Fly fishing for great lakes steelhead is a big part of what I and my guides do so it’s important that we know what the best flies for steelhead are. This article is a compilation of the best flies for steelhead used by steelhead guides.
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.
This article started as the 5 best flies for steelhead, however, I have added more flies so this article now has over 13 great steelhead flies for you to try.
Guides will use different flies under different conditions and at different times of the year. Therefore, I will also include some of my guide tips and advice when fishing these best flies for steelhead so you can catch more steelhead.
These steelhead flies can be used with a fly rod, 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 July 1st, 2022 – 3 hot flies added.
What Are The Best Flies For Steelhead?
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 Steelhead Worm pattern is by far my most productive steelhead and trout fly most days on the water and they work under most conditions.
Some know this as the San Juan Worm pattern
My favorite color for steelhead is pink, however under super clear conditions, I do sometimes 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.
Another great material that has lots of action is the squirmy wormy which you can get at Amazon – HERE.
If you don’t want to tie your own flies you can buy ready-to-go flies.
The Yarn Egg Fly – One Of The Best Flies For Steelhead
My best colors are:
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.
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 fly 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.
The Stonefly – One Of The Best Flies For Steelhead
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.
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.
Guide Tip: When I am fishing in an area where there are 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 aren’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 sizes 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 shiny 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.
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, and 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.
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.
Woolly buggers 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
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 explains how and why to fish white zonkers for great lakes steelhead.
Other Great Flies For Steelhead
Other great flies for steelhead include:
Top Books With Good Fly Patterns For Steelhead
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.