One morning about 30 years ago, a workmate showed up with a smile the size of Broadway. I asked why he was as giddy as a teenage boy who just kissed the prettiest girl in high school. “I caught some steelhead in Twenty Mile last night,” he blurted. I was raised in Pennsylvania, just a mile or two from Twenty Mile Creek, where I’d caught and released a fair share of steelhead while using a noodle rod and spinning reel, so his experience wasn’t overly newsworthy.
My interest was piqued, however, when he explained catching them with the same flies and fly fishing gear used for trout in the spring. Among the flies he used was one that would later become one of my “top 3” flies as I began pursuing steelhead more with a fly rod.
Sucker Spawn in Sizes 10-14
Everyone reading this story knows what I asked my workmate. “What fly did you use”? “Sucker Spawn”, he replied. “What the heck is that”, I asked. He ran to his car and returned with a few hooks that to my untrained eye were nothing more than hooks with yarn. I scoffed, believing I was being pranked.
I accompanied my friend to the creek later that day, and though filled with doubt, he convinced me to drift a pink Sucker Spawn fly into a favorite pool. On the fifth or sixth drift a large “chromer” accepted the imitation. The rod blank transferred the distinct feel of erratic head shakes to my hand. My 5-weight rod bent double as the fish jumped twice, the second time 25 yards downstream. The steelhead sought the fast water exiting the pool, which would certainly aid it during its fight for freedom. Realizing I would lose the fish if I held my ground, I quickly scampered downstream and purposely coaxed the fish into the next pool. There it tired, and I beached and released my first, fly-caught steelhead. For that reason, Sucker Spawn imitations are my sentimental favorite, and all these years later, I continue to catch and release more steelhead while using Sucker Spawn than any other imitation.
Sucker Spawn is most useful in February and March, when suckers naturally spawn; but they are a multi-imitation fly. When tied with large loops, the imitations may resemble a skein of small, salmon eggs. When tied with multi-colors, they resemble eggs in various stages of conception. Tightly knitted sucker spawn imitations may be accepted as grubs or insect larvae. This versatility explains why I believe every fly fisherman would do well to have them in their steelhead fly box.
Egg-Sucking Leech in Sizes 6-8
Another of my “Top 3” flies for steelhead is the Egg-Sucking Leech, which is usually tied to resemble a large, black Woolly Bugger sucking a red salmon egg. It’s a great fly, but why limit the imitation to only red salmon eggs? I have found this fly is also effective when tied with a yellow or orange egg at the head. In fact, I cast imitations with yellowish-orange as often as the traditional red and believe I enjoy more success. I recently decided to tie a few mimicking a leech sucking blood-dot eggs that I’ll be trying out this season.
After steelheads have spent time in the tributaries, they often become lethargic, and for very good reason. The fish are either storing energy for spawning or they are spent after doing their part to assure future populations. Understandably, they do not want to exert more energy to consume small morsels of food than the energy that food will return to them. Fishermen need to present offerings that practically bump the fish’s nose to induce a strike. Because the Egg-Sucking Leech represents the protein offered by both a leech and an egg, it makes them worthy of movement by the fish to devour them.
San Juan Worm in Size 12
Steelhead expect earthen grubs and worms to be washed into pools that are fed by fast water, and that is why I believe the San Juan Worm works best when allowed to drift in a pool, suspended below a strike indicator. They work particularly well if allowed to drift over small waterfalls and into pools with a circling current. If conditions are conducive, I sometimes allow them to circle the pool a couple of times before making another cast.
Also, not all steelhead are in the tributaries. Many steelies can be located at the mouths of tributaries, around marinas, harbors, and bays. A suspended San Juan Worm can prove as effective in these waters as they are in tributary pools. The versatility of this pattern make it one of my “top 3” flies for steelhead.
These imitations are simple to tie and are usually made with red chenille, though pink, purple, and tan work well for me at times. Barely touching the flame of a lighter to the head and tail of the fly provides natural tapers to the ends.
San Juan Worms in a variety of colors will take steelhead in all situations but are especially deadly in big pools and still water fished under an indicator.
Bonus Fly: White Zonker in Size 6-10
Although the White Zonker is not in my “top 3” just yet, this fly is rapidly becoming a favorite. I was struggling during an outing in 2021 while a friend was slamming them. After confessing my frustration, my buddy suggested I try a White Zonker. As I did not have one, my generous friend offered me one of his, which included a chrome tinsel body with just a bit of red flash at the underbelly. After being skunked for hours, I caught and released four steelhead during the next hour. You can bet I started tying these my steelhead box the following season!
The beauty of fly fishing for steelhead is that you don’t necessarily need special “steelhead flies” to catch them. Although these patterns are excellent for trout, they are also among my top 3 flies for steelhead. They’re not fancy, but they sure do catch fish.
Tell us about your “Top 3” favorite steelhead flies in the comments below!
Jerry Bush is a long-time fly fisher and outdoor writer from Hermitage, PA. Looking for a speaker for your next sportsman’s club outing or game dinner? Contact Bush at email@example.com.