11 Best Steelhead Baits: Guide Favorites

Best Steelhead Bait
This steelhead my client caught is one of many he caught on pink plastic worms, which are now one of my best steelhead baits. Over 95% of the steelhead I put in the net each year are using only four baits.

The best steelhead baits for river fishing are roe, worms, beads, and flies. These are what I use to guide with, and my clients catch 95% of their fish on them. But other baits work as well or better, depending on the conditions.

As a steelhead guide, I have tested out just about every bait known to steelhead anglers in all types of conditions and seasons. I rate 23 common baits that anglers use to catch steelhead.

Which steelhead bait to use and which one will be the best will often depend on water clarity and flow, and even the time of year, as well as the fish’s activity levels.

What Is The Best Steelhead Bait?

Unfortunately, I can’t just pick one steelhead bait and say, “This is the best steelhead bait,” because a lot of different factors determine which bait is the best bait on any given day, or under different conditions, or during different seasons.

Steelhead on the spey

There are a lot of baits that steelhead anglers use, but, in my opinion, certain baits are consistently effective, and other baits only occasionally work well.

The Six Best Steelhead Baits: Bait Types

  1. Spawn / Roe – This is the most widely used steelhead bait of all time and works in most conditions.
  2. Worms – Dew worms, garden worms, and plastic steelhead worms can work even better than roe under the right conditions. Some years, 75% of the steelhead that my clients catch are on pink or red plastic worms.
  3. Beads – A small bead that imitates a salmon or steelhead egg can sometimes be just what the steelhead wants and can be the best steelhead bait.
  4. Flies – Some artificial flies work great for steelhead, and at times, flies can be the best steelhead bait.
  5. Single Eggs – Cured Single eggs can sometimes be deadly under the right conditions, and I have seen times when this is the most effective bait for steelhead.
  6. Skein – Skein is imitature salmon eggs held together in a membrane. Skein scents very well and it can be even more effective than other egg baits.

I’ll expand on each of these below.

23 Steelhead Baits: Tested and Rated

Best Steelhead Baits: Tested and Rated
Rank Bait Rating Notes
1 Salmon Eggs/Cured Salmon/Trout Eggs 10/10 High Percentage Bait. Curing is crucial.
2 Mad River Trout Worms 10/10 High Percentage Bait – Rivers Only.
3 Beads 9/10 Effective in current sections.
4 Skien Chucks 9/10 Can be tied into sacs.
5 Garden Worm 8/10 Worms under 5 inches, like red wigglers.
6 Jared Single Salmon Eggs 8/10 For single egg use, not for tying into sacs.
7 Rubber/Plastic Single Eggs 8/10 For single egg use, not for tying into sacs.
8 Night Crawlers and Dew Worms 7/10 A commonly recommended bait.
9 Shrimp 7/10 Recommended by a user who also prefers artificial lures like rooster tails or tiny jerk baits.
10 Rubber/Plastic Egg Clusters 6/10 Should only be used in faster currents.
11 Hellgrammites 5/10 High Percentage Bait.
12 Live Insects 5/10 Includes stoneflies, Caddis, and Mayflies.
13 Powerbait Dough 5/10 Garlic scent or Corn Scent or other, mentioned by several users as equally effective as worms.
14 Wax Worms 5/10 Noted for their effectiveness by one user (High Percentage Bait).
15 Green Power Eggs 5/10 Not recommended if you want consistency.
16 Jarred Egg Sacs Packed In Oil 4/10 I do not recommend them.
17 Marshmallows and dried hard Marshmallows 3/10 Very low percentage bait.
18 Meal Worms and Grass Hoppers 3/10 Mentioned as sometimes effective but not always worth the effort to obtain (High Percentage Bait).
19 Crickets 2/10 Some angler recommend these. I don’t!
20 Powerbait Mice Tails 2/10 Some angler recommend these. I don’t!
21 Powerbait Trout Nuggets 2/10 Best for freshly stocked trout not for steelhead.
22 Corn 1/10 Should never be used as bait.
23 Bread 0/10 Anglers squish it hard, roll it into a dough ball, and put it on a hook.

Other Bait Options

  1. Alternative Baits – Alternative baits might include variations of the above or baits like live minnows, leeches, and crayfish.
  2. Jigs – Jigs can be used as a bait with any of the bait fishing methods.

How To Choose The Best Steelhead Bait

I try to determine what the steelhead are eating each and every day. I chose my baits based on 37 years of knowledge. Having the right bait on the line is very important for me as a guide to keep my clients catching more steelhead.

But, even I don’t always choose the right bait at the beginning of the day, or the steelhead just stumps me because they won’t eat my three most effective baits.

As a guide, I’m always thinking of ways to put my clients onto more fish, and changing baits frequently is sometimes the key to catching more steelhead.

Just because the steelhead were spawn-bag-crazy yesterday doesn’t mean that spawn bags will be the best bait today.

I have seen one bait go from hot in the morning to not-so-good in the afternoon. I’ve even seen chartreuse color spawn bags work fantastic in the morning, but then seen the steelhead eat nothing but pink, peach, or white spawn bags three hours later once the sun comes out.

You have to be willing to try different types of baits, colors, and sizes throughout the day if you want to be more successful. When the fish stop eating, it could simply be your bait. It could the type of bait you are using, or it could be the bait size, or the bait color.

I learned a trick that I will share with you here. This is a trick that has enabled me to catch 25% more steelhead, and it’s really easy.

Most of the time, one or two baits will work just fine. We will fish a hole, catch a few steelhead, and then move to the next spot. However, I started doing something different. After fishing a spot hard and catching a bunch of steelhead with one or two baits and then leaving to go fish another spot, I would try a “crazy bait.”

What is a crazy bait?

A crazy bait is something unusually different from what we are catching the steelhead on. If beads and spawn bags are hot before I leave the spot, I’ll run a giant Dew Worm, or a five-inch pink plastic worm, or a golf-ball-sized spawn bag in a bright color through the pool.

I often found that when I’d thought we had caught them all, one of these large crazy baits would trigger a strike response from one or two more steelhead that didn’t want what the other fish wanted.

I would make three of four drifts spreading each drift out three to four feet to cover the water quickly, and this would work for me about 25% of the time.

FYI, lures are not baits! So, if you want to read about lures, check out my page on the Best Lures For Steelhead In Rivers.

Is Roe The Best Steelhead Bait?

Roe is also known as roe bags, spawn sacks, spawn bags, spawn, or egg sacks.

Roe can be very effective. Be sure you have multiple colors and sizes and that you know when to use them. I discuss this on my page, Fishing Spawn Bags Better.

Single Eggs For Steelhead

Single salmon eggs are one of my bonus baits. I would say that 99 out of 100 guys will use spawn bags instead of single eggs, but single eggs are very effective at times and have caught me and my clients a ton of steelhead.

At times, usually in clear water, low water, or when the steelhead are being pressured with large spawn bags, the single egg will catch more fish than spawn or any other bait.

Many of the store-bought single eggs are made in a way that makes the eggs stay on the hook better, so I recommend checking them out.

Some of my favorites are Mike’s Shrimp Salmon Eggs, Mike’s King Deluxe Salmon Eggs, or Mikes Cheese Eggs, and probably my favorite is the Pautzke Balls O’ Fire Salmon Eggs.

Colors will depend on the water clarity and sometimes the fish’s mood or light penetration in the water. Brighter colors are best in dirtier water and low light, and more natural colors like natural roe orange, light pink, light yellows, and whites are best in clear water.

Spawn Sacks by Superior Outfitters

Salmon Spawn Sacks

These are Pre-tied spawn sacks using Coho eggs. These Spawn Sacks by Superior Outfitters get great reviews from users.

Check more prices at FishUSA and Bass Pro Shops

Other pre-tied spawn bags to consider are the Catchmore Spawn Sacs.

Pautzke Balls O' Fire Trout Eggs

Loose Trout Eggs

The Pautzke Balls O’ Fire Trout Eggs are some of the best loose eggs for tying your own spawn bags.

Other loose eggs to consider are:

Single Salmon Eggs

The Pautzke Balls O’ Fire Salmon Eggs are great when you need to use a single egg on a hook. I have even tied them into spawn bags.

Other single salmon eggs to consider are the Atlas Fishing Bait Big Boy Salmon Eggs

So if roe is not the best steelhead bait, then what is?

Steelhead Worms

Pink and red plastic steelhead worms are often one of my most productive baits for steelhead under many or most conditions, and in my opinion, worms might be the best steelhead bait there is.

Let’s face the facts: steelheads in rivers love to eat worms! From a young age to old age, a steelhead knows that a worm is a good meal.

I prefer plastic worms over real worms for many reasons, but real worms can also be deadly good. One of my favorites is the Mad River Steelhead Worm.

Beads Are One Of The Best Baits For Steelhead.

Stealhead Beads
Steelhead beads can be fantastic, and having the right size and color is important.

Beads started to become popular about ten years ago, but I used to use craft beads over 25 years ago.

Beads now come in plastic, glass, and soft plastic. Some anglers prefer one over the other.

For the same reason, single eggs work so well; sometimes, beads can be the best steelhead bait, and I will use them on almost every trip out.

There are a few good brands and some hot colors and sizes that I use, and I discuss this and how to rig up the beads on my Fishing With Beads: 5 Guide Tips For More Fish page. I also discuss the glass beads versus the plastic beads and why I think one is better than the other.

The plastic beads that I use the most are from a brand called TroutBeads.

The best glass trout beads on the market come from the CreekCandy Bead Company, and you can get them in many colors and sizes.

Flies Can Be The Best Bait For Steelhead

Best bait for steelhead can be flies
The best bait for steelhead can be flies such as Nymphs. Here’s a sneak peek at my fly box.

Now, I’m not talking fly fishing here. You can run a fly while float fishing, or bottom bouncing, or drift fishing, the exact same way you could with a roe bag.

Flies are my secret weapon when the rivers are crowded with roe-bag guys. Flies like a black or brown stonefly can be my best steelhead bait on days when steelhead are pressured by lots of spawn bags.

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

I will use an assortment of brown, black, tan, and green nymph patterns at any time. Small streamers like Woolly Buggers, Egg-Sucking Leech, and Zonkers can be very good.

I discuss my favorite flies, when I use them, and how I use them for best success on my Best Flies For Steelhead page.

Skein For Steelhead

Skein is the immature eggs from a salmon, steelhead, or trout. They are eggs that are still attached to the membrane.

Many anglers know that skein can be a deadly bait for steelhead. Some anglers will tie their skein into small bags, or they can be cut into small chunks and applied to the hook.

Some anglers will even scrape the eggs from the membrane and use them in spawn bags.

It’s important that you cure your skein properly or that you buy skein that is already cured.

pro-cure whole skein
Pro-cure whole skein

Salmon Roe

Some of the best Salmon skeins you can buy are the Pro-Cure Vacuum Packed Salmon Skeins eggs.

The skein is cured in Pro-Cure’s proprietary blend and can be hard to find.

Check These Stores

Check Store

King Roe

Coho Roe

Skein chunks
Pro-Cure Salmon Roe

Pro-Cure Salmon Roe Clusters

These premium natural egg skeins are individually cut into soft durable clusters and packed on a tray.

They are made and processed to stay on the hook better.

Pro-Cure Wizard Egg Cure
Pro-Cure Wizard Egg Cure

Skein Cure

If you can harvest your own skein, be sure to cure it properly.

Many anglers use Pro-Cure Liquid Bait Cure or Pautzke Balls O’ Fire Cure Fish Egg Cure.

Other Baits That Work For Steelhead

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

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, especially on those days when your favorite baits just aren’t working so well.

I have done well on soft plastic leaches, plastic grubs, and plastic minnows.

Berkley Gulp Leeches are a good trout bait
Imitation leeches like these Berkley Gulp leeches can be a great trout bait.
  1. I have also done well on soft plastics, like plastic single eggs, plastic egg clusters, or plastic roe bag imitations.
  2. Live leeches can be an excellent alternative to some of the more popular baits, but they are difficult to carry with you on the river. Instead of live leeches, I have done well with the Berkley Gulp! 3-inch Leech Soft Bait.
  3. Soft plastic maggots, marshmallows, and even candy.
  4. Dead minnows can also be good.
Berkley Gulp Minnows can be an excellent steelhead bait
Berkley Gulp Minnows can be an excellent steelhead bait at times especially in rivers with lots of bait fish or when steelhead have just entered the river.

I used to even do very well with salted minnows on some rivers.

The 3″ Berkley Gulp Minnow has been an excellent bait under a float or when bottom bouncing.

I’ve done well with the Black Shad color, the Smelt color, The Rainbow color, and the emerald shiner color. The Berkley Minnow is also great on rivers with lots of baitfish. You can get these Berkley Gulp Minnows at FishUSA.com or check the price at Bass Pro Shops.

You can also buy preserved or salted minnows that can also be very effective. See them at FishUSA.com.

Alternative Steelhead Baits To Consider:

Larval baits seem to be equally effective in my experiences, especially during low clear water and when the fish have been pressured with right colored egg baits.

Wax worms, mealworms, grubs, and maggots can all be good choices.

Maggots, however, stay on the hook the best and can be easy to get. A good alternative is Wax Worms, but they tend to get waterlogged and mushy and then rip off the hook too easily.

I have also had success with Gulp Waxies, Power Wigglers, or Gulp Maggots for steelhead and trout.

During the winter, small baits often work best, and grub-type baits like these can be very effective on a small hook.

  • Berkley Gulp! Maggots – These have worked well in really clear water when the steelhead are nervous. – You can check these out at FishUSA here
  • Berkley Gulp! Alive! Worm and Nightcrawler – You can check these out at FishUSA- HERE
Imitation Grubs Are A Great Trout Bait

Power Wigglers

Berkley PowerBait Power Wigglers are a great grub/maggot imitation.

Lil Hellgrammites

Plastic Nymphs like this 2″ Lil Hellgrammites can be good in rivers.

This Plastic Mayfly Nymph is a good trout bait

Savage Nymph

This 2-inch Savage Gear plastic nymph is good in rivers.

Other potential bait articles with more information Include:

If you have a question, an idea, or a tip regarding the best steelhead bait, just let me and the other readers know.

Tight Lines,


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  1. Hi Graham,
    Let’s pretend I’m fishing roe, then I want to change a bite, say bead.
    How I would do it if I have just one rod ? Do I have to cut a lider, or I can use swivel clip ? I just want to make sure I’m doing right way.
    Thank you

  2. Hey Graham – thanks for taking the time to post all the helpful for Steelhead fishing up on your website. I’ve definitely benefitted from reading your articles and it’s helped me ensure that I’m purchasing the correct baits and rigs.

    When I go for Steelhead on local WNY Lake Erie or Ontario tribs, I generally rig up a a couple of 9 foot rods for float fishing with shot lines and leaders set up according to your recommendations. Lately I’ve been wanting to give spoons, spinners, and other lures/baits a try. Generally I like to fish lures with my shorter 7′ medium/fast action rod (which I use for primarily bass and walleye fishing), and I was wondering if that rod would be appropriate for lure/spoon/spinner fishing Steelhead.

    Thanks again for all the info you provide! Hopefully the border opens up soon!

    1. Hey Chris,

      Yes, your 7-foot rod would work fine for throwing lures on those rivers. I prefer slightly longer rods in the 8 to 9 foot range for more distance and for better leader protection and to keep the rod tip higher when fighting fish around the rocks, but a 7-foot rod will also work. Good luck buddy.

  3. Thanks for all the useful information. Just starting my float fishing adventure. Been a chuck and duck guy for years. I have a St Croix 10-6ft noodle rod, would that work? Thanks again. I live in the heart of Steelhead and Salmon fishing here in NW Michigan.

    1. Hi Dominic,

      I’ve always been a fan of the St Croix rods< they make great rods, they have a great warranty and service, and most or all of their higher-end rods I think are still made in the USA. You should be happy with that rod. Good luck. Graham

  4. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say… you’ll never catch a fish with that setup. And I went on to catch fish after fish while they caught very little to no fish. Luck and location play a big part when it comes to catching fish.

  5. is there any great spot like creek or river to catch steelhead around barrie I don’t have a boat so I wish I could find some spot

  6. Hey Graham,

    It’s been awhile since we connected.

    Question for you, could you run tungsten egg flies as a centerpin bait, and avoid using split shot on your leader? I have had good success with this approach fly fishing but wasn’t sure if this would work on centerpin.


    1. Hey Tim,

      It’s great to hear from you, I hope all is well with you and your family.

      To answer your question, yes you could try that, and it should work, especially in slower water or shallow water. However, I would still use splits and combine the weighted fly and the split shots. I’ve used weighted flies often when Centerpin fishing with a shot-line, especially when fishing deeper and faster water and its very effective.

      Good luck