5 Best Flies For Steelhead – An Expert Guides Advice

A picture of my fly box with some of the best flies for steelhead

Fly fishing for great lakes steelhead is a big part of what I do as a guide so it’s important to know what the best flies for steelhead are. I use different flies under different conditions and at different times of the year and these are my best flies for steelhead fishing.

What Are The Best Flies For Steelhead?

The best flies for steelhead are the ones that consistently work day after day. My 13 best flies for steelhead are the Stonefly Nymph, the Prince Nymph, the San Juan worm, the yarn egg, and the woolly bugger, but I have about a dozen other flies that work great too which I will discuss below.

I have also just added more flies so this article now has over 13 great steelhead flies for you to try. I will also include some of my guide tips and advice when fishing these best flies for steelhead and how and when I fish them to catch more steelhead.

These steelhead flies can be used with a fly rod, or with a float rod, or a spinning rod.

If you are a spin fishing angler, once you finish reading my best flies for steelhead article be sure to check out my page How To Fish Flies With Spinning Gear: 2 Best Methods.

Post Updated January 21, 2022 – 3 hot flies added.

Under certain conditions and at certain times of the year, some flies will work better and some of my best flies for steelhead can even outperform roe bags and other steelhead baits if you know how and when to fish them properly.

The Worm Fly – The Best Fly For Steelhead

The Best Fly For Steelhead is the Worm
The Best Fly For Steelhead is the Worm Pattern – Tied by me.

The Steelhead worm pattern is by far my most productive steelhead and trout fly most days on the water and they work under most conditions.

My favorite color is pink, however under super clear conditions, I do better on the natural brown color.

Red has been an excellent alternative and has caught me a lot of fish when they don’t eat the pink one. Purple has been good too.

You can see in the picture that, unlike many worm patterns that are tied with the hook in the middle of the fly, I tie my hook at the end of the worm material and I do this for a very good reason.

Tying the worm fly by the end is better because tying the fly in the middle often causes the fly to fold in half or into a “V” shape under any pulling of the line which is also known as drag, and in rivers, there is always current and always drag.

The straight tie that I use keeps the worm straighter which gives it a larger profile and also gives it more wiggle action which often means more steelhead will bite it.

The original thought to tying the hook in the middle is so the little trout don’t grab the end of the fly and miss the hook in their mouths, but I will be honest with you here, I don’t care about catching those little fish, and those big ones don’t nibble on the ends of the fly like a little one might, the big fish suck the entire fly in like a vacuum, so missing the bigger fish is not an issue for me.

I also don’t melt the ends of the fly like many fly tiers do because melting the ends of the fly only pleases the angler and not the fish. The truth is, the fish don’t care if it’s melted or not. Melting the ends is a waste of time in my opinion so I just don’t do it.

For my steelhead worm flies, I use a size 8 or 10 hooks Raven Sedge hook, the Raven Specialist hook, and the Gamakatsu Octopus hook or Raven Specimen hooks, but occasionally I will use a size 12 hook for nervous fish in low gin clear water. I prefer the worms to be around 3.5 inches long for both steelhead and trout.

The best material to use for worm flies that won’t fray is Ultra Chenille which you can get at Bass Pro Shop – HERE or at Fish USA – HERE or even at Amazon – HERE,

Another great material that has lots of action is the squirmy wormy which you can get at Amazon – HERE.

Watch these videos to see how to tie the Squirmy Wormy fly and the standard San Juan Worm at these links.

If you don’t want to tie your own flies you can buy ready-to-go flies.

Cabela’s Sili Worm

My Best Size is a #10 hook

San Juan Squirmy Wormy Trout Worm

Comes in a size 12 hook and a gold bead for attraction.

San Juan Worm

Size 10 and size 12 hooks will work for steelhead.

Worm Fly Kit

Tie it yourself with these materials

The Yarn Egg Fly – One Of The Best Flies For Steelhead

One of the best flies for steelhead is the yarn fly egg pattern. Some may call this a glo-bug or egg fly.

I have caught thousands of steelhead on this fly over the years and it is a go-to fly in most river conditions.

My best colors are:

  • Peach – Clear water
  • Salmon – all water conditions
  • White – Clear water
  • Light Pink – Clear water
  • Chartreuse – Dirty water
  • Hot Pink – Off colored water
  • Orange – All water conditions
  • Yellow – All water conditions
My egg flies beside a dime
My egg flies beside a dime

I tie my egg patterns in a few sizes and many colors for different water conditions.

I use big and bright egg patterns like Chartreuse for muddier low visibility water. Go super small for gin clear low water.

The egg flies that are sold online are usually about the size of a large salmon egg and are good for general-purpose conditions. They are the size I use the most.

You may have to shop around for the best colors but you can get egg flies at Amazon – HERE, Or at Bass Pro Shops – HERE or at Fish USA – HERE. Some discount fly shops sell egg patterns on crappy hooks that might break or bend so be careful with flies meant for big fish like steelhead and salmon.

If you like to tie your own flies this is the best yarn that I use – HERE or another great material and to see my all-time most productive colors which is called Oregon Cheese, check it out HERE.

Tying the egg fly is super easy. Watch this easy to tie Egg Fly Pattern Youtube video.

Added: More Egg Fly Patterns that work great for steelhead are:

  • Estaz Egg : This is a flashy egg pattern that works great in off-colored water.
  • Nuke Egg : The Nuke Egg has worked well for me in both clear and off-colored rivers.
  • Blood Dot Fly : Designed by pro steelhead guide Jeff Blood. This flie was introduced to me by Bill Spicer while we were filming an episode of the New Fly Fisher Show and I have been loving this fly ever since.
Box of best steelhead flies

For anglers looking for a great mixed pack of eggs, check out the BASSDASH Trout Steelhead Salmon Fishing Flies Assortment from Amazon.

The Stonefly – One Of The Best Flies For Steelhead

The Stonefly Nymph is one of the best steelhead flies
The Stonefly Nymph is one of the best steelhead flies you can use. I add some blue to mine for more fish.

The black Stonefly not only produces a lot of fish for my clients with a fly rod but it is one of my most productive baits when float fishing or bottom bouncing.

Be careful because there are a lot of crappy stonefly variations on the market and some are just not that great for steelhead.

I tie my own stoneflies in a few patterns but the best store-bought pattern I have found is the Black Woven Stonely from Reelflies.com. It has the right profile and color that works for great lakes steelhead and is almost identical to the one I tie the most. I also use the brown color Stonefly with good success.

This black and brown pheasant tail nymph has been a good Stonefly type pattern for me as well, both with or without the gold bead.

My best stonefly pattern for steelhead in 2020
This was my best stonefly pattern for steelhead in 2020.

For my stonefly nymphs, I prefer sizes 8, 10, and 12 except for later in the winter when there are active small size 14 and 16 stoneflies all over the snow and in the river.

I use stoneflies patterns and nymphs with and without beadheads. Beadhead nymphs offer an attraction and may get your fly a bit deeper.

If you are wondering what is better, a nymph with a bead head or one without?

I will just say that 90% of my nymphs for steelhead have bead heads in gold or silver and sometimes bronze simply because I want to get the fly down faster. If I run a two-fly or 2 bait rig where the stonefly is not on the bottom I will always use a nymph with a tungsten bead.

The bead is like having another split shot and that helps get both flies down faster. Running two tungsten beads might be too heavy which is why I will have not weighted flies like the one in the above picture. That was my best stonefly pattern last year when it was on the bottom or if I was only using a single fly.

Flies with no beads are sometimes better in gin-clear low water when the fish are nervous.

Bead head flies for more steelhead
Bead head flies add extra weight and more attraction for more steelhead.

Guide Tip: When I am fishing in an area where there is a lot of roe bag anglers I will often use stoneflies instead of roe bags.

Steelhead will sometimes get turned off by too many big roe bags and large colorful baits like worms and beads, but a small size 10 or 12 stonefly nymph is not very intrusive and it can often produce more steelhead than all other baits being used.

This is why I consider it one of the best flies for steelhead whether I am using a fly rod or a float rod. I highly recommend giving it a try because it has produced a lot of steelhead for me and my clients.

The Prince Nymph and Other Attractor Nymphs For Steelhead

The Prince nymph is an effective attractor nymph fly that I consider one of the best flies for steelhead. I think it’s the white wing that gets their attention and makes this fly work so well.

Some days this fly will catch more steelhead than any other fly, especially in the spring.

I use this fly the same way I use the Stonefly when the steelhead are pressured by a lot of roe bag anglers or during times when there really isn’t a lot of natural salmon eggs or steelhead eggs in the river.

The picture above is some of my personally tied versions for the prince nymph but the traditional version works just as well. I like bead head bead prince nymphs over non-bead head nymphs. I like size 8, 10, and 12. You can get price nymphs HERE or at Amazon HERE.

I tie a lot of other attractor type flies that can work great for me. Sometimes bright and shinny is what they want, and one of the best attractor flies is one called The Frenchie and one called the Rainbow warrior. Not only are these patterns good for steelhead but they are great for brown trout, rainbow trout, and brook trout.

At times, attractor flies like the Copper John and the Copper Bob can be very effective too.

Woolly Buggers – One Of The Best Flies For Steelhead

Woolly Bugger type flies are some of the best flies for steelhead. They are larger in size and have a lot of action below the surface so they really get the attention of steelhead.

Woolly Buggers can come with a bead head or without and both usually work equally well.

I like to add a little flash into my woolly bugger patterns like this one from Amazon and like the one in the below picture.

My favorite colors are Black, Olive, White, but I have also done well with pink, yellow, and brown.

I usually have woolly buggers in my box from 1 inch long to 3.5 inches long. This may surprise spey and brown trout anglers but the simple basic woolly bugger in the below picture is often my most effective pattern when swinging flies and when stripping flies for big browns.

My woolly bugger fly patterns
This olive color pattern with the flash has been my top producing steelhead woolly bugger for years and the white pattern has been a great spring pattern under certain conditions.

I have been stripping and ripping woolly buggers for big steelhead and brown trout for 30 years and it worked then and it will work now.

You can get woolly buggers at Bass Pro Shops – HERE, or at Amazon – HERE. I would think that any place that sells flies will also have woolly buggers.

Woolly bugger are one of the best flies for steelhead, brown trout, and salmon. I’ve also done very well with brook trout on them.

These are a must-have fly in any steelheaders fly box.

Good Flies For Steelhead

Egg Sucking Leach & Woolly Worm

Similar to a woolly bugger is the egg-sucking leach and the Woolly Worm and both can be excellent for catching steelhead. Black, olive, and white are my favorites.

Zonker Fly For Steelhead

I have found that on some rivers white streamer flies like a white zonker or a white wooly bugger can be very effective on steelhead because they imitate shinners. Stripped in, Euro nymphed, or fishing under an indicator can be excellent.

Check out this episode of The New Fly Fish Show as top great lakes steelhead guide Jeff Blood explians how and why to fish white zonkers for great lakes steelhead.

Other Great Flies For Steelhead

Guides Best Steelhead Flies
One of my fly boxes with an assortment of nymphs and some egg patterns.

Other great flies for steelhead include:

Top Books With Good Fly Patterns For Steelhead

Great Lakes Steelhead Book

I own this book and it has some good fly patterns and good tips.

Great Lakes Steelhead Book

Another book that I own which has some good fly patterns and good tips.

Steelhead Guide

Although it is geared towards lake Erie rivers it has some great fly patterns for all great lakes steelhead.

West Coast Steelhead

For those west cost fly fishing steelheaders.

A Good Fly Is Useless If You Don’t Fish It Well

That is why I tell my clients that “it’s one thing to have a good fly on, it’s another thing to fish it well enough to consistently catch steelhead.”

First, make sure you know how to actually fly fish well for steelhead which includes learning how to read the water and understanding the steelheads season movements and feeding habits.

I use indicator nymphing and Euro nymphing at different times and under different conditions to maximize my success. I’ll also cast streamer or swing flies too.

It’s also very important to have the right size leader and the proper leader setup for steelhead.

If you want to see my leader set up go to my page on Steelhead Leaders: Best Float Leader And 2 Proven Setups

Got A Question About The Best Flies For Steelhead

If you have a question or comment or want to share some of your best flies for steelhead, let me know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines

Graham

6 Comments

  1. Hi Graham,
    I find that the rivers i tend to fish don’t have very deep pools, thus I usually run a leader which is a Max 18-24”. But then I could hit a spot where the pool is a little deeper, and when I pull my float higher , my coloured mainline is now submerged. Could that be spooking fish?
    By the way…..I’m planning on booking a day in the spring for steelhead, and I saw that you don’t offer a 4 hour walking steelhead guided trip/lesson. Why not?
    Best regards,
    Lorenzo

    1. Hi Lorenzo,

      Yes, your mainline could spook the fish if it’s too close to the fish, but if you use a proper leader setup it should not be an issue. There is an updated float leader setup picture on the Best Leaders For Steelhead page. If you use this leader set up with a clear fluorocarbon shot-line then your mainline will always be far enough away from the fish that they should not see the mainline regardless of how much mainline you submerge into the water. Also, check out my other leader set-ups and the best angles and other tips on the Centerpin For Beginners page. For questions regarding guiding services it’s best to always email me through my guide website A Perfect Drift Guide Company. See you in the spring.

  2. Hi Graham,

    I am wondering what fly you were catching steelhead on with Bill Spicer. At the end of the episode you were fighting a steelhead and when dragging it into the net I could see a large pink egg. Would like to know what material this fly was tied with and a picture of it. Thanks.

    1. Hey Hunter,

      That river is always either green or brown and almost never loses its color, and because of that, I have found that the steelhead in that river often like very large egg patterns.

      I tie most of my smaller eggs with McFly Foam but when tieing my bigger flies a standard egg yarn is all I use. I will provide a link to how to tie a standard egg fly, however, when you watch the video you can see how low he cuts the yarn. If you want a bigger fly leave it double or triple the length. You will need to tease it out with a brush or I use my bodkin. That is how I make my large nickle and quarter size egg flies. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMC2DdivtPk

      Also, Bill showed me a great egg pattern that I still use today, it is called the Jeff Blood blood dot fly. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lRb8eYVhDo

      I hope that helps.

      Good luck,

      Graham

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