Best Winter Steelhead Fly Colors?

Part of my collection of Winter Steelhead Tube Intruders. The colors represented here are at the top of my list to fish in Oregon Coastal Rivers.

Part of my collection of Winter Steelhead Tube Intruders. The colors represented here are at the top of my list to fish in Oregon Coastal Rivers.

This is an opinion piece, and the reader should digest my thoughts knowing that I am as biased as any steelhead angler you’ve ever met where fly color is concerned. I definitely have ideas about the color hues of the steelhead flies I fish in winter (summer too) as well as color hue combinations and I’ll share these ideas briefly in this article.

I should also emphasize that my opinions and bias are based on the world I live in—the Pacific Northwest. Anglers who fish the Great Lakes tributaries regularly fish flies with dominant color hues that are in my least favored category. It is entirely possible that their flies would be as successful here on the west coast as they are in the Great Lakes region.

Food for thought. Our tendency to fish certain color combinations creates a self fulfilling prophesy because we can only catch fish on the flies we fish. We hear that blue/black is a good fly color to fish and that influences our own fly choice.

To generalize, my fly designs are based on my belief system that is founded on three tiers of “favored colors” that I fish in the winter.

Top Tier = black, blue, purple.

Middle Tier = pink, orange, red.

Bottom Tier = olive, chartreuse.

Least favored color hues for my winter steelhead flies = brown, tan, white, yellow, gray.

This is my way of saying that the flies I am most likely to reach for on any given day are likely to include combinations of colors in the top tier, namely black, blue, and purple.

I may also use a butt or “trigger point” using a bright color like pink, orange, or chartreuse.

The flies pictured at the top of this page are (from left to right) what I would refer to as:

1.  Black (chartreuse butt)

2.  Blue and Black (chartreuse butt)

3.  Red & Black

4.  Purple & Black (orange butt)

5.  Pink & Shrimp Pink

6.  Pink & Orange

On combining colors: I rarely fish steelhead flies that are monochromatic. I nearly always fish flies that combine at least two colors within a tier, and these combinations include blue/black; purple/black; and blue/purple.

I also combine a hint of top tier colors with a dominant second tier color. Examples include orange/black; chartreuse/black; pink/purple; red/black. pink.blue. Note that in these flies the second tier color creates the overall color hue of the fly and the top tier color is a secondary enhancement.

Oddly, I never use black to enhance pink, but I can not explain why. Most probably, a fly that is dominantly pink with a black highlight would catch winter steelhead. But my fly boxes are already full enough that I am reluctant to craft yet another combination and further complicate my choices.

Color variation – the only unambiguous color I fish is black. You will see a lot of variation in colors like purple, blue, pink, shrimp pink, red, orange and even chartreuse. Some of these color hue differences are intentional and reflected in the labeling of the material.  For example, our selection of Fish Hunter Spey Marabou includes 4 different blue hues. Even so, you should expect some variation in the shade of most colors that are dyed in different lots, because these are natural materials and the dye sometimes sets differently under different conditions.

Three varieties of blue marabou.

Three varieties of blue marabou. The differences are subtle and do not show as well in this photo as they do when you look at the feathers on a  steelhead fly.

Two more variations of blue marabou.

Two more variations of blue marabou. These are easily distinguishable from the blues pictured in the previous container of blue marabou.

Here is a great combination: blue and black.

Here is a great combination: blue and black.

Fish purple and black alone or in combination.

Another great color combination, I fish purple and black or in combination – but you could fish each of these colors alone.

Here are two versions of red and an orange to complement.

Here are two versions of red and an orange to complement.

Two versions of shrimp pink and bubble gum pink marabou.

Two versions of shrimp pink and bubble gum pink marabou.

Chartreuse and Cerise Marabou.

Chartreuse and Cerise Marabou.

I would call this a black fly, a color that fishes well under a wide variety of conditions, and this fly has a chartreuse trigger point.

I would call this a black fly, a color that fishes well under a wide variety of conditions, and this fly has a chartreuse trigger point.

I would refer to the color hue of  this tube fly as pink  even though it has a shrimp pink highlight.

I would refer to the color hue of this tube fly as pink even though it has a shrimp pin kostrich highlight.

I would refer to the color of this fly as purple and black, with an orange trigger point.

I would refer to the color of this fly as purple and black, with an orange trigger point.

I call the color hue of this fly blue and black with a pink trigger point.

I call the color hue of this fly blue and black with a pink trigger point.

I refer to this fly as my red and black tube intruder.

I refer to this fly as my red and black tube intruder.

The rationale for fishing various colors at different river conditions is a complicated, twisted world that is full of self indulgent ideas mixed with personal experience and magic.  Here are some of the thoughts that run through my mind when tying on a fly.

If the water is on the brownish side of steelhead green, I will first reach for that are dominantly pink or purple.

If the water is a perfect steelhead green I am likely to fish any of my top tier colors alone/in combination.

If the water is on the clear side of steelhead green and the sun is high, I will likely fish orange/red; red/orange;  orange/black; red/black; or olive/black.

The color that I am least likely d to fish as a dominant theme for steelhead is chartreuse. This is funny because a chartreuse fly would be in my first tier of color choices if I were fishing for Chinook.

You should know that some successful winter steelhead anglers often rank pink and orange in their top tier while I place them among the middle tier of color choices. Anyway, I hope these thoughts help a little, the most important part of hooking a winter steelhead on the swing is to grab a fly, tie it on, and keep it wet. All the intellectualizing accomplished by me and others has yet to catch a fish while sitting at the computer or fly bench.

Jay Nicholas winter season 2016/17

 

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6 Responses to Best Winter Steelhead Fly Colors?

  1. Andrew Williams says:

    Hi, Jay, When I lived on and fished the Skeena River and tribs., I frequently used the colour combinations you mention. I’d like to make a couple of comments. Water temperature is a factor, I found. Brighter colours – pink and orange – tend to move the fish better in colder temps. I think. Also, you don’t mention the amount of flash in a fly, but complementary Flashabou, Crinkle Flash etc. is an important factor in these Intruder type ties. I like incorporating Crystal Hair in the tails and Flashabou or Crinkle Flash in the wings. Really like your patterns and colour range.

  2. Gavin McClintic says:

    Love it. I could talk fly colors all day!

  3. Kj says:

    Excellent post with the appropriate explanation of personal opinion and preference accompanying it.

  4. david jensen says:

    Jay is the master.

  5. Ray Forson says:

    Great article Jay, as always. Entertaining AND informative.
    My steelhead mentor almost always fished an offering with a sizeable amount of white material visible, regardless of the rest of the color scheme. So naturally I adopted this practice, and neither of us ever seemed to suffer from a lack of eats. Many years ago I toyed with the idea that the white material, reflecting ALL of the wavelengths of visible light present, might be the brightest and most visible material in off-colored water. And with the exception of flash, it is. Next time the river is blowing out on you, before you leave, dunk some flies at your feet and see for yourself.

  6. Jakob Lund says:

    Jay,

    I agree with all your choices as this is exactly how I would rate any of these colors.

    Interesting side note, in my observation I have seen Steelhead (Winter/Spring) react negatively to big presentations in primary colors in that of Red and Orange by simply peel out of the run/lay when swung down and across. I can typical make a half dozen+ casts with your top tier colors without spooking the fish (and maybe be so lucky and come tight!), whereas I seldom get more than 1-2 cast(s) with Red or Orange.

    In addition, “your least favorite colors” Steelhead hardly acknowledge.

    I seldom fish in high and really off colored water so this observation is that of sight fishing in clear-to-semi-murky water.

    Keep em’ coming Jay, I’m a big fan of the blog.

    Easy Mends,

    Jakob

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