Nymphing For Steelhead: The 3 Most Effective Methods

Nymphing For Steelhead
A spring run steelhead caught while nymphing for steelhead.

In this article, I will discuss the two most effective ways of nymphing for steelhead. I use both of these methods when I’m guiding clients but I will use these at different times for different types of water.

The 3 most effective methods of nymphing for steelhead are Standard Indicator Nymphing, Suspension Nymphing, and Euro Nymphing for steelhead. I use all 3 of these methods at different times to greatly increase the amount of steelhead I catch.

Nymphing for steelhead is when you present your fly to steelhead below the surface in a way that naturally imitates their food sources. The best flies to use when nymphing for steelhead would be imitations of aquatic insects or fish eggs.

Nymphing for steelhead is often the most effective way to fly fish for steelhead and if you know which method to use in different situations you can’t beat nymphing for steelhead.

Anglers that are able to nymph fish for steelhead properly using the methods that I teach when I am guiding will catch more fish. I will discuss ways to make nymphing for steelhead much more effective and show you my best steelhead nymphing rigs and my best steelhead flies.

Best Steelhead Fly Rods For Nymph Fishing

The Right Fly Fishing Rod For Steelhead
Using the right fly rod for nymphing will mean more steelhead in the net.

If you are going to be nymph fishing for steelhead, it makes it easier if you use the right gear and that includes the rod that you use. You could use a standard general-purpose 9 foot fly rod in the 6 to 9 weight range but there are better steelhead fly rods for nymph fishing.

The best steelhead fly rods for nymph fishing are the longer 10 or 11 foot fly rods in the 7 or 8 weight size. The best rod that I recommend to all my clients for steelhead nymphing around the great lakes region is a 10 foot 7 weight fly rod.

The longer fly rods allow you to cast further, they allow you to control your line and indicator better, they allow you to mend your lines easier and better, and the longer rods act like a big shock absorber that can protect lighter tippets.

Many anglers think that because the steelhead are very big, sometimes over 20 pounds, that they need a heavy 9 or 10 weight fly rod to handle those big fish. This is wrong!

The honest truth is that many great lakes rivers and even the west coast rivers can be crystal clear and not very big, and the steelhead in these rivers can be line shy which forces anglers to use lighter tippets when nymphing for steelhead.

Sometimes the nymphs are moving at a slower speed which gives the steelhead time to inspect the nymphs and if they see the thicker tippet they just won’t bite the fly. It’s these times when we need to go to a lighter tippet.

This means that if you need to use a 2X or 3X tippet (8lb or 10lb) to get more bites, all the backbone and power that is built into a 9 or 10 weight fly rod is practically useless because if you apply maximum pressure when fighting big steelhead you’re just going to break your tippet.

So why have a big heavy rod when you can’t utilize all that power anyways? You might as well just go with a lighter rod that’s easier on the arms and shoulders at the end of the day and is more fun to use.

I haven’t met a great lakes steelhead I couldn’t manage with a single hand 10 foot 7 weight rod. I have actually even caught steelhead up to 23 pounds on my old 10 foot 6 weight Sage fly rod which I also used to catch thousands of other great lakes steelhead.

The only time I would recommend using a 9 or 10 weight fly rod for nymphing steelhead would be on very large rivers where you might need the extra power of the rod to cast further out, or for casting into the wind, or to cast a leader set up with lots of weight on it.

These larger rivers which might be 70 feet to 200 feet wide are when I might also consider an 11 foot, 8 weight switch rod.

However, my experience with switch rods for guys that primarily want to nymph fish for steelhead is that, yes, while these big rods do flip over indicators and leaders full of weight more easily, I also find them to be heavy and not necessary on rivers that are 60 feet wide or less. I’d much rather fish a lighter rod all day than a big bulky rod.

If you are in search of the best fly rods for steelhead, check out my page Best Fly Rods For Steelhead.

Fly Reels For Steelhead

When it comes to the best fly reels for steelhead when nymphing or with any method I think it’s always best to get a reel with a good sealed drag system. The drag needs to be smooth and having an enclosed drag will help keep water and ice out of the drag.

Of course, there will be some advanced fly anglers that would recommend the click and pawl fly reels because they are more challenging and fun to fight steelhead on, but I have witnessed far too many big fish being lost by inexperienced anglers on these reels.

I teach anglers how to catch big trout, steelhead, and salmon so as soon as a see a client come out with a click and pawl reel I get really worried because I know that these reels will cause you to lose big fish if you do not have the experience of fighting thousands of big fish.

I discuss the best reels for fly fishing for steelhead on my page Best Fly Reels For Steelhead.

Best Steelhead Nymphing Fly Lines

You could use just about any general-purpose fly line when nymphing for steelhead but there are some lines that will make casting indicator rigs with weights and bigger flies much easier. These lines also help with mending which gives you better drifts and that equals more steelhead.

These steelhead nymph lines often have shorter aggressive heads and long back tapers that help anglers turn over heavy nymphing rigs especially when fishing on bigger rivers that require further casts to get your flies out to the fish.

I recommend these nymphing lines for anglers fishing for steelhead and salmon around the great lakes and on the west coast.

For most indicator fishing for steelhead on small to mid-sized rivers, the RIO Intouch Salmo/Steelhead Fly Line is an excellent choice. This line is designed to help angler cast indicators and weight and help with mending. It’s also meant for big fish like steelhead and salmon.

For nymphing with heavier rigs and indicators on bigger rivers like ones that you would find out west, one of the best lines is the Scientific Anglers Amplitude Anadro Fly Line. This line is designed to be heavier to help anglers get the indicator, weights, and flies out to the steelhead easier.

The 3 Most Effective Ways To Nymph Fish For Steelhead

I mentioned previously that the 3 most effective methods to nymph fish for steelhead are Indicator Nymphing, Suspension Nymphing, and Euro Nymphing, and that if you learn all of these well, and you know when to use them, you can greatly increase the amount of steelhead you can catch.

Indicator Fishing For Steelhead – The Better Way

Using an indicator in slow flat water
Using an indicator in slower flat water is the best method and it can be good in faster water too.

Indicator fishing is the number 1 method used by anglers nymphing for steelhead. I say number one method but that doesn’t mean it’s the best method, it’s just the most used method. In certain types of water, there is a better method which I will discuss below.

Indicator fishing for steelhead means that you are presenting your fly either by dragging it along the bottom below an indicator or you are suspending your fly below an indicator. One of these versions is proven to be much more effective.

I prefer to not use the old school method of dragging my fly under an indicator anymore because I believe it is less productive and comes with some unwanted problems that limit how many fish you will catch.

I prefer to use a method known as suspension nymphing which is when you suspend your fly up and off the bottom with the use of a floatation device known as an indicator and some weights known as split shots.

Using the suspension nymphing method for steelhead allows anglers to control their speed, and their angles which allows them to get a better presentation and more bites. Suspension nymphing also allows you to detect all those extra bites much better.

Indicator nymphing in general is best done on bigger pools, riffles, and runs and in slower flat water. Indicator fishing is not great in smaller pockets or fast rapids.

Old School Indicator Method

Indicator Nymphing Rig For Steelhead
This is the standard indicator nymphing rig for steelhead that most angles use. It is old school and not that effective.

You may have heard people, and even guides tell you that you want to set your indicator at one and a half times the depth of the water that you are fishing. I’ve even heard people say 2 times the depth of the water that you are fishing.

That means if the spot you are fishing is 4 feet deep you want your leader below your indicator to be at least 6 feet deep

This long leader sometimes works but it’s an old method that needs to be revised.

This old-school mentality of 1.5 times the depth of the water was because the idea was that you want to get your bait to the bottom and because there is almost always some drag on your leader and the extra length helps you accommodate for the angle of the leader.

Many anglers also set up their leader like this because they want their weights to be occasionally bumping across the bottom to help them determine if their flies are deep enough.

Without getting too in-depth as to why this is a bad way of nymphing for steelhead, let me just go over a few of the common problems with this method.

Your chances of having slack in the line which can cause you to miss bites are much higher with this method. With this method, you could have slack in the line between your indicator and your weights, or you could have slack in the line between your fly and your weights, or both!

If there is slack in the line anywhere between your fly and your indicator the indicator will not go under until that slack is removed and often by that time the steelhead has already spit the fly out.

We have all heard that drag is bad, and that you have to even watch out for something called micro drag. With this indicator setup, you are also dragging your flies behind the indicator most of the time and often without even knowing it, which will limit how many fish will actually bite your flies.

Because of the excess line, you also risk being snagged on the bottom much more often or you will end up dragging your flies along the bottom and below the steelhead heads where they are less likely to see them.

By dragging your weights and flies along the bottom you even risk damaging your tippet which could cause you to break off a big steelhead.

There is a better way to use an indicator.

Suspension Nymphing For Steelhead: The Better Way

Suspension Nymphing Rig For Steelhead
The suspension nymphing rig for steelhead is more effective for many reasons.

Some of you might already know this about me, along with fly fishing for about 37 years now, I have also been fishing with Centerpin and spinning reels while float fishing for steelhead for over 30 years. Doing so has made me a far better nymph angler and I will tell you why.

Most float fishing anglers and even fly anglers will tell you that Centerpin fishing or float fishing is far more productive than fly fishing. However, I don’t necessarily agree.

The simple reason that Centerpin fishing is often more productive is simply that most fly anglers don’t nymph fish well enough and they don’t control the speed of their bait well, and the Centerpin anglers do it better.

The ability to slow your bait down and to keep all the drag off your bait is much easier to do when you are Centerpin fishing because there is little to no ling on the water causing drag.

Because of the way most fly anglers set up and fish their indicators, it makes controlling the speed of the fly difficult, and it makes strike detection more difficult, but it doesn’t need to be this way.

I have stood beside excellent Centerpin guys and caught as many or more fish then they have while I was nymphing. The simple reason I can do this is that I understand what my fly is doing below the water and I am very good at controlling the speed of my flies and keeping out all drag, even drag that most anglers don’t see.

Centerpin fishing for years has helped me do this exceptionally well with an indicator and any angler can do it too if they know how.

Using the suspension nymphing method is one of the best ways to control the speed of your flies while taking the drag out of the presentation, and improving your strike detection.

With suspension nymphing, you set your indicator at the depth of the water that you are fishing, or maybe even at add 6 to 12 inches more than the water you are fishing. Doing so keeps everything up and off the bottom and in the strike zone where the fish are feeding. You are basically suspending everything from the indicator and you stop dragging the bottom with your weights or your fly.

There is no weight being dragged across the bottom and there is no slack in the setup to prevent you from missing bites so now you can focus on mending your line to slow your indicator and your fly down.

In fact, the setup of suspension nymphing is similar to both the old school nymphing setup and the float fishing setup that Centerpin anglers use, it’s kind of a hybrid of the two.

The first and only time I have ever seen this suspension nymphing being written about or talked about was in a book called Dynamic Nymphing by the famous fly angler and competition fly fishing team member and team USA head coach, and author, George Daniel.

If you don’t have a copy of the Dynamic Nymphing book yet, you should. It’s one of the best modern nymphing books available and many of the methods and flies can be used for steelhead fishing.

Modern Must-Have Books For Nymphing:

2 Fly Suspension Nymphing Rig For Steelhead

2 Fly Suspension Nymphing Rig For Steelhead
2 Fly Suspension Nymphing Rig For Steelhead

You can also use the suspension nymphing rig with 2 flies and no weights. (only use 2 flies where permitted by law) I actually use this 2 fly system more than the 2 fly rig above with the weights.

The flies that you use on the top or the bottom are up to you, however, at least 1 fly should be weighted.

My weighted steelhead flies
My weighted steelhead flies

I replace the weights as seen in the standard suspension nymphing diagram with a large and heavily weighted fly. This is the top fly.

My top flies usually have lead wrapped around the shank before I tie them and they are usually tied with a tungsten bead for extra weight.

I’ll use smaller flies with less weight when fishing slower or shallower water, or I use larger flies with more weight for faster deeper water. I adjust one or both flies depending on the velocity and depth of the spot I’m fishing.

Often I will use a heavy fly as the top fly and change the bottom fly size and weight accordingly. The bottom fly can also be a not weighted fly pattern like my San Juan worm or an egg pattern.

When attaching the flies to this rig you have 3 options that work.

There are times when I am being lazy and I will attach the tippet section that goes to the bottom fly off the hook bend of the top fly.

The better option is to tie the bottom and top tippets from the same eye of the top fly. This will often make the fly ride more sideways and the hook will be out further from the line which is often better for hooking the fish.

Another option which I do a lot, especially when I am setting up a new leader for the first time is to leave a 6 inch dropper tag off the Tripple Surgeon’s knot and then I tie the top fly off the dropper tag. You can see this dropper tag set up on my page 2-Fly Nymphing Rigs.

Steelhead Leader Formula For Nymphing With An Indicator

My leader formula consists of the following items:

  • Indicator
  • 0X to 3X tappered Leader
  • 1X to 3X tippet
  • Tippet rings and micro swivels
  • Split shots
  • Flies

Steelhead Indicator Rig Diagram

Suspension Nymphing Leader Formula For Steelhead
This is my Suspension Nymphing Leader Formula For Steelhead.

Best Indicator For Steelhead Fishing

The indicator that you use for either of these steelhead nymphing methods makes a difference. There are a bunch of indicators on the market and most are crap. It’s not that these crappy indicators don’t float well, or cast well, it’s just that I use my indicators for more than just strike detection.

A good strike indicator will help you control your speed, improve your leader angles, help you know where your fly is during the drift and it will help improve your strike detection.

If you want to catch more fish all of these things are important. You can see my favorite indicators on my page What Are The Best Indicators For Fly Fishing? Guides Advice.

Euro Nymphing For Steelhead

Euro nymphing water for steelhead
This is good Euro nymphing water for steelhead. Fast drop offs, small pockets and pools, shallow water, and clear water are all best fished with the Euro Nymphing method.

I told you I was going to discuss the two most effective methods for nymphing for steelhead.

Euro nymphing is a relatively new way of nymph fishing for steelhead and if done correctly in the right type of water it is the most effective way of nymphing for steelhead. In fact, I’ve yet to meet a guy that can outfish me with an indicator in certain types of water.

Euro nymphing excels in shallower water under 5 feet deep and in pocket water. Euro nymphing for steelhead enables you to slow your flies down to get a more natural drift and it can’t be beaten for strike detection. Both of these things mean more steelhead in the net.

I Euro nymph for steelhead the exact same way that I euro nymph for trout.

I go over everything you need to know about this very productive method on my page Euro Nymphing For Steelhead.

Best Steelhead Flies

Flies for nymphing for steelhead
Flies for nymphing for steelhead can be anything that resembles the food sources of river steelhead. Eggs, worms, and nymphs are all great options.

The flies that you use are an important part of nymphing for steelhead. I discuss my best steelhead nymphs on my page Best Flies For Steelhead.

Got A Question About Nymphing For Steelhead

If you have a question, comment, or a tip about nymphing for steelhead let me know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines

Graham

Cool River Fishing Accessories And Sales

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.

4 Comments

  1. Great article Graham. When using the suspension indicator set-up, do you space out your split shot on the similar to what the centerpin anglers do or do you concentrate the split shot together by the swivel?

    1. Hi Chuck,
      I usually concentrate the split shots, however, I don’t see why spacing out the split shots wouldn’t work to.

  2. I fish the great lakes tribs, specifically Northwest PA. My favorite water is riffle/small pocket water, usually less than 3 feet in depth. I’m guessing that you would euro nymph such water. Would/Could you even consider suspension nymphing such shallow water? I’m a slave to the strike indicator but am always weary of having the indicator too close to the fly. I know that my drift is awful because the indicator is too high and the water is too shallow so the bait is dragging. Would you ever put the indicator < 2 feet from the fly? Thanks

    1. Hi Jay,

      You could fish an indicator in a foot of water if you really wanted to, however, it’s not ideal. If you must use an indicator, when fishing in very shallow water consider trying it with an indicator like a white New Zealand Yarn indicator so it doesn’t spook the fish. I also used to use white Thingamabobbers or better is the white Air-Lock Strike Indicators because they look like bubbles and they don’t spook the fish. You will still have some drag on the fly which could limit your hookups but it’s better than a big intrusive Orange indicator.
      I would also try using weighted flies instead of adding weights on the line so you are not dragging weights over their heads.

      I was a slave to the indicator as well and hated Euro nymphing at first. I would try it and then go back to my indicator, then try it again and again and again, but liked my indicator, however with practice I got very good at Euro Nymphing and I soon realized that it is just as easy and much more effective especially in the type of water that you fish in.

      Hope that helps and good luck.

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