Fly Fishing For Steelhead: Great Lakes Style

Fly Fishing For Steelhead on a great lakes river
An angler fly fishing for steelhead on a great lakes river.

Steelhead fishing around the great lakes is very popular because of the size and abundance of steelhead, and fly fishing for steelhead is one of the best ways to catch this hard fighting fish. Some years, my clients will land over 300 steelhead just in the fall months using methods that I’ve been perfecting for over 37 years. Here’s how to do it.

Fly fishing for steelhead can be done using methods like nymph fishing, streamer fishing, Spey fishing, and even euro-style nymphing. It’s important to know which method to use and then have an effective setup and the right flies.

I will discuss the best methods, leader setups, and the best flies that work for me, my clients, and my other guides.

Fly Fishing For Steelhead: The Rivers

A guide teaching fly fishing for steelhead
One of my guides on the river with a couple of clients that are fly fishing for steelhead on a great lakes rivers.

I have fished from upstate New York to the western shoreline of Lake Michigan to as far north as the north shore of Lake Superior, and everywhere in between, and there are literally hundreds of great steelhead rivers that flow into the great lakes that anglers can fish.

During the spring and fall, just about any creek or river could have steelhead entering into it. All it takes is large enough rains that flood the rivers and attract steelhead that are swimming by.

At times these rivers could be getting runs of thousands of fish over 48 hours and can provide anglers with days that they could catch over 50 fish a day. I’ve guided clients to many days with over 50 steelhead in the net but your method and skill matter a lot.

There are too many steelhead rivers to list so I will discuss the best steelhead rivers on my page Best Great Lakes Steelhead Rivers.

The Fly Fishing Methods For Steelhead

There are 4 methods that I use when fly fishing for steelhead and the one I use will depend on my client’s preference or on the type of water that I’m fishing. Some methods are more effective than others so I discuss that below.

Nymph Fishing For Steelhead

Nymph Fishing can be very effective for big steelhead like this.
Nymph Fishing can be very effective for big steelhead like this and it can be the best way to catch the most steelhead with a fly rod.

Nymph fishing in small to mid-sized rivers is almost always the most effective way to catch the most steelhead. You can also nymph larger rivers if you know where the fish hold and concentrate. Anyone interested in fly fishing for steelhead should consider nymph fishing.

Nymph fishing for steelhead means that you are drifting small insect-like flies or flies that look like eggs under an indicator or with a tight line method. The goal is to get your flies into the strike zone and then drift your flies past that steelhead in a way that looks natural to the fish.

The more natural your presentation is and the better your flies and your fly setup is the more fish you will catch. Unfortunately, many anglers do this poorly. Getting a great presentation is what I and the guides that work for me spend most of our time teaching our clients when we are on the river with them because we know presentation is the key to catching more fish.

Presentation, the right flies, and my tactics for catching over 50 steelhead a day when nymph fishing is what I will teach you on my Nymphing For Steelhead page.

Euro Nymphing For Steelhead

Fly Fishing For Steelhead

Euro Nymphing for steelhead is a new concept that is slowly growing around the great lakes regions and at times Euro nymphing for steelhead can be very effective. When I am fly fishing for steelhead I use this method on pocket water and smaller runs and pools.

Euro nymphing for steelhead is basically a tight line method of nymphing that doesn’t use a bobber style indicator. With Euro nymphing, you will use a colored line called a sighter that is strategically placed up your leader and 1 to 3 weighted flies.

Where you place your sighter the flies that you use are only a part of what makes Euro nymphing for steelhead so effective. When really makes Euro nymphing is how you control your depth, speed, and overall presentation. I know that some of my clients that I have taught Euro nymphing are now catching the bulk of their steelhead using this method.

I discuss how to use this method effectively, show you my leader setup, discuss the types of water where this method works best, and show you my best Euro nymph flies, and how to use this method with any fly. Check out my page Euro Nymphing For Steelhead.

Spey Fishing For Steelhead

Spey fishing for steelhead on the great lakes rivers is growing in popularity. I was just out yesterday teaching another new angler how to effectively Spey fish for steelhead. Some anglers that enjoy fly fishing for steelhead think that Spey fishing is by far the best way to catch steelhead.

Spey fishing for steelhead on great lake’s rivers requires the use of long Spey rods and reels and lines that can cast bigger flies and weighted sink tips a long way with little backcast room. Once your flies hit the far side of the river, you simply swing your fly across the river and wait for a bite.

It’s the fun of the cast and the hard yank of a steelhead grabbing your fly that attracts many anglers to Spey fishing for steelhead.

There are few simple casts that I teach to my clients and only a handful of Spey fly patterns that I use that will be effective on most rivers around the great lakes.

It’s also very important to learn how to cover the water effectively and how to get your fly down to the fish. Getting down to the fish requires sinking tips that are added to the end of the fly lines.

I discuss all of this in great detail on my page Spey Fishing For Steelhead.

Streamer Fishing For Steelhead

Streamer fishing catch be very effective for big steelhead
Streamer fishing catch be very effective for big steelhead

Streamer fishing for steelhead is something that not a lot of steelhead anglers do but it can be a lot of fun and an effective way to catch steelhead with a fly rod. When Fly fishing for steelhead I always have streamer flies with me.

The honest truth is that I use the same flies and the same advanced streamer fishing tactics for steelhead as I do when I fish for summer brown trout, rainbow trout, and brook trout.

I often tell my clients that I treat steelhead in a river like oversized trout, or a trout on steroids, and that means most of the same tactics that I use for trout will for steelhead and vice versa.

However, most guys a very basic when they fish for steelhead and trout with streamers and that means they are missing a ton of fish.

When I do my advanced streamer fishing classes I tell guys that I can cover 3 times more water with 3 times fewer casts and I can do it in half the time. I can also do it in a way that triggers more bites. Fishing faster and more efficiently allows me to get my flies past more fish in a shorter period of time and it doesn’t tire me out as fast.

I discuss my advanced streamer methods for steelhead on my page Streamer Fishing For Steelhead.

Watch the guys from the new fly fishing show and me having some fun fly fishing for steelhead – HERE

Fly Fishing For Steelhead FAQ

If you have a question, comment, idea, or tip about fly fishing for steelhead let me know in the comments section below and I will answer your questions.

Tight Lines


Cool River Fishing Accessories

Simms Taco Bag

Simms Taco Bag

It’s a wet wader bag for storing your waders after a day on the water and it’s a mat to stand on to keep your feet dry when getting your waders on and off.

Duffel Bags and Stream Packs

SIMMS Duffel Bags and Stream Packs

Having a dedicated bag to pack and carry your waders, vests, boots, jackets, and more is a good idea. Waterproof and mesh bags are available.

Waterworks Release Tool

Waterworks-Lamson Ketchum Release Tool

Protects your flies from damage caused by forceps, This tool gets all hooks out easily. Even deep hooks come out with this tool.

Clip-on Magnifiers

When I flip these down to tie knots a lot of guys say ” I need to get some of those”. These are great for anyone that ties knots. Make sure they are lined up properly for the best view.

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