7 Top Tips for Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Success

Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Success
Foggy morning on the Clackamas River.

Here are Top Tips for Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Success

Let’s face it, steelhead run numbers have been down for some time- fishing has been tough; that means you’ve got to refine your skills to be successful.  Here are our top tips for winter steelhead fly fishing success with the swung fly.

Tips for Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Success # 1

Fish with a plan.  You’ve heard that before but what does it mean?  Make a plan and fish your plan… the main goal of that fishing plan should include, be adaptable with your fishing approach so you can achieve the main goal with winter swung fly strategy- GET YOUR FLY DEEP ENOUGH to be in the zone for success.  Ask yourself, How deep is my fly?  How is my fly moving through the run?  Too fast, too slow?

One of the most important aspects for winter steelhead-spey success is to get your fly down at least half the depth of the water.  Steelhead are often in 3-5’ of water and holding near the bottom.  Getting your fly at least half that depth is critical in winter.  This is not the same game as summer when fish will rise to the surface to grab your fly.  Getting the fly deep requires a combination of the right swing speed, the right sink tip and the right fly matched to the proper speed of steelhead water.

Try adjusting your sink tip and the weight of your fly to be sure your fly is getting down deep enough for success.

The best way to know how deep your fly is – is by using the Sink Tip Test.  We show you how to do this in our ebook video “5 Steps to Winter Spey Success”  You can get the book and see a free book PREVIEW here. 

Tips for Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Success # 2

Keep moving through the run. This is one big one that makes such a difference.  What many people don’t see is that the way you efficiently progress through a piece of water is how you trigger a response from a resting steelhead.  Covering water helps you find those fish.  Think of it as a hunt.  You are searching for these guys, it’s a different mindset from trout fishing.

Just because the water is cold doesn’t mean you stand in one spot and cast over and over.  Keep moving through the run.

Tips for Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Success # 3

Be prepared and watch the water levels.  I like fishing the Clackamas river from 13′ or less.  See the Clackamas River water levels here.   The old Boy Scout motto is so good here, we see anglers spend so much time fussing with their gear and not fishing.  Don’t miss valuable fishing time because your digging in your gear looking for something or you forgot your glasses and it’s taking you 15 minutes to tie a knot…Winter steelhead gear is easy; grab some flies, sink tips, line cutter, hook file, tippet and you are ready to go.

Tips for Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Success #4

Have the right clothing. It’s winter, it will be cold and often it is raining. Count on it.  That’s the way it is.  Do yourself a favor and have lots of layers and a good waterproof gear to keep you dry.  Staying dry and keeping your core warm are essential.  Be sure to take those gloves off when you handle a fish- wet gloves suck and they are not good on the fish’s protective slime coating either.

Consider electric hand warmers- these babies are gold on a cold day!

Tips for Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Success #5

Fish the right water. Reading steelhead water during the winter gets a bit tougher if your used to the sweet and easy flows of summer and fall.  Winter water levels can get high and nasty and you’ve got to adjust.  They can also get super low and clear so knowing how to fish a piece of water that’s significantly softer flow and shallower than it was last time is important.

The key is to find the right speed and depth during any winter conditions.  Look for walking speed water.  Too fast or too slow can mean zero fish.  Find the sweet spot and find the fish.  With big water fluctuations of winter this “sweet spot” may move.

When water levels are low look for those deeper spots often cued by the green water zones.

Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Success Tip #6

Swing your fly with purpose.  Think about the speed and manage your swing. So often anglers get out there and once the cast is done they literally check out.  Holding on just hoping for a grab.  Instead be actively engaged with the line speed and movement across the water thinking about how the fly is moving.  Each time you move the rod it impacts the fly and how it is positioned in the water.  This is the MOST important thing, it is the swing (how your fly moves in the water) that gets the fish to eat it.  Think about your swing, analyze it and focus on it.

Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Success Tip #7

When you get the grab don’t mess it up! This is such a precious moment in time and Lord knows these times don’t come easy.  A couple things to remember about the steelhead grab.  You’ll get all kinds of different types of grabs from steelhead.  Some are serious yanks that just about rip the rod out of your hands some are light taps you’d swear were 6” cutthroat.

The most common is a soft tug, followed by a harder tug, followed by the line coming tight and a solid steady pull.  The most important thing to remember here is to remain patient.  Most often anglers ruin this opportunity by setting the hook too early in the exchange.  Wait until you feel the heaviness of the fish solidly on the line before carefully putting a bend in the rod to seal the deal.

For a great fly fishing experience come join us for a guided fly fishing trip this winter!  See notes about our winter steelhead guided trips or see more of Water Time Outfitters year round fly fishing experiences.  Come join us!

If you’d like to fish with more confidence and stop wondering if you are doing the “Winter Steelhead thing” right get your new E-book, “5 Steps to Winter Spey Success.”  We teach you how to build an arsenal of fishing options that you can utilize through the varied water conditions you’ll encounter during winter.  Check out the FREE PREVIEW and see if this book is for you.



Our new E-book shows you how to find Winter steelhead fly fishing success.

See the video for the new E-book:  https://vimeo.com/898955185?share=copy



Scroll to Top

Ask a Question