I have found that some steelhead flies work better on some rivers but don’t work so well on other rivers. Several instances come mind that helps to point out this fact. One happened about 15 years ago when I was in Northwest Washington State fly-fishing the Stillaguamish River for steelhead. My friend Gordon who lives in the area and I arrived at the mouth of the North Fork early one morning and I asked him, “Well what fly should I start out with this morning?” His reply was “try this one” as he gave me a fly from his fly box that looked like a fluorescent orange wooly bugger. In about 15 minutes I was into a nice fish of about 10 lbs. To this day, that is the only fish I have ever caught on that fly, I have fished it on several other steelhead rivers here in Oregon without success. The Red Ant is another pattern that seems to be a one-river fly. It’s a great fly on the Rouge River, but for me, that seems to be the only river where it catches fish.
Another curiosity about steelhead flies: A fly pattern may catch fish one year, and the following year, it just doesn’t seem to work Therefore, if you’re going to fly fish a new river for steelhead, better check with a local fly shop or the local fly fishing club and find out what steelhead fly patterns are catching fish for that particular river.
I happened to be a firm believer in confidence that you have for a particular fly pattern. For example, when you tie a fly on the end of your leader that you feel good about, and you get that special “feeling” that it will catch you a fish, chances are, it will work. Also when fishing gets tough because of fishing pressure and hot bright days, stay with the time tested fly patterns that have caught fish over the years.
Needless to say, one of my favorite Steelhead Flies is the Green Butt Skunk. I tie it un-weighted in sizes 4 & 6, on a black finish up-eye fly hook. I consider this a good morning and mid-day fly and have also caught fish on it with bright sun on the water. Second is the plain Skunk with an all white wing, I tie it in sizes 2, 4, and 6 on nickel-plated down-eye hooks. I like the size 2 for winter fish and the 4 & 6 during late low light afternoons and evenings for summer fish. The number three and number four favorites, would have to be the Umpqua Special and the Orange General Practitioner, both of these flies are tied un-weighted on size 4 up-eye hooks. I like to fish these patterns early in the morning on the edges of fast currents using a sink tip fly line and a short leader. Pattern # 5 would have to be the Black Wooly Bugger size 6. I usually tie this fly weighted on a 4x long 2x strong down eye hook with a long black marabou tail with a few strands of pearl flashabou and a black cactus chenille body with a black hackle wrap. The # 6 fly and one of my favorites because of its versatility, is the Muddler Minnow and I tie this fly on a #6 down eye, 6x long hook. This fly can be fished wet with a trimmed cone head or it can be fishing dry or skated with a trimmed ball head using a riffle hitch.
I use both weighted and un-weighted steelhead flies. However, I feel that an un-weighted fly has more movement in the water because it is affected more by the different current flows than a weight fly. Some sections of fly-only waters prohibit the use of weighted flies, so check the fishing regulations for those waters. However there are times when you just have to get the fly down on the bottom and a weighted fly may be needed.