Expert Advice On The Best Lures For Steelhead
As a top river guide, I know what the best lures for steelhead are for different types of water and in different river conditions. I also know how to use them in the most effective way which is what I cover in this article.
The best lures for steelhead are spinners, spoons, plugs, and crankbaits and if you use these guide tips you will catch more steelhead with them. These best lures for steelhead will account for over 90% of the steelhead caught by lure anglers on steelhead rivers around the great lakes and the west coast.
I will also add in a bonus lure or 2 that you may not have thought about yet. Plus, since I’m a fishing guide and have a ton of knowledge on fishing steelhead with lures I will add some tips and tricks to make your lures more effective.
The honest truth is that many anglers don’t fish lures as effectively as they could. They don’t know how to work the lure, give it action, at what depth to fish the lure, and even how to cover the water effectively. Getting any one of these things wrong can mean fewer or no steelhead. Imaging getting most of them wrong!
I’ll provide some advice on these things so you have a better idea on how to fish them more effectively.
Somedays steelhead and trout are not very aggressive but some lures will trigger more bites than others so it’s good to have a few different lures or all of these lures in your box.
Also, somedays they don’t want lures at all so if you are versatile and combine these best lures for steelhead with my 4 best steelhead baits and you get good at Float Fishing or Bottom Bouncing when you go fishing for steelhead you will likely catch more steelhead than ever.
Note: Updated September 18th, 2021 with one hot bonus lure.
The Spinner – The Best Steelhead Lure
On many guide trips, the first lure I will try is the simple but time tested spinner which is also known as the in-line spinner. I consider spinners to be one of the best lures for steelhead in rivers.
Part of the reason the spinner is one of the best steelhead lures to use is that it can move fast and cover water quickly which makes it a great search type lure.
If this lure is fished well it can be the best steelhead lure on both the great lakes steelhead rivers and on the west coast steelhead rivers.
The key to fishing this lure well is to let the current do most of the work for you and to get the spinner down to within 2 or 3 feet of the steelhead. There is one other thing that I do to entice more strikes.
How To Use A Spinner For Steelhead?
In order to use a spinner well and get the best results, I cast the spinner across the river, and on a slightly down river angle and then retrieve it at less than half the speed that I think I should.
Basically, it’s a super slow retrieve that almost feels way too slow, but it works. At the beginning of the retrieve, I will give the spinner a fast but short pull to ensure the blades start spinning, and then I slowly work the spinner in.
Even though it’s a super slow retrieve the current will spin those blades for you and will swing it across and in front of the fish at a slow and enticing speed.
Both aggressive and less aggressive fish may strike out at a slow-moving spinner whereas a fast spinner may only get the most aggressive fish to feed, and that may mean less fish for you at the end of the day.
The exception to this is that if you feel like the fish are very aggressive and will hit the faster retrieve, it may be better to use a faster retrieve because you can make more casts, cover more water, and therefore you should catch more fish.
Keep in mind that a retrieve on a downriver angle that is reeled in too fast will stay high in the water and might be way over their heads, and a retrieve that is too slow will hit too much bottom.
If a faster retrieve is what you want to do keep the tip of the rod below the water and it will help keep your spinner deeper and also use a spinner that gets down deeper, see my favorites below.
For a normal to slow retrieve, I recommend that my clients set the drag perfectly and keep the rod two feet off the water for a better hook set and to keep the lure down deep. Point the rod tip straight at the spinner but don’t pull it, let the current swing it across the pool for you. If you start hitting the bottom, maintain the same speed but lift the rod tip higher to try to keep the lure 2 to 3 feet off the bottom. You may need to keep going higher and higher to prevent hooking too much bottom.
GUIDE TIP: One thing I do sometimes to entice more strikes is to rip or jerk the spinners every 6 to 10 feet. I will often make the first retrieve a straight in retrieve and then run the exact same path a second time with a more erratic and jerking and ripping type retrieve to see if that will trigger a strike. Some days they will really react to this jerking type retrieve.
The biggest mistake I see anglers do is to not cover the water very well. They aimlessly cast all over the place when they should be fan casting and covering the water systematically and covering every foot of the spot they are fishing.
The difference between an angler covering the entire spot systematically compared to an angler casting aimlessly is sometimes 10 to 1.
The other mistake I see all the time is when anglers cast up the river and then reel downriver. When you do this in faster water it often means you have to reel extra fast just to get those blades spinning and just to keep the lure off the bottom.
That extra fast lure coming straight at the fish means that it might be too fast and the fish will miss it or not hit it at all. Casting up the river is not a good angle.
What Size Spinners Are Best For Steelhead?
The best sized spinner for steelhead are sizes 3 and 4 spinners for most river conditions and will start with a size 3 first and then work up to a size 4 or even size 5 to see what the steelhead wants. If the hot size 3 or 4 right off the bat I will just leave it on and fish it hard.
Under dirtier water conditions I will often go to the bigger spinner first, which could be up to a size 5, and under low and clear water conditions I will sometimes start with a size 2 spinner and work up to a size 3 or 4.
What Is The Best Spinner Colors For Steelhead
The best color for steelhead spinners color on clear or slightly greenish-colored water is a silver blade spinner that has a silver body or colored body. See picture.
If the steelhead doesn’t eat the silver color I will start to rotate through colors trying to find out which color they want.
After the silver color, I will try a gold blade spinner next, and if that doesn’t seem to work I will go to chartreuse, pink, black and orange blades to try to determine what it is that they want.
If the water is dirty I will go straight to chartreuse or a black spinner in a size 5.
In dirty water and I prefer spinners that make a lot of noise like the Blue Fox Vibrax Spinner because even if they can’t see the spinner in the dirty water they may be able to home in on it by the vibration.
For nighttime lure fishing, I also prefer very loud spinners and my best color is usually black. The black silhouette seems to stand out and is easy for them to find.
Single Hook Or Treble Hook Spinners For Steelhead
I tend to use a single hook on my spinners most of the time for a few good reasons.
First, I like to get my spinner down to the fish and I find that the single hook doesn’t hook up on the bottom as much as a treble hook does and therefore I don’t lose as many lures.
A large single hook seems to hook as many fish as a treble hook due to the larger gape, but the single hook doesn’t do as much damage to a fish that you plan on releasing. Treble hooks can also be a nightmare when they get tangled in the net but the single hooks are not so bad because the hook is usually in the fishes’ mouth.
Prevent Line Twist With Spinners
Adding a quality size 3 or 4 snap swivel like the ones from Owner Brand or a size 6 VMC Snap Swivels may prevent unwanted line twist that is common with spinner fishing and the swivels make it easier for you to change colors and sizes.
The Best Spinners For Steelhead – My Favorite
The best spinner for steelhead is the Blue Fox Classic Vibrax Spinner or the Super Vibrax Spinner.
I have been a big fan of Vibrax spinners for many species including steelhead, salmon, trout, bass, pike, and even musky and it’s all because of the amount of vibration that these sinners produce below the water.
I’ve seen fish move over a long way to hit a Vibrax spinner and I truly believe that a Vibrax spinner makes so much noise that some fish will feel the vibrations long before they even see the lure.
When night fishing the Vibrax lure even vibrates so much that I can feel when the lure is close to the tip of my rod tip before it hits my rod tip.
I also like that Vibrax spinners come in a fast deep water model and a normal or slower water model and that they have a tone of great colors to choose from.
This is the spinner I use the most and under most river conditions. It can be retrieved fast or slow and shallow or semi-deep. I also use the tailed version which is the Super Vibrax Spinner. The tail provides more movement and is a bigger profile.
Deep and Fast
The Blue Fox Vibrax Bullet Spinner is one of the best spinners that I use for deep and faster water. The thinner blade helps it get deeper than other spinners. It also moves faster with less drag and is great for searching and covering more water.
Also, check prices and colors at Amazon.
Blue Fox Vibrax Minnow Spin lure looks like a minnow bait but with the added flash of the spinner. This can be effective and it offers the steelhead a larger profile which can also be a good thing. I have done the best with the rainbow, brown, and silver colors.
The KwikFish Is One Of The Best Steelhead Lures
The Kwikfish lure has been one of my most productive and best lures for steelhead in all kinds of water conditions and is still my favorites steelhead lure in cold water.
The Kwikfish lure has been around for a long time and is still one of the best lures for steelhead for great lakes and west coast steelhead.
Another one of the best lures for steelhead that is almost exactly the same as the Kwikfish is a lure called the Flatfish. It has the same basic shape, size, and action, and some anglers may have used or will prefer this one over the Kwikfish.
You may also find some different colors to try in the Flatfish but both lures are great.
How To Fish A Kwikfish For Steelhead
What makes this lure so good is the action it has and the ability to move it slowly through the water. This lure has a crazy back and forth wide wobble that drives fish crazy. Both aggressive and neutral fish will smash this lure when it’s wobbling in their face.
I fish this lure similar to the way I fish spinners with an across and slightly downriver angle and with a super slow retrieve as it swings across the pool. Working the lure deep and moving it 3 feet down each time I cast will cover the water well.
If I hit bottom I simply lift my tip up a couple feet to keep it just over their heads. If I hit bottom again I lift the rod tip even higher.
Be careful not to reel this lure too fast as it tends to run sideways and will come up to the surface if you do. Keep it low and keep it slow!
If one color doesn’t work, start rotating through colors until you find a color that works for you.
The Best Kwikfish Colors For Steelhead?
This lure comes in a bunch of great colors and color combinations, and I have a few favorites that work really well for me.
For low and clear water conditions I will use more natural colors like the Rainbow Trout, or the MJ-Black-Holo Glitter pattern which is my best color even in bigger water. Silvers and golds can sometimes be good in lower clear water too since these colors can resemble bait fish or small trout and salmon. Just make sure you use the right sizes.
For dirty water, I like to go with chartreuse, and silver, or a combination of silver and bright fluorescent colors. I also really like the Luhr Jensen Kwikfish K Series with the Rattle in dirty water because I believe the fish will pick up on the sound before they see the lure and this will get you more bites. You can get this model at Bass Pro Shops – HERE
For most normal medium to large size rivers with clear to greenish water, I do really well with the colors MJ-Black-Holo Glitter, Slammer, Silver Pink Mamba, and Black Chrome Red Streak but there are a lot of other colors that work.
I tend to rotate through all my colors and sizes until I find out what they want.
Just like with all lures, the key to success is to cover the spot well with each color. To do this effectively it’s not uncommon for me to work 1 color like silver through the entire spot, moving down 2 to 3 feet with each cast and work all the way to the bottom of the pool and then move back up to the top of the pool and do it again with an opposite or contrasting color.
This means if I started with a shiny color like silver, my second color I might go straight to a black or very dark color and if that doesn’t work maybe then switch to something very bright and weird like chartreuse or orange.
The Best Kwikfish Sizes For Steelhead?
For smaller rivers, I will stick with the 2 3/4 inch Kwikfish which is usually big enough for small and larger steelhead.
In the medium to larger-sized rivers or when the water is really clear I will still catch a lot of fish on the 2 3/4 size and that is the size that I will often start with, in fact, it’s usually my go-to size most of the time but there are times when a larger size is better.
There are times when the steelhead will be more aggressive and attack a larger sized lure, or there are times when I need to get a bit deeper so I will start to increase the size to 3 3/8, and even up to 4 1/4 inches. These bigger sizes are also better in dirtier water.
I make sure I always have an assortment of colors in the 2 3/4 and 3 3/8 sizes.
There are a couple of different models of the Kwikfish and I like the Kwikfish X-Treme the most. I have checked Amazon and Bass Pro Shops and the best prices and best assortment of colors and sizes that I have found for this lure and many lures on this page are at FishUSA.com. But shop around in case you can find a better price or get free shipping somewhere else.
Spoons Are One Of The Best Lures For Steelhead
I had the opportunity to fish with a client that wanted to fish steelhead with spoons and I think I learned more than he did that day. I put him in the rights spots and he went to work catching steelhead after steelhead using his technique which was different from what I normally do.
I realized then that if you fish spoons properly, spoons can be deadly on steelhead and that spoons are one of the best lures for steelhead in rivers.
Making sure you have the right sizes, the right weights, and the right colors will make a big difference too.
How Do You Fish Spoons For Steelhead?
Just like the Spinners and the Kwikfish, slow and low is how you want to fish a spoon in moving water.
The way I fish steelhead spoons now is to cast it across and slightly upriver and then let the spoon drift freely for about 5 to 10 feet to get it down. The slower and shallower the water the less I let it sink. Heavier spoons also sink faster than light spoons so you will need to adjust accordingly. Once the spoon is just a little bit downriver from me I will lower my rod tip and start a super slow retrieve.
You should feel the spoon wobbling as you retrieve it and if you hit bottom just lift your rod tip up a little to keep it from hitting bottom again and to keep the spoon 1 to 3 feet off the bottom.
Move down and repeat those steps. If a steelhead hits the spoon it will be hard and fast so you won’t have problems detecting a strike.
If the water is shallower I will cast my spoons across and down the river and start my retrieve much sooner so it won’t sink so deep. I will also use a lighter spoon in shallower slower water and a heavier spoon in deeper faster water.
When using spoons like the Krocodile spoon below I will sometimes jig or jump the spoon across the bottom. This involves letting it sink longer and then retrieving very slow and once I hit bottom I will lift the tip of my rod a few feet and slowly reel until it hits the bottom again and then I lift the tip of the rod and repeat. This has been an amazing tactic for me for lots of fish.
Best Spoon Color For Steelhead
The best color spoons for steelhead fishing in rivers are usually silver and silver with a color combination. Fishing with silver is often the most effective color in most river conditions because the silver flash and wobble of a spoon can resemble the baitfish that the steelhead sees out in the lake or ocean.
I also use combinations of silver with green and blue. In dirty water, I will use bright colors like chartreuse and hot orange or pink. Every river is different so don’t be afraid to try out golds and reds as well.
Some spoons even come in a glow in the dark finish and they can be really good for day and night fishing.
Best Spoon Size For Steelhead
I prefer spoons in the 2 inch to 3-inch size for most river sizes and flows. For bigger rivers like the Niagara where the are lots of baitfish for the steelhead to feed I may go up to 4 or 5 inches.
Some spoons are also very heavy so if the river you fish or the area you want to fish is smaller, shallower, and slower you may want to consider a spoon that is still in that 2 to 3-inch length but isn’t so heavy. The 1/4 oz Krocodile spoon is 2 1/8 inches and is a good choice for this type of water.
Most of the spoons I use for medium to larger rivers are in the 1/2 oz. to 3/4 oz.
Spoons that are too heavy will end up snagging on the bottom too much and I find lighter spoons wobble better in the current.
Guide Tip – Replace the hooks with a large single wide gap hook so you don’t snag up and lose as many spoons to the bottom.
The Best Steelhead Spoons
A heavy spoon that is good for faster and deeper water. I prefer the 2/5 oz and the 3/4 oz.
It’s also one of the best spoons for steelhead when casting into the lake from the shoreline or the pier.
My Best Colors:
- Green Anchovy
- Blue Anchovy
- Green Splatter
- Blue Digger
- Hammered Nickle
- Hammered Nickle Green
- Hammered Nickle Blue
The Krocodile Spoon is one of the best spoons for steelhead because it flutters well both on the lift and on the drop. I have used this spoon for steelhead mostly with the sizes 1/2 oz. and the 3/4oz,
My Best Colors
- Chrome-Silver Prism Lite
- Rainbow Trout
- Hammered Chrome Neon Blue
- Green Prism Lite
- Chrome Green Mackerel
Eppinger Original Dardevle
A good spoon for all river conditions. I use the 2.5 oz / 2 1/4 inch size.
This is also a good steelhead spoon when casting from the pier or shoreline of the lake.
My Best Colors
- Scale Chartreuse/Black Stripe
- Hammered Nickel-Green
- Hammered Nickel-Blue
- Shad (Alewife)
Also, check prices and colors at FishUSA
Hardbaits For More Steelhead – The Steelheaders Secret Weapon
I started fishing for steelhead with crankbaits over 35 years ago. As a teenage kid, I liked watching as the steelhead would shoot across the pool and smash the lure.
Today, I still think that the crankbait is one of the best lures for steelhead that you can use and is a must-have in any anglers tackle box.
I use crankbaits in a few different styles for different conditions. I use the fat style baits with a deep diving lip in medium to deep water with slow to medium speeds.
I like long profile crank baits with a shallower diving lip for faster shallower water.
I tend to use a medium to deep diving crankbait most often because I can control my depth by lifting or lowering my rod tip.
Fishing Crankbaits For Steelhead.
Since crankbaits don’t require time to sink I simply cast them straight across the river or slightly down the river and then slowly retrieve them and let them swing across the river. I prefer a slow steady retrieve that allows the crankbait to wobble a lot.
A little trick I learned a long time ago was to twitch or rip the crankbait about every 10 feet to trigger a strike.
If you start bumping the bottom, just lift your rod up higher to try to keep the crankbait 1 to 3 feet off the bottom. If you hit bottom too much you should switch your crankbait to a shallower diving bait.
Guide Tip – The biggest mistake most anglers make is not getting the crankbait down far enough on rivers where you can’t see the bottom. This is why I like deep diving crankbaits, I reel them in with a low rod tip until I hit bottom and then I lift the rod tip 2 to 6 feet which should bring the crankbait up and off the bottom.
Just like the other lures that I mentioned above, it’s important to cover the water well and not miss an inch. I tend to cast, retrieve, and then step down 2 to 3 feet and cast again in the same direction and then repeat.
Each time I step down another 2 to 3 feet my lure should also move downriver 2 to 3 feet which allows me to cover the water 2 to 3 feet at a time which gets my lure in front of all the steelhead. I think under most river conditions a steelhead will move 3 to 5 feet to hit a well-presented lure.
I almost always tie my line directly to my crank baits with no snap swivels but you can use a snap swivel.
Best Crankbait Size For Steelhead
The best size crankbait for steelhead is between 2.5 inches and 4 inches with most of my crankbaits being around 3.5 inches. Crankbaits in the 3.5-inch size is what I would consider a perfect bite-size for most average-sized steelhead and in most rivers between 20 and 100 feet.
The Best CrankBait Colors For Steelhead
Crankbaits are used for many species and that means there are tons of great colors to choose from.
Like many of my lures, I like my crankbaits in colors that match the natural forage, like minnows, small trout, and steelhead, chub, or suckers.
Silver and black, silver and blue, silver and green are always good choices but I have had great success with crankbaits in bright colors like orange and chartreuse too.
Eppinger Original Dardevle
A short fat model that runs 4 to 8 feet.
My Best Colors
- Gizzard Shad
- Green Shad
- Prism Chartreuse Perch
- Prism Shad
- Blue Back Chartreuse
Jigs For Steelhead Fishing
Jigs are a type of lure and they are my bonus lure for steelhead. Jigs are not used often by many anglers but jigs have caught me thousands of steelhead and they can work when other lures don’t.
During times when steelhead or not very active due to cold water temperatures or other reasons, jigs get down and close to steelhead and can be used slowly and in an enticing manner which can trigger bites from steelhead that are not in the mood to chase faster moving lures.
I use jigs two ways. I drift some jigs under a float and I cast and jig them across the bottom. Both can work anytime but you need to know how to use them, and which ones work for float fishing, and which ones work for casting and jigging. I discuss these along with my favorite jigs and how I use them on my page Steelhead Jigs: The 11 Best Steelhead Jigs And How To Fish Them.
The Right Gear For Using Lures For Steelhead
It’s as important to use the right rods, reels, and lines for steelhead as it is to use the best lures for steelhead.
You want a reel that has a nice smooth drag, holds plenty of line for those long runs and casts well, and can also be used for float fishing.
For the best reels that I have used and that I recommend to my clients, I have a dedicated page on the best spinning reels for steelhead that is worth checking out.
The steelhead rod you should be using should have enough length to manage and play a big steelhead and also enable you to lift the tip of the rod high enough to keep your lures off the bottom. I like rods around 9 feet for lure fishing for steelhead.
A 9-foot rod is also good for float fishing or bottom bouncing in case the steelhead are not in the mood to chase steelhead. Check out the page on the Best Steelhead Spinning rods that I use and recommend.
The right line can make all the difference so make sure you have a line on that is strong enough to handle big steelhead, durable enough to take a beating on the rocks, and invisible enough to not spook the fish. I have a couple of favorites like the Sufix Elite From Bass Pro Shops. The Sufix Elite line is well used and well-liked by river anglers. I use 8-pound test for most rivers that are between 20 and 80 feet and on larger rivers over 100 feet and larger steelhead like you would find on the west coast 12 to 16-pound test is best.
More About The Best Lures For Steelhead
I am always trying to learn something new and a great way to learn is from others, which is why I still fish with and train with some of the best anglers, guides, and fishing coaches in the world and it’s why I like hearing from you about what works for you on your waters.
If you have a question, or a lure that you think is one of the best lures for steelhead, or you have a great color or size that works for you in your area please share in the comments below.
Cool River Fishing Accessories
Simms Taco Bag
It’s a wet wader bag for storing your waders after a day on the water and it’s a mat to stand on to keep your feet dry when getting your waders on and off.
Duffel Bags and Stream Packs
Having a dedicated bag to pack and carry your waders, vests, boots, jackets, and more is a good idea. Waterproof and mesh bags are available.
Waterworks Release Tool
Protects your flies from damage caused by forceps, This tool gets all hooks out easily. Even deep hooks come out with this tool.
When I flip these down to tie knots a lot of guys say ” I need to get some of those”. These are great for anyone that ties knots. Make sure they are lined up properly for the best view.