I would use a Hybrid Line System. It would work very well for what you're discussing. Here's an excerpt from the author, Michael Gorman....
As the name would imply, the System is a combination of fly lines. Basically, what you have is a small-diameter, level (taperless) floating “running line”, to which is joined VERY dense mini “shooting heads”. The “heads” are easily and quickly engaged/disengaged from the running line by means of a loop-to-loop connection. Sounds simple, doesn’t it. But, as with many things that work effectively, the Devil is truly in the details. The exacting specifications of all the components, including lengths, loops, the precise construction of the leader, and another not-so-subtle addition, make The Hybrid Line System the most effective tool I have for enabling my students and clients to hook a winter steelhead on a fly. Once assembled and fished correctly, it is the epitome of quick versatility. Easy and quick adjustments can be made to fish the fly slowly and at the proper depth.
It makes no difference if these are Pacific Northwest fish, Canadian, Alaskan, Russian, or Great Lakes steelhead. It works effectively everywhere. Additionally, this is, by far, the most effective line I have ever used for Pacific salmon in freshwater. Like the steelhead of winter, a slow presentation of the fly in the very near proximity of a salmon is what is most likely to draw a strike. Alaskan salmon are no different from ours in Oregon or the Great Lakes. Again, maximum versatility combined with maximum effectiveness.
The Hybrid Line System does not come assembled. The user buys the components and puts it together himself. The basic components of the system include 100’ floating running line, 30’ of 1150 grain shooting head line (enough for a variety of eight shooting heads cut into lengths ranging in from 2’ to 6’), 20’ of 30 lb. heavy monofilament to create the necessary loops. Oh, yes. There’s a significant nuance. Splice a 30” section of supple 30 lb. monofilament between the running line and head. This hastens the sinking of the shooting head since the floating running line does not retard the descent of the head. Additionally, since the monofilament is smaller in diameter than the running line the mid-water currents are less able to push the shooting head and leader to quickly as they drift. Remember, you want the fly to drift slowly to the steelhead.
An astute fly fisher, at this point, might be asking why all the trouble with building a fly line system line when interchangeable sink-tip lines are already commercially available. Good question. I think I have a good answer.
In the vast majority of sink-tip lines, the sinking portion typically measures 10’ – 24’. For winter fishing, I rule out those with slow and medium sinking rates. I want the fly down in a hurry, near the bottom. That is where the fish are when its cold. The sooner the fly gets to The Zone, and the longer it stays there, the better my odds of contacting a steelhead.
To best allow the line to sink, cast it upstream at an angle. Slack is naturally created when the line drifts back toward me in the current. A problem now arises with me trying to stay in contact with the fly. Because the current velocity is not constant with depth, or laterally, the sink-tip and leader system naturally develop all manner of curves and lazy “S” coils. If a steelhead should briefly hold the drifting fly, I will have no realization it has done so. Before the line and leader pull tight enough to tell me of the interception, the fish has discarded my hook.
Now I might get a visual indication of a strike before I would sense a tightening of the line. With a highly-visible yellow, orange or bright green fly line, I can see an interruption in the normal drift of the line in the current. I may be able to, then, react to set the hook. However, the sinking portions of fly lines are charcoal, black, dark forest green, or dark grey. These are tough to see, especially in the dim light of heavy winter days.
The longer the sinking section of your sink-tip line --- 15’ – 25’ --- the curving, coiling effect is magnified, unless you cast the line across and downstream. The system is generally straight, and the angler has good contact with the fly. But, the trade off is that the sink rate is greatly retarded with tension created by the current. Also, by casting, generally, downstream, the fly has very little opportunity for much downstream travel. The line immediately comes tight, and the fly progresses across the stream, with very little downstream progression with the current. Rather than being able to watch a slowly moving fly drifting rather naturally directly at it, a reluctant steelhead is asked to pursue the fly as it moves from left to right, or right to left, across the current. Some steelhead are willing to do this, grabbing the fly. My experience tells me there are others, who will strike, but not at a fly arcing across the current on a tight line.
So, at this point, some of you are surmising that the answer is the 10’ (or commercial 5’) sink-tip is the answer. I think not. The shorter the sinking portion, the greater the influence of the floating portion of the fly line in retarding the sinking of the sink-tip. The floating line wants to float, while the sink-tip struggles to pull the floating line down with it. While this struggle ensues the stream current is pushing against the line forcing it downstream, helping form the kinks and coils with the leader and fly somewhere in the mid water column, above the fish. An angler has shorter, tighter contact to the fly, and better visibility capability of seeing the floating part of the line hesitate on a strike, but these are counterbalanced by the retarded “sinkability” and, still, too much length slack and curving in the current.
You can catch winter steelhead and salmon on standard sink-tip fly lines. I have, as have countless others. In addition to these more gullible specimens, I want the other willing players who are receptive only to another presentation of the fly. Instead of hooking one or two steelhead on the swing, maybe, if I’m lucky, I could hook an additional one or two with my Hybrid Line System.
Now that I’ve pointed out the drawbacks of sink-tip lines, as I perceive them through my opinionated eyes, let plead the case about how the HLS remedies them.
First, the denser my sink-tip, the faster it will get near the river bottom, AND, the shorter the length so sinking line required to get the job done. If I can use a 3-foot length to accomplish what is necessary with a standard, commercial 10’ – 25’ tip, I have virtually no curves, coils, and slack “S”’s in the system to inhibit the detection of a strike. I have good straight-line (though not totally tight) contact with my fly to detect a strike.
Secondly, because I have inserted a 3’ – 4’ section of heavy monofilament between the floating shooting line and the sinking shooting head (sink-tip), I have greatly reduced the ability of the floating line from inhibiting the very fast sinking of the weighted head. The monofilament sinks quickly, and, because of its small diameter, is barely influenced by the push of the stream current as the system sinks. I cannot overstate the significance of this little detail in my system. The monofilament insert is key. It is this single, little innovation in the HLS that boosted the fish-catching effectiveness a quantum leap: quick descent of the fly with very little curving and coiling of the line as the current pushes it downstream.
The question that should now, logically, follow is “Why not just use a floating fly line, long leader, and a strike indicator?” My answer: “I, often, do.” However . . . there are times when the Hybrid Line System will catch steelhead that are not receptive to a dead-drifted artificial under an indicator.
Since I have dedicated an entire chapter to nymph fishing for steelhead, I won’t reiterate many of the details, other than to say that the drift of the fly is slow and, essentially, uni-directional. The leader between the fly and indicator is approximately vertical, as contrasted with a swinging wet fly on a sink-tip in which I would characterize the system as horizontal. With the floating line and indicator, the fly tracks a nearly straight course during most of its downstream journey, only ascending and arcing to the angler’s side when the line tightens at the end of the drift. Indicator nymphing --- to do it well --- requires discipline and precise casts to thoroughly cover a piece of water because the straight-line track of each drift is very narrow. There is very little horizontal “sweep” of the fly. It takes more time to cover the same stretch of water with a nymph presentation than it does with the sweep of the wet fly method.
There is something different about the course of a fly presented with the HLS. It seems to me to be something in between the wet fly and nymph presentations. The HLS seems to be more diagonal, especially at longer distances. It is a cross between the horizontal orientation of the standard sink-tip and the vertical, dead-drift nymph presentation. You know. Its a little bit country, and a little bit rock-n-roll. The most important thing, beyond my attempt at an explanation here, is that somehow the drift of a fly on the Hybrid line System is significantly different enough to entice a steelhead (or salmon) to strike a fly it would refuse with the other methods.
I was with two of my experienced fishing partners on the Alsea River one winter morning. We had staked out a proven run, and we knew fish were present. Occasionally, we could see one move as it changed position in the pool.
My friends chose to use floating lines and indicators. I opted for my Hybrid Line System with a 3’ sinking shooting head. We all opted for the same two flies: my Caballero and Gorman Bead Egg. The choice of tippet material to which the flies were tied was unanimous. We took turns rotating through the pool.
Their skill levels and experience were not too far removed from mine. The only major variable in the system was our choices of fly lines and presentstions.
When we finally called it quits after several hours, we had landed nine steelhead among us. My companions had each landed one!
For a different approach as a testimony to the advantage of the HLS over other lines occurred on the Trask River, near Tillamook, on the northern Oregon coast. On two different trips in October, I invited fishing friends who were experienced, but not nearly to the same degree as their guide. I definitely had a skill advantage. My plan was to equip them with the Hybrid Line, while I fished the same flies and water with them using a floating line and strike indicator for the Chinook salmon in the narrow run near the far bank.
Cutting directly to the end of the story, both anglers out-fished me both days. Even though we traded places often, and I ran my flies right through the midst of the fish just as my friends were doing, they outdistanced me easily with fish hooked and fish landed. There is definitely something different about how the fly is presented to the fish with the Hybrid Line System.
At this point, I will remind you that thee is not one line system or presentation for steelhead that a versatile angler will use to the exclusion of all others. The HLS is just one more weapon for the Samurai, not the only one.
When I am in pursuit of winter steelhead, if I am restricted to carrying two loaded rods, they are a floating-lined nymph rod and one with the Hybrid Line. In any given run, I fish both rods. More times than not, I will hook at least one fish on each rod. I go completely through the run with one set up. Maybe I hook a fish, or two, or none. Even if I am lucky enough to hook two steelhead on the first pass through, I will go through the entire pool again with the other method. Often, I get a fish on the second time through because --- I am convinced --- a different presentation of the same fly is what has served as the trigger for that particular fish.
I organize and label all my shooting heads in a leader wallet. Each head had a loop tied on one end and a leader attached on the other. The heads are coiled and placed inside the plastic sleeves of the wallet. With an indelible felt tip I write the length of each head on the plastic sleeves that contain the head.
The HLS is not cast in the classic manner. If you back-cast this system like you would a dry fly on a tapered floating fly line, make sure you are wearing a helmet. With a standard back-cast there is an excellent chance you will soon put a 60 mile per hour fly in the back of your head.
Safely cast this system by situating the final two inches of the heavy monofilament insert (the portion of the system that connects the floating running line and shooting head) just outside the rod tip. A few inches of the monofilament insert, the shooting head and leader of about 4’ hang down from the raised rod. Strip 15’ – 30’ of line from the fly reel and let it fall at your feet. With a modified roll cast, release the loose coils of line on the forward stroke. The heavy shooting head will pull the small diameter line smartly through the rod guides with a minimum of friction. No back-cast is required. It is difficult to cast the Hybrid Line System gracefully. However, this is a small tradeoff for versatility and effectiveness.
As for getting an enticing drift of the fly, start by casting the line upstream at 45 – 60 degrees from straight across. Allow the system to sink on a slack line as the current beings the line and fly back toward you. Besides gathering slack line by stripping it under a finger of your rod hand, also slowly raise your rod tip to the 11 o’clock position to remove most, but not all, of the slack line. If you remove all the slack, the fly will lift off the stream bottom, out of the fish’s zone. As the fly drifts downstream of your position slowly lower the rod tip to maintain a controlled slack in the line until the system finally pulls tight at the end of the drift.
I prefer not to extend the length of the drift by releasing the slack line that I have stripped through my fingers during the initial phase of slack control. If I release slack line by allowing the current to pull it through the rod guides, I cannot quickly tighten the line and set the hook before a biting fish escapes. Steelhead strikes are too precious to miss. Stay in control. This is a relatively short-line game.
Watch the brightly-colored, floating running line as it drifts in the current. Make sure you have pinched the line above the reel against the cork grip with one or several of your rod-hand fingers. If you detect a hesitation or unnatural movement in the line, set the hook with a broad sweep of the rod tip. Once a fish is solidly hooked, immediately release the line pressed against the grip by your fingers. Let the fish run, and enjoy the ride.
Since fish face into the current as they hold, start at the downstream end of a likely steelhead run. Start with an initial short cast and drift of the fly. If no strike occurs, lengthen the line by 2’ on each subsequent cast without moving your standing position until you have reached your comfortable casting limit. Then, move upstream 8’ – 10’ in the run and start the same casting process over: a short initial cast followed by lengthening subsequent casts by 2’. Carefully cover the entire run, and then move on to the next piece of water. Do not linger. Stay on the move in order to find a steelhead willing to bite.
If you fish from a boat instead of wading, start at the upstream end of the stretch of water instead of the downstream terminus. Because you stand much higher above the water, you can make a longer controlled cast. With a longer cast, the angler is less likely to alarm a holding fish, even though the holding fish are looking in the direction of the angler.