Best Bait For NY Steelhead: Top 3 Baits Guides Use

Best Bait For NY steelhead
There are a variety of baits that I and other guides use to consistently catch steelhead in New York tributaries.

I have been fishing New York steelhead for over 30 years so I have first-hand local knowledge of what guides and top anglers consider the best baits for steelhead fishing in the rivers of New York.

New York River Guides and I will do many things to maximize the number of steelhead our clients catch. One of those things is using consistently effective baits for NY Steelhead. The other thing is knowing how to fish the bait properly.

If I had to choose my three best baits for NY steelhead, it would be egg baits such as spawn bags, skein, and beads, as well as worms (both live and plastic), and artificial flies in a variety of proven steelhead patterns.

These three steelhead baits are hard to beat even under the toughest conditions, and they come in a variety of colors and sizes to match the conditions or the mood of the fish.

Category Key Takeaways
Eggs I discuss the best types, which are often spawn bags, which ones to avoid such as the commercial ones in oil, what sizes and colors to use, and when to use them and when to try something different. I’ll also provide my thoughts on single eggs and when you should try these. and yes, you should use them.
Flies I discuss the best fly patterns for New York steelhead, which are often nymphs and streamer like the Woolly Bugger or Zonker, and the suitable sizes and colors that work best for me, and my opinion on flies with bead heads versus flies without.
Worms Find out why I like plastic worms so much and which ones I use, and when red worms or brown worms might work better than my go-to pink color.
Beads and Artificial Eggs Beads can be very effective, but only if you rig them properly and use them under the right conditions.Some anglers prefer glass beads, which are great, but i prefer hard plastic beads.
Alternative Baits There are plenty of other baits like minnows, leeches, and even Berkely Powerbait, but should you use these, I do and I’ll tell you when.

I have always said that guiding and fishing steelhead is a thinking game. There are days when my first bait choice is all I need to catch lots of fish. On other days, the steelhead want something different. As a guide, I am constantly observing everything around me to find clues as to what will make the steelhead bite more.

I am always trying different baits, different sizes, and different colors to see how the fish react. I may change baits based on the water clarity, water temperature, changing light conditions, or any other environmental changes.

If I don’t make the necessary changes, my clients may not catch as many fish as they could. And if I don’t have a variety of baits, sizes, and colors, and I don’t change when I should, my clients will struggle to catch fish.

The Best Bait For NY Steelhead

Andrew with a 18 Mile Creek steelhead.
Large steelhead will eat pink worms and other bright colored baits on Erie streams. Image of Andrew from Full Fishing Guide Service.

I have multiple guides on staff, and there have been many days when my guides will tell me that one bait caught most or all of the steelhead.

It might be that one color or a specific size or type of bait was hot based on the current conditions, this happens all the time. But a day or two later, all that can change.

Steelhead might even change their feeding behavior over a few hours.

I have seen steelhead smash large chartreuse spawn bags first thing in the morning, but by noon, all they will grab are small white or blue spawn bags.

I’ve also seen steelhead hit spawn bags all morning, but after being bombarded by hundreds of drifting bags, the only thing I can catch them on are small nymphs.

Guys, if you cover the entire spot effectively and don’t catch any steelhead, or the steelhead stop biting, you need to try a different bait.

Pro Tip: I have seen two guys fish the same spot with the same bait and one guy catches all the fish. There is a reason for this! The leader setup needs to be perfect, and the presentation needs to be perfect. Otherwise, even a great bait can be ineffective.

Flies Are One Of The Best Baits For NY Steelhead

Flies for nymphing for steelhead
Flies for nymphing for steelhead can be anything that resembles the food sources of river steelhead. Eggs, worms, and nymphs are all great options.

When a steelhead is young, it learns that aquatic insects are a nutritious and abundant food source, and even as adults, most steelhead will eat a well-presented fly. This makes artificial flies one of the best steelhead baits for New York Rivers regardless of the method you use.

You do not need to be a fly fisherman to fish flies. Flies can be used when drift fishing, float fishing, and bottom bouncing.

An artificial fly can imitate eggs, leeches, baitfish like minnows, and nymphs.

Flies are some of the most versatile baits for steelhead fishing because steelhead feed on flies all year long. This means flies will often work just as well in January as they will in May.

Black stoneflies are excellent winter steelhead flies
Black stoneflies are excellent winter steelhead flies and the one on the right is one of my most productive patterns.

Low Water Flies: Use natural flies like the Caddis larva fly, mayfly nymphs, or the Stonefly nymphs in low clear water.

Use them in sizes 8 to 14. Sizes 10 and 12 are my most effective sizes.

Flies For High Water: In murky water, bigger flies tied in bright colors are also recommended. Natural colors work best in low, clear water, and smaller flies are usually better.

Use attractor patterns like the Comet, Rainbow Warrior, or the Frenchie Fly in dirtier water or high water to attract more steelhead.

Colorful Flies Versus Natural Flies: In my experience, despite all the colorful fly patterns for steelhead, I catch 80% of my steelhead on natural colors like brown, black, and green. The exception to this is egg patterns.

I have never done consistently well with flies like a Frammus.

Experienced steelhead guides will rotate through colors and sizes to find out what the steelhead wants.

Weighted or Non-Weighted Flies: If I am drifting a fly below a float or indicator I will use non-weighted flies, especially in slower water.

If I am fishing faster water, faster and deeper water, or I need to ensure my fly stays down and deep, I will use flies with a tungsten bead. The bead allows the fly to sink fast and stay in the strike zone longer, and the flash from the bead grabs their attention.

Bead Or No Bead?: In my opinion, based on 37 years of fishing for steelhead with flies, I would say that flies with a brass bead in gold, silver, and maybe copper will be more effective than a nymph without a bead. Also, flies with a hotspot will also grab their attention.

However, there are days, especially when the water is low and clear, or when the steelhead are nervous that less intrusive flies without a shiny bead is better.

Some of the most effective flies for nymphing, float fishing, or bottom bouncing are:

  • Egg Flies – A variety of colors
  • Stonefly nymph – Black or Brown
  • Steelhead worm – Pink, Red, or Brown
  • Pheasant tail nymph and variations – Brown, or black
  • Hare’s Ear nymph and variations – Light or dark tan
  • Woolly Buggers – Black, Olive, White
  • Egg Sucking Leach – Pink, Chartreuse, and Orange head
  • Zonker – White, black, Olive

Check out my page 13 Most Effective Steelhead Flies.

GUIDE TIP: So why did I list flies as one of the best baits? The truth is that most anglers will use eggs, and in my experience, when everyone around me is using eggs, many steelheads will turn off eggs.

They see egg sac after egg sac go by them for hours so there is no urgency for them to feed, and since the nymph is different, they will often grab it.

Spawn, Spawn Sacs, Roe Bags

Salmon and Trout eggs are good for bait
Salmon and Trout eggs are good for bait

Although angles swear that roe is the best bait for catching New York steelhead, this is not always true.

Eggs, are also known as roe, roe bags, egg sacks, spawn, or spawn bags. Spawn bags consist of several eggs tied in a special mesh or netting to make a bag or sack of eggs. Egg sacs are undoubtedly, an excellent bait for catching steelhead in New York rivers.

Anglers who swear by spawn as their choice of steelhead bait argue that it is so effective because of its natural scent and vibrant colors.

I use a single egg instead of a spawn bag. Like roe, single eggs have a natural scent and sink quickly. Steelhead will always attack solitary salmon eggs out of instinct, which is why this is one of the best baits for NY steelhead.

Beads Are A Great Steelhead Bait

Fishing With Beads is a good tactic for trout, steelhead and salmon

Another great steelhead bait that works in all New York rivers is the bead. The bead resembles a single salmon egg, which is why it is so effective.

When choosing beads for steelhead fishing in New York, pick the 8mm ones for most water conditions, however, at times, 6mm is better in low clear conditions, or use 1o-12mm in dirty water. 8mm is the same size as an average chinook salmon egg.

A mix of salmon eggs and salmon beads
Real salmon eggs are great but there are times when imitation eggs like beads are even better.

Also, be careful with the color of the beads. For murky waters, pick brightly colored beads that will stand out, chartreuse is best. In clear, low water, muted colors such as peach, light yellow, light orange, and light pink are good.

Glass beads sink and get down fast, and for this reason, many anglers say they are more effective. Hard and soft plastic beads are also good. I discuss setups and which beads I prefer on my page steelhead fishing with beads.


Worms can be an excellent bait for spring trout and steelhead
Pink and red plastic worms can be an excellent bait for spring trout and steelhead

Worms are a personal favorite of mine. When it comes to my most effective bait, this is top on the list. But not just any worm, pink and red plastic trout and steelhead worms are best. I find them very effective because they have a large profile that is hard for most steelhead to ignor.

My favorite Powerbait product is the Berkley Powerbait Worm
My favorite Powerbait product is the Berkley Powerbait Worm

Both plastic and real worms work well in New York rivers and they can often be more effective than other baits in stained water. On average, 3-4 inches long worms are the most effective since real garden worms are about that size.

I describe fishing with worms, how to rig them, and my most effective plastic worms on my page Fishing With Worms For Trout and Steelhead: 10 Guide Tips.

Good Alternative Steelhead Baits

Plastic Eggs For Steelhead
Plastic Egg sacks of plastic single eggs can be deadly on trout and Steelhead

Minnow, grubs, maggots, leeches, and even Berkely Powerbaits are all used by angles to catch New York steelhead.

I call these secondary baits and I only use them after I’ve run all my better baits through the spot first.

I discuss all the most effective steelhead baits for Great Lakes steelhead on my page Best Steelhead Baits.

Tight Lines,


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  1. Hey Graham,

    Excellent info on your site, have learned a lot reading through your guide articles.

    As far as bait…what about using raw, peeled shrimp for steelhead? I’ve heard that it works well especially for beginners because the fish will grab this sort of bait and hang onto it because they feed on shrimp naturally in the Pacific NW. Thanks for all the time and effort posting the wealth of info on your website!

    1. Hey Chris,

      I think steelhead are very opportunistic and will grab most types of shrimp if presented well. There are many types of shrimp that anglers and guides use which can include tiger prawn, ghost shrimp, sand shrimp, coon shrimp, pink shrimp, and salad shrimp which I assume you are talking about.

      I know guides that use red coon shrimp either under a float, when plunking, or as a trailer when hot shotting.

      Most of them will cure the shrimp and use multiple colors, like red, pink, and orange, but I have heard that white cooked salad shrimp can work too. Try curing them for about 24 hours in Pautzke Balls O’ Fire Nectar, Pautzke BorX O Fire, or Pautzke Balls O’ Fire in the colors you think will work for your river conditions.

      And, at times, shrimp might even work better than eggs or other more common baits, so it’s definitely worth a try. Let me know how it goes.


  2. hi graham, i thread minnows and and rig em with a double hook and fish em like a spinner, would this rig work for stealhead, with a single hook though ?

    1. Hi Don,

      I’ve never used that method for steelhead and can’t say that I have seen it used by other guides. I’m sure if threading minnows was very effective, more guides and anglers would be using it. Based on many years of experience, I would recommend sticking to proven and effective methods for steelhead. If you try it and it works well, let us know.