Steelhead and the Stonefly

Steelhead have a definite soft spot for stone flies. In rivers where the flies are present, such as the Salmon River, stone flies can be as important as egg flies are during the peak of the spawning season, and at times more effective. In rivers that do not have a large population of stone flies, or any at all, steelhead will still respond to flies that imitate stone flies. There are several reasons for why Stoneflies are so effective on steelhead. The first reason is that there is approximately 500 species in North America, and in the East there are 9 families and 50 genera. What all this means is that, in the Salmon River there is several varieties of Stoneflies. During the past few years, the Salmon River has received improved summer water flows. And as a result, the Stonefly populations have expanded along with other aquatic insects.

What makes the Stoneflies so unique? Unlike other aquatic insects, which are available to the fish for a short period of time, Stone Flies are available to the fish all year.

Depending on the variety of the Stonefly, the nymphs can take from one to three years before the adults are ready to emerge. The size of the Stoneflies can be as small as a quarter of an inch or equal to size 16 hook to as big as two inches long. That makes for a big bite of a bug.

Most stone flies in the Salmon River, and for the most part, the rest of the Great Lakes tributaries, will range in hook sizes from10 to 6. Just right for a steelhead to snack on. Stoneflies can be found in fast moving well -oxygenated water. There are strong crawlers but still get dislodged from the river bottom and washed downstream into the head of the pool, and when they are ready to emerge more nymphs will be washed downstream.

Steelhead have a habit of snacking while on their spawning run. Since Stoneflies are available all year and the nymphs are active insects, and supply a good bite of a bug. This might possibly explain the soft spot that steelhead have for stoneflies. Fishing stoneflies to steelhead is fairly straight forward. Most of the fishing efforts will be spent fishing the heads of the guts of the pools, and the pocket water in the riffs and the fast water. This is where the bugs will be concentrated. The best presentation is to dead-drift nymphs along the bottom. Stonefly nymphs sizes 10 to 8 work about the best and supply a good hook to properly hold a large fish. Both larger and smaller flies can still be effective. When fishing deep or fast water, larger flies with a little weight tied into the fly can still be effective in getting the fly to the fish. Remember, some of the Stoneflies are big bugs and steelhead are accustomed to seeing and snacking on large stone flies.

The flies do not have to be all that fancy or hard to tie. Flies like hare’s ears, prince nymphs and pheasant tails, are all effective flies. Stone flies can be tied in black, brown, olive and yellow, with black stone flies being the most common color for the Salmon River. Steelhead like their flies jazzed up a little. To tie these flies with a little flash use materials like artificial seal and Lite-Brite mixed into the building. Do not forget about flash back nymphs and bead heads. At times it is wise to tone down the jazz in the nymphs, especially when the water is low and clear, and the fishing pressure is high. This is probably the biggest advantage to fishing stoneflies when the fish are being pressured. Stoneflies are one of the few flies that can be fished and will likely not upset the steelhead. The fish are accustomed to the bugs drifting by and may be a little more prone to eating a stone fly than any other fly.

Stoneflies are one of the few flies that can be effective on steelhead about any time of the year. No matter how good the fly looks, if the fly is not presented properly, the steelhead will not respond to the fly. The point that I always try to make is that the presentation is more important than the fly. Not much will happen if the presentation is poor. For those of you who are not familiar with the techniques of presenting nymphs, I will describe two different techniques that I employ. I hope you find these helpful.

1. Dead Drift

The dead drift it is best done with a 9 ft. leader and tippet. That is 6 ft. leader and three feet of tippet. Keep the split shot three feet from the fly. Too close it will spook the fish, and too long you lose control of the fly.

Start by casting upstream and beyond the intended drift that is to be fished, [at about 2:00] followed by an immediate upstream mend of the line. This will help to get the fly down much quicker. As the drift progresses downstream, mend the line as needed, to continue to maintain line control. Raise the rod tip and when needed strip in the line. As the drift progresses downstream lower the rod tip and feed the line out as needed.

The big secret to drifting flies to tributaries fish is to maintain contact with the stream bottom. Most of the time the best technique is to use split shot placed between the leader and the tippet. Dead drifting is the best suited for flies such as, nymphs and egg flies. Fish are accustomed to seeing nymphs drift past and this makes the dead drift the best method for fishing nymphs.

2. High Sticking

With winter water temperatures and below freezing air temperatures, ice will be a constant obstacle. The fat fly line carries lots of water through the guides of the fly rod. The guides can freeze solid in just a few casts. With the freezing problems and the fact that the fly must be kept on the river bottom one of the easiest methods of presentation is called high sticking.

The high sticking method is best performed with a standard fly rod, fly line, and leader. Start by working with 2 to 21/2 rod lengths of line. Cast upstream to 10:00, and make an immediate up stream mend while holding the rod tip and line off the water, work with only the leader on the water. Follow the drift with the rod tip downstream to 2:00 while maintaining solid contact with the river bottom. As always, constant weight adjustment is always critical to maintain the correct drift. For winter fishing, do not fish more line then you can cast without pulling wet fly line through your rod tip. By doing this the ice will form on the fly line instead of and the guides of the rod. Break the pools into small bites and systematically fish each section. By doing this you will avoid constant ice in the guides.

Hopefully these two techniques of fishing nymphs will be helpful. Once again it is the presentation that is important. However, stone flies are one the few flies they can be fished year-round for steelhead. Good luck!