Secrets to Successful Fly Fishing for Steelhead

Spring Steelhead being tailed for release while fly fishing for steelhead.
Tailing a spring steelhead to release while fly fishing for steelhead.

Fly Fishing for Steelhead is All About Hope and Timing 

When fly fishing for steelhead, timing is everything and hope is just that– hope.  Every year I look forward to traveling out to the Lake Ontario tributaries to chase the steelhead run, yet when you have to schedule time off in advance— you hope to get the timing right.

Luck of the Draw

Good Timing

Sometimes my timing is perfect, yielding days on the water that coincided with the spawning activity of plenty of eager steelies.   On one memorable day, while fly fishing for steelhead, the soft hackle steelhead patterns that I had tied up for the trip were working exceptionally well, and I ended up hooking a double digit number of steelhead and landed a good number of them.  The reason I’ll never forget this day is that a fly fishing pattern that I came up with was called the “Smurf” and even my buddy Jim Kelso was amazed that the steelhead would hit a light blue colored fly!

Bad Timing

On other days, my timing was not very good and the conditions were not right for a good day of spring fly fishing for steelhead.  Even the fly that worked so well a couple of years back has been a letdown lately. That’s the way it goes for spring steelhead fishing, you have to be there under the right conditions and fish with the right presentation, or you’ve wasted a day off.  Fortunately, with a little understanding of the habits of these beautiful lake-run rainbows, you can optimize your chances for a good time fly fishing for steelhead on the water.

When Do Steelhead Spawn

Winter Steelhead Vs. Spring Steelhead Fishing

While steelhead are in many streams all winter long, the peak activity for the spring steelhead run gets started in the end of March and typically continues well into the month of April.  In some years, steelies can be caught all the way into May, but this is usually not always the case.  

West to East Peak Fishing

The streams on the western end of Lake Ontario often peak before the streams on the eastern side, so most anglers fly fishing for steelhead in the spring typically end up following the action in that fashion.  A stream that was awesome last week might be finished by the time you get there.  

Rising and Falling Water Temperatures

When do steelhead spaen? That depends on water temperatures. Water temperatures have a lot to do with how the steelhead will react to flies and when they will spawn.  When the water is really cold (down into the 30 degree range) steelhead are not as active, making them less willing to hit.  When the temperatures hit the 40’s they become more active and start exhibiting spawning behavior.  Temperatures in the 50 degree range trigger them to finish spawning and trigger their descent downstream to the lake.  

Water Levels and Flow

So basically, if you get a quick spring thaw and things get warm in a hurry, the steelhead season will usually be short.  A slower warm-up will extend the season longer.  On top of the temperature conditions, stream flows play a big factor in how good the fishing is, including water color and clarity.  Some of the tributary streams have releases from a dam, so water levels are a little more predictable.  Streams where the flow is the result of rain levels and snow melt need the high water to draw in fish, but if it is too high it is hard to fight and land fish.

Pre-Spawn Steelhead

Steelhead spawning activity determines how you fish.  When the fish are in pre-spawn mode, they are not as aggressive and you have to scale down the spring steelhead flies and slow up the presentation.  When they are under these conditions, fishing with tiny egg patterns or with nymphs slowly ticking along the bottom works best.

Spawning Steelhead are Aggressive

Once they get ready to spawn they become much more aggressive, the males in particular.  They will smack anything that threatens their nest.  We try to avoid catching females at this time and target the males which are stacked up downstream of active redds.  Faster presentations with bigger, brighter spring steelhead flies work well at this time.  Streamer fishing on a down and across swing, either with a dead drift or with a little action imparted by a couple of strips will often draw a strike.  

Other Fish Species

Another interesting factor is that the steelhead run this time of year overlaps with the run of a number of other species.  For example, two years ago I caught the biggest walleye I’ve ever hooked on the fly rod.  The double-digit sized walleye didn’t realize he wasn’t supposed to hit an egg pattern and was promptly released because the season was closed.  The walleyes are mixed in with suckers, and of course, spawning steelhead during the spring months.  Towards the end of the season, you often start catching a lot of suckers.  

Consequently, with all the sucker spawn in the water, flies that look like a yellow egg often produce.

Steelhead Tackle and Gear

You Need the Right Rod for Steelhead

For most fly fishing anglers, the perfect steelhead rod is a bit of an enigma.  It needs plenty of backbone in the butt section to fight the fish with, yet must have ample flex in the tip section.  If the rod is too stiff, you end up breaking off a lot of fish because fly fishing for steelhead requires the use of light tippets, especially in very clear water.

On the Lake Ontario streams, you are often roll casting, or in some cases Spey casting.  The steelhead rod that has evolved there is a long rod, typically in the 9-13 foot range with the correct action.  Rods with conventional grips or rigged out as a “Switch” rod for single Spey casting are popular.  Most anglers use rods in the 6-7 weight range. 

Fly Reels for Steelhead Fishing

Reels should have a smooth and easily adjustable drag system.  It is also preferred to have a dark or dull colored reel for reasons mentioned below.  We use olive colored fly lines in double taper almost exclusively.  Weight-forward lines also work, but try to avoid bright colors.

Leader Type for Steelhead

For spring steelhead, leader selection will depend on the fishing situation.  If you are going to use weight to tick the fly along the bottom, using a straight piece of monofilament that is 8 to 12 pound test with a swivel tied on the end for attaching tippet works well.  Tapered leaders are needed to turn over streamers or fish nymphs or egg patterns below an indicator, so both are necessary.  

Blending in while Fly Fishing

An angler targeting steelhead should make sure their clothing and accessories are dull in color.  Steelhead spot anglers wearing red or other bright colors and they spook.  It is much easier to approach and catch fish for bank anglers if you wear colors that blend in with the stream-side vegetation.  Loud colors in anything from a jacket to a reel or other piece of equipment result in fewer hook-ups.

Fly Presentations for Your Steelhead Tackle


Presentation, as mentioned before, is dictated by what the fish are doing.  If they are pre-spawn, it is a great time to fish just like you would be fishing for spring trout.  I like to fish nymphs or small egg patterns directly below a strike indicator.  This is an effective method on most of the streams and works really great on the smaller waters.  

Chuck and Duck

You can also use the “chuck and duck” presentation with a longer leader (check the specific regulations for the streams you plan to visit for terminal tackle regulations) to drift nymphs and eggs just up off the bottom.

Fishing Streamers

If the steelhead are exhibiting spawning behavior and are aggressive, fishing streamers is the best bet.  Baitfish try to dart in and out of the steelhead redds and grab eggs.  Anything that looks like an egg thief usually draws a solid hit.  

Be Adaptable

If you are fishing and other folks are catching fish, yet you are not getting hits, first evaluate your presentation.  A highly successful steelhead angler will ask: Are you putting the fly in front of fish?  If you are, color is the key.  Keep changing flies until you find the color they want to hit that day and you should begin to score.

The Best Spring Steelhead Rivers

From west to east, the bigger-named steelhead waters include the Niagara River, 18-mile Creek, Oak Orchard Creek, the Genesee River, the Oswego River, the famed Salmon River, and the Black River.  All of these streams receive consistent runs.  There are also a lot of smaller waters that can be explored as well, most of which receive natural flows.

A Rite of Spring

Springtime makes us all feel better.  The days are warmer, and better yet- longer, and our thoughts turn to fishing. Anglers fly fishing for steelhead are among the first folks out there, and while conditions are not like a sunny day on your favorite trout stream, the thrill and challenge of catching these big rainbows on steelhead tackle is something that always keeps me coming back every year.  There is definitely a learning curve when you are fly fishing for steelhead, but it is well worth the time you need to invest!

Original Article By Rob Streeter

About The Author

Rob Streeter is an outdoor columnist for several newspapers and magazines. He is a freelance writer and photographer who especially enjoys fly fishing for steelhead and trout.

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