Concerning steelhead fly size ……

I have been busily stocking my fly boxes preparing for winter steelhead season and part of my ritual concerns thinking about the best fly sizes to tie as each season approaches. In some past years I have been particularly enthused with relatively large flies, say on the order of four inch beasts. In those seasons, the three inch steelhead flies were on the small side of my tying efforts.

Over the course of several seasons, however, I have gravitated towards smaller sizes in my most current fly boxes.

Don’t misunderstand me – I dearly love to tie very large flies and still carry these with me every day on the river. That said, and after being on the receiving end of many more pulls and tugs than solid hookups (on 4″ flies), I have decided to downsize my winter steelhead flies and am now tending to tie a lot of Intruder-style flies in the neighborhood of two inches long.

Three Nicholas Steelhead Tube Intruders pictured with a 4" fly I found in a tree overhanging one of my favorite steelhead runs last season.

Three Nicholas Steelhead Tube Intruders pictured with a 4″ fly I found in a tree overhanging one of my favorite steelhead runs last season. My flies are roughly 2″ long.

Here are three of my current creations, in three different color phases, pictured with a very nice Intruder I retrieved from an overhead tree branch bordering one of my favorite steelhead runs last season. The “found” fly (second from left) is nearly 4″ long. My flies are barely a hair over 2″ long.

I took my ruler to a series of commercially available steelhead flies to check out the size of these creations.

My very unscientific sampling of juicy looking Aquaflies and Jeff Hickman’s Fish Taco flies revealed that the vast majority of these proven-effective steelhead flies are on the order of 3″ long.  I’m convinced that this is no accident. I’m convinced that steelhead respond well to flies in this size range under a wide variety of conditions. My current infatuation with filling my boxes with slightly smaller flies is sensible given the fact that I already have a very good supply of 3″ flies on hand.

I would also note that Brian Silvey’s Silveynator is a very effective steelhead fly and it is more on the order of 1.75- 2.0″ long.

Pictured from left to right: Nicholas' Tube Intruder; Brian Silvey's Silveynator; Aquaflies Intruder; Jeff Hickman's Fish Taco.

Pictured from left to right: Nicholas’ Tube Intruder; Brian Silvey’s Silveynator; Aquaflies Intruder; Jeff Hickman’s Fish Taco.

I know that really large flies are supposed to incite steelhead to react with savage grabs. At times they do. Still, I believe that many winter steelhead in waters where I fish on Oregon Coastal rivers are more likely to take a smaller than a larger fly.

The why of my belief is no more than biased opinion and dubious interpretation of fishing observation. It is up to each of us to consider the matter of fly size and then go out and fish the fly we believe is likely to  be effective on any given day, river, and run.

I should add that my preference for a 2″ fly over a 4″ fly holds true particularly in smaller streams — I am more comfortable fishing really large flies in big water than in small water. I wonder of the steelhead just feel more secure in big water than they do in smaller rivers, and feeling secure leads them to feel free to be agressive when shown a very large fly.

Not confident about all this, but for now I’ll be fishing flies in the 2″ – 3″ range more often then flies in the 4″ size class.

A future blog post will address the matter of steelhead fly color preferences.

Jay Nicholas – December 2016



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5 Responses to Concerning steelhead fly size ……

  1. mitch Baird says:

    well written. guess until the jury is in i will stick to the small streamers that i am confident in.

  2. Blake says:

    Jay I agree. I rarely have clients fish big intruders anymore and almost exclusively fish a scandi style tube fly that’s about 2.5″. We see a lot more action on this fly than the big intruders.

  3. Are those the ones you tied at the class this thursday? Maybe I will see you on the river sometime

  4. Jarred Deems says:

    Jay, I think you’re right about the size. You’ve got to take a look around to see what is available for the fish to eat at the time obviously, but a big fly doesn’t always equate to the biggest fish and it definitely doesn’t mean more catches. I’ve been experimenting with minimizing my fly sizes and it’s only had positive results so far.


  5. Oregon Fly Fishing Blog says:

    Thanks for your feedback. Our quest for the most effective fly size is an ongoing process and it is fun to share ideas and experience with our fellow anglers. JN

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