How To Choose Winter Steelhead Flies, Echo3 Spey Rods, Spey Shooting Head Line Standards

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How To Choose Winter Steelhead Flies
By: Travis Johnson

A lot of options... What to pick???
Choices, choices.... I have heard and probably even said myself, "Steelhead will eat anything… your car keys, a cigar butt". When the conditions are really good and all the stars are aligned then yeah, steelhead will grab many different colors and sizes of flies. But, in reality 9 times out of 10, the conditions are rarely perfect within 30-days of either side of the winter solstice. Winter rivers are often high and browned out, or low and cold with east winds and snow so thick you can't see the end of your Spey rod. Even during these extreme conditions steelhead can be be caught with flies, but it takes planning and some understanding about what makes these fish react.

Don't let water conditions keep you from fishing. Even low water they can be had.

There are lots of different sizes, weights, colors and configurations of flies. There nearly as many sink rates of sinking tip lines to deliver them with. There is one constant to keep in mind about Steelhead, the fish can't eat what they can't see! And steelhead can be very cautious, many times even timid. They live there lives between two extremes concerning other animals they share their water with...overpower them and eat them, or run and hide from them. Knowing this has allowed my theories on winter Steelhead fly selection to evolve differently from many other anglers. 

This happy client took this fish out of very clear, cold water on a dark brown (like tree bark) temple dog style fly.

Fortunately I have had lots of time on the water to experiment with fly design and color. Lets start with the toughest of fishable conditions...low water. During the winter months, low water is usually cold and clear. Low, clear, cold water is caused by a lack of rain or the fact that the upper stretches of the river system are freezing. Sudden drops in temperature are different than sustained periods of cold water. Drops in water temperature can really slow steelhead down until their bodies get used to the change. After an extended period of cold water the fish tend to perk back up, but usually aren't as active as when temperatures are more favorable. Cold water dormancy starts at around 40 in our local waters. Water is heaviest at around 36-degrees, which really slows steelhead down. With water temperature and clarity this in mind, lets talk fly selection. Just like you can see all things that happen in your field of view, so can a Steelhead. These fish see in clear water like you see on a clear day. Therefore it does not take a large fly to get the fish to notice that something is there. Often super bright flies do not seem to produce as well as more natural or natural tones, like olive, tan, brown, even white. Normally the rules would say that the colder the water the larger the fly, but in super low water the fish will take smaller patterns and believe me that flies in the 2 to 2.5 inch range work best in these types of conditions.

In these less than perfect conditions I felt fly size was the key to taking this fish.

Now lets say the water is on the drop. The river is lower than the mean average flow and is clear but still not unlimited in the water clarity, maybe 6 to 9 feet of visibility. This is where large flies have produced the best for me. The fish seem to be holding in deeper water as the river drops but are still a bit active. This movement of the fish to deeper water is in anticipation of the river dropping even futher. With the water temp hovering right around 40, the need for a larger offering is a great way to entice these chrome machines to bite. I have landed fish as small as 22" on flies that were 12" long. Flies this large are extremely hard to cast, but can save your day if you ar willing to put in the effort. Normally huge flies are used after a run has been fished with more conventional sized offerings.  These big flies are usually darker colors like purple, black, or blue. Maybe a bit of flashy highlights and even a bright butt of orange or pink. Whatever you prefer. A good winter Steelhead fly box should be very diverse in fly sizes and colors. 

The perfect conditions are sweet when they happen.

Super Sweet!!! Just ask Sean.
For most rivers, perfect conditions would include green water, which has about 3.5' to 5.5' of visibility. The water temp is above 42-degrees, and above 44 is even better. This combination of conditions is unbeatable. During these conditions, fish are moving around and alert. There is much inter action between fish and individual territories are constantly in flux. This friction builds aggression between the individual players, which in turn builds aggression toward any smaller  invading critter such as your fly. Within this visibility range the fish are confidant, and they take on a more curious nature. During perfect flow conditions the fish can hang out in slower resting areas on the sides of the main current, where they are easy to reach with your fly. In addition moving fish hold higher in the water column, which makes them more susceptible to your presentation. I will note that on most rivers the perfect conditions are slightly higher than the mean flow. Perfect fishing flows are a product of rain, melting snow, or both. Heavy low elevation rain usually put warmer water in your river. Warming water normally invigorates winter steelhead. Steelheaders yern for conditions of high stable flows with warming water. If you see these conditions lining up, don't go to work. Skip out on the family.... Just get out on the river!

The big dark fly paid off in the super off colored water conditions. That day we had maybe two feet of visibility. Tight to the bank.
The last part of the river equation is when the river is high... has lost its green, and has risen into the grass and willow fringes of the shoreline. The water is now tuning brown as soil is being fed into the water. Rivers are still fishable when they reach the coffer-creamer mode, even when visibility is down to a foot.  Water with 18" to 2.5' of clarity can be very productive. Some of your favorite runs will be too fast, but others will become just right. This high water periods into the margins of the river, such as shallow bars, and the edges of the river, close to the bank. This is where many anglers go wrong in high water. They fish super heavy flies and tips to penetrate the faster flows at mis-stream. This does work at times.  An approach that has proven to be more dependable is to use a lighter tip and fish closer to the bank. Depending on the type of turbidity I pick my fly color accordingly. If the stream particulate is bright and reflective, I use flies that don't reflect light. The absence of light is the key to getting the fish to see your fly. Black, blue, dark red, purple, these colors are the key to high water with glacial particulate or just bright reflective soil. I try not to tie flash into these flies at all. I want total absence of light, adding not so much length to the fly but mass. Flies 2.5" to 3.5" with a fair bit of bulk to the body of the fly work well. Often a combination of a lightweight tip and lightweight or unweighted fly works best. fish your fly slowly and let it swing all the way into the bank. The steelhead will often be there at the edge of the willows or under the overhanging alders.  For this work, shorter rods and shorter heads are more comfortalbe.

High water is not always bad.

 Being a Steelhead guide for the last 9 years and a Steelhead angler for the last 16 years, has allowed me to collect a lot of notes on the fish concerning their habits in a wide variety of water/weather conditions. My notes are constantly evolving. The article above is a condensed version of my notes. Good luck!!!! TJ

Echo3 Spey Rods
12' 7" - #6 13' - #7 13' 4" - #8 First Impressions
This is what Tim Rajeff says about his new Spey Rod Series:
"Hanging out with a focused group of spey casting and steelhead bums puts you in a great environment for the evolutionary development of spey rods. Tim and his team of spey bums, including world champion caster Mariusz Wroblewski, designed the Echo3 Two Handers to fit the largest range of casting styles and be equally comfortable casting Skagit style shooting heads or long belly floating lines. The new Echo3 series of Two-Handed rods are the most versatile Spey rods Tim has built to date. The light feel provided by the high modulus material give you supreme flex recovery and tighter loops. These rods feel great when first picked up, but really shine in your hands on the water."
  • High modulus slim profile blanks
  • High grade full cork handle and butt with composite butt cap
  • SIC stripper guides
  • Cloth rod sock with rod size label
  • No roll, square, cordura covered rod case
  • Green metal pearl gloss blank
  • Heavy duty chrome snake guides
  • Heavy duty chrome tip top
  • No maintenance full metal reel seat
  • Alignment dots for quick assembly
  • Echo lifetime warranty

Echo E3-6127

Length: 12' 7"       Sections: 4       Line Weight 6

Spey rods are getting shorter and lighter in weight. Six weights are gaining a lot of popularity among the region's most influential steelhead anglers. This six weight, will sling a skagit, 12.5' of T-14 and a weighted fly to the other side of a fairly wide river. The E3-6127 has the butt strength to whip a respectable size steelhead in short order. Tim's top picks in Airflo Lines that bring out the best performance with this Echo E3 rod model are: Scandi Compact 390-grain, Delta 6/7 and Skagit Compact 480-grain.
Free Airflo Skagit Compact Shooting Head 480-grain included with this rod.

Item Series Line Wt. Action Handle Price To Top
6127 E3 6 Fast A (21") $549.95 SALE ENDED
Echo E3-7130 Length: 13'        Sections: 4       Line Weight 7
This is a very popular size for summer steelhead and smaller salmon. This will prove to be a great rod all Deschutes steelhead, and will also prove to be the perfect tool for all Oregon winter steelhead as well. So far E3-7130 has attracted the most attention of any rod in this series.
Tim's top picks in Airflo Lines that bring out the best performance with this Echo E3 rod model are: Scandi Compact 450-grain, Delta 7/8 and Skagit Compact 540-grain.
Free Airflo Skagit Compact Shooting Head 540-grain included with this rod.
Item Series Line Wt. Action Handle Price To Top
7130 E3 7 Fast B (22") $549.95 SALE ENDED
Echo E3-8134 Length: 13' 4"        Sections: 4       Line Weight 8
 This will prove to be a great rod for larger rivers, and larger fish. Many angler will want a E3-8134 in their quiver when visiting B.C. for steelhead, Alaska for Kings and the Kola for salmon. Tim's top picks in Airflo Lines that bring out the best performance with this Echo E3 rod model are: Scandi Compact 480-grain, Delta 8/9 and Skagit Compact 600-grain
Free Airflo Skagit Compact Shooting Head 600-grain included with this rod
Item Series Line Wt. Action Handle Price To Top
8134 E3 8 Fast B (22") $549.95 SALE ENDED
Our impressions so far:
We fell in love with Tim's TR Series Spey Rods. They were acquired with the thought that they would be relegated to the "client rod" classification. After all, they only retailed for $349...less than half as much as the rods we were regularly fishing, how good could they be? While showing clients how to cast them, the the TR rods seduced us into more and more time spent with them on the water until we were fishing them when clients weren't even around...leaving more expensive rods lonely in the boat.
Last winter Tim mentioned to me that he was planning on taking his rod building skills to another level. He wanted to invest in even higher grades of graphite and components. He wanted to push the envelope on fly line speed. He wanted to redefine finely detailed cosmetics.
We were the first shop to order them. Waiting for them to arrive, we were like little kids waiting for Christmas. My first test rod was the E3-6127. Loaded with a 480-grain Airflo Skagit compact and 12.5' of T-11, it blew my mind. What a canon. And what a looker. It has the sophistication and polish of the best custom rods available. If it lacks jungle cock in the finish, it has double alignment dots on the reel seat.
The cork is flawless in quality and well proportioned to both the eye and the fingers. It is the same cork used on rods that retail for over $1,000. Appointments are simple, practical, and elegant. In every way the looks are refined and understated. The quality speaks for itself. Good craftsmanship never lies.
Inside each graphite blank is the heart of a beast. E3's load off your finger tips and release unbelievable recoil, which delivers focused busts of energy that are smooth and totally controllable. Make no mistake, E3 is a game changer.

Dave Hogan & Mike Varga behind the counter at
They have helped hundreds of happy customers with Spey rod/reel, and fishing questions.

Spey Shooting Head Standards For Grain Weights
The most often asked technical questions by customers concerning Spey tackle is what line goes with which rod. There are no absolutes because casting styles vary, and the fact that rods taper significantly from one end to the other means that each rod will cast many different line weights depending on which part of the rod is loaded. However, there seems to be a common thread of agreement, and several years ago a group of prominent spey caster got together and reached a general consensus on what line weights should fit which category of rods.
The results are as follows:
5-Weight Scandi  340 - 360
Skagit   380 - 420
6-Weight Scandi   380 - 400
Skagit   450 - 500
7-Weight Scandi   425 - 450
Skagit   510 - 570
8-Weight Scandi  450 - 480
Skagit   575 - 630
9-Weight Scandi   480 - 510
Skagit   630 - 660
10-Weight Scandi   510 - 540
Skagit   660 - 750

February 19, 2012
:00 pm to 4:00 pm Sunday Afternoon.
Tying Steelhead Flies:
Pick Yer' Pockets, Foxee Prawns, Wombats & Hoh Bo Speys
Solitude Company's pet steelhead/Pacific salmon fly designs.
Featuring Free Tying Instruction From:
Brian (the Wombat) Kite & Charles (Chaz) St. Pierre
assisted by: Mark Bachmann, Josh Linn and Travis Johnson.

This program is for new tiers and experienced tiers alike.
Instructional demonstrations with big-screen TV and PowerPoint projection.
A custom made fly tying room with perfect lighting
and special teaching aides are provided.
Please bring your own tools & materials or purchase what you need from our extensive selection.
Refreshments will be served. Bring snacks if you want to.

Here are examples of the free instructions you will receive.

Click form more information on Winter Steelhead Flies...

Mark Bachmann To Speak at Clackamas Fly Fishers Club
Tuesday, February 21, 7:00pm - High Rocks Pub, Clackamas, Oregon
"Winter Steelhead On The Fly"
This 1-hour mixed media PowerPoint presentation will empower you with the knowledge of how to catch winter steelhead from our local "large rivers" with two-hand fly rods. Our local rivers are World Class, but they demand World Class Fly Fishing Skills. This program lays the foundation for acquiring the skills you will need to be continually successful. In one hour you will see many, many fly-caught winter steelhead in vivid detail. Steelhead biology & behavior, as well as tackle and techniques will be explored. Bring your fly fishing friends.

The Fly Fishing Shop HOME. The Fly Fishing Shop, Welches, OR

1(800) 266-3971

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Fish long & prosper,
Mark & Patty