8 Clear Water Steelhead Fishing Tips For More Fish

My clear water steelhead fishing tactics help catch more steelhead like this one.
My clear water steelhead fishing tactics will help you catch more steelhead like this one.

If you are faced with clear water steelhead fishing, you know that catching steelhead in low clear water or when they are spooked or pressured can be difficult. In this article, I’ll discuss tips, tactics, and the gear to help you catch fish in tough conditions.

Understanding The Steelhead’s Behavior

I have seen steelhead move to the side as the bait and setup approach and pass them. They move out of the way because something is not right. You may not realize it, but this happens a lot more than you think.

And it happens even more in low clear water or when the steelhead are on high alert because they are spooked or pressured.

And, when this happens, it’s very difficult to catch them. However, with a few adjustments and some know-how, you can increase your chances for a bite.

Why Do Steelhead Avoid Your Bait?

Steelhead tend to move away from your bait or your setup for several reasons that you need to figure out. Just realize that these fish are seeing something they don’t like, and that’s why they’re giving your offering a wide berth.

Now, let’s dive into the tips, tactics, and the steelhead gear that will help you catch more steelhead.

1. Leader Diameter Matters

The line diameter matters when fishing low clearwater steelhead like this.
The line diameter matters when fishing low clearwater steelhead like this.

Choosing the right leader diameter is crucial, especially in slow-moving, clear waters or when steelhead are spooked. Diameter means thickness, and a leader that is too thick can be seen by the steelhead.

I always use the lightest leader possible. However, you’ll need to strike a balance – too light of a leader, and you risk breaking off to many fish. While too heavy of a leader will spook the fish.

Experiment to find the perfect diameter and strength, and if you notice steelhead shying away, consider going lighter.

2. Use A Clear Float

Drennan Crystal Loafer Floats in 3 sizes
The Drennan Loafer float is the best float for low clear water steelhead fishing and nervous fish.

A big float drifting past them can spook them in low and clear water or when steelhead are spooked and cautious. I prefer a thin and clear plastic float like the trusty Drennan Loafer float.

Choosing the right float size is also important when being stealthy. Go with the smallest float possible.

The float you use will depend on how much weight you need to use to reach the strike zone and keep the bait there.

3. Carefully Select Your Weights

Steelhead can also spot your weights, so go for the smallest and the least shiny weights possible. Using minimal weight is a good practice in all conditions, not just in clear waters.

Ensure you use only enough to keep your bait where it needs to be without spooking the fish.

4. Experiment With Bait

A steelhead with a black stonefly in it's mouth which is one of the best flies for Ohio steelhead
A steelhead with a black stonefly in it’s mouth which by the way is one of the best flies for steelhead

Don’t underestimate the importance of bait selection. If you notice steelhead avoiding your current bait, switch things up.

In clear water, I usually use smaller, more natural baits, avoiding overly bright, large, or intrusive baits.

If everyone around you is using the same bait with limited success, try something entirely different. If every angler around you is using eggs, go with something very different, like a dark fly, a worm, or a grub.

5. Downsize Your Hook

Always match your hook size to your bait for a more natural presentation and to prevent the steelhead from seeing it.

Sure, a larger hook will hold on better during the fight, but a large hook might also be seen by the fish which can deter most of them from biting in the first place.

Bait and hook size
This bait is way too small for this hook which could result in the fish seeing the hook and refusing to eat the bait. Match the hook to the size of the bait.
Good Hook Size For this bait
This bait is a good size for this hook and the hook gap is wide enough to hook a fish.

In clear conditions, using a smaller hook, like a size 8, 10, or even 12, can be very effective. With smaller hooks, be gentle when playing the fish to avoid bending or breaking the hook. Stick to bronze or black nickel hooks instead of shiny gold ones. I like like and use the Raven Specimen hooks.

6. Adjust Leader Length and Shot Line

If you’re using a high-vis mainline or a braided line, ensure there’s ample distance between your bait and your mainline. This reduces the chances of steelhead spotting your mainline.

In clear waters, this becomes even more critical. I would recommend having your colored mainline 6 to 8 feet away from your bait. Even if that means your leader or shot line is partially out of the water, and you need to put your float on your shot line. See steelhead leader and shot line rigs.

7. Know When To Change Spots

If steelhead in a particular area seem spooked and uncooperative despite your best efforts and all of the changes above, consider relocating. Once spooked, only time will make them bite.

Sometimes, a fresh start can yield better results. Just make sure you’ve applied the above tips before you start fishing the next spot so you don’t spook those steelhead.

8. Stealth is Key In Clear Water Steelhead Fishing

In low clear water, steelhead are easily spooked. Minimize noise and movement when transitioning to a new spot. Stealth is your best friend in these conditions.

Even wearing colors that blend into your surroundings can help prevent the steelhead from sitting you.

In my opinion, many anglers spook fish before they even make their first cast, and this just makes it much harder to catch fish.

9. Bonus Tip: Fewer Anglers Means More Fish

Here’s a secret for you: More isn’t always better when it comes to fishing. Fishing with a large group of anglers can create more noise and commotion, which can spook steelhead.

So, if you have a choice, opt for less crowded areas, and you might just outfish everyone else.

I will often choose to fish 20 tiny pockets where there might be only one or two fish, instead of one big pool with 20 fish and a bunch of anglers. Many times I’ll catch far more fish than other anglers in the pools.

Clear Water Steelhead Fishing – Your Questions Answered

Do you have any burning questions or some valuable tips of your own for fishing in clear waters or dealing with elusive steelhead? Share them in the comments below!

Tight lines,


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