Choosing a Steelhead Fly Color

By Scott Richmond

What color of steelhead fly should I choose for different conditions?

I posed this question to three pros: Amy Randall, John Hazel, and Mike Kuczynski. Amy and John are partners in Deschutes Angler Fly Shop (Maupin, Oregon) and John Hazel and Associates guide service. They guide regularly on Oregon's Deschutes River and fish other steelhead streams in the Northwest, including rivers in BC. Mike Kuczynski is the owner of Eureka Fly Shop in Eureka, California. Mike is intimately familiar with northern California's coastal steelhead rivers, among others, and guides on the Klamath River.

"Anglers should pick a fly they have faith in," says Amy. She has faith in purple flies as searching patterns on the Deschutes. "If I get a pull but no hookup," she says, "I'll switch to a more natural color such a small peacock-bodied fly with a brown wing--a fly that resembles something the steelhead would see drifting in the river." Amy notes, however, that size and presentation are more important than color when chasing steelhead.

John Hazel agrees. "If steelhead are on the bite," he says, "they will eat your car keys." John feels that when the water is clear, you can use any color, but make sure the fly is small. "When the river is clear," John says, "I use flies as small as size 8." If steelhead are acting wary, John may select a drab color

The Deschutes River, where John and Amy guide, has only summer-run fish, and is usually fished in steady flows. Summer water clarity is good, but never crystal clear.

When fishing for winter steelhead in other streams, John picks his flies based on water clarity. "If it's turbid, can-barely-see-from-your-knees-to-your-toes water, I go for dark flies. Steelhead aren't going to see much color under those conditions anyway, so I want a big profile. I use size 2/0 to 6/0 flies in black or purple and fish them near the edges of the river."

A steelhead's color preference can also be influenced by the proximity to the ocean. The closer to the coast, the brighter the pattern, John feels. The food the steelhead have been pursuing in the saltwater--prawns, squid, etc.--often have intense colors, such as strong oranges.

Mike Kuczynski, whose home waters are near the ocean, agrees about using large, dark flies for turbid water. "I use size 1/0 to 3/0 black or purple patterns when the water is highly colored," Mike says. "As it clears, I move to size 4-6 cerise (bright pink) flies. Still more clearing and I move to orange. If it's very clear, I'll use size 8 flies."

When summer fishing, Mike likes copper or gold when the sun is on the water. He picks his fly sizes by the time of year: size 8-10 in July, size 8 in August, size 6-8 in September, and size 4-6 in October. Mike favors patterns such as the Assassin for faster water and the Herniator in slower water.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).