Best Way To Catch Steelhead In Rivers

The best way to catch steelhead , methods and tecniques

River guides like me, who fish and guide the rivers around the great lake’s region, use certain methods and do certain things that ensure that our clients catch more fish. Anglers that use these methods effectively will be more successful. This article will discuss the best way to catch steelhead in rivers around the great lakes.

What Is The Best Way To Catch Steelhead In Rivers?

The best way to catch steelhead in rivers is float fishing with a Centerpin reel because it allows you to get longer controlled drifts while keeping your bait in the strike zone for longer. However, in shallow water and pocket water, there are better methods.

The slower presentation you get when float fishing increases bites and the float improves your strike detection, but float fishing is great in deeper and slower spots.

Centerpin float fishing is not always the best method since different river conditions might require different methods and those methods can be very effective if you do them correctly.

Other Methods Might Be Even Better.

The best way to catch steelhead in some water is fly fishing
The best way to catch steelhead in some types of water is fly fishing or bottom bouncing or maybe lures.

There are 4 or 5 methods that can be effective for steelhead in rivers, but how do you know which is the best way to catch steelhead? The answer depends.

Under certain river conditions, there are other ways that will work better than float fishing and you should know what they are so that you can be flexible and catch steelhead under any conditions.

Changing from one method to another has allowed me and my clients to catch a lot more steelhead.

I will discuss some of these methods below and provide my opinion on what methods are best to try under different conditions.

Float Fishing – 3 Ways To Do It

A silver fall steelhead caught float fishing
A silver fall steelhead caught float fishing using a Centerpin rod and reel.

You don’t actually need to float fish with a Centerpin reel. You can also do float fishing with a spinning reel or with a baitcasting reel.

However, in my experience, the Centerpin reel is a much better reel to use if you want to maximize your success when float fishing and it’s the best way to catch steelhead most of the time.

Centerpin vs. Spinning Reels

Spin fishing is sometimes the best way to catch steelhead
Spin fishing can be the most preferred method for some anglers and it can be effective.

So what’s the deal with a Centerpin reel being better than a spinning reel anyways?

I have had the opportunity to fish with both, as well as guide clients with both types of reels, and then compare both methods side by side many times over.

When compared side by side, and when both anglers are equally skilled and using the same baits, the Centerpin reel is always more effective than the spinning reel.

Get the right Centerpin Reel Lines

The simple reason for that is the Centerpin’s ability to control the line coming off the reel which provides a much better and smoother presentation.

Presentation is the key to catching more steelhead.

Controlling the line coming off the reel means you get a smoother more controlled drift so your float is not jerky and bouncing. A jerky bouncing float also means a jerky bouncing bait and that’s not-so-good. In fact, it’s rare that a bouncing float catches any fish unless you are fishing with a jig.

Jigs can be great when float-fished but only if you do it correctly and only if you use the right jigs. I discuss this on my page Steelhead Jigs: The 11 Best Steelhead Jigs And How To Fish Them.

A controlled drift like what you get with the Centerpin reel also means that your float is not dragging for a bit, then floating too fast, and then dragging again, and over and over again.

Your float speed and your bait speed should always be controlled and this will greatly increase your hookups. In fact, I believe that speed control on your float and your bait can 10X times your success which is why I wrote an entire article on it Controlling Your Speed For More Fish When Float Fishing.

The line coming off the spinning reel is rarely consistent and it’s more difficult to get a perfectly smooth and controlled drift while controlling the speed of your float and your bait with a spinner reel, which often results in fewer fish.

I have yet to see a spinning angler do this as well as you can with a Centerpin reel.

With a spinning reel sometimes, you need to pull the line off by hand because it sticks, other times you need to slow the line down with your hand and there is no real easy way to do this.

Controlling your speed is what I consider to be one of four important fundamentals to effective float fishing and it can mean the difference between catching 10 steelhead a day or none.

Speed control is the number 1 thing that I recommend that every float fishing steelheader needs to learn and the Centerpin controls the speed of the line, the float, and bait much better. You can easily control the speed of everything by simply applying a little bit of pressure to the rim of the spool to slow the spool or speed it up as needed.

You can my 4 float fishing fundamentals on my page Centerpin Fishing: An Expert Centerpin Guide Explains It.

Depending on the river conditions different methods might work better than float fishing, so keep reading.

Centerpin Reel Vs. Baitcasting Reel

The thing I like about the Centerpin reel is its ability to let the line come off the reel freely as the float pulls the line and spins the spool for you.

You can actually do this on a baitcasting reel if you push the button down and free-spool the reel and then use your thumb to control the speed.

The difference is that the baitcasting reel doesn’t have the same high-end bearings that make a Centerpin reel so smooth and spin so easily. Because the baitcasting reel doesn’t have the same bearings, in slower water, the float may not pull the line off the baitcasting reel easily or at all.

On the much larger and faster rivers like the ones that you might find out west or on large rivers like the Niagara River or the St.Mary’s, the baitcasting reel will work much better since the faster current will pull the float, and the line more, and that will spin the spool of the baitcasting reel better.

This is the only time I might consider using a baitcasting reel.

In general, aside from the benefit of the baitcasting reel being able to cast further than a Centerpin reel, the Centerpin reel is often still the better option for float fishing on almost all rivers and it’s still the best way to catch steelhead.

Is Fly Fishing Is The Best Way To catch Steelhead?

In some situations I would say absolutely fly fishing is the best way to catch steelhead and I know this because I have many times caught more steelhead than the Centerpin guys.

In shallower pools, in pockets and when steelhead are holding in riffle areas around rocks, fly fishing can often be the best method. Float fishing in this type of water doesn’t work so well for various reasons.

However, with fly fishing you can easily change from using an indicator rig, to a Euro Nymphing rig, or to a streamer and these methods can be exceptionally effective.

If you are interested in fly fishing for Steelhead be sure to check out my page Fly Fishing For Steelhead: Great Lakes Style.

The Best Way To Catch Steelhead In Large Rivers

On large rivers like this one, the best way to catch steelhead is float fishing
On large rivers like this one, the best way to catch steelhead is float fishing with a Centerpin reel.

In larger rivers that have longer deeper pools, it’s often best if you can make a long drift to cover the water better. This is where a Centerpin reel and float fishing is the best way to catch steelhead in rivers.

The Centerpin reel can allow you to drift a float and a bait as far as you can see your float which could be over 200 feet.

If you know how to read the water, find the bottom so you are not fishing way over the fish’s heads, and you know how to cover the water effectively, which means controlling your speed, you have a greater chance of catching more steelhead on larger rivers.

When float fishing with a Centerpin reel, it makes all of that much easier, and that means the Centerpin reel is the best way to catch steelhead on larger rivers.

The Best Ways To Catch Fish In Medium Sized Rivers

On medium sized rivers like this one, the best way to catch steelhead is float fishing
The best way to catch steelhead on medium sized river like this one is float fishing but in faster shallower water section it’s better to change to a more productive method

As long as the spots on a medium-size river are three feet or deeper and they are longer than 6 feet, the float fishing method is still the fishing method for steelhead.

Medium-sized rivers like the one in the picture above are the ones that most great lakes anglers would be fishing.

However, some of these medium-sized rivers will also have shallower sections and will also have some pocket water and that is not good water for float fishing. This is where fly fishing, bottom bouncing, and maybe even casting lures will be the better option. If you are versatile and can switch methods easily, you could do well in both types of water.

The Best Way To Catch Steelhead In Shallow Rivers And In Pocket Water.

Shallower water steelhead fishing requires different tactics
Steelhead can hold in faster water and small pockets as they move between the bigger and deeper pools and this require a change of tactics.

As I just mentioned, shallower water and pocket water are not good for float fishing. You could probably tweak your leader set-up and shorten up your drifts in this kind of water just to make it work, but there are better methods.

Fly fishing is the best method for steelhead fishing in shallow water, but not everyone wants to fly fish. Therefore I recommend Centerpin anglers and spin fishermen try something known as Bottom Bouncing.

Bottom bouncing and fly fishing using the tight-line or Euro nymphing methods are best for catching steelhead in shallow water and in pocket water.

With these methods, there is no float limiting your depth which means you could fish for the steelhead sitting in 1 foot of water.

The problem for most anglers is that they don’t know how to fish this type of water so they just never fish it.

I have had many days both in the spring and fall when I and a buddy or one of my clients catches ten times more fish than everyone else on the river simply because we were able to change tactics and fish the shallow spots and ignore bigger pools where everyone else way fishing.

Oftentimes, 90% of the fish will come out of shallower water and in spots that are only 3 or 4 feet long and only a couple of feet wide. I call these pockets.

I tell guys that, sure, there might be 20 steelhead in the bigger pool up the river where all the other guys are fishing, but if I can pull one steelhead out of every 10 tiny spots that I fish, and I fish 100 tiny spots over a day, that’s ten steelhead that probably haven’t seen a bait.

It’s not uncommon in some rives to pick up single steelhead sitting in small pockets or depressions behind, beside, or in front of rocks. I also find steelhead in tiny, almost unnoticeable spots in the middle of faster shallow water.

I have had days where a friend and I landed 25 steelhead while every other angler is getting 0 to 3 steelhead, and the difference was that we didn’t fish any of the bigger pools where those other anglers fish.

For fishing in this type of water, it’s wise to learn how to do my advanced bottom bouncing technique, which can be done with any reel. For more information on bottom bouncing methods, check out my page Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish

Another great method for shallow pocket water, you should learn how to do my Euro Nymphing method.

The Best Way To Catch Steelhead In Small Rivers

Small river steelhead fishing requires different methods to be successful
Small river steelhead fishing requires different methods to be successful. Float fishing might not be your best method and you need to be able to adapt if you want to maximize your success.

Small river fishing for steelhead will depend on the type of water you are fishing. In small rivers that are fast and shallow, like the one in the picture, you will be better off fly fishing or using the bottom bouncing method, which is a better method for catching steelhead in this type of water.

On smaller rivers that might be slower and deeper or that have a good-sized pool around every corner, float fishing is probably going to be the best way to catch steelhead, but being able to adapt to different conditions is best.

The Best Way To Catch Steelhead In Slow Water

Fishing steelhead in slow flat water rivers
A couple of my clients fishing steelhead in a slow flat water river. They caught a lot of steelhead using float fishing methods.

One of my favorite rivers to fish is a slow river with lots of flat water and lots of spots between 4 and 10 feet deep.

Many anglers struggle to catch a lot of steelhead in this type of water because it’s so hard to read the water and figure out where to fish.

A float allows you to find deeper spots in the river where the fish will hold. I discuss finding the bottom on my page Centerpin Fishing: An Expert Centerpin Guide Explains It

Float fishing in slow flat water is the best way to catch steelhead because the bait is presented at the right speed for this type of water.

Is Lure Fishing The Best Way To Catch Steelhead

In some cases when the steelhead are all very aggressive, lure fishing can be the best way to catch steelhead when river fishing simply because you can cover the water faster.

Lure fishing can also be great on smaller rivers and in shallower water which is not good for float fishing.

However, these times when all the steelhead a very aggressive are few and far between and being able to change to something other than lures can pay off.

Most days, lure fishing only targets the most aggressive of the steelhead which might mean only one out of every ten steelhead might be willing to chase and grab a lure.

Float fishing is a slow presentation and has the advantage of catching steelhead that are both aggressive and less aggressive which often means the best way to catch steelhead will be to float fish for them.

Got A Question About The Best Way To Catch Steelhead?

I hope you liked my page and learned something about the best way to catch steelhead, but if I missed anything or you would like to ask a question just let me know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,


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  1. Hi I am new to fly fishing I never try it even once my friend he asked me to come to him go fishing we when to port hope salmon run med September we go down to the river trying to catch salmon it’s my first time to see that meny salmon that river we start 6Am to 7pm I did not catch anything my friend got one he said to me to buy fly flying outfits do I need to buy the expensive fly fishing combo price is 400 to 1000 dollars or 100 to 300 price

    1. Hi Michael,

      When it comes to salmon fishing, they are known to break rods and the cheaper rods usually break easier than the more expensive rods. However, I have had plenty of clients come out with rod and reel combos under $300 and they worked fine. Just make sure that you use the right size rod so it won’t break. I discuss the best combos for salmon and the right size fly rods for great lakes salmon on my page Fly Fishing For Salmon. Good luck.