Steelhead Flies, Half As Much

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

When the rain won’t stop, the light is failing and the river swelling, steel headers drink whisky and stare darkly into their fly boxes.

Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but we all do it. I spent an evening like this with a group of friends recently. One of the guys had just started tying his own steelhead flies and they were pretty nice. Beautifully tapered, undulating forms with ostrich hurl and marabou and jungle cock eyes. They looked pretty deadly.

He would sort carefully through the box, selecting the perfect specimen, and passing it to Barrett, our guide. Barrett would give each fly a brief glance and toss it carelessly back across the table.

“Half as much,” he’d say and go back to his drink.

“They’re great flies,” he went on, “and they’ll catch fish, just not as many fish.”  The reason is pretty simple. Bulky flies with lots of materials look great, but they don’t sink as quickly or as deep as sparse flies do. That’s one of the reasons simple flies often catch the most fish.

This is never more true than when swinging flies for steelhead. A fly with just enough material to create a nice tear-drop silhouette is always best. Elaborate patterns are often designed to catch anglers, not fish. It’s not just a problem for over-zealous tyers. Almost all commercial steelhead flies are over dressed.

When we’re swinging for steelhead, we aren’t matching a hatch. What we want is a fly with nice action and a natural silhouette that will get an instinctive response, and the best way to get that response is to get the fly down closer to the fish. You can tie in some jungle cock eyes if you like, but I don’t think the fish care.

Screen-Shot-2017-04-04-at-11.12.18-AMPretty much all of my winter steelheading is done with simple marabou tube flies. They are easy to tie, effective and, when tied with the right amount of materials, they are easily carried down by my sink tip. I also like being able to double them up, combining my colors on the river, not at the vise.

When tying these flies I use an under-hackle of a couple of turns of guinea. Then I strip the short fluff from the stem and tie the feather in by the butt so I use the longest fibers. Then I use just two wraps of marabou. That’s plenty.

Try this minimal approach and see if you like the results. I know I do.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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2 thoughts on “Steelhead Flies, Half As Much

  1. Another simple approach is tying a couple patterns by Great Lakes Steelheader Dave Pinczikowski’s Bad Hair Day and his Eat a Peach Leech, both patterns can be tied in a variety of colors on a tube or with a trailer hook. All it is, is basically craft fur and dubbing. I like to use a 4 bead section of bead chain.

    Reverse tie in some black craft fur on the tube or shank after you’ve attached your trailer wire. Tie in 2-4 small clumps of the craft fur, you can tie in som flashbou in between the sections of craft fur as well, then finish it with a couple clumps of some UV Orange Dubbing or Senyo’s Eat a Peach dubbing for a nice head and your done. They’re deadly for Great Lakes Steelhead!

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