Most people think, to catch a big fish you have to tie on a Woolly Bugger.” – Christopher Guest 

Every year some fly fishing magazine publishes an article about fishing small flies for big fish. The quote above, from Christopher Guest’s 2000 film “Best In Show,” cracked me up because I had read the article in Fly Fisherman that he went on to quote word for word. If you are not familiar with the film, I highly recommend it.

I wouldn’t say it’s news that small flies catch big fish. Of course, big flies catch big fish, too, and an effective angler is the one who knows how to match the size of their fly to the conditions. Fly size alone is not a guarantee of catching fish, large or small. When it comes to summer steelhead, there are some pretty good reasons to consider sizing down.

It’s pretty well documented that summer run fish will eat flies who’s size might be more associated with resident trout. There are plenty of theories about why that is. I’m a pragmatist, and I think it’s likely they eat them for the same reason the trout do. Because they more accurately resemble what the fish see around them. 

Fishing a big squid pattern to a winter fish, who has likely only been in fresh water for a day or two makes sense. Summer fish spend months in the river. They wouldn’t have seen a lot of squid around but they are likely seeing a lot of aquatic insects in the size 4-8 range. Unlike trout, the steelhead is not feeding, but it would be foolish to think that flies are the only thing they are snapping at. For whatever reason they bite, they bite what’s at hand, so imitation makes sense.

Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

Small flies, especially on a floating line, are a pleasure to cast, which is reason enough to give them a try. The main reason I like fishing these flies on a floating line is the way the fish eat. When you fish a small fly on a light line, you are fishing just inches below the surface. When a steelhead comes up through six feet of fast water to eat the fly, there is only one way for him to do it. Hard. These kinds of grabs are exciting and that’s why I’m out there.

Most anglers associate small flies with twilight and dusk, fishing floating lines while the light is off the water. That’s fun and effective, but these small patterns can save a trip when bright sun and low water make fishing really tough. Combining a small pattern with a sink tip during the heat of the day can produce a fish when larger flies can’t. 

I think it’s also true that summer fish see a lot of flies, and most of those flies are large. In general, I think there is always something to be said for showing a fish something different than other anglers. Pretty much everything we “know” about why steelhead eat a fly is speculation, but it stands to reason that if a fish has been stung by an Intruder, it might avoid them for a while.


For me, steelhead flies fall into two basic categories. Tubes and traditional. Each has its merits and both are effective. Tube flies are economical, as they save on hooks. I enjoy tying and fishing traditional flies just because they are cool.

Screen-Shot-2018-06-05-at-5.03.07-PMYou can get as fancy as you like with tube flies but it’s hard to tie anything more effective than a simple marabou tube. For summer fish, my favorite colors are red and black.

Traditional patterns like the Steelhead Coachman are still as deadly as ever. Flies like the Undertaker are always a great choice. My personal favorite is a little red Hairwing. It has treated me very well for years.

We fish a lot of small flies and floating lines on our annual Deschutes Steelhead Camp. If this kind of fishing sounds fun to you, why not join us in September. Check out the Hosted Trips page for more info.

Louis Cahill

Gink & Gasoline
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4 thoughts on “Small Flies For Big Steelhead

  1. Spot on, Louis! I love fishing small traditional flies on a floating line for steelhead. The old Green Butt Skunk (especially tied on a gold Alec Jackson Spey hook) works great on the storied waters of the Babine for seriously gagger steelhead. In Tierra Del Fuego on the Rio Grande, interestingly enough, last February we were catching 20 pound sea-run browns on size 16 scuds! Seriously, size 16 (with 15 pound fluorocarbon tippet). Not easy to land, and you lose a few, but good fun on small flies. Loving it!

  2. Pingback: Small Flies for Big Steelhead | MidCurrent

  3. Great artcle. Presentation is clear & concise. One question (& maybe I missed a relevant sentence or two), how close to the split shot (min) do you position the 12″ dropper?

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