Top 5 Steelhead Nymphs for Salmon River, Pulaski

The best steelhead nymphs are the ones in which you have the most confidence. After all, “best” isn’t measurable. But if you buy into the old saw that the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it, I’d like to offer up five steelhead nymphs that have proven their worthiness on New York’s Salmon River.

So, what qualifies a steelhead fly as a nymph? For the purposes of this list, I’ve kept it to flies that are size 8 or smaller; flies that feature predominantly muted colors (hot spots, contrast points, and bead heads are allowed); and flies whose basic construct is at least 50% actual invertebrate driven. So, no bigger stoneflies here. No Steelhead Hammer types. And no black-light poster colors. Here we go, in no particular order. As a bonus, some of the patterns have links to my tying video.

Soft-Hackled Bead Head Pheasant Tail. I was pleased no end to discover that Salmon River steelhead would eat this rather muted pattern. I’ve done really well with this fly in winter.

60-Second Redhead. The beauty of this fly isn’t that if you lose one to the bottom gods, you’re not depressed because they’re so fast and easy to tie. It’s that this fly, which would never catch your eye in a retail bin, is like candy to steelhead when they’re eating bugs.

60-Second Copperhead. After pounding up so many steelhead on the redhead, I wondered if they’d like a version with a copper Ice Dub head. A wise old Salmon River veteran once told me, “It’s hard to go wrong on this river with black and copper.” He was mighty right.

Copperhead Stone. I landed my first steelhead on this fly, and years later, it still works. I remember one morning in the Lower Fly Zone when I was handing them out to everyone who wanted to know, “What fly are you using?”

Spider. Another ridiculously simple tie (notice a pattern here?): size 12 hook, black Krystal Flash tail, black Estaz body, copper (the original calls for olive or pearl) braid flashback. Designed by Clyde Murray for Erie fish, the Salmon River steelhead like it just fine.

My top five steelhead nymphs for the Salmon River in Pulaski, NY, are all very simple ties. Note that they all have some kind of contrast, flash, or hot spot. These are all high-confidence patterns for me, all proven producers, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of them when you suspect the steelhead are eating nymphs.

Breaking Skein Glitter Fly steelhead fly tying video

The Breaking Skein Glitter Fly is a Crystal Meth variant created by Joe Montello. I first learned of the fly in John Nagy’s book Steelhead Guide. If you haven’t read it, Steelhead Guide is loaded with productive steelhead fly patterns. Although its focus is on Erie tribs, I can tell you that the Ontario steelhead like the Erie flies just fine.

I’ve changed a few things from the original recipe; you can see what I use in the video. Here are Joe’s original specs:

Hook: Mustad 3366 size 12

Thread: UNI peach 6/0.

Tail: 3 strands pearl Krystal Flash

Body: Fluorescent orange or pearl sparkle braid ribbed with regular white Estaz between each loop of sparkle braid

Breaking Skein Glitter Fly Rogues’ Gallery:

Salmon River November 2107

The Best Colors for the Crystal Meth Fly are…

The best colors for the Crystal Meth fly are the ones the steelhead want to eat…or the ones in which you have the most confidence.

Debates on the best color for Crystal Meths, egg patterns, and beads for steelhead and trout are never-ending. Everyone has their theories. Everyone has their favorite colors. Everyone can prove you wrong. So I stand by my opening statement. In case you don’t know what a Crystal Meth is (besides one of the best fly names ever, right?) it’s a sparkled-up version of a Sucker Spawn. You can tie them with or without a bead and a Krystal Flash tail. When the steelhead are feeding below salmon redds — and even when they’re not — the Crystal Meth can be a very productive fly. And since they’re firmly in the junk/guide fly category, you don’t fret when you lose one to the bottom gods.

Our Lady of Blessed Crystal Meth — chartreuse — accounted for my only fish on this painfully slow day.

So, what are my favorite colors for the Crystal Meth? Here’s a handy-dandy photo reference chart. I use them all, but if I had to choose a top three, I’d go chartreuse, fluorescent blue, and fluorescent fire orange. YMMV.

Some steelhead standards and a wee bit of junk

Regrettably, I’ve spent far too little time this fall at the steelhead bench. To be fair, part of that’s due to a well-stocked box. Here are a few old reliables, and some eggy/junky stuff the steelhead might like.

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Steelhead soft hackle: the Salmon River Rajah

The Salmon River Rajah is based on an old steelhead pattern called the Rajah. I discovered the Rajah many years ago when I was researching patterns online. The accompanying text referenced the book Fly Patterns of Alaska, a slim but potent volume. Turns out it was previously listed in Trey Combs’ book Steelhead Fly Fishing and Flies. (Combs credits the pattern to one Arthur Solomon.)

I tied up a few Rajahs, but I wasn’t thrilled with the materials: bucktail, chenille (which I consider a lifeless material), polar bear, black thread. So I made some changes: bucktail to hackle fibers, chenille to Estaz, polar bear to Arctic fox, black thread to red. I even ramped up the tinsel factor from flat silver to holographic braid.

The result is the Salmon River Rajah, a flashier fly with far more seductive movement than the original. I named it for the river where I have seen ambivalent steelhead go out of their way to eat it.  I first published the pattern in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of American Angler, where I wrote: The coldest day I ever went steelheading began with the mercury just a few degrees above zero. By mid-afternoon, it had barely made it into double digits. I was fishing a Salmon River Rajah under an indicator. As the fly completed its drift along the bottom, it began to swing up and downstream. I saw the wake before I ever felt the strike. It was a steelhead that had been in the river a while, its chrome flanks long since transitioned to deep winter hues. Any fly that can urge a dark horse to chase it down in thirty-three degree water on a day that would keep many skiers at home has a permanent spot in my steelhead box.

More recently, I was fishing the Salmon River Rajah when it snagged on the bottom. After freeing the fly, I was stripping it in to check the hook point…WHACK! That’s pretty good stuff.

The Salmon River Rajah

Culton_Rajah 1

Hook: Atlantic Salmon size 6-8
Thread: Red 6/0
Tail: Hot pink hackle fibers
Body: Rear two-thirds Lagartun holographic silver mini-flatbraid, front one-third opal pink Estaz
Hackle: Hot pink
Wing: Sparse white Arctic fox
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Feel free to play around with color. I also like this fly in hot orange (tail, Estaz, hackle).
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The Salmon River Rajah Rogues’ Gallery:

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The best flies for steelhead are…

…the ones you have the most confidence in.

Here’s a batch of such steelhead flies, along with a few new ones to place into the rotation. I love the ritual of fly box replenishment. So much potential glory stuck into wine corks.

All that’s needed now are some waiting and willing mouths.

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Further implements of steelhead destruction

Or, an angler can hope. Either way, fly boxes must be replenished, here with an eclectic selection of attractors, eggy fare, classic soft hackles and gaudy streamers. A few hungry customers is all I ask.

The best flies for Great Lakes steelhead are the ones that get eaten. Surely a delectable morsel lies within this diverse menu.

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Pennsylvania, meet Pulaski (by way of Yorkshire)

It’s cold in Pulaski, but even on the most miserable days there seems to be a midge hatch. I’ve decided that small flies in natural colors are underutilized on the Salmon River. And so, buoyed by last week’s success with the Snipe and Purple, I took to the tying bench.

Here are four classic soft hackles adapted for steelhead: Pheasant Tail, Leisenring’s Black Gnat, Starling and Herl, and a midge-like rendering of Leisenring’s Iron Blue Nymph. Three of them use the Orvis 1641, a 1x short, 2x strong wet fly hook. They’re a size 12, so they’ll effectively fish as a 14. The other hook is a size 12 Daiichi 1120, likewise 1x short/2x strong. Some of the original patterns called for tinsel; I substituted small diameter wire.

Now all we need is a hatch and some feeders.

Steelhead soft hackles, clockwise from upper left: Pheasant Tail, Black Gnat, Starling and Herl, Iron Blue Midge. 

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Pheasant Tail
Hook: Daiichi 1120 size 12
Thread: Brown 8/0
Tail/Abdomen: Pheasant tail fibers
Rib: Small copper wire
Thorax: Peacock herl
Hackle: Brown hen
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Black Gnat
Hook: Orvis 1641 size 12
Thread: Pearsall’s Gossamer Silk, claret
Body: 3 fibers from a jackdaw secondary wing
Rib: Small red wire
Hackle: Iridescent purple from a starling shoulder
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Starling and Herl
Hook: Orvis 1641 size 12
Thread: Pearsall’s Gossamer Silk, claret
Body: Peacock herl
Rib: Small gold wire
Hackle: Starling
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Iron Blue Midge
Hook: Orvis 1641 size 12
Thread: Pearsall’s Gossamer Silk, claret
Body: Mole fur spun on silk
Rib: Small silver wire
Hackle: Light blue dun hen

Reacquainting Yorkshire with Pulaski

It’s been another one of those steelhead seasons. Call it what you will — slow? Or maybe just a down year. But those years are now coming in bunches. That’s why I’m going with the Great Steelhead Recession. We’re chasing a fish that, in the best of times, is hard-earned. But the last three years have raised the emotional stakes to levels that will test an angler’s resolve. You can see it in the beleaguered eyes of the skunked. Hear the bitter tinge in their words (“Three days. Nothin’.”). The parking lots from Altmar to Pineville bear mute testimony to the current state of the fishery. November 9. Afternoon. Prime time. Three cars in the Ellis Cove lot, one at Lower Sportsman’s, none at the Refrigerator.

But, when you’ve booked a trip, you go. Prepare for the worse. And hope for the best.

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I didn’t get a good hook set on the first steelhead. Fresh chrome — that was evident even in the tea-stained waters. But steelheaders live by their drag, and some die by it, like me, who had it screwed down way too tight for that first run. Pop! Stonefly thus liberated from metallic mouth. Hot, burning ownership of blame consumed me. And now I had to live with the thought that that might be my only touch of the day.

Into the seventh hour of fishing. The sun was out now, and I noticed a few whispy midges freeing themselves from their watery prison. Since it was time to change flies, I rummaged around in my box for the smallest, midgeiest, most emergerly fly I could find. There it was. Snipe and Purple, soft hackle, size 10. I’d tied it up years ago, then stuck it into a corner of my fly box. And there it sat, forgotten, waiting patiently for this moment.

I turned to Jim, my guide, and announced, “I’ll bet none of your clients have ever caught a steelhead on a Snipe and Purple soft hackle.”

There comes a time during every drift when the angler decides it’s over. On this particular one, I began to lift the rod just at the moment when the fly would have started swinging up from the bottom. The steelhead had been holding there, perhaps feeding on nymphs, when he saw the bug coming at him suddenly dart toward the surface. He made a decision. I want that.

Jim saw the flash just as I felt the sharp tug. Even has he was saying, “What?!?” I was driving the point of the small wet fly hook home. This time I remembered to set my drag.  Multiple runs, two dramatic aerials, then the net. And in the midst of hard times, we were celebrating our newfound wealth.

Sun reflecting off cold, hard cash, not too long from Lake Ontario.

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Purple silk, gold rib, and a land bird hackle. That’s the actual fly at lower right. You can find the full article I wrote about these Yorkshire-inspired steelhead patterns here.

Steelhead Spiders