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speybum 12-09-2003 06:58 PM

How Relevant Is Color When Pick Out A Steelhead Fly
I have been asking this question more times than I care to comment on.

I usually tie my patterns in muted tones and tone on tone for summer work.
Staying with Purples, Blacks, and bright colors for the winter.

So what are your views now that we now how size affects the patterns.


Feiger 12-09-2003 08:15 PM

to much a rookie...
to really form an opinion, especially if you look at my catch total... but my impression over the 20 something years of fishing that a combination of sillouette (sp?), color, and motion/movement in the fly or initiated by the fisherman, were what triggered the take, whether it be trout, bluegill, bass or redfish. obviously some fish are more finnicky and selective than others, usually related to the number of times it's been stuck by steel...:eyecrazy: but something of all three were really needed to get that strike. i don't think any one is more important than the other, and what i hear form folks regarding their success, and failures, in patterns, colors, etc. that seems to fit. then there's that whole aspect of whether or not the fish is a "biter" and aggressive to the take that we can't even control, regardless of color and sillouette and movement....
for me, i just have to damn much fun tying new stuff with new materials... sometimes i don't even tie the same pattern twice!!!
my 2 cents.....

roballen 12-09-2003 09:31 PM

I have said it a million times so one more won't hurt..

Size does not matter
color does not matter
pattern does not matter

What does matter is showing your fly to an aggressive fish. If an aggressive fish sees your fly he will grab it. Period!! That's it and their ain't no more. Steelhead are not intelligent. Don't try to outthink them
Everything else is just speculation

flytyer 12-09-2003 10:20 PM


I too tend toward muted tones, sometimes with a spot of bright color as a butt, during low-water of mid-summer to early fall. Flies like the March Brown, Sweep, Lady Caroline, Blue Charm, Logie, etc. tied true low-water style on #6 or 8 low-water hooks are some of my favorites. I also carry a few small, bright, sparkling flies in summer. Flies like the Cut Silk Shrimp, Kelson's Sun Fly in red, purple, or orange, and Silver Blue are always in my summer boxes. Small Ally's Shrimp in orange, black, and purple, the Night Dancer tied in Irish Shrimp style, Arnold's Spade, and a few steelhead spiders in black or purple, and a Spade tied with hare's ear dubbing (making it look a dubbed body Burlap).

These flies along with Lemire's Grease Liner in black and burnt orange, McMillan's Steelhead Caddis in orange, bombers in natural and black and yellow, Lanie Waller's Waller Waker, Wagoner's Wag's Waker in purple body with grizzly hackle, and Mark Pinch's Riffle Dancer make up the flies I use in summer.

In winter I prefer using the Glasso spey flies; a blue and red spey fly I call the Cop's Lights; a Don Kaas spey fly calledd the Red Knight; Ally's Shrimps in Orange, Red, Purple, Black, or Pink and Orange; Cinnamon Wing Akroyd with orange rear body; Price-Tannat's Avon Eagle. Kelson's Kate, Kelson's Purple Emperor (one of the best flies I've ever used for winter steelhead); Kelson's Floodtide, and perhaps the G.P. with hot pink added to tail and a face hackle of hot pink.

inland 12-10-2003 12:32 AM

True, so very true Rob, but, what makes that fish aggressive??? Isn't that the question we should be asking?

Tight lines,


highlander2 12-10-2003 01:30 AM

Not all steelhead are agressive thats for sure, but I do believe certain colors trigger agression. Black is highly visible we know in any color of water especially off colored water, infact when your under the water and looking up as fish do under a light sky most colors come through as basic black, so that orange G.P your fishing may not look orange at all to the fish, they see a dark sillouete floating by. You can test this theory yourself if you wish. When we present the fly at thier level with correct light level is when color is seen by the fish. since I seldom dredge the bottom for steelhead anymore color is of less importants and sillouette becomes the key for me. I enjoy accsents of color in my flies but I realise its more for me then the fish. Of course this is one mans theory without any scientific proof in fact who really knows how or if they see color at all?


roballen 12-10-2003 01:39 AM


No I don't think thats the case at all.
I think an aggressive fish is aggressive by nature or by circumstance. I don't think a steelhead has ever one time throughout the annals of history refused one fly then turn around and struck another fly for any reason that humans will ever understand. No steelhead ever saw 1/0 skunk then turned around and grabbed a 1/0 green butt skunk because of the green butt. It ain't never happened! PERIOD!
If you catch a fish behind somone in the run it's because their fly was unseen by the fish or something in the attitude of the fish changed between seeing his fly and yours or the presentation was sufficiently different.
I do not believe that subtle changes in pattern color or size make a bit of difference. The only time it makes sence to fish through a run more than once is to fish a radically different fly. or presentation or unless you believe for some reason the fish may more willing to respond. For instance if it suddenly became overcast or the sun go off the water or whatever condition you think may make a fish inclined to bite.
This is of course just my opinion..

I grew up on the Washougal and did A LOT!!!! of sight fishing. I have spent hours throwing different patterns to the same fish. here are some things I learned. or at least things I believe that I learned enough to form this opinion. These suppositions have been verified by a year of fishing the Umpqua and subsequent week long trips after that. In fact it has been the case everywhere I have fished.

1. nearly every steelhead I have caught took the fly on the very first presentation the fly was visible to the fish.

2 nearly every steelhead I have ever caught has come through the first pass through a run

3. visible fish in the vast majority of cases grow weary the more times they see a fly and after a while spook from thier lie entirely

4. Ever visible steelhead I have caught that didn't respond to the first fly I put over them didn't respond to any similar pattern and ONLY responded to radically different approaches.

Based on my observations
you can argue the percentages if you want. thats not my point.

1. nearly every steelhead will ignore every fly 90% of the time. That means at any given time we are fishing for 10% of the entire population.

2. Of that 10%, 10% will be in holding water that is actually fly water. particularly true for winter runs.

3. of that very small % of the entire run how many of thoes fish are in the run you are fishing??

4 of that even smaller % very few of them will be selective to size, color, or style.

Here is my point. There are very few fish willing to take a fly, and most of thoes are going to grab the first fly they see in their comfortable strike zone. There fore your best bet to catch a fish is to make as many good first presentations as you can in the course of a day.


Pick a fly that you like and makes sence to you for the conditions and put it in front of as many fish as you can as best you can. That is ALL there is to steelhead fishing. Everything else is BS.. IMHO.

I could have made a more simplistic answer and just say. If you pick a 1/0 skunk and fish only that 24/7/265 you'll catch as many or more steelhead than anyone else on the planet.

Steelhead are the most noble fish that swim in the water but they are dumb. You can tell that just by the fact that they take the flies I tie..:D

Also keep in mind this is just my BS. nothing more

inland 12-10-2003 02:14 AM


I was agreeing with you not provoking an argument. Or at least that is what I was thinking.

Anyway- what makes a steelhead aggressive? That is the magic question. Nothing to do with flies, sizes, colors, or overthinking.

My favorite colors are Green Highlander, Claret, red, and Kingfisher. They all work and each no better than the other.


roballen 12-10-2003 09:34 AM

I didn't feel provoked at all..
I don't need provocation to go about BSing about steelhead

sinktip 12-10-2003 11:22 AM

I would agree that color and size are no where near as important as we tend to want to think. I would not go as far as Rob went though and say they make no difference. In my experience at certain times they do.

One example would be a few years ago on a remote fork of western Washington river. A buddy and I had hiked in to fish for the local resident rainbows when we stumbled across a pod of steelhead holding in this run. From a high vantage point you could observe both the fish and the presentation. First off came wakers and these resulted in not even a look. Next came wetfly swing with a purple spade type fly. Twice fish broke from their hold to charge the fly but when they got within a foot, they pulled up and returned to their holding position. Next came the same fly but in black. Three fish to hand. I know it is only anecdotal but I have to think there was something int eh black they liked better that day. FYI this was a sunny day with clear water conditions.

Another case was some years ago on a large Washington/Idaho river. The fish rolled behind a purple hotpants but did not take and would not come back. Next came a purple muddler but no interest. Finally a black hotpants was drifted over the lie and the fly disapeared in a perfect head and shoulders take.

Finally, Rob stated above that "The only time it makes sense to fish through a run more than once is to fish a radically different fly". Rob, I thought you stated above that size color and shape do not matter???

If there are aggressive fish in the run, fishing through it multiple times can be quite productive. Inland is right, the question should be what makes them aggressive? Sometimes I think color contributes to it.

loco_alto 12-10-2003 11:53 AM

I think the answer to this question lies beyond fly fishing.

There is a far greater wealth of knowledge accumulated by gear fishers on the topic of what sizes/colors get strikes, and which don't. The fish have no idea that a "fly" or "yarn+corkie" is being thrown at them, they just react.

And if you ask gear fishers, they will tell you without hesitation that size/color does matter. I don't fish using these methods, but I have to agree, and the proof is in the pudding.

that said, without a good presentation, you'll inevitably have a "nice day on the river" at best

natrix 12-10-2003 04:41 PM

Here is what I think. One of the reasons we are so enamored and or obsessed with this sport is that the whole thing is open to speculation and thatís what we love to do is speculate. Tinker with the idea of it if you will. If we had it all figured out it wouldnít be any fun anymore. I also believe that when the bite is on for what ever reason that they will bite anything you put in front of them. I have lots of flies in colors, and tones that cover the visible spectrum. Its been suggested that fish see in much the same way we do, but perhaps that is just a convenient assumption that allows us the luxury of familiarity. Water is a completely different medium than air, it transmits light, temperature, and pressure in different ways. Maybe color dose matter, but I think itís a small piece of a big puzzle.

I often find my self looking in my fly box at all the colors and then out of habit, perhaps because I have caught more fish with it than anything else selected something purple.


Hammer 12-10-2003 04:55 PM

step right up pick one any one!!!!
well i will say that everyone's convinced about there choice of weaponry;as in a couple guys at a loacal tackle shop talking corkies;;they hit this one at dark ,,etc,,,,,same thing with plugs,spinners etc.....yeah,, what about the mini worms,,,i said what????:hehe:

flytyer 12-10-2003 06:51 PM


I have also had some experiences of the type that Sinktip spoke about. The best example was a Thanksgiving Day on an Olympic Peninsula river that had fresh winter fish in it. The water had that wonderful green tint to it that seems to turn on winter fish after a good rain. I fished through a favorite run with a black spey fly without a touch. Then fished through it agian with a Lady Caroline. Next I fished it with a Glasso Polar Shrimp spey. Finally, I put on Glasso's Orange Heron and hit a fish on the first cast. Then proceded to hit 5 more fish in the same run in the next hour. Before this experience, I would have said that color doesn't matter; however, after that experience, I have seen this other times on other rivers.

You did hit on something very important though. Changing to a radically different fly in both size and color works many times with supposedly stale fish. Go up or down 3 or 4 sizes and make a radical color change in the new size and many times a fish will hit. Interestingly, this making of a radical change in size and color of fly was something that Kelson wrote about in his book "The Salmon Fly" and it was written in 1895. Traherne also wrote about it in his book "Salmon Fishing with the Fly" from the same period. Maybe we could all benefit from what the old masters wrote about fishing technique.

Riveraddict 12-13-2003 12:46 AM

Fly Color
Color matters. Size matters. Some days not so much, other days VERY MUCH. Rob, I agree that SUBTLE changes don't make any difference, however, large variations on a theme often do.
Not fishing through a run more than once? Huge mistake if you happen to be fishing a fishery whereby you are pursueing MOVING fish. Your observations on the Washougal may indeed hold true for that particular river and similar rivers within the area, but that does not mean that they are applicable to all rivers or races of steelhead.
Back to the color theme. All Pacific salmon, including steelhead, display fairly similar life history traits. I don't think that it is too farfetched to say that they also all have similar, though not exact, behavioral traits. Ask anyone that has had just a fair amount of experience flyfishing in Alaska over HORDES of FRESH silvers, chums, or the less numerous but still significant Chinooks whether or not color makes a difference. I cannot even remember how many times fishing for chums or silvers that the color pink, regardless of the size of pattern, would outfish any other color by a margin of 10 to 1. Then on other days it would be purple. It was pretty darned obvious that in these cases that it was absolutely the COLOR that made the difference, not size of the fly, not even presentation. These experiences convinced me that color is an important aspect to consider when flyfishing for steelhead, but that that importance can vary according to the conditions.

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