Spey Fishing For Steelhead: Best Setup And Tactics For Great Lakes

Spey fishing for steelhead

This is a quick article about Spey fishing for steelhead, and I wrote it to answer the common questions I get from my clients about what they need in order to get started Spey fishing for steelhead on great lakes rivers.

When Spey fishing for steelhead which is also known as swinging flies you simply cast your Spey fly across the river with a Spey rod and Spey line and you allow it to swing across the river. When Spey fishing for steelhead you will need specialized flies and sink tips to get your fly down to the steelhead.

Spey fishing for steelhead is done with a special 2-handed fly rod which I will discuss later. There are so many lines and tips and rods that it can get a bit confusing, but I’m going to keep it simple but still effective.

Yes, you will need the proper setup to ensure you are fishing effectively. The proper setup includes the right fly line, the right-sized sink tips, the right size tippet, and the right flies.

Is Spey Fishing For Great Lakes Steelhead Effective?

Spey fishing for great lakes steelhead can be effective but rarely will it be the most effective fly fishing method for great lakes steelhead. The reason anglers use this method is because of the challenge of it, the thrill of the hard hits, and the fun of casting.

Most of the time I would say that Nymphing for steelhead on most rivers will be more effective and often more effective by about 5 to 1 but anglers give up numbers for the fun that spey fishing for steelhead provides.

This is based on my own experience and comparisons of the two methods in all types of rivers from New York to Michigan and into Northern Ontario.

The reason for this is that swinging flies generally attract the most aggressive steelhead. These are the steelhead that are willing to chase a moving target and I believe that most days the most aggressive steelhead only make up about 5 percent of the steelhead in the river.

With Nymphing, your nymph is a slow and easy moving target and it will work on both aggressive and neutral steelhead which greatly improves the amount of fish that will bite.

The other reason I think that you will catch fewer fish when Spey fishing is because most anglers don’t swing their flies effectively. They simply don’t understand how to get the flies deep enough or how or when to speed them up or slow them down. I will discuss these in more detail below.

Great Lakes Spey Rivers

Not all rivers are great for Spey fishing for steelhead and anglers will have their challenges with this method, but with the right rods, reels, lines, and flies, angler can experience multiple hook ups a day.

Most great lakes spey rivers are on the smaller side averaging 30 to 60 feet wide, but they are definitely fishable with a Spey rod.

Best Spey Rods For Great Lakes Steelhead

Due to the size of most great lakes steelhead rivers and the size of the steelhead. Spey fishing for steelhead can be done with rods from 6-weight to 8 weights.

My preferred size Spey rod for fishing most great lakes steelhead rivers is a 12-foot to 13’6, 7-weight Spey rod. On the larger West Coast rivers, many anglers and guides will prefer 8 to 9-weight Spey rods with a length of 13 to 14 feet.

Some good Spey rods to consider are:

I go into more detail and show you some of the best rods on my page Best Spey Rods For Steelhead.

Another type of rod that I have used and guided with and is also popular is the switch rod.

Switch rods are designed to be used with spey lines and spey fishing methods, but they can also be used to nymph fish with indicators. They are what i would call a hybrid and are a bit light for true Spey fishing, and a bit heavy for nymphing, however, they do both fairly well.

My first switch rod was fun and inexpensive, and I could easily Spey cast 80 feet of line with a heavy Skagit Spey line, a heavy sink tip, and large flies like intruders.

If this sounds like the rod type for you, check out my article Best Switch Rods For Steelhead.

Spey Fishing Reels

When it comes to the best Spey fishing reels and switch rod reels, I’m going to risk saying that any fly reel with an enclosed drag, and in a size that matches or balances your Spey rod will be fine.

The general rule of thumb is your fly reel should be 2 sizes bigger than the fly rod rating. This will allow for the thicker spey lines and the extra fly line backing.

The color of the fly reel is irrelevant.

While there are some expert and die-hard Spey guys who like click-and-pawl type fly reels (reels with no drag), I highly recommend a fly reel with a good smooth drag system. Based on my experience, most anglers will land a lot more fish with a smooth drag system.

Good Spey reel options are:

Great Lakes Spey Fishing Lines

Many great lakes steelhead rivers are smaller in size with average depths from 3 to 8 feet deep. The steelhead themselves are often deep, especially in the colder months and to catch these steelhead you are going to need bigger flies and heavier sink tips that get down fast.

The best fly line to use when Spey fishing for steelhead on great lakes rivers that are narrow and deeper is a Skagit fly line or skagit heads. Skagit lines are heavy and they allow anglers to throw heavy sinking tips a long way with ease. Skagit lines are best in water from 3 to 12 feet deep.

These Skagit shooting heads are the preferred choice for most anglers due to their ease in casting large flies and heavy sink tips. The length of these heads can vary from 11 to 29 feet, contingent on the specific line. They’re engineered to pair with a running line system, along with either a sinking or floating tip.

Tips like Mow tips, or Poly Leaders are usually sold as standalone items.

Anglers focusing on steelhead spey fishing tend to lean towards notably mid-lenght to longer shooting heads, while those in pursuit of trout prefer short heads.

I have found that Skagit lines are the easiest for new anglers to learn to cast and are my preferred line to use when I am guiding on most great lakes rivers.

Skagit Lines I Use:

Scandi Spey lines are another good option on wider shallower rivers that don’t require as heavy of a sink tip to get the fly down fast. The Scandi Spey lines are good for fishing in water that is less than 5 feet deep.

Good Scando lines include:

Traditional Spe lines are the least used lines around the great lakes and west coast however, they can be good when fishing shallower water with lighter flies. A good line for this is the Rio InTouch Long Head Spey Line.

Sink Tips For Spey Fishing For Steelhead

You will need to get yourself a 9 to 15-foot sink tip line. This length of sink tip should be good for most rods between 11 and 14 feet long.

For most mid-sized great lakes rivers that are 30 to 60 feet wide, I like to use sink tips between 10 and 12 feet long.

Because of the way the great lakes rivers are, with a combination of long deeper pools, some shallower runs, and pockets with boulders I prefer to use MOW tips to help me get my flies into tight spots.

For most mid-sized rivers of 30 to 60 feet wide, I find that a T-9 to a T-11 sink tip will work just fine.

On larger rivers over 60 feet wide that have good flow, a T-14 might be a better option, however, I prefer to use my mending technique with a T-11 to get my fly into the strike zone.

If possible, I prefer sink tips in darker colors like green, grey and black and I try to avoid lighter colored tips in tans, yellows, or whites.

Tippets For Great Lakes Spey Fishing

When steelhead fishing, I will mostly use a 3 to 5-foot 12-pound fluorocarbon leader attached to the end of the sink tip.

In dirtier water or when needing to get my fly deep quickly behind a boulder or in a pocket, I might drop down to a 2 feet tippet.

Best Flies For Spey Fishing Great Lakes Steelhead

Thicker or bulkier flies sink slower, and thinner flies sink faster so I have an assortment of big, medium, and smaller flies in my fly box. My average-sized fly is about 3 inches long.

I also find that certain colors will work better on some rivers or in different water clarity than other colors. Having a small assortment of fly colors is a great idea.

Some of the most effective flies for great lakes steelhead are listed below.

Mending And Fly Speed

One of the things I teach my clients is to control the fly speed and watch their angles when swinging flies during the winter. I think it’s even more critical to control speed during the winter months than at any other time of the year since this is when the water is coldest and when the steelhead can be the least aggressive.

To control your speed and your angles, you MUST mend your line effectively after your cast and then control the line angler and the speed of your fly throughout the entire drift.

It is possible to slow down or speed up your fly. It’s also possible that the steelhead won’t care about your speed, but as a guide, I always experiment with speed to determine if they prefer a slower or faster swung fly.

Some anglers won’t control their speed and miss out on many fish.

After your fly lands, a hard mend up of the line and sink tip will allow for a deeper fly and will slow your fly down; this is often necessary for cold water and when the steelhead are not very aggressive.

Doing no mend at all, or using a downward mend will create drag on the line which will pull your fly faster. At times, with aggressive steelhead, this is what they want, and it allows you to cover more water faster. However, this is rarely the case during cold water periods.

I will often use both slow and fast presentations throughout the day and in different spots to determine what the steelhead prefer and if I determine one or the other is working best I’ll stick with that speed.

Getting Your Flies Down

Part of mending is to help your fly sink, but it’s primarily to control the angle and speed of your fly. To get your fly deep enough, you need to use sink tips. But there is more to it than just sink tips.

Ideally, you want your fly to be within 3 feet of the bottom of the river during spring and fall, and slightly deeper in the winter.

Sink tips are a section added to the end of the Spey or fly lines for the purpose of sinking the end of the fly line and the fly.

The heavier and longer the tip the faster and deeper the fly will sink.

Most anglers use 9 to 11-foot sink tips but shorter 5 to 7-foot and longer 12 to 15-foot tips could also be used in some situations.

Often your tips will be rated by sink rate. You will need to choose your tip based on the speed and depth of the area you want to target. You can also increase the sink rate with proper upwards mends.

Steelhead Grab: The Hit

One thing that draws many anglers to Spey fishing for steelhead is the frenetic grab of the steelhead. At times they can almost pull the rod out of your hands.

When Spey fishing for steelhead you generally want to keep your rod tip horizontal to the water or slightly above or slightly below.

You do not want to set the hook until you feel the weight or line start coming off the reel because steelhead will sometimes nip at the fly multiple times.

Also, be sure to check out Converting Finicky Steelhead On The Spey and learn how steelhead guides deal with steelhead that tap the fly but doesn’t fully commit at first.

Steelhead Throughout The Seasons

Steelhead guides will use different tactics, and different flies in spring, fall, and during the winter.

I discuss winter Spey fishing on my page Spey Fishing For Steelhead In Winter.

Also, check out Fall Spey Fishing For Steelhead: Guide Tips and Tactics.

Spey Fishing For Steelhead Q&A

I hope you enjoyed this article on Spey fishing for steelhead. If you have any questions, comments, or any tips and tricks let me know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,


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  1. Great stuff! Can’t wait to read the last two sections! Definitely want to read more on controlling your speed.