by David Lundeen
Three years of consistent low water has brought about challenging steelhead conditions for all anglers. For me, old stand-by tactics and spots have not produced as well as in years past. However, adapting trout Euro-Nymphing tactics for steelhead has proven to be a valuable and effective tactic to catch steelhead in these new normal conditions. While it might seem an exotic and difficult approach, it is highly accessible and affordable to anglers of all skill levels.
To be clear, when I refer to Euro-Nymphing I am referring to the term and tactics as conventionally understood in the standard trout world. This means long rods, thin running line, long monofilament leaders and short drifts. Furthermore, I am not referring to the Chuck ‘N’ Duck style of steelhead fishing, though it is very effective and similar to Euro-Nymphing in that it is basically a tight-line approach. For the intent of this article I will refer only to the former. The remainder of this article will cover the principles of Euro-Nymphing as they apply to Great Lakes Steelhead.
It is by no means exhaustive but offers a solid foundation for any intrepid angler willing to try something new. Over my years of steelhead fly fishing, I have developed an unconventional approach to fly fishing but I can assure you that this tactic deserves a spot in your Great Lakes Steelhead fishing repertoire.
Advantages of Euro-Nymphing
To the initiated, Euro-Nymphing simply refers to competition restrictions. The most important being that the only fly, not the terminal leader, can be weighted. Moreover, Euro-Nymphing does not allow slack in the leader from the terminal end to the rod tip. With those two principles understood, there are many advantages to Euro-Nymphing. The main advantage is that the short casting distance maintains constant connection during drifts to pick up the slightest bite. The tightline approach also improves the hooked-to-landed ratio as there is less slack in the leader which ensures better hooksets. The elimination of a suspender reduces drag during each drift while simultaneously allowing the angler maximum flexibility to adjust depth during a drift. The only difference in the steelhead game is that the tippet and flies are sized up for steelhead, and not typical stream trout.
A small investment of roughly $50 is all that is required to Euro-Nymph steelhead. There are three essential items: Maxima monofilament line, two-tone indicator line, and orange 20 pound dacron to tie a backing barrel to your tippet. These items are much more important than
any fly rod, reel or flies. I would not advise purchasing any specialized equipment beyond these three items first as they are not as essential.
The latest and greatest technology is not required here. Use whatever rod you already own. Any 6-8 weight single-hand rod can be used. Nine feet works fine, but ten feet is ideal. Medium-fast rods with slightly softer tips will be much more sensitive to the drifts and contours of the river bottom and detecting bites.
As with fly rods, the fly reel you already use for steelhead will work fine. However, I would add one important caveat. A full cage fly reel will prevent the dreaded mono-slip through. This is not a trivial matter when fishing in November. While 10’ 7 weight rods are easy to find, full cage reels are not as prevalent. Lamson makes several full cage reels at various price points.
To capture the full Euro-Nymphing experience, a hand-tied leader is an absolute must. My standard leader has a 25’ butt section of 20 pound Maxima Chameleon. It’s followed by roughly a foot long section of 15 and 12 pound Maxima Chameleon. Next, a 8-12 inch section of 0x two-tone indicator is tied on. At the terminal end I use either 6 feet of 2x or 3x fluorocarbon tippet. It is essential that whatever size tippet is used here, it is the same diameter. That will ensure the best drag-free drifts. Finally, I always tie on a backing barrel knot of 20 pound orange dacron. It serves two critically important functions, and that without it steelhead fishing is much more complicated. First, it can slide up and down the tippet as a simple way to mark depth. It also serves as a second highly visible indicator to pick up strikes.
Personally, I fish only five different fly patterns for steelhead. I have three stonefly patterns I like which are tied in different sizes and colors. For eggs, I fish two different patterns in three different color variations. For me, effective presentations are much more important than the fly pattern. Weighted stonefly patterns are used as my point fly the majority of the time. On my dropper, I use an unweighted egg. An unweighted egg offers the benefit of neutral buoyancy just like a real salmon egg drifting down the river. The unweighted egg can bounce up and down over every rock to give a very natural appearance.
While a euro-nymph cast does not convey fly fishing grace quite like delicate casts for rising trout, it is no less important. The Tuck-Cast is a fundamental component to achieve a good drift. It is a simple cast in which the flies hit the water first at high speed, and the leader follows. The faster the flies hit the water, the faster they sink to the river bottom. Instead, if the flies and leader land on the water at the same time, it might take five feet of a drift before the nymphs are even in the strike zone. That leads to a poor presentation and a lower chance of hooking a steelhead. Without consistent Tuck-Casts, the effectiveness of Euro-Nymphing is significantly reduced.
After a successful tuck-cast, the standard drift can be anywhere from roughly five to fifteen feet. At any further distance, contact is not as good and the longer drifts can pull the flies out of the strike zone. During every drift, I always check the two-tone indicator and backing barrel sighter. Not only do they detect bites, they provide constant communication to the angler about the depth and speed they are moving. In a typical drift, they should tick, or bounce slightly, which indicates that the flies are at depth. If not, adjust the depth based on conditions. It is no different than seeing a suspender move and bounce on the surface.
This is by no means an exhaustive approach to Euro-Nymphing for steelhead. My goal in writing this quick synopsis was to provide another steelhead tactic for anglers. My approach might deviate from standard Great Lakes Steelhead tactics, but it is by no means novel. The information I have outlined are simply my modifications from an existing variety of tactics which I have learned from anglers much better than myself. The only difference is that I have modified these tactics to the wonderful steelhead fishery in Minnesota and Wisconsin. If this is something you find interesting, I would love to discuss this further. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
David is a new TCTU member who lives in St. Paul with his wife and daughter. His passion for fly fishing began about fifteen years ago when he caught his first trout on the Root River. Ever since then he's been a dedicated student to learning all things fly fishing. In addition to the wonderful fishery in Minnesota, he's been fortunate enough to chase permit, bonefish and roosterfish. But his favorite moments of fly fishing will always be catching the sulphur hatch on a sultry summer evening.
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