There are 4 steelhead baits that I and other river guides consider to be the best steelhead bait to use when river fishing, and these are must-have baits for every steelhead angler. This article has been updated and now has 11 great baits for steelhead that I and other steelhead guides use.
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, but there are other baits that work as well or better depending on the conditions.
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.
As a steelhead guide, I teach my clients what these four best steelhead baits are as well as which ones to use in different rivers and under different river conditions, how to fish them properly, and how I rotate baits to keep catching more steelhead.
I will also tell you how I determine which baits are the best steelhead bait on any given day and which ones to use when the steelhead are pressured or not very active.
UPDATED: July 1. 2022 – added 3 great bonus baits that my guides use.
This article is part of a series on Fishing For Steelhead.
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. This which is what I discuss below along with some tips to improve the effectiveness of the bait.
The Six Best Steelhead Baits: Bait Types
- 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 flies can be the best steelhead bait.
- Alternative Baits – Alternative baits might include variations of the above or baits like minnows, leeches, grubs, and more.
- Jigs – Jigs can be used as a bait with any of the bait fishing methods.
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.
I do not consider lures a bait, however, I have read other articles about the best steelhead baits and I see them listing lures. Lures can be good for steelhead but I will leave the best lures for another article. If you want to read about lures, 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 that means they don’t think outside the box when it comes to river fishing and that includes steelhead baits. Many anglers will use the same bait all day long, and sometimes they use it every time they go fishing without switching or trying something new, and that is a big mistake.
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.
Trying to determine what the steelhead are eating each and every day, under different river conditions is very important for me and should be for you.
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, or peach, or white spawn bags 3 hours later.
You have to be willing to try different things throughout the day if you want to be more successful. When the fish stop eating, it could simply be your bait. It could be your boat choice, or it could be the bait size or color.
Is Roe The Best Steelhead Bait?
When guys ask me if roe is the best bait my honest answer is usually NO. I’m sure there will be a lot of guys that will disagree with me and that’s ok.
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, or egg sacks.
Whatever you call it, roe can be defined as fish eggs tied in a specialized mesh.
Up until about 14 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.
Back when I started fishing for steelhead, which was about 36 years ago, everyone was using roe. I’d walk past 100 anglers and they were all using roe. So like most new anglers we see that and we assume that’s what you use to catch steelhead, and then we use that and we become part of the cycle. Until someone teaches you an alternative way we just keep using what we know.
As a guide, I would sometimes guide for 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 just to see if the steelhead wanted something else instead.
My goal was always 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, which showed me that other baits worked. But on 25 percent of the days, I would catch more steelhead on something other than the roe. Rarely would roe catch the most steelhead.
I also found that 90% of anglers on the river are still using roe even if they weren’t catching fish. They would not change that bait because they are so brainwashed into thinking that roe is all you need. They were more convinced that if the fish would not eat their spawn bags that the steelhead just wasn’t there or that they just weren’t feeding at the time.
Those days when the single-minded anglers stop catching fish and are when I would sometimes catch 20 steelhead on another bait. When everyone else around me was catching 1 to 3 steelhead and I’m catching ten times that many, I know I have found the right bait to use.
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 then start fishing roe myself, that’s just dumb!
GUIDE TIP: One of my guide tips for my clients is to watch what other anglers are using and if they are having good success then use that too, but if they aren’t having good success don’t use what they are using and start rotating through your baits until you find something the fish might want.
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 I, my clients, and my friends often catch more steelhead on other baits like plastic worms, beads, and flies some days. There’s no scent and they aren’t natural so why do they work equally well?
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 the mesh gets stuck in the steelhead’s teeth which gives the average angler more of a chance for a hookup.
Spawn bags are also a big profile bait so it stands out. Spawn bags also sink better ad faster which means it gets into the strike zone better and it stays there.
This all means that roe is likely the best bait for inexperienced anglers that don’t present their baits very well. I prefer to improve my presentation skills instead of relying on hoping that my bait will get stuck in the steelhead’s mouth long enough so that I can catch a steelhead or two.
Because I always present my baits well and I teach my clients how to present every bait well, other baits can work even better than the roe.
Presenting your bait well is the key and it will also improve the effectiveness of roe too.
Single Eggs For Steelhead
Single salmon eggs are one of my bonus baits. I would say that 99 out 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 the single egg will catch more fish than spawn or any other bait. I like single eggs in slower low clear water but I find single eggs to be great in all types of water.
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.
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 Spawn Bags – Guide Secrets For More Fish I will discuss over 10 important tips and tricks and 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 is more interested in roe or another bait, I always run a worm through the spot before moving on to try another spot. Doing this has helped me catch a lot more steelhead. Sometimes I will run a spawn bag through the pool 50 times and not get a bite, then I run a worm through and hit a fish on the first drift or two.
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 my clients and me 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 ten years ago, but I used to use craft beads over 25 years ago.
Back then, I would glue or melt a hard plastic bead directly to the hook. Today there are better methods and there are plenty of good beads designed for fishing steelhead.
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.
The best plastic beads and the ones I use the most are from a brand called TroutBeads which you can see or purchase individually and in many different colors and sizes at FishUSA or in a variety pack at FishUSA – HERE
The best glass trout beads on the market come from the CreekCandy Bead Company, and you can get them at FishUSA.com in many colors and sizes. These are great beads for getting down fast and are great for finding the bottom which I discuss as one of the 4 key fundamentals of good float fishing on my page Centerpin Fishing: An Expert Centerpin Guide Explains It
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 can 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 steelheads just get wise and won’t eat roe anymore, 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.
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 and it is worth trying. 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 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.
Other Baits That Work For 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 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.
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. You can also see this leech and get it at Bass Pro Shops Here.
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, as well as 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.
The 3″ Berkley Gulp Minnow has been an excellent bait under a float or when bottom bouncing. I find that it can be the best bait when the steelhead has just entered the river after spending all summer out in the lake or ocean eating baitfish.
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 Bass Pro Shops.
You can also buy preserved or salted minnows that can also be very effective.
Thinking outside the box can mean more fish some days so don’t be afraid to give it a try.
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 are Waxworms, but they tend to get waterlogged and mushy, and then rip off the hook too easily.
I have also had success with Gulp Waxies or 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! Nightcrawler – You can check these out at FishUSA- HERE
How I Determine The Best Steelhead Bait
Every day is different. With different water temperatures, different water clarity, and different times of the year, the steelhead can 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 spawn bags or worms, and other days they want flies or some other bait.
So how do you know which baits are best?
As a guide, I have seen some baits just fish well under certain conditions so based on my experience I often know exactly what to use based on what I have observed, but that comes from experience that 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 For Steelhead.
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.
Using the right reels, and the right rods with the right lines can also make a huge difference in catching more fish. You have to do it right and you have to have the suitable gear to get the job done.
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 have 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.
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.