Get Your Advice From An Expert River Guide
There are 4 steelhead baits that I consider to be the 4 best steelhead baits that an angler should use when steelhead fishing.
The best steelhead baits for river fishing are roe, worms, beads, and flies. Using the best steelhead bait will greatly increase the amount of fish you will catch. Which steelhead bait to use will depend on water clarity and flow and even the time of year as well as the fish’s activity levels.
As a top river guide, I teach anglers what these 4 best steelhead baits are, which ones to use in different rivers and under different river conditions, and how to fish them to catch more steelhead.
I will also tell you how I determine which one of these 4 baits is the best steelhead bait on any given day and which ones to use when the steelhead are pressured or not very active.
What Is The Best Steelhead Bait?
If you know when and how to use each of these steelhead baits and what the best colors and sizes are you will catch more steelhead which is what I discuss below along with some tips to improve the effectiveness of the bait.
- Spawn / Roe – This is the most widely used steelhead bait of all time but is not always the best bait.
- Worms – Plastic and real worms can work even better than roe under the right conditions.
- 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.
- Flies – Some flies work great for steelhead and at times can be the best steelhead bait.
In this article, I am talking about the best steelhead baits for float fishing or for bottom bouncing for steelhead in rivers around the great lakes region, but these same baits can be great baits for west coast steelhead too.
Lures can be good too so check out my page on the Best Lures For Steelhead In Rivers.
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.
I think a lot of anglers are very one-sided and don’t think outside the box when it comes to fishing and that includes steelhead baits. Many anglers will use the same bait all day and sometimes every day and that is a big mistake.
As a guide, I’m always thinking of ways to put my clients onto more fish, and trying to determine what the steelhead are eating each and every day is very important.
Is Roe The Best Steelhead Bait?
When guys ask me if roe the best bait my honest answer is NO. Roe is the most popular steelhead bait and it can be the best bait on some days but there are other baits that can be better.
Roe is also known as roe bags, spawn sacks, spawn bags, spawn, egg sacks. Whatever you call it, roe can be defined as fish eggs tied in a specialized mesh.
Up until about 12 years ago I was like many steelhead anglers and I was roe crazy and I thought that roe was the best bait, but now roe is one of my least favorite baits and I will tell you why.
As a guide I would sometimes guide 40 or 50 days straight and on many of these days I would have 2 anglers on the drift boat or on the bank with me so I started to spend most days experimenting by having one angler use my favorite bait which at the time was roe, and the other angler I would give them another bait.
My goal was to see if I could find a better bait for steelhead or just a better bait on that day. On 75% of my guide days, I would either catch 50% of the fish on roe and then another 50% on another bait, or I would catch more steelhead on something other than roe.
This showed me that roe was not the best bait and that other baits could be equally as good or even better on many days.
I also found that 90% of anglers on the river are using roe even if they weren’t catching fish, so it made no sense to me to walk into a spot where 2 or 3 other anglers were already using roe with limited success and start using roe myself. It’s just dumb!
I’m not saying don’t use roe at all because some days roe is going to be the best bait, I’m just saying don’t be one-sided and have a few other options just in case they don’t want roe that day.
There are reasons why many anglers believe roe is the best including that it is natural and it has scent and flavor, but if that is true why do myself, my clients and my friends often catch more steelhead on other baits some days.
In my honest opinion, I think the only reason roe works better for most anglers is simply that the steelhead will hold onto it longer or because it gets stuck in the steelhead’s teeth which gives the average angler more of a chance for a hookup.
Roe is also a big profile bait so it stands out, and it sinks which means it gets into the strike zone better and faster.
This all means that roe is likely the best bait for inexperienced anglers that don’t present their baits very well, but I prefer to improve my presentation skills instead of relying on hoping that my bait will get stuck in the steelhead’s mouth so I can catch a steelhead or two.
Because I always present my baits and I teach my clients how to present every bait very well, other baits can work equally well or even better than the roe. Presenting your bait well is the key and it will also improve the effectiveness of roe. Whether you spin fish or Centerpin fish it’s still float fishing and I offer float fishing tips on how to improve your presentation so you can catch more steelhead on my Centerpin Fishing For Beginners page.
On my page Roe For Steelhead – Tips and Tricks I will discuss over 22 important tips and provide advice that will help you catch more fish on roe.
So if roe is not the best steelhead bait, then what is?
Steelhead Worms Are One Of The 4 Best Steelhead Baits
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, fish in rivers love to eat worms! From a young age to old age a steelhead or trout knows a worm is a good meal.
I prefer plastic worms over real worms for many reasons.
Even if the steelhead are more interested in roe or another bait, I always run a worm through the spot before moving on to try another spot, and it often works.
My best color for the worm pattern is the pink that you see in the picture but I learned many years ago that there are other great colors that can work even better under different river conditions.
I reveal my best and most productive colors on my page Fishing With Worms – 10 Guide Tips For More Trout And Steelhead. On this page, I also show you how I rig up my worms and I provide some tips that have caught me and my clients more steelhead on many occasions.
I also tell you which brands are my favorites, what sizes are the best, and even some surprising tactics that have caught me fish when they won’t eat roe or regular worms.
Beads Are One Of The Best Baits For Steelhead.
Beads started to become popular about 10 years ago but I used to use craft beads over 25 years ago.
Back then we would glue or melt a hard plastic bead directly to the hook. Today there are better methods.
Beads now come in plastic and glass and at times one can be more effective than the other.
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.
Flies Can Be The Best Bait For Steelhead
Now I’m not talking fly fishing here. You can run a fly while float fishing or bottom bouncing the exact same way you could with a roe bag.
Flies are my secret weapon when the rivers are crowded with roe bag guys and flies like a black or brown stonefly will be my best steelhead bait on these days.
Remember that baby steelhead eat flies daily to get big and adult steelhead still sees those same flies as a valuable food source when they are in the rivers, especially long after the salmon have spawned and there are not many eggs around for them to eat.
Because of this, I will use an assortment of brown, black, tan, and green nymph patterns at any time, but I find nymphs are the best steelhead bait and excel when the steelhead are being hammered by hundreds of roe bags all day.
Think about it, guys will run roe bag after roe bag through the pools for hours, and sometimes those steelhead just get wise and won’t eat roe, especially after a few of those guys poorly present their roe bags by dragging or bouncing it through the pool.
I don’t know how many times I’ve walked into a spot where a bunch of roe bag guys are fishing and I immediately catch 5 steelhead to their 1 on my flies. It makes me laugh when I start seeing them all start putting on nymphs too.
I discuss my favorite flies, when I use them, and how I use them for best success on my Best Flies For Steelhead page.
Other Baits That Work For Steelhead
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, especially on those days when your favorites baits just aren’t working so well.
I have done well on small Steelhead jigs under a float or when bottom bouncing. I like the marabou jigs the best.
I have also done well on soft plastics, like plastic single eggs, plastic eggs clusters, or plastic roe bag imitations.
I have done well on soft plastic leaches, plastic grubs, and plastic minnows too.
Then there are soft plastic maggots, marshmallows, and even candy. Yes, I said candy. I used to trim gummy bears or gummy drops into round balls that looked like eggs and have done pretty well.
Dew worms, garden worms, live grubs and maggots, and live or dead minnows can also be good on some rivers under the right conditions. I used to even do very well with salted minnows on some rivers.
I will be listing all my favorites on Alternative Baits For Steelhead page (Coming Soon).
Thinking outside the box can mean more fish some days so don’t be afraid to give it a try.
How I Determine The Best Steelhead Bait
Every day is different. With different water temperatures, different water clarity, different times of the year, the steelhead may be at different stages in their runs and they can be active or none active.
Because of this, some days I will smash them on roe or worms and other days they want flies or some other bait.
So how do you know which baits are best?
For me as a guide, I have seen some baits just fish well under certain conditions so I know exactly what to use, but that comes from experience which most anglers don’t have. But, even with all that experience sometimes the steelhead will just stump me and I have to start rotating through my baits and this is exactly what you should do.
I go about finding out which bait works best on any given day through a rotation process.
In every spot, I will start with my best guess on the best steelhead bait based on the current conditions. I will run that bait systematically from one side of the spot to the other side making sure I’m staying in the strike zone and covering the entire spot, I don’t miss a foot and I fish it well.
If the bait is not working I will try the next best steelhead bait and do it again, and again, and again, with different baits until I finally find out what they want, or, if they don’t eat anything in that spot, then it’s time to move to the next pool and do it again.
This tactic of rotating baits has worked great for me but only if you fish the baits well and you know how to get the baits into the strike zone. For help on that check out my other pages on fishing tips.
There’s a saying you should know. “A bad bait fished good, is better than a good bait fished bad”. So if you are going to rotate through baits to find out what the best steelhead bait is for that day you need to fish it well, otherwise you’re just washing your baits and catching nothing.
Guide Tip – Make The Best Steelhead Bait Even Better
There is a saying “10% of anglers catch 90% of the fish”. When I first heard that I didn’t think much of it but after being on the water with about 3000 anglers I think it’s 100% true.
If you might be in the 90% right now, but I just want you to know that you don’t have to be, and this site is here to help you become the 10% catching all the fish.
First, you should know that just because you have the best bait on your hook doesn’t mean you will start catching more fish.
The truth is that if you aren’t fishing it very well, or you have the wrong hook on, or your leader line is too heavy, you will seriously limit the potential of that bait and you will continue to be in the 90% of anglers that barely catch any fish.
I don’t know how many times I’ve caught 10 fish when everyone around me is catching 1 or 2 or even catching none, and guys always seem to ask me the same question when I tell them I’ve caught 10, and that question is always, “what bait are you using?”
When I get asked that question when I’m with clients, I whisper to my clients that they just asked me the wrong question because it’s usually not the bait that’s catching all the fish, it’s how and where I use that bait that makes it so effective.
That is why I have a separate page on each bait and why I have pages on how to float fish better, and tips for fly fishing better. Even using the wrong leader can mean a no fish day when most other guys are catching some fish.
I can drift my boat past an angler, look at the float and set up he is using, and almost always know if he’s catching steelhead or not. I just trained a new guide the other day and I knew in the first cast and first drift that he’s a 10% angler and that he will out-fish 90% of other anglers.
I also highly recommend finding a mentor or the best river guide service in your area that specializes in the type of fishing that you want to do so you can learn the right way.
Got A Question About The Best Steelhead Bait
If you a question or an idea or a tip regarding the best steelhead bait just let me and the other readers know. I try to respond to all questions and may even add your question to the post which will make it that much better.
Best Of Luck Guys