Nymphing For Steelhead: The 3 Most Effective Methods
Using the same methods that steelhead guides use will ensure you catch more steelhead when nymphing for steelhead, but what are those methods? I will discuss the three most effective ways of nymphing for steelhead and explain the methods that I and other steelhead river guides use to put more steelhead in the net for our clients.
Nymphing for steelhead is when you present your fly below the surface in a way that naturally imitates the steelhead’s food sources. The 3 most effective methods to use when nymphing for steelhead are Indicator Nymphing, Suspension Nymphing, and Euro Nymphing. Using the best flies is also important.
When nymphing for steelhead, I will use the different nymphing methods at different times or under different types of river conditions, and it’s important that you understand when to use each method if you want to maximize your success when nymphing for steelhead.
The best flies to use when nymphing for steelhead would be imitations of aquatic insects, fish eggs, or worms, and I will discuss these and provide you with my most effective steelhead flies.
Nymphing For Steelhead
Nymphing for steelhead is often the most effective way to fly fish for steelhead on mid-sized rivers that are 120 wide or smaller. Rivers or creeks from 10 to 50 feet wide are great for these nymphing for steelhead methods.
The method of nymphing that I use when fishing or guiding for steelhead will depend on a few factors, such as the size of the spot I’m fishing, the distance that I need to cast to get the fly to the fish, and to be able to present the fly properly, the depth and the speed of the spot that I want to fish.
Anglers that know when to change their nymphing method based on the conditions in front of them will be able to catch a lot more steelhead. I will discuss each method and when to use them below.
I teach my clients how to set up their nymph rig, what flies to use and when, and how to fish the flies properly. Anglers that know how to do all of this will be able to nymph fish for steelhead better and will catch more fish.
In this article, I will discuss the best gear, the best setups, the best steelhead nymphs, and my best steelhead nymphing rigs.
Best Steelhead Fly Rods For Nymph Fishing
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 to fish with a heavy 9 or 10 weight fly rod just 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.
See this link if you are in search of the best steelhead fly rods.
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 steelhead 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. So let’s talk about each method in more detail.
Indicator Fishing For Steelhead – The Better Way
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.
There are two ways to hold your float back and manage your indicator angles when suspension nymphing.
The first way which I use when fishing close and when fishing nervous trout is to use the high stick(high rod tip) method with no line on the water and then control the speed of the indicator by moving your rod tip downriver at the desired speed, it usually only takes a little bit of hold on the rod tip to slow the indicator and change the angle.
The other method is to stack mend or shoot mend the line directly above your indicator. With all the fly line mended directly upriver of the indicator, it will create extra line drag which will slow down the indicator. The trick is to make sure it’s not too slow or too fast.
If the indicator starts to move too fast, slowly pulling the line upriver will slow it down again. if the indicator is too slow I will mend some line downriver to take off the tension. Done right and you can make long drifts with some speed control.
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
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
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 effectively, and the Centerpin anglers do it much 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 than 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 as long as your fly is not dragging the bottom. Ideally, you want your fly 6 to 12 inches off the bottom at all times.
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:
- Dynamic Nymphing – George Daniel
- Nymph Fishing: New Angles, Tactics, and Techniques – George Daniel
- Tactical Fly Fishing: Lessons Learned from Competition for All Anglers – Devin Olsen
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 idea is you are suspending both flies off the bottom as much as possible without them touching or dragging the bottom.
If possible I want my bottom fly to be 6 to 12 inches suspended off the bottom at all times, and my top fly higher, but only high enough that the fish can also see it. I discuss how high below.
So in 4 feet of water, your entire leader length should be 3.5 feet to 4 feet long.
The type of flies that you use on the top or the bottom of this setup is up to you, however, however, at least 1 fly should be weighted to keep both of them down.
NOTE: If you do not have weighted flies get some, or just use split shots. If you have to use weights, use one or two split shots 6 to 12 inches above the top fly, and maybe a second single weight situated dead center between the two flies. Ideally, it’s best to NOT use weights and to only use weighted flies.
For the ideal two-fly suspension rig, I replace the weights as seen in the standard suspension nymphing diagram with a large and heavily weighted fly. This is the top fly in most situations.
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. in very fast water I might put the heavy fly on the bottom or even use two weighted flies to be sure I’m getting down to the fish.
If the water is not very fast, more often I will use a heavy fly as the top fly and change the bottom fly size and weight accordingly, which means the size and weight that I need to keep the fly in the strike zone.
The bottom fly can also be a not weighted fly pattern like my San Juan worm or an egg pattern.
I use the heavier fly on top because it will pull the non-weighted fly down and since the non-weighted fly is not heavy it won’t drag and snag on the bottom as often. Two heavy flies will often snag too much, especially in slower water, and if you don’t have your depth set properly.
The distance between the two flies will depend on the conditions. The dirtier the water the closer I want those two flies because I want to be sure the fish sees them both. And, often, in dirty water, they will hold tight to the bottom. So if the water is 12 to 14 inches of visibility I will have my flies 6 to 14 inches apart.
NOTE: When I say visibility or clarity of the water, I’m referring to how much water I can see through. I determine that in two ways. Start from the river’s edge, and look to see how far out can you see the bottom before you almost lose sight of the bottom, then estimate how deep that is at that point.
Or, if I’m standing in the water and I can barely see the tops of my boots in 12 inches of water, I would consider that 12 to 14″ visibility.
So, in clearer water, I will increase the distance between my two flies according to the amount of clarity.
If one fly is 2 inches from the bottom in 36-inches of visibility, I’d separate my flies 24″ to 30″ because I know the fish should still be able to see that top fly, and both flies.
Having the flies spread apart at this distance has the advantage of you potentially and unknowingly dragging one fly across the bottom because it’s too deep (remember we are trying to suspend the flies) while having the top fly perfectly situated just over the fish’s heads.
You are not always going to be able to predict high spots or slightly suspended fish so having your flies 24 to even 36 inches apart can be very beneficial.
Attaching Your Flies For A two Fly Rig
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:
- 0X to 3X tapered Leader
- 1X to 3X tippet
- Tippet rings and micro swivels
- Split shots
Steelhead Indicator Rig Diagram
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
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
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.
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?
I usually concentrate the split shots, however, I don’t see why spacing out the split shots wouldn’t work to.
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
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.
Thanks for the info been fly fishing 10 years and still learning i dont catch alot but this will help Thanks again.
Hi Miles, one of the fun things about fly fishing is the learning process.
I’ve been very lucky to have had great teachers and to be able to be on the water with thousands of anglers which has helped me narrow down what works and what doesn’t. I will be sharing that info on the hundreds of new pages I will be adding to this website later this year. That should help you catch more fish.
Hey Graham, I see that your favorite indicator for a fly rod is the raven float. How would you rig that for a fly rod? Would it be similar to your centerpin set up? (indicator,swivel, 20in shot line, swivel, 16in line, fly). Also, how would you do a 2-bait suspension rig with a raven float? Thanks in advance! I discovered your page a week ago and I have learned so much! My confidence and success on the river has already increased because of this page and I am incredibly grateful. Thanks again.
I’m glad you like the page.
See the diagram for the suspension nymph rig. That is usually how I set it up with or without the Raven float. To do 2 fly setup I usually run a short 6 to 10-inch tippet from the knot or the tippet rig at the weights and then a second fly would be an additional 10 to 14 inches below that.
When you talk about Suspension nymphing, how do anglers fly fishing angle their float torwards themselves like centerpin fisherman are able to do?
Good question, it’s a bit hard to explain so I hoping to do some video tutorials this spring.
There are two ways to hold your float back and manage your indicator angles when suspension nymphing. The first way is to use the high stick(high rod tip) method with no line on the water and then control the speed of your float by moving your rod tip downriver at the desired speed, it usually only takes a little bit of hold to slow the indicator and change the angle.
The other method is to stack mend or shoot mend the line directly above your indicator. With all the fly line directly upriver of your indicator, it will create line drag which holds back the indicator. If the indicator starts to move too fast, slowly pulling the line upriver will slow it down again. Done right and you can make long drifts with some speed control.
Great article. Im thinking about getting an 11; 7 wt switch rod and will be primarily mymphing for steelhead. Do I get a traditional 7 wt line or a skagit head or scald head?
Sorry for the delay, your message ended up in a spam folder.
If you are only nymphing, I would use a standard weight-forward line. You can also cast that if you want to swing flies or strip streamers.
If you think you might want to swing flies using Spey casts occasionally, there are some good switch rod lines on the market that are designed for both nymph and spey casts.
If you don’t ever plan to spey cast, stick to a regular fly line and forget about scandi and skagits lines, those lines are made to cast, not to nymph.
Hope that helps and good luck,
starting euro nymphing. your article has been very helpful. fishing small/medium michigan rivers for steelhead. have the cortland 7 wt. have appropriate reel. now need proper euro line. when researching, some say euro set-up can be used for dry fly applications. a little confusing to me. can you recommend appropriate euro line for above situations? thanks.
This is what I recommend to my good clients. Just use any standard weight forward fly line that matches your rod weight. The reason I say this is because if you use the very productive French or Spanish nymphing method, I use the Spanish method, you almost never use your fly line while fishing anyways. Therefore the fly line is irrelevant, and since it’s a standard weight forward line you can easily switch and use it for indicator or streamer fishing if you want to change methods without changing reels.
I have fished with some very good competition euro anglers, including a world champion fly angler, and a multi-medal competition angler, and they rarely if ever use their fly lines when nymphing, and neither do I.
Instead, I’v3e updated the article and included info on the Long leader and Long OPST leader.
One of the problems with Euro Lines is they are not made for steelhead and 7 weight rods, therefore you will need to use a 5 weight, they can be 12 to 15 pound break strength so be careful applying to much pressure.
Also, I would not recommend dry fly fishing with Euro lines, however, a good caster could probably do it.
I just started fly fishing this fall and have done alright. My question with the suspension fishing vs having a 1.5x leader length. Its hard to tell the depth at times so the extra leader length provides some cushion. How do you you know your fishing the right depth? I typically add weight or lower raise indicator till I know its ticking bottom with the method Im using.
Thanks for the awesome page. Just found it today
Should there be a depth increase the 1.5x leader will be good as it will ensure your fly gets deep enough in that case. With a suspended leader there is a chance you will be too high should it get deeper, but, hopefully, the trout will rise up, and since they feed up it’s probable. I personally believe it’s better to be too high than it is to have the fly dragging the bottom or have the fly too far in front of the indicator to detect a bite, which both thing are more likely to happen with 1.5x depth.
As you mentioned, for both methods, you will watch your indicator to see if it ticking bottom. With the 1.5x depth you will leave it at the depth if it only ticks the bottom periodically, but, with the suspension method, you should make it 6 to 12 inches shallower so you are mostly suspended.
Hope that all makes sense.
I’m learning so much from your website. Thanks for sharing you knowledge. So far, I only have 3 days of steelhead nymph fishing under my belt (several years with trout).
With a 2 fly suspension nymphing rig like the one diagrammed in your article, with the weighted fly at top, and an unweighted egg as the bottom fly, it seams like the egg would not get to the bottom, below the weighted fly. Should the tippet length to the top fly, below the indicator, be set to river depth so that the weighted/top fly is drifting on or near the bottom, then dragging the egg along with it? Please explain.
I’m happy to hear you are enjoying the site.
If just added a bunch to that section that might make it a lot more clear so go check it out.
In short, you never want your fly dragging the bottom. You want both flies suspended off the bottom. You will catch more fish with your bottom fly 12 inches over thier heads then 1 inch below their heads. Trout and steelhead tend to feed forwards and up, and rarely down.
So in 4 feet of water, your entire leader length should be 3.5 feet to 4 feet.
Hope that helps