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The Difference between a Steelhead and a Rainbow Trout

by Doc Trout


     While most avid fly fishermen are aware that there is a difference between Steelhead and Rainbow Trout, not all fly fishermen are able to define the difference between the two beyond stating their behavioral differences and noting their distinct difference in size. Thus, while Rainbow Trout are always thought of as freshwater species, Steelhead are generally thought of as a saltwater species that only migrates to freshwater to spawn. However, while this is an accurate description of their behavior, it does not really do much to define the differences between the two.


     Thus, perhaps the best way to describe the difference between a Steelhead and a Rainbow Trout is to say that they are both sub-species of Oncorhynchus mykiss which indicates that while they are both members of the same genus and species, they each also display distinct anatomical, physiological, and/or behavioral differences that enable them to be classified as different sub-species. But, while that is the answer that a biologist would give you when asked what the difference is between a Steelhead and Rainbow Trout, the way that most fly fishermen distinguish them is that, although both sub-species are born in freshwater, Rainbow Trout remain in freshwater throughout their lives whereas, Steelhead only spend the first several months of their lives maturing in freshwater.


     Then, when they reach a particular stage of growth, their genes trigger a physical metamorphosis in the cells of their body that both causes them to migrate downstream where they enter the sea, and which also enables them to survive in their new saltwater environment which a Rainbow Trout simply cannot do. Then, once again at a particular stage in their growth cycle, their genes trigger a second metamorphosis in the cells of their body that causes them to return to the particular stream where they were born and then travel upstream to the very place where they were born where they then spawn; thus creating the next generation.


     Furthermore, there is often a very distinct difference in size between the two sub-species. Thus, while it is theoretically possible that a Rainbow Trout living in a particularly rich freshwater environment could reach the average size of Steelhead Trout since a fish never stops growing, the fact is that the saltwater environment enables Steelhead to grow much faster than most Rainbow Trout and thus, most Steelhead Trout are distinctly larger than most Rainbow Trout. In fact, most fly fishermen would consider a 21 or 22 inch Rainbow Trout to be a magnificent trophy whereas a Steelhead Trout would not achieve the same status unless it was at least 36 inches since the present world record Steelhead measures 44 inches and weighs 29 ½ lbs.


  So, as you can see, there are actually several different ways to define the difference between a Steelhead and Rainbow Trout raging from the biologist’s perspective to the fly fisherman’s perspective and each of them are correct in at least one aspect. However, now that you understand both points of view, the next time someone asks you what the difference between the two sub-species is, you can choose the answer or answers that you like best from among the ones presented above and be able to explain them precisely what the difference is.


The Three Types of Trout Lies


     As I mentioned in a previous article titled “The Food vs. Energy Equation” trout have distinct preferences for the places they like to hold in a stream and these places are called “lies”. In addition, there are three distinct types of trout lies called “Prime Lies”, “Feeding Lies”, and “Sheltering Lies” and each of these different types of lies has distinctly different properties and serves a different purpose in a trout’s life.


     So, first let’s examine the properties of a “Prime Lie” since it is the most important of the three different types of lies (at least to fly fishermen). A Prime Lie is a place in a stream where a trout can find shelter from the current but also have easy access to the current and the items floating by on the “menu” such as drifting May Fly Nymphs, Duns, and Spinners. In addition, this type of lie also serves as an excellent ambush point for capturing bait fish such as Dace, Sculpins, Chubs, and Crayfish. Therefore, a good example of a Prime Lie is large rock located in the middle of the stream, a log lying in the water near the bank, an overhanging ledge with a deep crevice underneath it, or an undercut bank in a bend in the stream. There, a trout can hide inside of such place or behind an such an immoveable object and thus gain shelter from the current and, at the same time, be protected from any predators that are out looking for a meal. Consequently, these types of places create eddies and/or pockets of slow water where the trout can find shelter from the current and thus expend very little energy to maintain his position in that lie. Yet, they also offer easy access to food because they are adjacent to swift current and thus, the trout does not have to travel very far to capture a “menu item”. Therefore, a Prime Lie is the ultimate place for a trout to hang out and thus, you will always find the largest trout in the Prime Lies simply because it is the best piece of real estate available and, the larger a trout is, the more easily he can displace smaller trout to take up residence in that prime real estate.


     Next, let’s examine the properties of a “Feeding Lie” since it is the second most likely place to find trout holding in the stream. A good example of a feeding lie would be underneath a waterfall at the head of a pool or clear, deep, water with moderate current in the middle of a pool or at the tail of a pool. Now, the reason that this is called a “feeding lie” is that normally, trout will only move into such places when there is an overabundance of  food drifting in the current such as during a May Fly hatch. The reason for this is that feeding lies provide the trout the opportunity to easily capture and consume large numbers of aquatic insects without expending too much energy but, they also expose the trout to predators because they do not provide any sort of shelter. Therefore, trout holding in feeding lies depend solely on their highly advanced camouflage patterns to shield them from the discerning eyes of predators. But, the easy access to large quantities of food is akin to a human attending an all-you-can-eat buffet; thus, it is simply too good of an opportunity for a trout to pass up. Therefore, trout holding in feeding lies during a hatch can literally eat as much as they can hold as long as they keep a wary eye out for predators.


     Last, let’s examine the properties of a “Sheltering Lie” since it is the least likely place for a fly fisherman to find actively feeding trout. Quite simply put, a sheltering lie is a place a trout runs to in order to hide from predators in one of those adrenaline pumping “Oh S**t!” moments. Consequently, a sheltering lie is any place that is close to a trout’s present location and that they can squeeze themselves into and that makes them feel safe and protected from whatever spooked them such as the shadow of a bird passing over them or a fly fisherman wading up the middle of the stream in full view. However, since trout are so well camouflaged, even highly experienced fly fishermen will often not see them until they spook and run for cover. Thus, if you do happen to accidently spook a particularly large trout, then you might want to exit the steam and wait a while until he feels safe enough to come out again and return to his prim lie for feeding lie. Then, once he has done so, you will need to plan your approach carefully so that you do not spook him a second time.


     Consequently, understanding the properties of the three types of trout lies and being able to identify them will help you to become a better fly fisherman and enable you to catch more tout because you will no longer be wasting your time casting your fly over “dead water” where the trout are not holding.



The Different Types of Fly Line Leaders


     In addition to understanding fly rods and fly lines, it is also important to understand fly line leaders since all three components work together to create a system for casting and delivering a fly to our intended target. Therefore, in this article, I will discuss the difference between Knotless Leaders, Knotted Leaders, and Furled Leaders as well as their different performance characteristics.


     To start with, you need to beware that there are different types of fly line leaders and each of them performs differently from the others. Thus, I will start with “furled leaders” since they are the oldest form of fly line leader technology. Furled Leaders were originally used back in the day when handmade bamboo fly rods and silk fly lines ruled they fly fishing scene. Although they were originally made from the hair of horse’s tail and then silk from the Orient, modern furled leaders are made from either a fabric material called Unithread or fine diameter monofilament. In addition, they are rather complicated to make since they require a special jig with an attached winding motor. Then the thread or monofilament is wound around pegs spaced at specific intervals on a flat board according to a specific formula. Then, the two “legs”, which taper into one “leg” at the end, are wound in opposite directions using the winding motor while a weight attached to end of the single “leg” keeps the entire leader  stretched tight. Then, one leg is removed from its winding hook and moved to the other hook and the two legs are then wound together. Then, the leader is removed from the jig and hung from the ceiling with the weight still attached the weight is allowed to spin until it stops on its own. Thus, furled leaders appear very similar to rope in that they are wound together to create a tapered fly line leader. Consequently, since Furled Leaders (not to be confused with Braided Leaders which are not discussed in this article) are the most complicated type of fly line leader to make, they are also the most expensive.


     Hand-tied Knotted Leaders on the other hand, are our second oldest form of fly leader technology and they are made by connecting different lengths of different diameter monofilament together using a special hand-tied knot called a “blood knot”. In addition, the diameter and length of each section is determined by a special formula that allows different types of leaders to be created for specific purposes such as casting dry flies, nymphs, or streamers. Also, since Knotted Fly Line Leaders must be made by hand, they are the second most expensive type of fly line leader.


     Knotless Leaders on the other hand are our newest form of fly leader technology and they are made by using a special machine which heats monofilament material and then extrudes that material to create a single, long, tapered, piece of monofilament that has no knots. Consequently, since Knotless Tapered Leaders are the easiest type of fly line leader to make, they are also the least expensive and most common type of fly line leader. Therefore, Knotless Fly Line Leaders are the type of leader that you will usually find available in fly shops.


     However, each of these three different types of fly line leaders has different performance characteristics that make their relative cost well worth it (or not) depending on your point of view. For instance, although Furled Leaders generally cost around $10.00 each, most fly fishermen feel that furled leaders are the easiest of the three types to “turn over” and straighten out. Plus, because of this, they are capable of providing pinpoint accuracy. However, other fly fishermen feel that the fish can see Furled Leaders more easily than the other types of fly line leaders because they are thicker than either Knotted or Knotless leaders. However, the average tippet length on a Knotted or Knotless leader is eighteen to twenty inches and yet, furled leaders are capable of “turning over” tippets as long as five feet! Knotted Leaders, on the other hand, are not as expensive as Furled Leaders since they generally cost around $5.00. But, they also tend to “turn over” far better than Knotless Leaders. However, the only company the presently offer commercially available Hand-tied Knotted Leaders is Rio and they only offer them in the 9ft. length. But, for those of you who would like to try your hand at making your own Knotted Leaders, there is a web site called “The Global FlyFisher” that offers a free, downloadable, program called “Leader Calc” (http://globalflyfisher.com/fishbetter/leadercalc/download.php) that was created using Excel and which allows you to enter the desired line weight, leader length, and tippet size and then provides you with numerous different formulas for many different types of leaders for numerous different purposes. But, there again, many fly fishermen feel that knotted leaders are more visible to the fish because of the knots; although this has not been my experience. Last, knotless leaders are the least expensive of the three types and generally cost around $4.00 each. But, contrary to conventional wisdom, they are the most difficult of the three types of fly line leaders to “turn over” and straighten out and thus they are my least favorite type of fly line leader. Consequently, I prefer to make my own knotted leaders because, by choosing an appropriate formula, I can tailor the length and purpose of my knotted leaders to meet very specific purposes. However, be aware that tying a Blood Knot by hand is a very difficult task since we humans only have two hands and you really need four to tie a Blood Knot. Thus, purchasing a simple blood knot jig such as the Dennison Leader Making Vise is a wise idea if you intend to make your own knotted leaders.


     Thus, you can see that while each of these three different types of fly line leaders has different performance characteristics and different costs, having the right leader for the purpose can make placing your fly on target a lot easier.


Making Sense of Fly Lines


     In a previous article about fly rods, I mentioned that fly lines are designated by weight and that they are available in different weights ranging from one to fourteen. In addition, I also mentioned that different fly line weights are chosen for specific purposes. However, you should also be aware that there are many different types of fly line tapers and the design of each taper has a dramatic effect on the fly line’s performance.


     Thus, to start with let’s examine fly line weights. As I mentioned, fly lines are designated by weight and that they are available in different weights ranging from one to fourteen. In addition, a fly line’s weight is determined by weighing the first thirty feet of the fly line in grains (440 grains is equal to one ounce). Thus 1 wt. fly lines are the lightest and they are designed to delicately deliver very small flies to very skittish fish such as trout holding in slow, clear, water. On the other hand, 14 wt. fly lines are the heaviest and they are specifically designed to deliver very large, wind resistant, flies to very large fish such as Sharks, Sailfish, Swordfish, and Marlin.


     Now, the reason that fly lines are available in so many different weights is that, unlike a spinning lure or a bass plug, trout flies have very little weight and a lot of wind resistance and thus we cannot “load” the rod by using the weight of the lure. Instead, in order to cast a trout fly, we have to use a weighted fly line. In addition, the larger the fly is, the more wind resistance it has and thus, the heavier the fly line that is required to cast it. Also, the stronger the wind is on any given day in the location where you are fly fishing, the heavier the fly line you need to cut through that wind and deliver you fly to the target. On the other hand, the lighter a fly line is, the more delicately it will land on the surface of the water and thus, the more delicately it will present your fly to the fish. Consequently, fly fishermen must choose their fly line in such a way that it balances each of these aspects as they pertain to the particular application. For instance, when fly fishing in crystal clear pools, glides, and still water such as ponds and lakes, where the surface of the water is glass smooth, you need a fly line weight that will land very gently on the water and thus present the fly in a very delicate manner. However, when you are fishing in rough water such as riffles and runs, delicacy of presentation is not nearly as important and thus, you can select a heavier fly line that will cast a larger fly that is more likely to be noticed by trout holding such water.


     Last it important to understand that in the early days of modern fly lines, choosing a fly line was a simple task since all you had to do was choose a fly line weight that matched your fly rod and then choose either a Double Taper, a Weight Forward taper, or the God forsaken Level Taper fly line. Fortunately, none of the major fly line manufactures make a Level Taper anymore since they were specifically designed to be inexpensive fly lines and their casting performance was absolutely dismal. However, both Double Tapers and Weight Forward tapers are still available and each one serves a different purpose. As the name implies, a Double Taper fly line consists of a long “belly” or “body” section that is the same diameter for its entire length but, then tapers to a finer diameter at either end called the “front taper”. Thus, they are generally chosen for short range casting but, they are also capable of casting at longer distances because the long “belly” section allows you to hold more fly line in the air without the fly line “hinging”. Conversely, Weight Forward tapers are specifically designed for casting over long distances and thus, they consist of a short, thick, “head section” which incorporates both a front and rear taper that then transitions to a long, thin, “running line” section. Therefore, they are designed to use the weight of the “head” section to “shoot” the fly line over long distances while the thin diameter running line creates less friction in the rod guides due to its lesser surface area.


     However, the manufacture of modern fly lines has now progressed to the point where there are a myriad of different types of specialty tapers. Consequently, in addition to double tapers, we now have weight forward tapers specifically designed for fresh water and salt water use and then, each of those groups has a plethora of specialty tapers; each designed for a specific purpose. Thus, for freshwater use alone, we now have delicate delivery tapers, distance tapers, Trout tapers, Smallmouth Bass tapers, Largemouth Bass tapers, nymph tapers, streamer tapers, and on and on. Also, the same is true with saltwater fly lines.


     Thus, while it is ostensibly better to have so many different choices in fly line weight and fly line tapers, it is now far more important than ever to carefully choose the correct fly line for the particular purpose for which you intend to use it. Also, it is very important to be aware that different brands and series of fly rods perform better with different brands and series of fly lines than they do with others; even though they are all of the correct weight for your particular fly rod. Thus, I suggest that you try as many different brands as series of fly lines as possible in order to determine which one performs best with your fly rod.




Written by,


Bill Bernhardt

Guide & Instructor

Harper Creek Fly Fishing Company



Understanding Fly Reels


     Just like fly rods, some fly reels are specifically designed for freshwater use and some fly reels are specifically designed for saltwater use. In addition, they generally incorporate three different arbor sizes which affects the rate at which they retrieve the fly line. Last, they are generally constructed using three different types of materials.


     Therefore, like fly rods, some fly reels specifically designed for freshwater use are generally designed to hold fly line weights one through six along with a certain length of thin, Dacron, line called “backing” with a breaking strength of either 12 lbs. or 20 lbs. In addition, fly reels designed for specifically for saltwater use are generally designed to hold fly line weights six though fourteen along with a greater length of Dacron backing with a breaking strength of 30 lbs. and thus, they are lager in diameter than fresh water fly reels. Also, since fly reels that are specifically designed for use in freshwater are generally designed to fight smaller fish species, they are generally designed with a less robust drag system. In fact, some the smallest freshwater fly reels incorporate an adjustable “spring-and-pawl” drag system which consists of a strong leaf spring attached to two posts which rests against the base of a triangular shaped “pawl” which in turn engages a sprocket that is attached to the reel’s spool. On the other hand, larger freshwater fly reels incorporate an adjustable “disc drag” system which consists of discs of different types of material such as cork or Rulon sandwiched together to create the drag system.


     Next, fly reels are generally available with three different size “arbors” which is the post in the center of the fly reel’s spool. Thus, a fly reel with a standard sized arbor is generally much smaller than fly reel with a mid-sized arbor or a fly reel with a large arbor. In addition, fly reels with standard sized arbors are generally lighter than fly reels with mid or large arbors because they require less material to make them. But, fly reels with standard sized arbors do not retrieve the fly line as quickly as fly reels with mid-sized or large arbors do. Therefore, standard arbor fly reels are generally mated with short fly rods designed to cast light weight fly lines because such fly rods are specifically designed to cast at short ranges and thus, a lightweight fly reel is more important than a fly reel that retrieves the line quickly. However, when fishing at longer ranges for lager species of fish, a mid-arbor or lager arbor fly reel is generally chosen because they are generally mated with heavier fly rods that are specifically designed to cast heavier weight fly lines at longer ranges and thus, the rate at which the fly line is retrieved becomes an important factor; especially if the fish runs when hooked and thus strips off a considerable amount of fly line.


     In addition, fly reels are generally made from three different types of materials and these different types of material generally have different price ranges. For instance, inexpensive fly reels are made from a fiber-filled composite material and are created by either injecting or pressing the composite material into a mold. In addition, fly reels made from composite materials generally have a dull, grainy, appearance that is less aesthetically appealing than fly reels made from either molded aluminum or machined aluminum. But, they are also generally highly impact and scratch resistant. Fly reels made from molded aluminum on the other hand, are generally more expensive than fly reels made from composite materials but, they are also generally more aesthetically pleasing than fly reels made from composite materials; although they are generally not as tough as those made from composite materials. Last, the pinnacle of fly reel production is those machined from a solid block of aircraft grade aluminum. In addition, the design of these reels can range from the very simple to the very complex and some of these designs are so complex, they can stagger the imagination. Consequently, they are the most expensive of the three types of fly reels because they require very sophisticated CNC machinery and several hours of machining to create them. Thus, owning an intricately machined aluminum fly reel is akin to owning a Mercedes Benz or a Rolls Royce.


     Last, I need to discuss the concept of balancing your fly reel with your fly rod. The reason for this is that a fly rod & reel outfit that is butt heavy will feel awkward in the hand when casting and will adversely affect your casting accuracy. However, an outfit that is tip heavy will cause you to have to work harder to cast it and thus, it will cause greater fatigue in your casting arm than an outfit that is properly balanced. Thus, a perfectly balanced fly rod & reel outfit will remain horizontal when you hold it in your hand, with your hand in its normal casting position, and you then remove all of your fingers from the grip except for your middle finger.


     Thus, choosing a fly reel from amongst the many different types and brands available on the market today is really a matter of personal preference and the particular purpose for which you intend to use it. However, of all of the concepts mentioned above, choosing the correct drag system and balancing your reel with your fly rod are the two most important things to keep in mind.





Written by,


Bill Bernhardt

Guide & Instructor

Harper Creek Fly Fishing Company

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