Crankbait Fishing For Steelhead: Pro Guide Tactics And Tips

Steelhead Fishing PA

As an angler and steelhead guide, I have been fishing crankbaits for steelhead for over 35 years and can easily say that it is one of the most effective methods used by steelhead guides.

Skilled crankbait anglers consistently catch more steelhead when fishing in rivers, off piers, from shorelines, and boats. The number of top guides that use crankbaits is a testament to how effective steelhead crankbait fishing really is.

Even during the spawning season, while many steelhead show very little interest in other baits, a well-executed presentation with a crankbait can still yield impressive results.

What you need to know to successfully catch steelhead on crankbaits is:

  • The Best Lures
  • The Best Colors
  • The Best Sizes
  • How to determine the depth you should be fishing
  • How to cover the water effectively
  • Lure selection based on conditions
  • Proper presentation for different water conditions.
  • How to increase the effectiveness of your crankbait to trigger more bites.

Effectiveness Of Crankbaits for Steelhead

Ohio Winter steelhead Fishing

The effectiveness of crankbait fishing for steelhead will vary, so when I’m guiding for steelhead with crankbaits, my approach depends on several factors, such as river conditions, depth, water clarity, current speed, and the activity level of the steelhead.

If I don’t adapt to the conditions, I simply catch less steelhead, and so do my clients. Choosing the most suitable crankbait based on these conditions is crucial.

Crankbaits also offer the advantage of covering a large area of water quickly, as well as targeting multiple depths which are other reasons why they are so effective.

There are many lures for steelhead fishing, but it’s hard to beat a crankbait.

Exploring the Basics of Catching Steelhead On Crankbaits

A YoZuri 3D crankbait

Basic crankbait fishing for steelhead involves using a lure known as a crankbait, which resembles the shape of a minnow or baitfish.

Few lures can match the look, action, and sound produced by crankbaits, which contributes to their effectiveness.

The lifelike look and lifelike movement can attract the steelhead from considerable distances, while the flash of the crankbait triggers strikes when it approaches the steelhead.

However, not all crankbaits are equally suitable for steelhead.

After testing out hundreds of lures, I have found that some crankbaits perform better than others, especially in currents. I have determined that it’s important to select good quality crankbaits of appropriate size, color, and weight.

The Storm Thunderstick is a good crankbait for steelhead, salmon, and big trout

Investing in high-quality crankbaits that can withstand the battle with large steelhead is important since I have found that cheaper crankbaits can break, or the hooks will bend or break.

Or they just don’t run properly with poor action in current.

Crankbaits For Steelhead Fishing:

When selecting crankbaits, consider the following types:

  1. Slender Body Crankbaits: Designed for faster and deeper retrieves, these crankbaits excel in slower currents and deeper water. They tend to have a good wobble and great action. Some are jointed which provides more wobble and more action.
  2. Fat Body Crankbaits: Fat body crankbaits move with a tighter wobble, they displace more water, and they come with either a shallow lip or deep lip. They are generally shorter and fatter but they still work great. They are ideal for shallower water, deep water, and faster currents.
  3. Deep Lip Crankbaits: I often prefer using a deep lip or medium-deep lip crankbaits, particularly in rivers. These are also known as “deep diving” crankbaits. The deep lip helps maintain the crankbait’s depth even during an ultra-slow retrieve or in fast currents. Deep diving crankbaits can reach depths of over 20 feet, however, obtaining maximum depth requires a sufficient amount of line out.
  1. Shallow Lip Crankbaits: Shallow lip crankbaits, also known as shallow-running crankbaits, are suitable for both rivers and lakes. However, they are more commonly used by lake anglers and guys that troll. Some shallow lip crankbaits can work well in rivers with slow to medium-speed currents. It’s important to note that certain shallow lip crankbaits may not perform effectively in faster currents as they tend to pop out of the water or they roll. Generally, shallow lip crankbaits can reach depths of 2 to 5 feet.
  2. Rattle Crankbaits: Many crankbaits come equipped with built-in rattles. In my experience, the additional noise produced by the rattle tends to attract and catch more steelhead. Rattle crankbaits are particularly effective in faster and higher water, in murky or stained water, and during night fishing for steelhead.
  3. Non-Rattle Crankbaits: Non-rattle crankbaits produce a more subtle sound. However, it’s important to note that even though there is no rattle, they still emit noise below the water’s surface, which can be detected by steelhead. The sound is created by the hooks bumping against the body of the crankbait.

In underwater tests, we observed that the noise was audible from a distance of about 5 feet. Considering the sensitive lateral line of steelhead, it’s likely they can hear or feel the crankbait from even further away.

An assortment of my crankbaits
Some of my crankbaits that I use for steelhead

When selecting crankbaits, refer to the information provided on the packaging regarding their running depth.

It’s wise to have a variety of crankbaits of different depths on hand to ensure you can effectively cover all water depths when necessary.

GUIDE TIP: You can adjust the running depth of deep-diving crankbaits by elevating your rod tip or submerging it while reeling in. This technique is particularly useful for shallow lip crankbaits.

Best Length Of Crankbaits For Steelhead Fishing

A straight model crankbait

The optimal length of crankbaits for steelhead typically ranges from 3 to 5 inches.

For me, my most effective size is usually 4 inches since it closely matches the size of most baitfish found in rivers or the baitfish that the steelhead typically feeds on while out in the ocean.

As a general rule, use larger crankbaits in turbid or high-flow conditions and when fishing in dirtier water. In contrast, opt for smaller crankbaits in very clear water or when targeting cautious fish holding in pools. I will discuss fishing in those conditions below.

Best Color Crankbaits For Steelhead

An Assortment of crankbaits
An Assortment of crankbaits

The color of the crankbait plays a significant role in attracting the interest of steelhead and enticing them to strike.

However, the most effective color depends on the mood of the steelhead or the water clarity or the light conditions.

Silver, gold, or brightly colored crankbaits with reflective surfaces tend to be highly effective. The flash they create can be spotted by steelhead from a considerable distance.

Under specific conditions, I have done very well steelhead crankbait fishing with black crankbaits or black/silver combinations.

Based on my experience, the most consistent and reliable colors for steelhead fishing in rivers include chartreuse, chartreuse/silver, silver, silver/orange, green/silver, black silver, and blue/silver.

Effective Techniques for Crankbait Fishing

Angler fishing crankbaits for steelhead
An angler spin fishing for steelhead. He had moved out into the river just far enough to get more distance.

When crankbait fishing for steelhead, three techniques have proven to be highly effective:

Method #1: The most commonly used technique when fishing crankbaits for steelhead involves casting the crankbait into the river and retrieving it with a slow and steady motion. This is as basic as it gets. However, this is how most anglers fish crankbaits for steelhead.

Method #2: To enhance the effectiveness of the straight retrieve method, I will incorporate ripping, twitching, and pauses into my retrieve. This gives the crankbait a lot more action. While reeling in, every 5 feet or so, I will give the crankbait a sharp jerk or twitch, and a pause to simulate the movement of an injured or dying baitfish. This erratic retrieve often doubles the number of steelhead strikes.

Method #3: This technique works best in faster currents. Begin by casting the crankbait across and slightly downstream, allowing the current to carry the lure across the pool without any reeling. This “swing” technique mimics the natural movement of a baitfish as it dives, wobbles, and entices steelhead to strike. You can further enhance this method by incorporating occasional ripping, twitching, and pausing actions.

How Fast Should You Reel In A Crankbait For Steelhead?

An angler crankbait fishing for steelhead

The retrieval speed of your crankbait depends on several factors, including the lure’s action, your reel speed, and the velocity of the current.

I recommend retrieving the crankbait at a speed that allows the steelhead to detect it, see it clearly, and strike at it.

Generally, a slow to medium retrieval speed is most effective.

However, there are instances when you can reel in the crankbait faster to cover more water, especially if you are targeting aggressive steelhead that are actively pursuing prey.

If you notice that the crankbait is consistently popping out of the water’s surface or if it it rolling, it indicates that you are reeling too fast or you are holding your rod tip too high.

Aim to maintain a steady retrieval speed and pay attention to how the lure is working as it comes in.

Currents change, so if the current in the middle of the river is faster, slow down your reeling speed to match its pace.

The current itself will provide action and movement to the crankbait, even without continuous reeling. In very swift currents, you may not need to reel at all and can simply allow the lure to swing across the river, and this can be a good speed for the crankbait.

It’s worth noting that when using shallow lip crankbaits and some deep lip crankbaits, the faster you reel, the higher the crankbait will remain in the water column. This may not be ideal for enticing steelhead that are holding deeper and are less likely to rise for a lure.

Determining the Optimal Depth for Crankbait Fishing

Crankbait fishing for steelhead paid off with this big steelhead

Although steelhead are often found near the riverbed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your crankbait should be at the same depth.

To determine the ideal depth for your crankbait, aim to position it approximately 2 to 3 feet above the steelhead’s actual location.

In clear water, you can get away with positioning the crankbait 5 to 6 feet above the fish, but closer is generally better.

The goal is to keep the crankbait within the steelhead’s strike zone for as long as possible. Since steelhead prefer to feed upward, it’s crucial to keep the crankbait off the bottom and above their heads. Avoid dragging the crankbait along the riverbed, as this can lead to snags and reduce its effectiveness.

From my experience, getting your crankbait closer to the steelhead significantly increases the likelihood of provoking a strike. However, determining the precise depth requires strategic tactics, which we will discuss next.

Covering All Water Column Levels With Crankbaits

A diagram of the dive curve of a lure with rod tip high and rod tip low

When fishing with crankbaits, it is essential to effectively cover the entire water column rather than randomly casting in all directions. Many anglers make the mistake of casting without a systematic approach, often missing potential opportunities.

To optimize your chances of success, I recommend employing a methodical approach to determine the steelhead’s location. Here’s my systematic method for achieving comprehensive water column coverage:

First Cast: Begin by targeting the top portion of the water column with your initial cast. Start reeling immediately, maintaining a slow and steady retrieve to keep the crankbait near the surface.

Second Cast: Repeat the cast, aiming to land the crankbait in the exact same spot as the previous cast. This time, adjust the depth by either submerging your rod tip (if using a shallow lip crankbait) or keeping a high rod tip (if using a deep lip crankbait). This allows you to effectively target the middle or lower part of the water column, typically ranging from 6 to 10 feet in depth.

Third Cast: If you haven’t had any bites or encountered the bottom on the first two casts, cast back to the same spot with a deep lip crankbait and submerge your rod tip to maximize depth. If the crankbait consistently hits the riverbed, lift the rod tip 3 to 6 feet to suspend the spinner above the riverbed at a depth of 3 to 6 feet. This depth range often proves ideal and yields the most steelhead catches.

Repeat: Once you have determined the depth that works best, make your subsequent casts 3 to 5 feet downstream from your previous cast and repeat the process. Pay close attention to any bites or bumps you receive during any of the three casts. These indicators can provide insights into the depth at which the fish are actively feeding or holding.

Once you have identified the depth at which the fish are present or the bottom of the river, you can focus solely on that depth without repeating the three-cast process. I prefer this systematic approach to discovering the fish’s location rather than rapidly covering a large area and hoping the crankbait is near the fish.

Casting Direction for Optimal Results

Covering the water with lures
I cover the water systematically from the top of the pool to the bottom of the pool, casting about 2 to 3 feet down each time and allowing the lure to swing across the river.

Through my experience, I have found that casting straight across the river or slightly downriver yields the best results when using crankbaits.

Although some anglers prefer to cast upriver and retrieve downstream, I have observed that casting straight across is generally more effective.

Casting the crankbait upriver can cause the lure to sink deeper, but presenting it head-on to the steelhead can startle the fish or make it more challenging for them to strike.

In contrast, casting the crankbait sideways and allowing it to move across the fish’s field of view presents an easier and more enticing target. Therefore, an across-river cast with a sideways retrieve is typically the preferred method.

Effectively Covering the Water

Covering the water with lures
In this image, the current is moving from the right to the left. Cast across and land your lure 3 to 6 feet downriver with each consecutive cast. Let the lure swing or twitch it across the pool from the far side to the inside as you retrieve it.

Effective coverage of the water is vital when using crankbaits for steelhead fishing. Instead of casting randomly in all directions, it is best to cover the water from top to bottom methodically.

Random casting without comprehensive coverage is a common issue among anglers, often resulting in missed opportunities.

To cover the water effectively, I start my retrieve at the very top of the fishing spot and gradually move down 3 to 5 feet with each consecutive cast. This approach ensures that every fish in the area has a chance to see and strike at the crankbait, leaving no gaps in coverage.

Implementing this systematic coverage technique distinguishes you from anglers who cast aimlessly and miss potential opportunities.

Adapting To River Conditions

Having a good understanding of river conditions is essential for adapting your fishing tactics.

Factors such as water depth, current speed, water clarity, the presence of structures like rocks and logs, and the width of the river all influence steelhead behavior and should guide your approach and your choice of crankbait.

Flexibility is key, and it’s important to adjust your strategies accordingly. Let’s consider a few scenarios:

Clear Water Fishing With Crankbaits

In clear water conditions, you have the advantage of running your crankbait up to 6 feet away from a steelhead and still potentially attracting bites.

Silver, gold, and brightly colored crankbaits with reflective surfaces work well in clear water, as they create a visible flash. A slightly faster retrieval speed can be effective since steelhead can spot the lure from a greater distance and have more time to react.

However, in shallow, clear water, steelhead can be easily spooked by the splash of the crankbait or its proximity. To overcome this, consider using smaller and less flashy crankbaits.

Cast the crankbait farther away from where the steelhead are holding and retrieve it at a slower pace to avoid spooking them. Abrupt movements or fast-paced lures can startle steelhead, so keeping a natural and subtle presentation is crucial.

Avoid landing the crankbait directly on top of the fish or in the middle of the pool. Instead, aim to cast it as close to the far bank as possible and pull the crankbait in front of and past the fish. Crankbaits or other lures appearing from behind the fish can also spook them.

Dirty or Stained Water Fishing

When fishing in dirtier water or water with reduced visibility, it becomes crucial to get the crankbait closer to the steelhead, within a foot or two if possible. Slow down your retrieval speed to accommodate the reduced visibility. The rip, twitch, pause retrieve method is particularly effective in these conditions.

Allow for longer pauses, as they give steelhead the chance to locate and strike at the crankbait even when visibility is poor.

In very muddy water, I recommend using crankbaits with built-in rattles. The added noise helps steelhead locate and strike at the lure when they can’t rely solely on their sight.

Opt for larger crankbaits and brighter colors, such as chartreuse, in stained water conditions, as they provide better visibility and attract attention.

Fast and Slow Water Fishing

In faster currents, the swing method works best. Cast the crankbait across the river and let the current carry it downstream, mimicking the movement of a baitfish. Avoid reeling too quickly, as it can cause the crankbait to spin out or become too fast for the fish to detect and strike.

In slower water, a slow to medium-speed retrieval or a ripping and twitching retrieve is more effective.

Understanding and adapting to river conditions is crucial for success. By considering factors such as water clarity, speed, and structure, you can select the most appropriate crankbaits and employ the right tactics to increase your chances of success.

Tight Lines,


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