How to Catch Spring Steelhead on Flies

With prespawn, spawning, and postspawn steelhead crowding spring- time creeks and rivers, now's the best time to attempt one of fishing's top feats: to land the world's feistiest rainbow with a fly rod. Here's the drill, with expert advice from steelhead guide Rob Adamski of Whitakers Sport Shop and Motel in Pulaski, New York (315-298-6162; whitakers.com).

[1] THE CAST The amount of weight on your line makes a traditional fly cast impossible, so don't worry too much about technique. Facing perpendicular to the current, judge the distance of your intended cast and peel the required amount of line off the reel. Then lift the rod tip above and behind your head, and lob your weighted rig up- and across-stream.

[2] THE DRIFT Keep the rod tip high and as much of the fly line as possible off the water as you dead-drift the rig through a promising run or pool. This will keep the drift looking natural. Your weight should be lightly tapping the bottom. If you don't feel any bottom contact, then add more weight. However, if you're constantly getting hung up, subtract.

[3] THE STRIKE You might feel a fish grab your fly, but much more often, you'll merely notice that your rig stops drifting. Lift the rod tip lightly. You may be hung up. On the other hand, you may sense the mushy weight or subtle wiggling of a fish. Set the hook with a sideways jab. When in doubt, set it—better to be wrong than to miss a fish.

[4] THE FIGHT Don't touch that reel handle! First, let your fish run if it wants to. Then get it on the reel and apply heavy pressure only when your fish allows it. Keep the rod low, bending it deeply to the side. If you can't stop a fish from running downstream, carefully follow along the bank until you can turn him. And be sure to have a large net handy.

THE RIG
Use No. 7 split shot and leave about 3 to 4 feet of leader between your swivel and the fly.

THE FLIES
Nymph: A size 10 or 12 black stonefly is standard, but Hare's Ears and others work.

Egg Pattern: Go with a Glo Bug or Estaz Egg. Other local egg patterns work too.

Streamer: Use size 8 to 10 Woolly Buggers or Egg Sucking Leeches.

The Outfit
The gear you need for spring steelhead:

The Rod: A long, slow-action fly rod like Redington's 10½-foot, 7-weight Redfly ($169; redington.com) improves line control, allowing you to make drag-free drifts through a run. It also offers excellent sensitivity for detecting strikes.

The Line: Choose a thin-diameter running or shooting line with no taper, like Rio's Floating Shooting Line ($50; rioproducts.com). Another good option is to use an old 3- or 4-weight, but spool it backward so there is no taper.

The Reel: Because steelhead are such strong, hard-fighting fish, a smooth drag is key, like the one on this Scientific Anglers Large Arbor 7/8 ($119; 3m.com/scianglers). The reel should also pick up line quickly.