Drift Fishing For Steelhead: Best Methods, Set-ups And Baits

Drift fishing for steelhead

Drift fishing for steelhead is an effective method that I will use in certain types of water. Drift fishing is similar to what some anglers will call bottom bouncing except that drift fishing works in bigger and deeper rivers.

Drift fishing for steelhead means casting out your bait with only enough weight that will sink your bait to the bottom while still allowing the bait to drift and bounce naturally along the bottom. Drift fishing allows you to fish far away from you and allows you to fish very deep if you need to.

In this article, I will discuss the best setups and the methods used to effectively do drift fishing for steelhead in all types of rivers. I will also discuss the best baits and the best types of water to use when drift fishing.

Things To Consider When Drift Fishing For Steelhead

  • Best drift fishing rigs for steelhead
  • Best rods and reels for drift fishing
  • Best line for drift fishing
  • Best setup and leaders for drift fishing
  • Best hooks for drift fishing
  • Best baits for drift fishing
  • Best type of water to drift fish for steelhead
  • Shallow water drift fishing methods
  • Deep water drift fishing methods
  • Detecting bottom
  • Detecting a strike when drift fishing for steelhead

Drift Fishing For Steelhead

Basic drift fishing for steelhead is simple because it’s primarily a line, leader, weights, and a bait, yet it can be a challenging method to master if you want it to be more effective.

The drift fishing technique involves using enough weight to sink your bait to the bottom but too much bait will impede a natural drift and too little weight will prevent you from getting your bait deep and in the strike zone.

You will need to change the weight based on the velocity and depth of the water and doing so requires learning how to detect the bottom.

Steelhead are generally hard to fish in very large and deep rivers since they spend most of their time at the river bottom and it’s dificult to get your baits deep enough with a float or other methods. Therefore, drift fishing is the ideal tried-and-true fishing method for capturing steelhead. 

The trick to drift fishing for steelhead is to pay keen attention to your line to determine if you are on the bottom and if it’s moving with the current. Watching your line closely is also important to detect a bite.

Drift Fishing Equipment

In addition, you also need the right gear for drift fishing in rivers. The right gear which includes the right line will help you notice the slightest bite from steelhead, and the ability to read drift.

Fishing Rods For Drift Fishing

Generally, fishing rods that are designed for catching steelhead come in either bait cast or spinning rod designs and they are longer than 9 feet. Your fishing rod must be strong enough to hold 8 pound to 14 pound line and sensitive enough to feel the bottom and the lightest bite.

When choosing a fishing rod, here are factors you need to consider:

For novice steelhead anglers, an all-purpose river fishing rod of 7 feet is common but it’s not the rod you want when drift fishing for steelhead. Most good drift fishing steelhead rods are between 9 and 11 feet long.

Longer rods might be difficult to cast in tight fishing situations, but a rod of 8.5-foot or longer improves casting distance, allows you to keep the line off the water and have better line control, and the longer rod act like a big shock absorber which allows you to fish with lighter leaders which are often required when fishing for steelhead.

For drift fishing on very large rivers and for fighting and landing a steelhead, it is best to use a rod weight between 8 and 16 pounds but for smaller rivers, 4 to 10 pounds is better. I discuss the best steelhead rods HERE.

Reels For Drift Fishing For Steelhead – or Drift Fishing Reels

Reels are crucial because you will need to have a reel that will allow you to let line out as the bait drifts down the river. The reel you choose should be compatible with the rod that you intend to use.

Baitcasting reels are commonly used for steelhead drift fishing on the larger rivers and on the west coast rivers. They are also called level wind reels. Casting a level wind reel requires some practice, but it gives the finest type of drift fishing control once mastered.

Spinning reels are also used for drift fishing and are popular in the great lakes region. They can also be utilized for other types of fishing, such as throwing light lures and float fishing.

Bait Casting Reels For Drift Fishing

Drift fishing, which includes tossing a bait upstream and letting it drift downstream naturally, is one of the most efficient steelhead fishing strategies. However, bait casting reels are recommended for drift fishing because they improve casting accuracy and line control.

The open spool on the reel makes it easy to manage the quantity of line released from the reel and the speed at which the line comes out after throwing the bait upstream.

It also lets you adjust the free spool for better and longer drifts, increasing the amount of time your bait spends in the strike zone. 

The entire efficiency of the baitcasting reel can be improved by matching the reel with a suitable baitcasting rod. You should be sure that you use a rod that is made for a baitcasting reel and not a spinning reel.

Baitcasting reels come in different forms and sizes to meet a variety of steelhead fishing situations. Smaller reels are suitable for smaller-sized rivers, whereas larger reels would be suitable for large rivers.

Spinning Reels For Drift Fishing For Steelhead

Many anglers use spinning reels when drift fishing for steelhead because they cast well, and you can leave the bail open and feed the line out.

It’s important to use a spinning reel that is suitable for fishing for big steelhead. This means that your spinning reel should be able to hold lots of line between 8 and 14 pounds and it should have a smooth and durable drag system.

I discuss the best steelhead reels from economy-priced reels to high-end reels on my page Best Reels For Steelhead.

Line For Drift Fishing For Steelhead

The line you use should be suitable for the rod, reel, and the river type and river conditions.

For example, in bigger rivers, a heavier line of 10 to 14-pound test is best. In smaller steelhead rivers with clear water, a smaller line of 8 to 10 pounds is better.

Not many anglers realize this but thinner lines sink faster and do not get pushed around as easily by the current which allows you to get your bait down faster and then get a more controlled and better presentation.

Most anglers, myself included use monofilament lines when drift fishing for steelhead.

I also personally prefer bright colored lines that can be seen from a distance because when drift fishing for steelhead it’s very important to be able to see the line for both bottom detection and strike detection. With bright-colored fishing lines and also with clear lines, you should always use a leader.

Leaders For Drift Fishing For Steelhead

For drift fishing leaders, I tend to use a leader that is one or two sizes smaller than my mainline. This means if my mainline is 10 pounds, I will use a 6 or 8 pounds leader. I would never use a heavier leader than my mainline or you will risk breaking off your entire leader and all your gear.

I will discuss leader setups below.

Leader Setup For Drift Fishing For Steelhead

There are a few good leader setups for drift fishing for steelhead and this is the one that I use and many anglers use.

With this setup, you can use a few different types of weights which I discuss below and you should adjust your leader size based on the conditions.

In smaller great lakes streams that are less than 30 feet wide and are clear, I would use a 6 or 8-pound leader.

For larger rivers that are 40 to 100 feet wide, I would likely upsize to an 8 to 12-pound leader but I would only go as heavy as I can get away with and would prefer to keep it as light as possible since leaders that are too thick could be seen and avoided by steelhead, especially on slower and clearer water.

Steelhead drift fishing leader setup
This is a typical drift fishing leader setup for steelhead and can be used on almost any river.

The issue with the standard leader is that the mainline is in the strike zone and it might be detected by the steelhead and that could spook them. For this reason, I use a short section of fluorocarbon above the bottom swivel which you can see in the below diagram. Fluorocarbon is less visible to the fish.

The other issue with the monofilament mainline being so low is that it will like drag across the rocks and since most anglers use monofilament which is less abrasion resistant than fluorocarbon there is more of a risk of nicks and scaps or cuts in the line and therefore some more break-offs.

Therefore, when I guide I add a 12 to 24 inch piece of fluorocarbon leader above the bottom swivel. Most often this extra leader section will be the same size as my mainline or 1 size smaller.

Improved Drift Fishing Rig For Steelhead
This improved drift fishing steelhead rig is more stealthy and abrasion-resistant.

Swivels For Drift Fishing

A lightweight leader is attached to a heavier mainline using barrel swivels. This enables you to swiftly adapt your rig to changing sea conditions and reduce mainline snag loss.

Lead For Steelhead Drift Fishing

For steelhead fishing, there are various ways to hook up your lead. First, ensure the lead is straight to avoid line twists and bottom hang-ups. Otherwise, it will twirl in the current, you should also hook your lead on with a snap swivel or 3-way swivel.

Pencil Lead

The most common and cost-effective lead for drift fishing is pencil lead. The diameters of pencil lead are 1/8, 3/16, and 1/4 inch and all can be used when drift fishing for steelhead.

To use a pencil lead, simply cut off the desired length which can be one to four inches, the length will depend on the depth. Then pinch one end flat and poke a hole in it with a nail or hole punch. You can see it in this VIDEO.

The Slinky

Steelhead Slinky
Click on the pictures to watch the video on how to make drift fishing slinkies

A slinky is a different form of lead weight. A slinky is a collection of split shot weights or lead shots wrapped in parachute rope. The slinky rig can be as short as a half inch or as long as a few inches and this long slender profile enables the lead to bend and slip over rocks without being tangled as frequently. 

Due to the general elasticity of the rope, a slinky does not have the exact sharp bottom feel like a straight lead, and therefore it may be harder to detect the bottom.

Some guys will also make slinkies out of surgical tubing packed with lead shots. To see how slinkies are made watch this video.

Reading Water For Steelhead Fishing

Steelhead Behavior

When selecting the ideal fishing sites, it is necessary to understand how steelheads live and thrive.

These incredible creatures travel thousands of kilometers to breed. They have a long and challenging trip ahead of them. Keep this in mind while you search for places on the river where the current and depth are more suitable for them

Deeper And Bigger Water

Steelhead are resourceful, so they will not use energy fighting the rapids. In the frigid winter months, it also means they preserve energy by keeping near the bottom. Unless the conditions are ideal, fishing in shallow water can be a waste of time.

This is why you are more likely to find steelhead in deep pools, deep runs, and in larger sections of the river and this is where drift fishing for steelhead really works well.

The advantage to drift fishing is you can fish 3 feet deep or 30 feet deep, all you need to do is add enough weight and to detect the bottom so you know when you are deep enough and then allow your rig to drift with the current.

Avoid Counter-Currents 

Generally, steelheads tend to avoid water with counter-currents or eddies. So if your fishing gear happens to get stuck in a back eddy, best believe the fish won’t come swimming up towards your bait.

It is advisable to avoid counter-currents and focus on faster river water with a unidirectional flow.

Water Levels

When river levels are high, you can fish for steelheads that will be holding near shore.

However, steelhead will usually relocate towards the slower and much shallow water on the beach line if the river gets blown out. This creates a favorable condition for them to migrate upstream more easily. 

When drift fishing for steelhead in slower water you will need to use less weight otherwise the current won’t be strong enough to keep your bait moving down the river. You do not want your bait or your weights to stop.

If the water is higher, you will need to increase the size of the weight to ensure you get to the bottom and this will also slow your bait down which is a good thing.

Detecting Bottom

Detecting the bottom is one of the most important things to learn how to do well when drift fishing for steelhead.

You do this by watching your line closely. If you do not have enough weight your line will drift down the river smoothly. If you hit bottom the line with catch and will stop or twitch as you bait bumps bottom. Your line should be twitching and lightly bouncing and it should always be moving at the speed of the current.

If the line keeps stopping then you know it is hanging up on the bottom or a fish has grabbed your bait.

If it keeps grabbing the bottom you probably have too much weight.

Good anglers with good rods may also be able to feel the light ticks as the weights bounce across the bottom. Many anglers will also hold the line just above the reel with there their thumb and index finger. Holding the line might enable you to feel the ticks and taps as the weights bump bottom.

Detecting A Bite When Drift Fishing For Steelhead

Detecting a bite is often something many new anglers struggle with but with practice, it will become easier. Detecting a strike requires watching the line near the waters surface like a hawk.

The line should always be moving around the same speed as the current and if it stops for more than a second you should set the hook as this could be a bite. If nothing is there you can let it drift.

Also, if you feel any pulling or the line straightens abruptly you should set the hook.

I believe a lot of anglers miss bites with the drift fishing method which is why I don’t use it often and which is why I along with thousands of other good anglers will prefer to use a float. Float fishing is almost always the most effective way to catch steelhead in a river. You can see how to do it on my page Float Fishing For Steelhead.

Hire A Drift Fishing Guide

It might take years to master drift fishing for steelhead. As a result, you might end up wasting plenty of time trying to figure it all out. The basic guidelines discussed above will help with drift fishing, but it’s critical to remember that each river is unique.

If you continue to struggle with drift fishing for steelhead, do your homework and choose a good drift fishing guide that has spent a considerable amount of time drift fishing.

Best Baits to Use When Drift Fishing for Steelheads

The bait you use should be appropriate for the conditions you’re fishing in.

A steelhead’s sense of smell is good and steelhead can detect bait by movement and scent when the water is so dirty that you can’t see more than a few inches into it.

Eggs sacks, beads, worms, jigs, and flies are all great baits for drift fishing for steelhead. 

Increase your chances of catching more Steelheads by knowing how and when to use different types of bait. It is also best to know the optimum colors and sizes which I discuss in more detail on my page Best Steelhead Baits.

Spawn / Roe- This is the most popular steelhead bait, but it is not necessarily the best.

Worms – Plastic and real worms can outperform roe under the right circumstances.

Beads – A tiny bead that looks like a salmon or steelhead egg can be precisely what the steelhead is looking for, and it can be the ideal steelhead bait.

Flies – Some flies are excellent steelhead bait and can even be the finest bait.

Drift Fishing For Steelhead Q & A

If you have a question, comment or some advice about drift fishing for steelhead let me know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines


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