Fly Fishing Tactics: Drop-Back Attack for Steelhead

Catch big, hungry steelhead without fighting the crowds.

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Illustration by Chris Philpot

Winter steelheading in Great Lakes tributaries involves icy flows, sluggish feeding, small flies, and big crowds. Spring fishing means big bugs and voracious hits. Success with fish dropping back into the lake now is all about effectively covering a run—which you should have all to yourself this time of year.

1 / Get a Head Start

Begin at the head of a run and fish the seams between the fast center and slower edges, where steelhead can intercept food without fighting the teeth of the current. Drift a stonefly nymph or conehead Woolly Bugger under an indicator. Clip the hackle off the Bugger to make it look more like a baitfish.

2 / Meat in the Middle

At mid run, switch to a Zonker. Cast long and slightly upstream, and then strip the streamer back so it swims across the run, showing its full profile to any fish. If you move a steelhead and it misses, remember its exact location. Come back later and drift the same lane with a nymph-and-indicator rig.

3 / Swing Low

Take a few steps downstream. Cast across the run with a dark-colored Intruder and let it swing through the tailout, stripping the fly upstream as the swing ends. This fly has a weighted head that helps it get down fast. Keep a death grip on your rod because a drop-back that hits on the swing can yank it from your hand.

Heavy Metal Kit

In the fly department, bigger is better come spring. My favorite streamer is an olive-and-white Zonker with a silver body tied on a 4X long hook. This fly has a meaty baitfish profile that steelies rarely ignore. If you have to go to the bullpen, try a black leech or a conehead Woolly Bugger in olive, brown, or black. With nymphs, it’s tough to beat black or brown stoneflies in sizes 6 through 2. A 6- to 8-weight rod and reel with a smooth drag loaded with floating line will cover most situations. Add split shot to sink flies in runs with shallow to medium depth; loop on a sink tip in the deep stuff.

Strike for Less
Make any fly line an indicator line for $5

Don’t want to spend $75 on an indicator fly line for nymphing? You can make your own for about $5. Buy a spool of 30-pound Sunset Amnesia shooting line (sunset​line​and​twine.com) in red. Attach a 6- to 12-inch piece of the Amnesia to the end of your fly line via a nail knot. Next, tie a perfection loop in the tag end of the Amnesia for easy leader connection. The line is superbright and has zero memory, so it won’t kink or coil. When the Amnesia stutters during a drift, set the hook. —Joe Cermele