"What Color For Winter Steelhead"

Winter Steelhead season is now on for the Pacific Northwest, and most of us that love this time of year already have our Steelhead Boxes primed and ready to go with our favorite patterns and colors.  But the age old question a lot of us ask ourselves or our buddies “what Fly and Color should I use….”

Depending on who you ask you could receive a dozen different answers.  It is so common to hear, I only Fish Black and Blue, or I will fish any color as long as it is Purple.  There are lots of other answers such as Pink, Red, Orange, White, Natural Colors, and any combinations of the above.  

So which one is right?..... and the answer is they are all great….  Steelhead are not picky, they will hit pretty much any fly in the right conditions.

But…..There are so many conditions that can affect your chances of a Steelhead Striking your Fly, as I already mentioned Steelhead are usually aggressive, but there are many factors that  will affect their decision to strike.  

Different Colors and even Patterns or Sizes will cause Steelhead to react differently in different conditions such as light, water color, depth, and temperatures.  Certain Colors or Fly size will be more visible or even too visible in the different conditions.  So we are going to help break it down so you can be able to read the water conditions and then help set yourself up for success by choosing the right fly you can swing confidently.

Lets start with Water Temperature, as the water temps get colder a Steelhead is less likely to move farther to chase a fly or follow a fly, it is also the reason that Summer Steelhead are easier to catch.  With Winter Fish the colder it gets the more important it is to get the fly within 3 ft or closer to the Steelheads Nose.   

Next there is Water Clarity.  The Water clarity also plays a huge role on how a Steelhead sees your Fly.  Depending on the clarity, a Steelhead may not see your fly or may have too much time  and spook.  Also certain colors will show themselves differently in different water colors, that can help them stand out, as well as not stand out too much.  The perfect Clarity for Winter Steelhead is considered “Steelhead Green” and it is when you have a well flowing river with 3ft-5ft of visibility.  

Lastly, it is important to take the Light Conditions such as a Dark overcast day or a Bright Sun at Noon.  Different patterns and colors are going to react differently in low light and bright light, so it is important to factor light conditions into your fly choice.

So now that we have broken down some of the factors that should affect a Steelheaders Fly Choice, let's’ start breaking down what works best in each situation.

Let's start again with cold water, as the temp goes down it is better to go with larger patterns, such as big Classic patterns on Size 2 or bigger hooks, or more modern Intruders or bunny leeches etc.  With Warmer Water it is better to go smaller, as the Steelhead will move farther to strike.  For Winter Steelhead the perfect temp is between 40-45F or 4-7C.

In Clear water it is better to go with more natural colours so not to spook Fish too early.  This is where flies with muted colors work great, such as browns, olives, greens, pale yellow, white, and grey.  An example would be a Lady Caroline, or our personal favorite a Muddler.  As the water gets dirtier you can start to darken and brighten your colors such as Black, Purple, Red, Pink and Orange, as the darker and brighter colors will be more visible to the Fish.

For Darker Light conditions such as first light or last light or heavy overcast days, colors such as Black, Black & Blue, or Purple are great choices.  When there is a lot of light, such as bright sunny skies and clear water choose a muted color such as Olive, Brown, White etc, and with dirtier or colored water use bright colors such as Red, Orange, and Pink.

Now that we have broken down fly color selection by the conditions, let's have a look at the individual colors or even color combinations.

Pink:  A great choice for early winter fish.  We like pink in moderate to stained water on bright days.  As the winter season progresses, try fishing a pink and orange fly.

Orange:  One of our favorites, especially with copper flash.  Orange is the “go to color” on sunny days with stained water conditions.  If the water is moderate to clear, go orange and red. Orange is underutilized today.  Dirty water combined with bright skies makes orange a great choice.

Red:  If the water is moderate to clear and the sun is shining, tie on red.  We love the combination of red and black for these conditions as well.  On a bright sunny day with color in the water, red is a great color.  

Purple:  Have you ever met a steelhead that didn’t like purple?  It fishes best in moderate to stained water on overcast days or in low light conditions.

Black:  Like purple, black is great on overcast days or low light conditions. However, black will fish well in almost any water clarity including clear water. Black is one of the colors that pairs well with other bright colors and can and should be accented by most colors and especially: Blue/Purple/Red/Green/Pink/Orange.

Olive:  Folks don’t fish olive enough in the winter.  It usually shines in low, clear water when the fish are stale and have seen everything in the book.  It’s not a “go to” everyday, but it has its place in tough conditions.

White:  White is not a popular color for steelheaders, but it should be.  The combination of white and pink or white and orange can be deadly for fresh fish.  We like it in almost every water condition with bright skies or in the mid-day with overcast skies. 

Blue / Green / Chartreuse:  All great accent colors especially if paired with Darker colors to provide better depth to the colors and impressions on movement. 

Using Color combinations is always a great idea by combining 2 or more different colors to provide contrast.  By combining colors you can add depth to your fly as well as impression of movement.  There are lots of different classic Steelhead color combinations such as Pink and Purple, Black and Red/Blue/Green/Pink.  But don’t be afraid to mix it up and try other combos.  There are lots of very good patterns with 3 or more colors.

Fishing for Winter Steelhead is really not an easy fishery.  Even if one has the perfect pattern in the perfect conditions there is still a good chance that they won’t find a Steelhead.  But you can only set yourself up for the best possible success and have faith that if you are able to swing you fly at the right depth and distance from the nose of a Winter Run you could be into a fish of a Lifetime.  

The Steelheaders with the best Success on the Water are the ones that get the most often, so even if you only have a couple different patterns or only a few colors, just get out on the water and swing the fly…….

1 comment

  • That was an excellent read, and I loved that last paragraph! 👌


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