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The Great Lakes tributaries are a thriving fishery for a variety of different species—but no fish garners as much attention and obsession in the region as steelhead. Anglers travel from all over the country for a chance to hook up with these fish.
In terms of how to fish for steelhead, one of the most popular fishing tactics is on the fly. When you gear up for Great Lakes steelhead, a 6-, 7-, or 8-weight fly rod works best. And make sure the reel has a reliable drag system. You’re going to need it.
As for fly selection…
The go-to patterns that fishing guides throw often depends on variables, such as water conditions, time of year, and angling pressure. We asked four experts to share their three essential steelhead flies that will catch fish in just about any conditions on tributaries of the Great Lakes.
Guide: Alberto Rey
Alberto Rey is professor, artist, author, and professional guide in New York. He starts each Great Lakes steelhead season with a new crop of flies. “I think about it all year—what worked well, what did not,” Rey said. “I go in with the approach that I’m going to make the perfect fly, the fly that catches the stubborn fish.”
Fly No. 1 – Cuban Flea
This pattern is visible below the water, which makes it easier to see when the fish decides to take the fly. “It’s a little streamer that dances really well back and forth in the current,” Rey said. “The fish don’t have to make a snap decision on whether to strike or not right away. It doesn’t slap the water. It stays and swims in a medium current.”
How to Fish the Cuban Flea
“Drop the fly to simulate a bug falling off the bank or a tree,” Ray said. “Once the fly drops into the current, do a mend. It’s important to wait for the fly to drop into the current first—don’t mend too quickly. Keep mending as needed to keep the fly in front of the fish.”
Rey advises vibrating the rod so the fly seems to move in the current. The longer you keep it in the current, the better your odds. He prefers roll casting over back-casting because the line will often fall heavier with a back cast. Try to drop the fly gently and cause as little commotion as possible. An advantage to this fly is its visibility. “You can see it anywhere,” he says. “When it disappears, set the hook.”
Fly No. 2 – Gray Zonker
For a more substantial, medium- to heavy-size fly, Rey likes to throw a Zonker. “I like gray,” he said. “It’s not super-light or too dark, and it has kind of a dirty body that doesn’t spook the fish.” This fly works well in a variety of water conditions. Rey also likes the action on the Zonker. “It pushes water and fills the space the way a baitfish would.”
How to Fish the Zonker
Rod vibration is key here. “When the fly is moving through the current, I vibrate the rod,” Rey said. “It makes the tail move likes it is swimming.”
Fly No. 3 – Red-Headed Blurple Leech
This leech is one of the darker flies in Rey’s arsenal. It features a purple-and-black leech yarn body with a marabou tail to give it an enticing action in the water. Rey likes the thickness and chunky feel to the fly, particularly when coupled with a red conehead. The conehead really gets the attention of the fish, he says.
How to Fish the Red-Headed Blurple Leech
“Cast it to the bank, wait a second for the fly to drop, and make a quick mend,” Rey said. “Because the fly gets so deep, it stays in the water on the mend. Keep the fly in front of the fish and control the speed of how it moves.”
Rey likes to drop the fly just to the depth of being barely visible. “If the water is deep and the current is heavy, twitching the fly creates a sensitivity to strikes. If you feel a twitch in return, it’s a good time to set the hook.” He says to set the hook if you can’t see the fly, but you feel even the slightest bite. Many times, he says, the fish takes the fly and you will hardly feel it.
Guide: Julie Szur
Pennsylvania fishing guide Julie Szur loves sharing the wisdom and knowledge she’s gained from a lifetime of fishing. For Szur, targeting Great Lakes steelhead is all about movement; the fish want to see the movement of the fly. Her advice is simple: Watch the water, watch the depth, don’t get hung up on the bottom, make depth adjustments, and don’t fray the leader. Here are her go-to flies.
Fly No. 1 – Brookie
Szur’s signature fly has a special meaning for her. “I used to talk to Lefty Krey about designing something special,” Szur said. “I wanted to create one that was meaningful to me. I always fish with my golden retriever, Brookie, so I designed a fly using her hair.”
The Brookie looks and fishes like a minnow pattern. It has little eyes on the front, and when it’s in the water, it vibrates, and the tail flops around. In addition to the retriever hair, she will tie it using rainbow tinsel and Finn Raccoon in green or black on a size six hook.
How to Fish the Brookie
“Cast it out, count to five, and follow the fly using soft strips,” she said. “Cast again and count down, sometimes using faster strips.” Szur says dead-drifting a Brookie also works well.
Fly No. 2 – Candy Egg
When a female steelhead is laying eggs, an egg pattern will almost always catch fish. And, according to Szur, she can’t keep the fish off this particular egg pattern. This fly utilizes peachy yarn, and Szur likes to use a tangerine-and-peach mix of color, with a milky white vail over the edge and a blood dot in the middle. She ties this fly on a size 10 hook.
How to Fish the Candy Egg
“You have to have your split shot scattered if the fish are suspended or on the bottom,” Szur said. “Most importantly, you want to make sure you keep the drift down, and you just have to mend and mend constantly.” Szur will use a downstream cast. “I hold my arm straight and follow the fly straight downstream and bring it back upstream with a nice casting arc, moving my arm with the line.”
Fly No. 3 – Black or Golden Stone
Szur favors these stoneflies when the fish are first coming in and not yet ready for eggs. “The fly fluctuates in the water, and it twitches,” Szur said. “Fish it when the water is gin clear for maximum effectiveness.”
How to Fish the Black or Golden Stone
“Cast it upstream to the fish and keep a really tight line,” she said. “It depends on how active they are. I may dead drift, or give it a twitch to match the insects that are moving in the water.” Adjust your approach based on the light conditions and movement of the water. These variables may dictate the activity of the fish and the approach. If the sun is high and bright and the water is clear, the fish will be easier to spook.
Guide: Jeff Liskay
Jeff Liskay, a professional guide in Ohio, has been chasing Great Lakes steel for decades. He can talk to you about tactics that were used in the 1970s, as well as what’s hot today. Liskay will mix things up depending on where and when he’s chasing chrome, but he has three standard flies that rarely miss.
Fly No. 1 – Snelled Yarn
“I like the Snelled Yarn because it’s so versatile, and it works,” Liskay said. “I can change color and styles without cutting lines. I can make it small or big, within three hook sizes. I can do anything with it and switch things up on the water to adjust for water conditions and other variables.” Snelled yarn is Liskay’s go-to for egg patterns. “I’ve been snelling yarn since way back in the day,” Liskay said. “Another great advantage is the yarn is on top of the hook, so I get a great hook-to-land ratio.”
How to Fish Snelled Yarn
Liskay will begin with a box of precut yarn in a variety of colors cut ½ to ¾ inch long. Next, he runs his tippet from the swivel and tie his snell hook onto that. After he ties the snell on the hook, he leaves another 12 to 14 inches of tag end off the snell, and that’s where he ties his dropper fly. “I’ll fish it below an indicator with split shots on a dead drift,” he said. “Smaller size hooks have shorter yarn in more subtle colors, while the larger hooks might have lengthier, brighter yarn. I always try to mix colors. Sometimes, I’ll run a nymph off the back. I rotate my approach. I’m always adjusting, always changing.”
Fly No. 2 – Fairyfly
“This fly catches them anywhere,” he said. “It’s an imitation of a caddis with a slight change of color we call a Fairyfly.” Liskay likes chartreuse for stained or tannic water, but will tone it down to lighter colors for clearer water. When the fishing pressure is high, he’ll fish it blue and yellow. He ties a variety in advance to adjust to the water conditions.
How to Fish the Fairyfly
“Drop this fly in the buckets, and it will get down into the nooks and crannies,” Liskay said. “It works particularly well fished underneath yarn as the point fly.” It’s a simple fly that he loves to use while guiding, mainly when fishing around structure. “I don’t care if I lose 20 or 30 of these, so I fish them aggressively. By switching up the colors or going super small, scaling way down to 14 or 16, I’ll get a fish on, and that will turn the key on a slow day.” Casting closer to structure is key for these flies. “Six inches closer to the tree branches may be the difference between five fish and zero.”
Fly No. 3 – Synthetic Clouser
This fly is a minnow imitation with synthetic wings that will catch steelhead in any stretch of a Great Lakes trib. Liskay likes olives, blacks, and tans upriver, and minnow-white and copper down toward the lake.
How to Fish the Synthetic Clouser
“This pattern has more movement than a straight Clouser,” he said. “I’ll fish it under an indicator or fish it as the point fly on the very end of the dead drift and work it across the river on the swing. Look for the fish on the chase.” Using this approach helps Liskay determine how aggressive the fish are that day. Warmer water temps typically mean more aggressive fish.
Guide: Karl Weixlmann
Karl Weixlmann, is an author and professional guide in Pennsylvania. His fly-selection approach is pragmatic, yet extremely effective. “I like to tie something consistent regardless of water conditions,” Weixelmann said. “I love beautiful articulated streamers, but if a guy throws it up in a tree, I lose all those hours. As a guide, I want to tie something that won’t take forever to make at the vice. Time is limited. Simplicity in fly tying is a savior.”
Fly No. 1 – Little Precious
According to Weixlmann, these streamer patterns are simple and easy to tie. They typically imitate an emerald shiner. “You can tie them big or small,” he said. “It’s my number-one streamer pattern. They work great on trout streams, too.” Weixlmann likes to tie the pattern with olive on top and white underneath. “In dirtier water, I may throw some blue or flash in the middle,” Weixlmann said.
How to Fish the Little Precious
“Steelhead are feeding heavily on schools of emerald shiners in Lake Erie,” Weixelmann said. “You fish the conditions. Day in and day out, I think it’s tough to beat the Little Precious. Just vary the colors.” The Little Precious can be fished in a variety of techniques. Weixlmann will fish it under floats on a dead drift. “Just fling it and let it go. It’s a phenomenal streamer off the beach.”
Fly No. 2 – Three Loop Pink Lady Egg
If you’re fishing for Great Lakes steel, you’ll want a few reliable egg patterns. Weixlmann’s favorite is a Pink Lady, made from glo-bug skeins. He always ties it with chartreuse thread, which makes a big difference. “When it gets wet, and you hold it up to the light, it looks exactly like a spawn sack,” Weixlmann said. “I pick out the one with the most tangerine-orange color that has a really light translucent, pink color. I like to fish opaque patterns.”
How to Fish the Three Loop Pink Lady Egg
“I’ll look to see where the fish are suspended,” Weixlmann said. “Don’t set up super deep. Start shallow and work your way into the deeper water. Fish will suspend in the long sloping pools. Drift with an indicator. Bottom-bounce it on a dead drift, and keep weight on the leader and stagger the shot. Pay attention to the end of the drift. Steelhead will often hit eggs on the swing.”
Fly No. 3 – Wiggle Stonefly Nymph
On Steelhead Alley, a good stonefly can out-fish an egg pattern in cold water, according to Weixlmann. “When water temps drop, if you’re nymphing, you’re going to catch more fish,” he said. “For a general, all-purpose, nymph, I absolutely love a wiggle stonefly.” What sets this fly apart from other nymph patterns is the articulated tail that wiggles in the slightest current. This fly requires a bit more time at the vice, but it’s worth it. “It’s not a quick, easy tie, but it’s so effective.”
How to Fish Wiggle Stonefly Nymph
“I use it in the winter in low clear water,” Weixlmann said. “I’ll fish that wiggle stonefly, really small, like 16s, underneath a dry fly, “I’ll drop it back to the deepest, slowest part of the pool in the darker water. Use it when they’re hugging the bottom; it has a time and place. And it works.”