Beginners guide to Spey fishing for Steelhead

Spey fishing for Steelhead is not complicated.  There are a few things that are important for you to know if you havent done it before.   Some will seem ridiculously obvious but they are so absolutely vital that they need to be in the forefront of your mind while you are Spey fishing for Steelhead.

There has to be Steelhead in the river that are willing to bite your fly.

There are rivers that are known for producing Steelhead that will readily, aggressively, attack your fly.  These are the rivers where you’ll want to Spey fish for Steelhead.

There are other rivers that produce Steelhead that may not be so enthusiastic about attacking your fly.  Recognize that.

Reading water and understanding what kind of water Steelhead hold in is important.  It’s important, but not that difficult.  So don’t fret, we will cover that.

How your fly is presented to the fish is important.  But it’s far from rocket science.  If you can figure out how to catch a Trout on a Rooster Tail with a Spin outfit you can easily learn how to present your fly to the Steelhead to make him bite.

The single most important factor in Spey fishing for Steelhead with a swung fly is persistence.  To say Steelhead are the fish of one thousand casts is an exaggeration. They are the fish of two thousand casts at least.  Often more, so If you enjoy casting you won’t be disappointed. To be successful you must not quit.

With swinging, you are seeking to draw the fish off it’s lie to take your fly. Typically, a smaller percentage of fish sitting in a run are willing to move off station to take our flies so, when we are swinging, we are leaving money on the table as we search for the players in a run…Todd Hirono (808steelheader)

Reading water….besides recognizing walking pace water 2’ to 6’ deep there are other things you can do to find water that holds fish.


Fish the pull-offs.  If you’re wanting to fish a river known for holding Steelhead you’ll have pretty good luck fishing at the places where other vehicles have pulled off the side of the road.  Fish these places.  But if you hike down to the river only to find that the run is too deep for a swung fly presentation, forget about it and keep looking for that walking pace water 2’ to 6’ feet deep. If you can find a good long run to fish that matches the above criteria, concentrate on fishing that stretch.

Cover the water like a madman.  There are many, many ways to cover water.  You can actually cover the water wrong and still have a decent chance at catching a Steelhead.  But the best approach is to methodically swing your fly through as much of the water as possible to cover all of the areas that might hold a fish.  

Ok, I’m not going to leave you hanging, I’m going to tell you a good way to present your fly to the fish.  Let’s say you’re wading up to your shins, because until you actually develop an intimate knowledge of the water you’re trying to master you might end up wading into the actual fish which would suck because you might have been able to swing your fly by his nose with just a few feet of line out and catch him. If you wade out too deep too quick you may step into his little sanctuary and spook him away.  He may be the only fish in the entire run.  Relax, we have all done that.  But realize these fish sometimes hold in very shallow water.

What fly should I use to Spey fish for Steelhead?  A Hobo Spey is a good choice or a Marabou Spider such as the one Jay Nicholas is tying in the above video.  Black is a good color, but so is blue and purple is awesome.  So pick one that you think is pretty and stick with it.  Really, any fly will do. If the water is murky you may want a bigger fly and if the water is clear you might want a smaller fly, but don’t get obsessed about the fly because that’s the least of your worries.

What sink tip should I use?  If the water is 50 degrees Fahrenheit or above you don’t need a sink tip unless the sun is pounding brightly overhead on the water.  A floating line is fine.

Your fly doesn’t have to swing insanely deep because your looking for one fish that’s just crazy enough to leave his rock and crush it.  

If you can get your Marabou Spider to swim underwater you will be fine.  At least that’s about all I care about. If the water is below 50 degrees Fahrenheit you might want to use a sink tip.  

We are not trying to dredge the bottom of the river with our fly bouncing along the bottom, hoping to tumble our offering onto the nose of a fish.  

We are just getting our fly deep enough on the swing so the fish doesn’t have to swim too far to attack, especially when water temps are cold.   You don’t have to cast your fly directly across the river at 90 degree angle.  Cast down stream at about 45 to 55 degrees.  

After you cast you will notice that the walking speed water is now pushing your line downstream faster than your actual fly is moving. Pretty soon, if you don’t do anything about it your line will be moving so fast that the fly will whiplash down stream when your line system becomes taught.  

 This is actually not the worse thing in the world that could happen.  When your fly is in whiplash mode it may entice the craziest fish in the river to explode into it.  

That is one way you might catch a fish.  But, if the river is not brimming with maniac fish a better approach might be to pitch your line back up stream after your cast so the fly swims through the fish holding zone slow enough that the fish has a chance of catching it.

 Pitching your line upstream after the cast is called “mending” the line.  So cast about 45 degrees more or less, and throw in a mend so your line doesn’t get swept down river ahead of your fly.   You might have to throw in a couple mends if the current is on the high end of the walking speed scale, or if its on the slower end of the spectrum you may not need to mend at all.  

But if there is a huge bow in your fly line in fairly fast water your fly might swim too fast for the average Joe Steelhead to even try to eat.  

The important thing is to keep the fly in the water and after a hearty mend or two leave it alone and let it swing through the run until it is directly below you.  

It’s not a bad idea to hold your rod out and point it at the far bank keeping tension in your line and help that fly move slowly through that zone.  

Think of it this way. If you had a rod that was 25 feet long you could reach out with it, after your upstream mend, far across out into the river almost directly upstream from your fly and control the speed of that fly by moving the rod tip ever so slowly downstream, not allowing the current to hit your line at a side angle and put that big bow in it.

That is the beauty of Spey rods.  A 13′ Spey rod has much more mending reach than a 9′ single hander. You have fabulous line control and can manipulate the speed of the fly, giving the fish a nice long look at the target.  Let the fly swing slowly until it is directly downstream from you, close to the bank. This is called the dangle. Let your fly hang down on the dangle for a few seconds then strip it in, (holding on just in case).  

Take a step or two downstream and repeat the process.  Cover the water thoroughly. If you take too many steps between casts and get sloppy you could leave a gap in your coverage and potentially miss a place where a fish is holding.  I would fish the way I just described if you are just starting out.  Especially if the water is on the cooler side, like under 45 degrees Fahrenheit because colder water may slow the fish down enough that they aren’t as willing to swim a long way to attack.

Of course there is an alternative plan and that would be to cover the water a little faster.  The problem is we don’t know if the fish are in the run and covering water thoroughly does you no good if there are no fish around.  So we have to cover enough water to find a fish but if we are too haphazard and skip sections of the run by taking to many steps between casts we may not give that Phsyco fish we are counting on to hammer our fly a chance to even see the fly.  It is a delicate dance.  But it’s all a part of the fun.

When you’ve had some success you will develop your own style and pace as you learn where the fish are more likely to lie and where they may be less likely to lie, but there is still a chance, so you cover the water.

Don’t always go changing tactics if somebody is catching fish in the run and you’re not.

 There is luck involved here.  Fish move around continually and the best fisherman in the world can work through a run and miss a fish for whatever reason.

Confidence.  There has been much said about confidence but until you catch a fish you might not have any confidence. So you must have perseverance and cast and mend swing and step until the right fish comes along.  It’s all about persistence.

 Realize that some of the best fishermen on the planet can get skunked day after day after day.

Have a plan.  You need to decide what your are going to do when a fish takes your fly.  Think about it, imagine it and practice in your mind before a fish strikes so you don’t panic and set the hook like a flailing madman.  

If you fish with a drag, have it tight enough that it doesn’t free-spool when a fish swims away with your fly and loose enough that he doesn’t break the fly off.  That should go without saying but it’s an important step in the process and can’t be skipped if you want to be successful.  

The fish you land usually hook themselves so keep your hooks sharp, make sure your fly is swinging properly and that your stinger hook is not fouled but is hanging down properly on the swim.  If it’s wrong you should be able to notice the difference when it’s swinging.  Check it once in awhile.

Work the run several times, particularly if it’s a good long run.

Fish move into a run or into different parts of a run and sometimes due to conditions we have no control over, a great cosmic invisible switch is tripped and for reasons known only to the fish, they decide to eat your fly, so don’t be afraid to work a run 3 or 4 times.

Sink Tips, part 2.  It’s difficult to recommend a sink tip because a small river with walking pace Steelhead water is different than a large river.  Two runs on two different sized rivers may have similar looking characteristics but your big river sink tip may hang up in smaller rivers.  

You don’t want or need your fly hanging up on rocks or the bottom all of the time. I don’t like mine hanging up at all.  If the water is really cold and it’s winter a popular sink tip for large weighted flies ist 12’ of T11 (your weighted hobo spey would fit into this category)

10’ or 12′ of t8 will also work for your weighted fly.  If your fly is not weighted and the water is very cold a longer sink tip, say 13 or 14’ of t8 would be a good choice or a 15’ type 6 or type 8 would be a good choice.  If you find yourself hanging up in smaller water a 15’ type 3 tip is a good choice or even a 10 footer.

On your sink tips 3’ of straight Maxima Ultragreen 10-12 lb test is all you need.

For a floating line use 9’ to 12′ of Maxima Ultragreen of 10-12lb test.

Wear a pfd

Don’t stop until you feel that tug. Once you get that first big tug or land your first Steelhead you will begin to develop some confidence and you will be on your way to becoming a successful Steelhead fisherman.


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