The best nymphs for steelhead are found in the boxes of experienced steelhead guides. Guides have the advantage of testing out nymphs day after day for years, and in all conditions and seasons. Guides also network with other guides, experts, and fly shops so they know what’s hot.
As a steelhead guide for over 20 years, I’ve seen inside the fly boxes of many guides, and I think you would be surprised at how few patterns they actually use. Often, its 5 or 6 patterns that catch 90% of the steelhead.
The best steelhead nymphs are the Stonefly Nymph in black, brown, tan, and yellow, the Steelhead Worm in pink, red, and brown, and the basic Egg Fly in a few colors and sizes. Woolly Buggers and Bugger variations in multiple sizes and colors are also very good nymphs for steelhead.
So, if you are not using the same steelhead nymphs that guides use, you’re missing fish!
I actually have three flies that account for 90 percent of the steelhead my clients catch each season. These flies are:
Make Good Steelhead Nymphs Even Better
I’m going to be brutally honest, most steelhad nymph patterns are MEH, and there’s only a handful of good nymphs that you need.
There is also no “magic fly” that’s going to help you catch all the fish. The closest you will come to a “magic fly” is the few proven nymph patterns that guides use.
But those flies are only as good as you fish them, where and when you fish them, and how you rig them.
When I’m on the water guiding clients and we’re discussing the best flies for steelhead fishing, I tell them regardless of the fly they have on, if they want to catch more fish, they should follow a few simple tips:
Choose Your Flies Wisely
The fly that I and other guides choose to tie onto our line is determined by the time of year, the current conditions, the type of water, and the steelhead activity level. No ONE FLY can do it all. If that fly does not work, rotate through colors, sizes, and fly patterns, Be sure you do the same! A great nymph for steelhead one day, might not be good in different conditions.
Fish Your Fly Well
When we tie a fly on, the key to that fly actually catching steelhead consistently is how we fish it.
Pro Tip: Of all the tips I will give you in this article, this is the most important tip. It doesn’t matter how good your fly is; if you fish it poorly, it won’t catch you many steelhead. That is not my opinion; that’s a fact!
I tell my clients to stop wasting time trying out many fly patterns and just stick to a few proven flies and then focus on learning to fish them very well. I have heard other guides say the same thing, “It’s less about the fly, than it is how you fish it”.
Don’t Be Fooled By All Those Fancy Steelhead Flies
I’ve been tying flies for about 37 years, and I have tied and tried just about every steelhead fly out there, including all those fancy ones which is why I’m confident when I say, most of them are not very good and are not worth using.
In fact, when you tie on a fancy fly, you are not fishing the proven flies that guides use, which means you are probably lowering your chances. Trust me, if fancy flies worked well, you would see them in guide boxes.
Although I will give you lots of effective flies in this article, there are only five or six flies that you actually need, and I will tell you which ones those are. The others are just secondary flies.
What Makes A Steelhead Fly Good?
Once steelhead enter the rivers, they become opportunistic feeders picking up all kinds of food that comes drifting by. They can also be curious feeders, which is why I have seen them grab all kinds of things they shouldn’t, and it’s why most steelhead flies will work from time to time.
But, I you stick to patterns that resemble the shape, silhouette, and size of actual nymphs in the river you will catch more fish. Add a touch of flash, and you might attract and catch even more.
Flash on a nymph is often a good option in fast water or off-colored water. But, too much flash on a fly can turn off fish in gin clear water or when the steelhead are nervous.
1. The Stonefly Nymph
Stonefly nymphs are popular flies because they are found in many rivers and young steelhead learn quickly that this is a good food source.
I tie my own stoneflies in a few patterns, but the best store-bought pattern I have found is the Black Woven Stonefly from Reelflies.com. It has the right profile and color that works for steelhead. I also use the brown color Stonefly with good success.
For my stonefly nymphs, I prefer sizes 6 to 10.
Winter steelhead also love this fly. I may drop down to a size 12 to 14 later in the winter when there are many active small stoneflies all over the snow and in the river.
With most nymphs, you have the choice to go with a beadhead or no beadhead. I discuss the pros and cons and which type I think is the most effective below.
2. Hares Ear Nymph
Also known as the Gold Ribbed Hares Ear Nymph, this is a classic trout fly, but it’s also a good steelhead fly on many rivers with mayfly and stone fly nymphs.
Variations include the Bead Head Hares Ear Nymph, and the Flashback Hares Ear Nymph.
3. Walts Worm And Sext Walts Worm
I still remember running into an angler on a local steelhead stream when I was younger. This guy had landed over 20 steelhead when I’ve only hooked a few.
He was a nice guy and gave me a nymph that he claimed was his hot fly that he caught all his steelhead on
I went home and replicated it, tied up a dozen that looked just like his. I used this pattern for over 15 years and caught hundreds of steelhead on it.
Then one day while guiding, a client said to me that he catches a lot of trout on a fly called the Walts Worm. He opened his box and showed it to me. To my surprise, it was the same fly. Since then, I’ve been catching steelhead and trout on the original Walts Worm, the Beadhead Walts Worm, and the Sext Walts Worm.
I’m not sure if it resembles a cased caddis, a crane fly larva, or some other nymph, but it is one of the best nymphs for steelhead and a must-have fly.
4. Wooly Buggers
The Wooly Bugger is an incredibly versatile and effective fly pattern that can be good in all conditions and can be used for nymph fishing for steelhead of streamer fishing, or spey fishing.
This is one of my most effective steelhead patterns.
Normally this is a larger fly at around 3 to 4 inches, but I use Micro-Buggers that are about an inch to 1.5 inch long.
It has a marabou tail which provides a lot of action below the surface which really gets the attention of steelies. Even holding steelhead will smash this fly.
Wooly 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 Buggers in my box from 1 inch long to 3.5 inches long.
The Bugger is a must-have fly in any steelheaders fly box.
Prince Nymph and Variations
It is a classic pattern that has been used for rainbow trout for a long time, and it works for steelhead in clear to green water clarity.
I think it’s the white wing that gets the attention of the steelhead which is why this fly work so well.
Some days, the price nymph 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.
Steelhead Egg Patterns
Some anglers consider egg patterns as nymphs because they are fished the same way. Regardless, egg patterns are one of the most effective steelhead flies, and it’s very common for guides to run two flies, one being a nymph, and the other being an egg.
If you are interested in finding out the egg patterns that guide use the most, check out Best Egg Flies For Steelhead.
Steelhead Worm Patterns
I have to say, the worm fly is often my most effective steelhead nymph fly. I bet i catch over 60% of my steelhead on a worm pattern.
I like pink, red, and brown worm flies in 3 to 4-inch sizes. There are several variations that I discuss on my page, Best Steelhead Worm Flies.
Other Good Steelhead Nymphs
- The Frenchie Fly
- Rainbow Warrior
- Copper John
- Blow Torch Fly
- Steelhead Caddis
BeadHead, or No BeadHead?
I use stoneflies patterns and other nymphs with and without bead heads. Beadhead nymphs offer added attraction and may get your fly a bit deeper. Silver, gold, and copper beads are most common and the best. So which 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. This is because a bead nymph gets the fly down faster and seems to attract more fish, which makes it a better 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 steelhead flies 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 my clients and me.
Agent Orange Fly : Even colored beads like the bright orange bead head on the Agent Orange Nymph pattern can add color to attract more steelhead, but i rarely find that this is the best option.
The Best Nymphs For Steelhead Q&A
if you have a question or comment about the best nymphs for steelhead let me know in the comments section.