Steelhead Fishing 101: How To Catch Steelhead

Steelhead Fishing 101 How To Catch Steelhead

Written By Shawn Lentz

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Hailing from Alaska to Baja California and throughout the Great Lakes, steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss), or steelhead trout, are one of the most popular game fish in North America. You know they are something special when a state like Washington adopts it as its state fish. They can hit hard, fight hard, and generally don't play nice—just the way we like it.

Plus, steelhead are one hell of a smoking fish if you get to them early enough.

So, break-out the wood chips and put that backyard smoker on stand-by, we've got some great steelhead fishing tips ahead to help you limit out on these highly coveted sea-run rainbow trout.

The Steelhead Fishery

Steelhead are a unique anadromous species of trout, meaning they are born in freshwater, migrate to the ocean to mature, and then return to freshwater to spawn. Though it’s very easy to mistake, steelhead are not salmon. However, they are a salmonid, meaning they share characteristics with salmon and other species in the Salmonidae family including the presence of an adipose fin, fins without spines, and smooth, small scales.

Closely related to rainbow trout, steelhead share the same scientific name, but they have a distinct life history that sets them apart. Steelhead are known for their ability to migrate between freshwater and saltwater environments, potentially spawning multiple times over their lifespan.

Wild vs. Stocked Steelhead

Wild Steelhead

Wild Steelhead

Wild steelhead are the heart and soul of the steelhead fishery. These are fish that have naturally reproduced in their native streams and rivers. The challenges of surviving predators, changing water conditions, and other environmental factors during their entire life cycle contribute to their exceptional strength and resilience.

Wild steelhead are known for their vibrant colors, which intensify as they approach spawning season. As an indicator species, they are a crucial component of healthy ecosystems and are something of an early warning system for declining systems. What’s more, they are central to conservation efforts in various regions, by helping to boost overall steelhead populations. 

The conservation of wild steelhead is a critical concern among fisheries management agencies. Strict regulations and catch-and-release practices are often enforced to protect these native populations and ensure their long-term survival. Often regarded as the pinnacle of steelhead fishing, we as fisherman prize them for their superior strength, endurance, and challenging nature.

Stocked Steelhead

Salmon River Hatchery Full Of Steelhead

Because of overfishing, damming, and other human influenced conversions on the landscape, steelhead populations have needed supplementation through stocking programs. These fish are spawned, then reared in hatcheries and released into various water bodies to enhance fishing opportunities. To the degree possible, wild steelhead eggs and milt are added to the mix during the hatchery spawning process to help aid genetic variation.

It’s an infuriating reality that wild populations of steelhead are not doing well and are an at-risk species in many parts of their range—even requiring federal listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Without them, the current fishing opportunities we have wouldn’t exist. However, it has come to light in recent years that despite best efforts steelhead hatcheries may be contributing to the dwindling population numbers of wild steelhead. While hatchery-raised steelies may lack the wild steelhead's natural adaptation and resilience, they still offer a thrilling fishing experience.

Where Can You Catch Steelhead?

The pursuit of steelhead fishing takes avid fisherman to some of the most picturesque and remote locations in North America. These incredible fish are known to inhabit a variety of water bodies, along their native Pacific Coast and across the U.S. into the Great Lakes region. Check out some of these prime locations where you can cast your line and try your luck at catching steelhead.

Pacific Coast Hotspots

Fishing The Sauk River In Washington State For Steelhead

Pacific Northwest Rivers: The Pacific Northwest, including states like Washington, Oregon, and parts of California, is renowned for its thriving steelhead populations. Rivers like the Columbia, Snake, and Rogue are famous for their runs of both wild and hatchery steelhead. The sheer size and power of these fish make them an irresistible target for anglers.

Northern California: Northern California offers a wealth of opportunities for steelhead fishing. The Klamath, Trinity, and Smith Rivers are some of the top choices. These rivers provide a diverse range of fishing experiences, from fishing in large, powerful rivers to smaller, more intimate streams.

Olympic Peninsula, Washington: Known as a steelhead angler's paradise, the Olympic Peninsula features iconic rivers like the Hoh, Sol Duc, and Bogachiel. The wild and rugged landscape, combined with the elusive nature of steelhead, creates an unforgettable fishing experience.

British Columbia, Canada: If you're looking for world-class steelhead fishing, British Columbia is a top destination. Rivers such as the Skeena, Bulkley, and Kispiox offer pristine wilderness settings and the opportunity to catch some of the largest steelhead in the world.

Great Lakes Region

John VanDerLaan With A Big Fall Steelhead

Lake Superior Tributaries: The Great Lakes region, particularly the Lake Superior tributaries in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, is home to a thriving steelhead fishery. The Brule, Bois Brule, and Two Hearted Rivers are renowned for their steelhead runs. These fish migrate from the Great Lakes into the tributaries during the spring and fall, providing exciting fishing opportunities.

Lake Erie Tributaries: In states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, anglers can target steelhead in the tributaries of Lake Erie. The steelhead here are a mixture of naturally reproducing and stocked fish. The action typically heats up in the late fall and winter months.

Lake Ontario Tributaries: In New York, the tributaries of Lake Ontario, including the Salmon River and Oak Orchard Creek, provide excellent steelhead fishing during the fall and spring runs.

Other Notable Locations

Alaska: Alaska offers fantastic steelhead fishing opportunities in remote and pristine settings. Rivers like the Situk and Stikine in Southeast Alaska are known for their breathtaking scenery and strong steelhead runs.

Idaho and Montana: The Clearwater River in Idaho and the Bitterroot River in Montana are popular steelhead destinations. These rivers offer unique angling experiences in stunning mountainous terrain.

When To Catch Steelhead In Rivers And Creeks

Fish Fishburne With A Winter Steelhead

Timing is crucial in the pursuit of steelhead, as their migrations are closely linked to seasonal changes and environmental cues. To increase your chances of a successful steelhead fishing trip, understand the optimal times to target them. Let’s take a look at the seasonal patterns and key factors that influence when and where you can catch steelhead in rivers and creeks.

Spring Steelhead Runs

Spring is one of the most popular seasons for targeting steelhead, particularly on the West Coast of North America. Steelheads runs are very generalized as either summer or winter runs with spawning occurring during the spring. But as North California Water Association states, “Steelhead exhibit highly variable life history patterns throughout their range, but are broadly categorized into winter and summer reproductive ecotypes.”

In other words, there’s more going on under the surface, and steelies exhibit a variety of behaviors during this time.

Winter Spawning: Some steelhead strains, known as winter steelhead, spawn during the late winter months. As they return to freshwater to reproduce, they become more aggressive and actively feed. This presents an excellent opportunity for anglers to catch steelhead as they move upstream.

Spring Migration: Spring steelhead runs usually peak from March to May, depending on the region. As water temperatures begin to rise and daylight hours lengthen, steelhead start their migration from the ocean to their natal streams. This period often offers the best chance to intercept these fish as they travel upstream.

Fall Steelhead Runs

fisherman with a large steelhead

In regions like the Great Lakes and some Pacific Northwest rivers, fall is the prime season for steelhead fishing. 

Fall steelhead runs typically occur from September through November, and the fish often enter the rivers earlier than their spring counterparts. These small, sporadic runs are considered “false runs” as described by Gord Ellis of Northern Wilds Magazine, meaning “steelhead that are not in the rivers to spawn, but to feed on salmon eggs and small fish.”  

Early fall is a great time to try and hook a steelie as they stage near river mouths before their upstream migration.

Winter Steelhead Runs

Winter Steelhead

By now many anglers have packed up their steelhead rig for the rest of the year. If you can stand the increasingly cold temps, winter is another season to consider for steelhead fishing. This is especially true in milder coastal climates. While steelhead are present in rivers during the winter months, they tend to be less active in cold water below about 37°F. However, when the conditions are right, you can still land a trophy.

In regions with relatively mild winters, such as the Pacific Northwest, steelhead remain active throughout the season. Focus on fishing during periods of stable weather and when water temperatures are on the rise.

Other Considerations

Besides seasonal variations, several factors influence steelhead activity and when to catch them.

Water Temperature: Steelhead are more active when water temperatures are in their comfort zone, generally between 45°F and 55°F (7°C to 13°C). Monitor the water temperature to pinpoint when steelhead might be more active.

River Conditions: Pay attention to river flow and clarity. Steelhead often prefer stable water conditions, so fish during periods of consistent flow and when the water is clear enough for fish to see your bait or lure.

Moon Phases: Some fishers believe that moon phases can influence steelhead behavior. While not a strict rule, fishing during certain lunar phases might improve your odds.

Local Knowledge: Local fishing reports, guides, and fellow anglers can provide invaluable insights into when steelhead are running in specific rivers and creeks. Use them when you can!

What Triggers Steelhead To Enter The Rivers And Creeks

John VanDerLaan With A King Salmon Caught While Steelhead Fishing

Steelhead often enter a river following spawning salmon and feeding on the eggs.

Steelhead are highly migratory fish, and their entry into rivers and creeks is triggered by a combination of environmental factors and innate biological cues. Understanding these triggers is important for anglers looking to time their fishing trips effectively. The primary factors include:

Photoperiod (Day Length): One of the most critical triggers for steelhead migration is the changing length of daylight. As days shorten in the fall or winter, it signals to steelhead that it's time to begin their upstream journey. Conversely, as days lengthen in the spring, it prompts steelhead to head back to the ocean or prepare for spawning.

Temperature: Water temperature plays a significant role in steelhead migration. Steelhead are cold-blooded, and their metabolic activity is closely tied to water temperature. They tend to enter rivers when water temperatures are within their preferred range, typically between 45°F and 55°F (7°C to 13°C). In the fall and spring, when water temperatures are more favorable, steelhead migrations are at their peak.

Spawning Instinct: The primary reason for steelhead's migration is to reproduce. When they reach sexual maturity, usually between two and five years old, they become hormonally driven to seek out their natal streams and spawn. Winter and spring runs of steelhead are often linked to these spawning seasons.

River Flow: Steelhead are sensitive to river flow and prefer stable water conditions. High or rapidly fluctuating water levels can discourage their upstream movement. Conversely, when river flows are relatively consistent and fish-friendly, steelhead are more likely to enter the river systems.

Tidal Influence: In coastal areas, the tides can have an impact on steelhead migration. Fish often move upstream during incoming tides when saltwater levels rise in the lower reaches of the river. This can provide better access for steelhead to move into the freshwater.

Smell and Chemical Cues: Steelhead possess an excellent sense of smell. They can detect chemical cues, such as pheromones released by spawning fish or the scent of their natal stream. These cues guide them to the precise location where they were born.

Food Availability: Steelhead will also enter rivers and creeks in search of food. They often follow schools of baitfish, such as smelt or herring, which are commonly found in coastal areas. Anglers can take advantage of this by using lures or baits that mimic these prey species.

Steelhead behavior can vary from one river system to another, and not all factors may apply equally in all regions. It is a very nuanced thing. Local conditions, habitat, and fish genetics can all influence the timing and triggers of steelhead migration.

How To Catch Steelhead In Rivers And Creeks

Fisherman With A Brightly Colored Steelhead

Are you ready for a challenge? These elusive fish are known for their strength, acrobatics, and wariness, making them a prized catch for any angler. To increase your chances of success, here's a step-by-step guide on how to catch steelhead in rivers and creeks:

1. Select the Right Gear

Choosing the appropriate fishing gear is crucial for steelhead fishing. Here's what you'll need.

Fishing Rod and Reel: Opt for a medium to medium-heavy spinning or casting rod, typically in the 8 to 10-foot range, matched with a reel capable of holding 150-200 yards of line.

RELATED: Best Steelhead Rods

Fishing Line: Use monofilament or fluorocarbon line in the 8 to 12-pound test range, depending on the size of the steelhead you're targeting.

Terminal Tackle: Steelhead are often caught using various methods, including bait fishing, fly fishing, and lure fishing. Ensure you have the appropriate hooks, lures, flies, and bait rigs based on your chosen method.

Waders and Boots: Waders and wading boots are essential for accessing fishing spots in rivers and creeks. Waders that are oversized have a way of constricting around your body when you get into the water and pinching in all the wrong spots. So, make sure you size them right and that they fit well for long hours in the water. 

2. Understand Local Regulations

Before you start fishing, be sure to check local fishing regulations, including catch limits, fishing seasons, and any special rules for the specific river or creek you plan to fish.

3. Locate Steelhead Habitat

Fishing Small Tributaries For Steelhead

Steelhead prefer specific types of habitat within rivers and creeks, such as deep pools, riffles, and runs. Look for areas with adequate cover, such as rocks, fallen trees, and submerged structures, where steelhead can hide and rest.

4. Use the Right Bait or Lure

The choice of bait or lure depends on your preferred fishing method

Bait Fishing: Common baits include salmon eggs (roe), nightcrawlers, shrimp, and cured roe bags. Drift fishing or bottom bouncing with these baits is a productive method.

Fly Fishing: Fly anglers often use nymphs, streamers, and egg patterns. Match your fly choice to local aquatic insects or baitfish for the best results.

Lure Fishing: Steelhead can be enticed by various lures, including spoons, spinners, jigs, and soft plastics. Experiment with different colors and sizes to find what works best in your local waters.

5. Presentation and Technique:

Fresh Silver Steelhead

The way you present your bait or lure is crucial. Here’s some tips to keep in mind.

Keep it Natural: When using bait or lures, strive for a natural presentation. Mimic the movement and appearance of prey species, such as drifting roe or using subtle lure retrieves.

Vary Your Techniques: Steelhead can be finicky, so be prepared to switch tactics. Try different depths, retrieve speeds, and casting angles until you find what triggers strikes.

Be Patient: Steelhead are known for their cautious nature. Sometimes, they'll "follow" a lure or bait before striking. Don't give up too quickly if you see a fish trailing your offering.

6. Fish During Optimal Times

As discussed in previous sections, timing is critical for steelhead fishing. Plan your trips during the prime seasons for steelhead runs in your area. Early mornings and late afternoons are often the best times to target these fish.

RELATED: Best Time To Fish

7. Practice Catch and Release

Fisherman Releasing A Steelhead

Steelhead populations can be sensitive to overfishing. If you're not planning to keep your catch, practice catch and release with care. Use barbless hooks, handle fish gently, and minimize stress to ensure their survival after release.

8. Respect the Environment

Always follow Leave No Trace principles and local conservation guidelines. Respect the river and pack out all your trash. Be mindful of the delicate ecosystems in which steelhead live.

9. Learn Continuously

Steelhead fishing is an art that requires ongoing learning and adaptation. Stay updated with local conditions, learn from experienced anglers, and be prepared to adjust your techniques based on the changing seasons and fish behavior.

Remember, steelhead fishing is as much about the journey as it is about the catch. Don’t forget to enjoy your incredible surroundings, the excitement of the chase, and the camaraderie of fellow anglers as you pursue these remarkable fish.

Tackle For Steelhead Fishing

Fisherman Holding A Fresh Steelhead

Successful steelhead fishing requires the right tools for the job. Let’s run through the essential components of your steelhead fishing gear, including the rod, reel, waders, and Korkers.


Selecting the appropriate rod is fundamental to your steelhead fishing experience. The ideal steelhead rod balances power, length, and action.

  • Length: Opt for a longer rod in the 8 to 10-foot range. Longer rods help with casting distance, line control, and mending techniques often needed in river and creek environments.
  • Power: Choose a medium to medium-heavy power rod. This provides the backbone to handle steelhead's powerful runs while maintaining enough sensitivity for detecting subtle strikes.
  • Action: A moderate to moderate-fast action rod is a versatile choice. It allows you to cast accurately, set the hook effectively, and play fish without excessive stiffness.
  • Material: Graphite rods are the most common choice due to their balance of strength and sensitivity. However, some anglers prefer fiberglass for its forgiving nature when fighting fish.


Your choice of reel should complement your rod and accommodate the line capacity needed for steelhead fishing.

  • Line Capacity: Ensure the reel can hold enough line, typically 150-200 yards of the appropriate test line. Spooling with high-quality monofilament or fluorocarbon is common.
  • Drag System: A smooth and adjustable drag system is crucial for controlling the powerful runs of steelhead. Look for a reel with a reliable drag mechanism.
  • Gear Ratio: A medium gear ratio (around 4:1 to 5:1) provides versatility for various steelhead fishing techniques, from drift fishing to fly fishing.


Waders are essential for getting into the water and reaching prime steelhead fishing spots. Consider these things when wader shopping.

  • Material: Neoprene and breathable materials (like Gore-Tex) are popular choices. Breathable waders offer better comfort during warmer weather and long fishing days.
  • Bootfoot or Stockingfoot: Stockingfoot waders with separate wading boots are versatile and provide better ankle support. Bootfoot waders are convenient but may be less comfortable for extended wear.
  • Fit: Ensure a snug but not constricting fit to prevent water from entering the waders. Check for reinforced knees and seams for durability.

Korkers (Wading Boots with Interchangeable Soles):

Korkers are a valuable addition to your steelhead fishing gear, providing stability and traction on slippery riverbeds. Here's what to look for.

  • Interchangeable Soles: Korkers feature removable soles, allowing you to switch between felt, rubber, or studded soles depending on the river's conditions. This adaptability enhances safety and grip.
  • Durability: Opt for Korkers with robust construction and reinforced materials to withstand the rigors of rocky river environments.
  • Comfort: Choose a comfortable fit with ample ankle support. Some models offer lacing systems for a secure fit.

Your tackle plays a significant role in your steelhead fishing success. Investing in quality gear—especially waders and Korkers— will keep you in the water longer and happier while you’re doing it. I can tell you, as a previous hatchery professional, leaky waders suck. Remember to maintain your tackle properly, and it will serve you well for many steelhead adventures to come.

Steelhead Baits And Flies

When it comes to enticing steelhead in rivers and creeks, your choice of baits and flies can make all the difference. These finicky fish respond to a variety of offerings, and having a diverse selection in your tackle box increases your chances of success.

Natural Baits

Salmon Egg Sacks Tied For Steelhead
  1. Salmon Eggs (Roe): Fresh or cured salmon eggs are a top choice for steelhead. They offer a natural scent and flavor that steelhead find irresistible. Rig them on hooks using spawn bags or clusters for a lifelike presentation. Roe will literally transform your fishing rod into a steelhead divining rod. 
  2. Nightcrawlers: Nightcrawlers are a versatile bait option. Thread a section of nightcrawler onto a hook and drift it through likely steelhead holding spots. Their scent and movement in the water can trigger strikes.
  3. Shrimp: Fresh or frozen shrimp are effective for steelhead, especially in coastal areas. Peel and devein the shrimp, then thread them onto a hook, tail-first, for a tempting presentation.


Little Black Stoneflies in the Snow On The Banks Of The Salmon River

Little Black Stoneflies in the Snow On The Banks Of The Salmon River In New York

  1. Egg Patterns: Egg flies mimic the appearance of salmon or steelhead eggs. These are effective during the spawning season when steelhead are feeding on loose eggs. Experiment with various colors and sizes.
  2. Nymphs: Stonefly and caddisfly nymphs imitate the aquatic insects that steelhead feed on. Use weighted nymphs to get down to the fish in deeper runs and pools.
  3. Streamers: Streamer patterns, such as Woolly Buggers and Intruders, imitate baitfish and larger prey. These can provoke aggressive strikes, especially when steelhead are on the hunt.
  4. San Juan Worm: Don't overlook this worm imitation, which can be deadly on some rivers.

Steelhead Jigs

Steelhead Jigs

Little Black Stoneflies in the Snow On The Banks Of The Salmon River In New York

Steelhead jigs are a hybrid between lures and flies. These are made with marabou or other materials that create lifelike movement in the water. Jigs come in various colors and sizes, allowing you to match local prey species or experiment to find what's working on a given day.

Experimentation is often the key to success when it comes to bait and fly selection for steelhead. Pay attention to local conditions, water clarity, and the preferences of the fish. Steelhead can be selective, so being prepared with a variety of baits, flies, and jigs gives you the flexibility to adapt to changing situations and increase your chances.

Reading The Water

Fisherman Reading The Water In A River

Reading the water is an art and a vital skill for successful steelhead fishing. The more you do it, the better and more efficient you’ll get at it. Observe the river or creek's flow, looking for features like riffles, pools, and runs. Steelhead often hold in slower, deeper water near cover, where they conserve energy. Focus on seams between fast and slow-moving currents, as steelhead use these as natural highways. Tailouts, where a pool ends and transitions into a riffle, are also productive spots. Pay attention to water clarity and temperature, as these factors influence steelhead behavior and their willingness to strike.

Where To Find Steelhead In A River

Steelhead can be found in specific areas of a river that provide them with suitable habitat and access to food. You don’t want to waste time fishing the wrong spots. So, learning what these features look like in a river system will help save time and effort by fishing the right spots from the get-go. The river features below are key locations to search for steelhead.

Pools: Deep pools are natural resting areas for steelhead. These fish often seek refuge in the calmer, deeper water to conserve energy. Look for pools created by rock formations, bends in the river, or deeper sections downstream of obstacles.

Runs: Runs are areas of the river with a moderate current flow. Steelhead use runs as transition zones between deeper pools and faster-moving riffles. They can be found here as they move upstream or downstream.

Fly Fisherman Hooked Into A Big Steelhead

Riffles: Riffles are shallow, fast-moving sections of the river with rocky bottoms. Steelhead may navigate riffles during their migration, but they are more commonly found in adjacent pools and runs. However, when water conditions are right, they may pause in riffles to rest or feed.

Tailouts: The tailout is the downstream end of a pool, where it transitions into a riffle. Steelhead often gather here, especially when they are preparing to move upstream. This area provides easy access to deeper water while conserving energy.

Undercuts and Cover: Fallen trees, boulders, and other underwater structures create hiding places for steelhead. They use these areas as cover to avoid predators and conserve energy. Cast near or under these structures carefully to entice steelhead.

Eddy Currents: Eddies are circular, slower-moving currents found behind obstructions like rocks or logs. Steelhead may hold in eddies, especially when the main current is too strong. Cast into these areas and let your bait or lure drift naturally.

Seams: Seams are the lines where fast and slow-moving currents meet. Steelhead often cruise along these seams, waiting for passing prey. Cast your bait or lure along the seam to intercept them.

Bends and Confluences: Steelhead are often found at the inside bend of a river or where tributaries join the main river. These areas can create pockets of slower water where steelhead rest and feed.

Depth Changes: Any sudden changes in water depth, such as drop-offs or gravel bars, can attract steelhead. They use these areas to feed and hide from predators.

Temperature Gradients: Steelhead are sensitive to water temperature. In warmer months, they may seek out cooler pockets of water, such as the mouths of tributaries or spring-fed creeks.

Steelhead are migratory fish, so their location in a river can change with the seasons. Knowing how to "read" the river, observe water conditions, and adapt your fishing strategy accordingly is key to successfully finding and catching steelhead in a river.

RELATED: How To Fish - The Ultimate Guide For Beginners

Drifting The Bottom

Steelhead Caught On An Egg Imitation

How to Rig

To effectively drift the bottom for steelhead, set up your rig as follows:

  1. Weight Placement: Use enough weight to ensure your bait or lure stays near the riverbed. Attach a weight, such as a pencil lead or split shot, about 12-18 inches above your bait or lure.
  2. Bait Presentation: Thread your chosen bait, such as salmon eggs, nightcrawlers, or soft plastics, onto a hook. Ensure it looks natural and securely attached.
  3. Swivel: Connect a swivel between your mainline and leader to prevent line twist and enable a smooth presentation.
  4. Leader Length: Use a leader of appropriate length (typically 18-24 inches) between the swivel and your baited hook.

RELATED: Knots Every Fisherman Should Know

How to Fish

  1. Find the Right Spot: Seek out likely steelhead holding areas such as pools, runs, or tailouts. Look for seams, structure, and depth changes.
  2. Cast Upstream: Position yourself upstream of your target area and cast your rig upstream, allowing it to drift naturally downstream.
  3. Control the Drift: Keep your line taut but not tight. Follow the bait or lure as it drifts downstream, maintaining contact with the riverbed.
  4. Stay in Touch: Maintain sensitivity to feel any subtle bites or changes in the riverbed. Steelhead often take the bait gently, so be ready to set the hook.
  5. Vary Your Drift: Experiment with the speed of your drift and the depth at which you're fishing. Steelhead preferences can change throughout the day.
  6. Repeat and Be Patient: Continue working promising areas, casting multiple times. Steelhead fishing can require patience, as these fish may not always strike immediately.

Steelhead Fishing With Floats

Author's Float Fishing Setup For Steelhead

How to Rig

To fish effectively with floats, it's essential to rig your setup correctly. Here's how.

  1. Float Selection: Begin by choosing an appropriate float or bobber. Opt for a float with enough buoyancy to support your bait or lure and easily visible above the water's surface.
  2. Leader Length: Attach a leader of about 18-36 inches below your float. The length may vary depending on water depth and steelhead behavior. A longer leader allows your bait to drift more naturally.
  3. Bait Presentation: Select your preferred bait or lure, such as jigs, beads, or soft plastics. Thread or attach it to your hook, ensuring it appears lifelike and enticing to steelhead.
  4. Weight Placement: Add split shot or other weight to your leader, above your bait or lure. The amount of weight determines how deep your bait will fish. Adjust this based on the water depth and steelhead depth preference.

How to Fish

Now, let's put your rigging knowledge into action as you embrace the art of steelhead fishing with floats!

Spot Selection: Begin by identifying promising steelhead locations, such as pools, runs, or riffles. Pay attention to the river's current and features like submerged rocks and logs, as steelhead often congregate near these structures.

Casting: Cast your baited rig upstream of your chosen spot, allowing the current to carry it downstream naturally. Ensure that your float is visible and easily detectable.

Mend Your Line: As your bait drifts downstream, periodically mend your line. This involves lifting and repositioning your line to maintain a drag-free presentation. This helps your bait drift naturally without excessive line tension.

Watch the Float: Keep your eyes on the float. It serves as your visual indicator of any strikes or changes in the bait's behavior. When the float dips or moves unnaturally, it's time to set the hook.

Setting the Hook: When you see the float react, set the hook with a firm but controlled motion. Steelhead can take the bait gently, so be ready to respond quickly.

Plunking for Steelhead

Plunking For Steelhead

Plunking is a stationary method for steelhead fishing, commonly used from the bank or shore. The essence of plunking is to cast your bait or lure into a promising spot, usually a deep pool or a steelhead holding area, and let it sit on the riverbed. This approach is highly effective when steelhead are resting or conserving energy in slower-moving water.

How to Do It

  1. Gear Selection: Choose a sturdy rod and reel setup capable of handling the weight needed to keep your bait or lure stationary on the riverbed.
  2. Bait or Lure: Use bait such as salmon eggs, sand shrimp, or scented artificial baits. Alternatively, employ a heavy jig or other lures designed for plunking.
  3. Weight Placement: Attach enough weight to your line to keep your bait on the bottom. Usually, this involves using a pyramid or bank sinker above your bait or lure.
  4. Select the Right Spot: Identify likely steelhead holding areas, such as deep pools or slow-moving sections of the river. Cast your baited rig into these spots, allowing it to settle on the riverbed.
  5. Patience: Plunking requires patience. Keep a watchful eye on your rod tip or line for any subtle movements or tugs, as steelhead often take the bait gently. When you notice activity, set the hook with a firm but controlled motion.
  6. Vary Your Presentation: Experiment with different bait and weight combinations, as well as casting positions within your chosen spot, to maximize your chances of enticing steelhead.

Casting Spoons and Spinners

Casting spoons and spinners is an active approach to steelhead fishing. These lures are designed to mimic the movement of prey fish and attract the attention of steelhead with their flash and vibrations. Casting spoons and spinners can be especially effective when steelhead are actively feeding or aggressive.

RELATED: Best Spinners And How To Rig Them

How to Do It

  1. Gear Selection: Use a medium to medium-heavy spinning or casting rod and reel combination suitable for casting and retrieving lures.
  2. Lure Selection: Choose spoons or spinners in various sizes and colors to match the local prey species or conditions. Bright and shiny lures often work well to grab steelhead's attention.
  3. Casting: Cast your lure upstream or across the current and allow it to sink slightly before starting your retrieve. Vary your retrieval speed and depth to find what triggers strikes.
  4. Retrieve Technique: As you retrieve, impart action to the lure by twitching your rod tip or altering the speed of your retrieve. This adds lifelike movement to the lure and can entice steelhead.
  5. Be Ready to Set the Hook: Steelhead can strike lures aggressively. When you feel a solid bite or see a visual indication of a strike, set the hook with a swift and controlled motion.

Plug Fishing for Steelhead

Fishing With Plugs Behind A Driftboat On The Salmon River

Plug fishing involves using diving plugs or crankbaits designed to dive to specific depths in the water. This method is versatile, allowing you to cast, troll, or drift these lures through steelhead territory. It's effective for covering a range of depths and water conditions.

How to Do It

  1. Gear Selection: Use a medium to medium-heavy rod and reel combination suitable for the size and depth of the plugs you intend to use.
  2. Plug Selection: Choose diving plugs or crankbaits in sizes and colors that match the local baitfish or prey species. Check the diving depth rating of the lure to ensure it reaches the desired depth.
  3. Depth Control: Adjust your presentation to match the depth where steelhead are holding. You can achieve this by varying your casting distance, trolling speed, or adding weight to your line.
  4. Retrieve or Troll: Depending on your fishing setup, cast and retrieve the plug with varying actions or troll it behind a boat or kayak at the desired depth. Experiment with different speeds and depths to find what works best.
  5. Strike Detection: Pay close attention to your rod tip for any sudden movements or resistance, which could indicate a steelhead strike. When you sense a strike, set the hook with a quick, controlled motion.

Fly Fishing for Steelhead

Fly Fisherman Fighting A Steelhead

Fly fishing for steelhead is a challenging yet highly rewarding method. It involves using fly patterns that mimic the prey steelhead feed on, such as nymphs, streamers, or egg patterns. Precise casting and presentation skills are essential for success.

RELATED: Best Time To Fly Fish In All Seasons

How to Do It

Black Stonefly In A Fly Tying Vice
  1. Gear Selection: Use a specialized fly rod and reel combination designed for steelhead fishing. Choose a weight and length appropriate for the river conditions and the size of the flies you plan to use.
  2. Fly Selection: Select fly patterns that match the local aquatic insects, baitfish, or eggs that steelhead are feeding on. Be prepared with a variety of patterns to adapt to changing conditions.
  3. Casting: Develop accurate casting skills to present your fly to steelhead effectively. Practice both single-handed and spey casting techniques for different river environments.
  4. Presentation: Drift, swing, or strip your fly, depending on the chosen fly pattern and the behavior of the steelhead. Experiment with the presentation until you find what elicits strikes.
  5. Setting the Hook: Steelhead often take flies subtly. When you feel a take or see your line tighten, set the hook swiftly with a controlled motion to secure the fish.
  6. Wading Safely: Fly fishing often requires wading in the river. Ensure you have proper wading gear, including waders and boots with good traction, to stay safe in varying water conditions.

RELATED: Is Fly Fishing Hard To Learn

Steelhead Fishing In Rivers Through The Seasons

Depending on your state or province, steelhead fishing can practically be a year-round pursuit, but the tactics and conditions vary significantly with the changing seasons. Here's what you can expect, and how to approach steelhead fishing throughout the year.

Spring Steelhead Fishing

A male river steelhead in a landing net

Season: Spring is a prime time for steelhead fishing in many regions. These fish return from the ocean to spawn in river systems, providing excellent opportunities for anglers.

Conditions: Spring rivers can be high and fast-flowing due to melting snow and rain. Water temperatures start to rise, triggering steelhead to move and feed more actively.

Tactics: Focus on slower, deeper pools and runs where steelhead rest and feed. Drifting bait like salmon eggs or using jigs and plugs can be effective. Brightly colored lures or flies that imitate emerging insects work well.

Summer Steelhead Fishing

Season: Summer steelhead fishing offers a chance to target fish that didn't spawn in the spring or are on a summer feeding migration.

Conditions: River levels drop, and water temperatures rise during summer. Steelhead may seek cooler, deeper pockets and tributary mouths.

Tactics: Fish early mornings or late evenings when water temperatures are lower. Use techniques like fly fishing with nymphs or fishing with spoons and spinners. Focus on finding cool, oxygenated water.

Fall Steelhead Fishing

Fisherman On The Salmon River In New York

Season: Fall is another peak season for steelhead fishing as fresh runs of fish enter rivers.

Conditions: Water levels and temperatures begin to drop as the season progresses. Steelies will be beautiful, bright, and harder fighting than spring-run steelhead.

Tactics: Look for steelhead in pools, runs, and riffles. Drift fishing with bait or lures remains effective. Try swinging flies or casting spoons and plugs.

Winter Steelhead Fishing

John VanDerLaan With A Steelhead In Sideways Snow

RELATED: Must Have Winter Fly Fishing Gear

Season: Winter steelhead fishing can be challenging but rewarding for those willing to brave the cold.

Conditions: Rivers are often low and clear during winter, making steelhead wary. Water temperatures are cold, so fish are less active.

Tactics: Fish deep pools and runs, using techniques like drift fishing with roe or jigs. Slow presentations and natural-colored baits can be effective. Patience is crucial, as steelhead may be less aggressive.

Understanding how steelhead behavior and river conditions change with the seasons is essential for successful year-round fishing. Adapt your tactics, gear, and locations accordingly.

Steelhead Fishing In Lakes

Steelhead fishing in lakes offers some cool variation that you can’t get from the bank. Two primary methods for targeting steelhead in lakes are boat fishing and trolling.

Boat Fishing for Steelhead

Trolling For Steelhead

Boat Setup: To fish for steelhead from a boat, you'll need a suitable vessel equipped with downriggers or other depth control mechanisms. Downriggers allow you to precisely position your baits or lures at the desired depth, a crucial aspect of lake fishing for steelhead.

Location: Locate steelhead by searching for temperature gradients in the lake. Steelhead often hold in the thermocline, which is the transition layer between warmer surface water and colder deep water.

Bait and Lures: Downriggers enable you to fish with various baits or lures at different depths simultaneously. Common choices include plugs, spoons, and hoochies. Experiment with colors and sizes to match local prey.

Presentation: Pay attention to the action of your lures and their depth in the water column. Steelhead can be selective, so be prepared to make adjustments to your setup until the start biting.

Trolling for Steelhead

Equipment: Trolling involves slowly moving your boat through the water while trailing your baits or lures behind. Adjust trolling speed and depth until you find the optimal combination that entices steelhead. You'll need a trolling rod and reel combo with appropriate line capacity. Downriggers, planer boards, or diving planes are helpful for depth and lure control.

Lures: Select lures that mimic the baitfish or prey found in the lake. Effective options include plugs, spoons, and spinners. Bright and reflective colors often attract steelhead's attention.

Speed and Depth: Experiment with trolling speed and lure depth until you find the combination that works. Use depth sounders to identify the thermocline and adjust your presentation accordingly.

Technique: Trolling is a steady, systematic approach. Cast your lure or set it at the desired depth using downriggers or other tools. Maintain a consistent speed, and vary your presentation by changing lure action or color patterns.

Be Patient: Trolling can require patience as you cover a lot of water to locate active steelhead. Stay persistent, and when you find a productive depth or lure, consider trolling in circles or zigzag patterns to maximize your catch.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are steelhead hard to catch? 

One reason is the sheer reduction in total numbers, making them difficult to find. Steelhead can also be elusive due to their wariness, migratory behavior, and sensitivity to water conditions, requiring anglers to adapt tactics. Remember, they are “the fish of a thousand casts!”

What time of day are steelhead most active? 

Steelhead are often most active during low light conditions, such as dawn and dusk, but can be caught throughout the day.

What month is best for steelhead fishing?

Steelhead fishing varies by region, but prime months often range from late fall to early spring when they enter rivers to spawn.

Do steelhead bite all day? 

Steelhead may bite throughout the day, but their activity can peak during low light hours.

Do steelhead bite on worms? 

Yes, steelhead are known to bite on worms, especially when presented naturally in river environments.

What temperature are steelhead most active? 

Steelhead are active in a wide range of temperatures, but they tend to be more active in cooler water (but not too cold), typically between 42°F and 55°F (5°C - 13°C).

Do steelhead bite on sunny days? 

Steelhead can be caught on sunny days, but they may be more cautious in clear water and bright conditions. Adjust bait and presentation to increase success.

Final Thoughts

Budding steelhead anglers—no matter how or where you fish for steelies, it's gonna be a great time! We unpacked a ton of info here and we've gone over tried and true, effective methods whether you're whipping the water in lakes, larger rivers, small streams, or at the river mouth.

Choose the method(s) that makes the most sense for you. Like many fishing pursuits, staying adaptive and being able to switch up techniques is key to success. If one style, rig, or area isn’t working, move on to something else and keep trying different things. 

Depending on whether you’re putting fish in the freezer or simply catching and releasing for sport, remember to verify whether you're in a catch-and-release-only area. And if you are catching and releasing, handle with care and use barbless hooks for easy removal that minimizes damage to the fish. See you out there on the water!

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Shawn Lentz

Shawn Lentz is an avid sportsman who grows national outdoor brands as a full-time copywriter. A former fish and wildlife professional, Shawn also weaves his passion for conservation, fishing and hunting into stories for publications like Fair Chase Magazine, Wide Open Spaces,, and more. Shawn is an active member of The Outdoor Writers Of America Association. For more info, go to

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