Best Baits For Pennsylvania Steelhead: What The Guides Use

A steelhead caught using one of the Best baits for Pennsylvania steelhead
The author with a nice steelhead caught using a bait that is considered to be one of the best for Pennsylvania steelhead

As a Great Lakes Steelhead fishing guide, I have first-hand knowledge of the best baits for Pennsylvania Steelhead. I use the same baits that local river guides and anglers use, and these same three baits catch 90% of the fish.

The most popular and most effective baits to catch steelhead in Pennsylvania include live worms, plastic worms, and egg baits such as spawn sacs, skein, beads, and flies.

Although these are the most popular baits, it’s very important to keep a few things in mind. Otherwise, the bait could be ineffective.

Other baits that I might use on occasion or under certain conditions include:

  • Minnows
  • Grubs
  • Leeches
  • Plastics
  • Powerbait

However, with these baits, be sure to read when I use them so you are not wasting your time and potentially catching fewer fish.

How To Choose The Best Bait

This is Dalton with a Steelhead Alley steelhead.
For guided steelhead trips in the PA area, contact Dalton from Goose’s Steelhead Fishing Guide Service.

Guides will change their baits based on their observations of the current water conditions, light conditions, fishing pressure, and fish feeding behavior. YOU SHOULD TOO.

  • Dirty Water and Fast Water: Use bigger baits. Chartreuse is a hot color. Baits with scent, like fish eggs and skein might work better
  • Normal to clear water: Use smaller more natural colors
  • Very clear and low water: Use tiny baits and natural colors, subtle baits like nymphs and small garden worms, and this is when single eggs and beads can be very effective.

Pro Tip: Using the right setup for the method is critical to catch the steelhead and the bait is only good if it is presented well.

I have seen hundreds of times when two anglers use the same bait and the same methods in the same spot, but one angler catches all the fish. This is often due to one angler having the proper leader setup or is presenting the bait better.

Steelhead Worms: Best Bait For PA Steelhead

A steelhead caught on a pink worm

Worms are very good steelhead baits for several reasons. They are a big profile bait that is hard for most steelhead to pass up. I use live worms, especially in the spring, but I prefer pink or red plastic steelhead worms most of the time.

These plastic worms are available in various colors and sizes. You can use worms with different fishing methods.

The pink worm, in particular, has proven to be highly effective on many guided fishing trips and there are days when my guides and I will determine that most of the fish caught are on worms.

In fact, there are years where I have recorded that nearly 80% of steelhead caught by my clients were caught with plastic steelhead worms.

Steelhead Bait worm
Berkley Trout Worms

The best hooks for worms are size 8-10 hooks. But in extremely clear waters, I often have more success with smaller worms with a size ten hook.

For more on the best worms, rigging, and when to use them, see Fishing With Worms For Trout and Steelhead: 10 Guide Tips.

Flies: Used By Most River Guides For PA Steelhead

There is no question that artificial flies catch steelhead.

I prefer to use natural-looking flies like the stonefly or mayfly. I also do well with attractor flies like the Rainbow Warrior.

flies for Pa Steelhead

Streamer flies like the ones in the image can be used nymphing, or cast out and stripped in or swung through the pool.

Additionally, I use flies as bait for several fishing methods. Bottom bouncing, float fishing, streamer fishing, Euro-nymphing, Spey fishing, and Spin fishing are all methods where flies can be used as bait.

my steelhead nymphs
Nymphs are an excellent bait for all migratory species.

I also like using nymph flies as bait when other anglers around me are using roe as their primary bait.

The steelhead will often eat smaller flies after seeing endless roe bags.

Black and brown nymphs like the ones in my box above are very good.

I’ve found that nymphs with a touch of blue or flashback can also be very good. Bead head nymph are also my go-to and I will use them 90% of the time.

Also, keep in mind that the huge majority of steelhead guides in Pennsylvania are all fly fishing guides, which means they use flies. They must know something others using eggs and worms don’t, right?

Guides Best Steelhead Flies
One of my fly boxes with an assortment of nymphs and some egg patterns.

One of the best things about flies as steelhead bait is that they are straightforward to use.

I tie most fly patterns in under five minutes but, anglers can buy them at affordable prices.

One tip I offer my clients when using flies as bait is to add a brightly-colored bead to their flies. Tungsten, gold, and silver are my go-to colors for fly beads.

Beads help flies to sink faster, and they also remain in the strike zone much longer. Additionally, the flash of the beads shimmer underwater, attracting steelhead to the bait.

To see the most effective flies for steelhead see: 19 Effective Steelhead Flies Used By Guides and Winter Steelhead Flies: 11 Must Have Guide Flies

NEW! 21 Best Flies For PA Steelhead.

Spawn: Most Popular Bait For Pennsylvania Steelhead

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

Most local anglers say that fish eggs or spawn is the best bait for PA Steelhead. Spawn, also known as spawn bags, spawn sacs, eggs, roe, or roe bags. It is also the most popular steelhead bait.

Roe refers to salmon, trout, or steelhead eggs tied together in a special mesh.

In clear water or in the winter, I will often choose to use single eggs instead of roe bags.

There are ways to rig spawn bags and better hooks that guides use. To learn more about spawn sac fishing, check out Spawn Bags – Guide Secrets For More Trout And Steelhead

Beads For PA Steelhead

An image showing how to rig a trout bead
I rig my trout beads about 1.5 to 2 inches up from the hook using a rubber bead peg to secure the bead to the line.

I like using beads because they are incredibly easy to use, and they always deliver.

Beads work well because they resemble single salmon and trout eggs. Steelheads are unlikely to pass up a chance to swallow vulnerable eggs.

I use glass and plastic beads since both have pros and cons. I would also recommend using 8-mm beads most of the time since they are the same size as most salmon eggs.

Ohio fishing guide Gareth with a nice Ohio fall steelhead
Ohio fishing guide Gareth with a nice Ohio fall steelhead

Whether beads will be effective depends a lot on their color. Always use brightly colored beads in murky waters to catch the fish’s attention.

However, local head guide Gareth from Alley Grabs Guide Service recommends to use more natural colored eggs when the waters are low and clear.

Light oranges, yellows, pinks, peach, and white are good choices.

For more info on bead fishing, best sizes, best colors, and best brands of beads, see: Fishing With Beads: 5 Guide Tips For More Fish

Other Effective Baits For PA Steelhead

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

Although beads, worms, flies, and roe are very good for steelhead, I have also had great success using minnows, leeches, jigs, and plastics like plastic grubs or plastic eggs as bait.

These three baits can be effective depending on the water conditions and the particular method I am using. However, I will be honest, after testing these bait out for over 20 years, I consider these “B” baits, or non-consistant baits. I normally only use these baits after I have used my primary baits (my consistent producers) if they are not working.

Tight Lines


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