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.
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