Nicholas’ Steelhead Fly Interview: Does the Size of Your fly Matter?

Black Demon Steelhead Fly by Stan Davis

Black Demon Steelhead Fly by Stan Davis. The brightness of this fluorescent flame and orange contrast nicely with the black and white in the tail and the black in the wing. Although this is often thought of as a summer steelhead fly pattern, the Black Demon is a fly that is inherently effective to fish in any water conditions. This is true with the Green Butt Skunk. I always thought of the Green Butt Skunk as strictly a summer steelhead fly. Then two friends told me, independently, that they had been using the GBS as their go-to winter steelhead fly. One of these fellows was fly fishing, the other was drift fishing with spinning gear, using the GBS tied onto his leader below a piece of pencil lead when drift fishing. This proves how any of us can miss out by paying attention to preconceived notions about what steelhead like or don’t like. 

Introduction: We caught up with Jay recently, fresh from a session at his fly bench, and asked if he would take time for an interview. The topic? Recommendations for the best size of fly to fish for winter steelhead. He agreed, so let’s get down to the results.

Question: Everyone who fishes for winter steelhead has their opinion regarding the best colors for steelhead flies. The same is true for anglers holding strong opinions about what the best fly size is and if so – what exactly is the best size fly we should be fishing for winter steelhead. The same questions and strident opinions apply to summer steelhead, naturally, but that interview can wait until May. For now, Jay, could we please tackle the fly-size question for winter steelhead here?

Jay: You do know that this blog post is me interviewing me, don’t you?

Question: Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be asking the questions here, not you.

Jay Ok, if you insist. What was the question?

Question: Does the size of a fly influence how many winter steelhead an angler will catch. And don’t go waxing all evasive and say stuff about how it depends on factors like
__ what the water clarity is,
__ what the water temperature is,
__ how big the river is, and
__ whether the hydrograph is going up or down.

Here's a nice 3.75-inch Pink & Blue Tube intruder. Guess what? This is two tubes staked together, making this a size adaptation you can accomplish streamside if you wish.

Here’s a nice 3.75-inch Pink & Blue Tube Intruder. Guess what? This is two tubes staked together, making this a size-adaptation anyone can accomplish streamside if you wish.

Jay: Yes, the size of the fly you fish for winter steelhead matters. It matters a lot some days. And there are some generalities about the fly-size that I believe, with only unquantified personal experience and hearsay to guide me.

Question: Well, would you be so kind as to tell us a little about your opinions?

Jay: Sure will.

Best Size for Winter Steelhead Flies Winter steelhead will, on average, respond better to a fly that is between 3/8-inch and 2.5-inches long. They will grab flies smaller and larger, but I believe that a fly in this zone is more likely to be eaten than a fly smaller or larger.

If I step into a run on a nearby coastal river like the Siuslaw, Alsea, or Nestucca, I might tie a fly like this 2.5-inch Orange Shrimp on my leader.


Remember, please, You asked me to move past the complexity factor, and so I did.

Question: What about egg patterns? How do egg flies fit in the fly-size discussion?

I would be remiss if I didn’t note the obvious: egg patterns are small, are usually dead-drifted, and fall outside the consideration of fly-size in this discussion. The matter of fly-sizes in nymphs and eggs that are fished for winter steelhead is a different subject for a different day.

If you like tying tubes, I could recommend the fly below as a good candidate for the first pass through the run: a nice orange and red-hued tube with a gold cone.

This tube measures a whopping 2.5 inches nose to bend of the hook.

This tube fly measures a whopping 2.5 inches nose to bend of the hook.

If the shrimp fly and the tube don’t lie in your fly box, I offer the assortment of flies pictured below, all of which fall into the more reasonable size-class of 2.0 to 2.25 inches long. These are all tied by my friend Stan Davis.

Jay Nicholas.This is a disorganized splat of Stan Davis winter steelhead flies dropped riverside. I thought it made such a nice image. All of these flies fall into the 2.0 size class, and I call this money.

This is a disorganized splat of Stan Davis’ flies dropped riverside. I thought it made such a nice image. All of these flies fall into the 2.0 size class, and I call this money. And if you get right down to it, these will all fish summer steelhead, winter steelhead, and. blueback. I call these multi-purpose flies.

I will add that I usually only stray out of this size-class (2-inches) with a fly like the Orange Shrimp because although longer, it is also sparser, and therefore seems less intimidating to the steelhead (maybe).

Question: Ok, Jay. Why no mention of Intruders? We know that Intruder-style flies have been the rage of popularity during the last several decades, probably longer if you consider the early adopters.

What do you have to say about the effect a large Intruder has on winter steelhead’s proclivity to grab-and-go?

Winter Steelhead Intruder Fly. This fly is in the 4.4-inch size class, a very nice flyy to swing in a river like the Sandy or  the Clackamas, or big water reaches of Oregon and Washington coastal rivers.

Winter Steelhead Intruder Fly. This fly is in the 4.5-inch size-class, a very nice fly to swing in a river like the Sandy,
the Clackamas, or big any of the big-water reaches of Oregon and Washington coastal rivers.

Jay: If I swing a 4 or 5-inch intruder over a fresh pod of winter steelhead and I’m the first rod in the run, I’m probably going to get bit.

If I’m fishing over the same pod of fish that has been settled in a pool for the last 6 hours, the situation is far different. Those steelhead have seen 4 hotshots, five spinners, twenty-five beads, 7 gobs of roe, three fresh sand-shrimp, 11 jigs, and 13 pink worms.

After seeing all this junk swim across their heads, the steelhead are likely to be intimidated, and my Intruder will be less effective than a size 12 Copper John fished with an indicator on a 3 wt  Euro Nymph rod.

Jay NIcholas: Shock Therapy INtruder, tied in sizes from 1.5-inch to 4-inch. These flies all fish.

Jay Nicholas: Shock Therapy Intruder, tied in sizes from 1.5-inch to 4-inch. These flies all fish.

Question: Can you show an example of imagery to illustrate size categories in winter steelhead flies?-sizes?

Jay: Why yes I do, and thanks for asking. The photo above is an example of how anyone can tie a series of flies with the same general color hues in several sizes. The flies above all use a purple and black color theme with hot pink trigger emphasis. I like these colors in my flies, so I will have all of these in my jacket pocket and will fish the fly-size that suits me in each run I step intro to fish

The fly at the top is 2-inches, the fly at the bottom is 4.5 inches.

Question: How should an angler fish one run several times in succession? As you know, anglers who are bank fishing, in contrast with anglers drifting downriver in a boat, can be limited to fishing one or two places each day.

Jay: Under all but high water conditions, I would normally begin swinging a 2.0 or 2.5-inch fly. If I get a tug on this fly but the fish will not commit, I would step upstream and work down with a smaller fly. (High water calls for a large fly on the first pass.)

Assuming the fish will not commit to the smaller fly, I would step back upstream and swing down again, this time with a larger fly.

Anytime I’ve stepped through three times with no solid grab to show for my effort, the steelhead need to be rested. I will step ashore, enjoy lunch, and watch anglers drifting past me in boats. I know that all of. these anglers will keep their gear out of the water and not rest the steelhead, just as I am.

Question: Well, I think I understand your thinking Jay, thanks for sharing.

Jay: You’re welcome, and for fun, here is the recipe for the Intruder pictured above: Shock Therapy.

May you all enjoy finding a little entertainment and a chuckle.

Jay Nicholas, January 2021

Shock Therapy Intruder Recipe
Shank/Tube – PSF or OPST, various sizes
Hook – Sized to fly (#4 – #1)
Butt – Senyo’s Eat A Peach + Aquaveil
Butt collar – Purple Schlappen, Marabou, Ostrich Butt accent – Hot Tipped Crazy legs
Body – Senyo’s Muppet Fusion Dub
Rib – Red Copper wire or holo tinsel
Shoulder – Senyo’s Mountain Berry Aquaveil 1st – purple Ostrich, Marabou, Schlappen
Final collar – Hot Pink Guinea
Accent – PSF or Hareline imitation Jungle Cock
Flash – Purple Holo, Flashabou, or Lateral Scale
Eyes/beads/cone – tyer’s choice

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1 Response to Nicholas’ Steelhead Fly Interview: Does the Size of Your fly Matter?

  1. Barry Wallin says:

    Great post, Jay! Quick question, how is the length measured? Is it to the very last edge of winging materials, or is it to the bend of the hook?


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