In this article, I will discuss spin fishing for steelhead and what I and other steelhead guides use to effectively spin fish for steelhead in rivers. I will discuss the best gear and the best methods as well as some tips that I use when guiding clients using spinning reels.
Spin fishing for steelhead can mean casting lures or fishing with baits using a few different methods. The spinning reel provides anglers with a good drag system and lots of line to fish far or close. The spinning reel is also easy to use for most anglers.
River guides tend to catch a lot more steelhead than most anglers. There are things that river guides do that improve the effectiveness of spin fishing for steelhead. These are not a secret and they are not hard to learn. Keep reading to find out more.
Methods For Spin Fishing For Steelhead
Anglers spin fishing for steelhead can use methods like casting lures, jig fishing for steelhead, bottom bouncing for steelhead, and plunking for steelhead. Some spin fishing methods for steelhead are much more effective at catching steelhead than others.
I will also discuss the best rods and spinning reels for fishing for steelhead.
Spinning Reels For Steelhead
What makes spin fishing for steelhead unique is the spinning reel itself.
With the spinning reel, you can do all of the effective methods that are used in rivers as well as other methods that are used in boats like trolling for steelhead.
There are a few things to consider when choosing the right spinning reel for fish like steelhead that run fast and fight harder than most fish.
The best spinning reels for steelhead will have a good smooth drag system, it must have good strong gears that won’t get stripped, and they will be able to hold enough line for those long runs that steelhead are known for.
When spin fishing for steelhead you basically want to be sure you have a reel that can handle the big hard fighting steelhead or you’re going to have some problems.
One of the primary advantages of using a spinning reel for steelhead fishing is that they are easy to cast and most anglers already have experience with them.
Another advantage that I see and appreciate as a guide is that they have a good smooth drag system that once it is set up properly it does all the work for the angler when fighting a fish and it maintains nice steady pressure so my clients are less likely to lose their big fish.
There are some reels that just do not work well for steelhead and I have seen clients and other anglers lose big steelhead because of these bad spinning reels. The thing is that most anglers don’t see what I see so they think any spinning reel will do the job, which is wrong.
Spinning reels for steelhead don’t have to be expensive to work well. There are 4 or 5 reels that I recommend to my clients because these are the reels that have been proven to work for big steelhead, plus they are durable and angler love using them. Some of these reels are under $150.00.
Best Line For Steelhead Fishing
When it comes to the line for your steelhead spinning reels you have a few options and it will depend on the methods that you use.
The most common line for steelhead fishing with spinning reels is a 10-pound monofilament line like Sufix Elite which is strong, and thin, yet still supple and it’s good for multipurpose fishing. There are times when an 8-pound line or 12-pound line is even better.
The reason I like the Sufix Elite line is that I have extensively tested it when casting lures, when float fishing, when bottom bouncing or drift fishing, and when plunking. It’s also recommended by other river guides and river anglers who fish for steelhead. It works well on baitcasting reels and Centerpin reels.
But monofilament is not always the best line, I use and recommend other lines which can be better depending on the methods. Other options include braided line which is often best for lure fishing but is also good with float fishing, drift fishing, and bottom bouncing.
Another option is fluorocarbon line which is good for lure fishing, drift fishing, bottom bouncing, and plunking, but is not good for float fishing.
Other good lines include:
- Sufix Promix Fishing Line – 8 and 10 pound. A cheaper line that river anglers like.
- Sufix Advanced Copolymer – Copolymer lines tend to have strong knot strength, better abrasion resistance, and better knot strength and are good for lure fishing.
- PowerPro Braided Spectra Fiber Line – 20 pound – I like Braided lines for fishing with lures but they can be good when float fishing too.
- Berkley NanoFil Uni-Filament Line – 20 pound – This is a good line when fishing with lures and it seems to clear ice from the line better when fishing in the winter.
What Pound Line Is Best For Spin Fishing For Steelhead?
The best pound line for spin fishing for steelhead is 10 pounds. However, this is a general-purpose size. There are times when I will go down to 8 pounds and other times I might go up to 12 pounds.
As a general rule of mine, I always recommend going with the lightest fishing line possible.
I find that lighter lines cast better, tangle less, and are more supple in cold water and cold air temperatures especially when it’s below freezing. Lighter lines can also provide better action to your lures.
When it comes to float fishing for steelhead I recommend 8-pound line, however, I know some very good float anglers that go as light as 6 pounds around when fishing for great lakes steelhead.
Thin fishing lines are much lighter which prevents line sag or line sink when you are float fishing which is why I and other guys go as light as possible.
Now keep in mind that I primarily fish for great lakes steelhead so when I go fish for west coast steelhead or when fishing huge fast rivers I will upsize to a 10 or 12-pound line.
Lighter lines are just all-around better lines to use, yet many anglers still use lines that are way too heavy.
I hear guys recommending using up to 20-pound line for steelhead because that’s what they use. Unless all you do is cast lures for steelhead, the honest truth is that this is just dumb!
The reason I say this is dumb is that most of the time steelhead are line shy so you need to use a lighter leader and a lighter smaller hook just to get the steelhead to bite.
If you need to use an 8, 10, or 12-pound leader just to get more bites you can’t use all the strength of a 20-pound line anyways or you will just break off your leader or you will bend or break hooks. Therefore, 20-pound test is not required.
NOTE: Not all brands rate their line accurately. One brands 10-pound line might actually break at 20 pounds of pressure ( I have seen this), while another brand’s line might break at exactly 10 pounds. Therefore, I use and purchase my fishing line by the diameter and not by the pound test listed on the box.
Line Sizing Table For Steelhead
Size Of River
0.010 in. / 0.26mm
Float fishing / Bottom Bouncing
- small to medium / Under 80 feet wide
- slow to medium current
- Great Lake Region
0.011 in. / 0.28mm
- Float Fishing / Bottom Bouncing / Drift Fishing - Plunking
-Medium to Large rivers / under 150 feet wide
- Medium to fast currents
-Great Lake Region
- Small West coast rivers
0.012 in. / 0.31mm
- Lure Fishing Great Lakes Rivers
- West Coast Float Fishing, Drift Fishing and Plunking
- Small to Mid sized west coast rivers.
- Very large and fast current great lakes rivers
- Great Lakes Region
- West Coast
14 to 15 pound
0.013 in. / 0.33mm
- Lure Fishing Great Lakes and West Coast
- West Coast Float Fishing and Drift Fishing
- Lure Fishing most sized rivers
- Large Fast West Coast Rivers
16 to 17 pound
0.015 in. / 0.37 mm
Medium To Large Rivers
What Pound Leader Is Best When Spin Fishing For Steelhead?
The best pound leader to use when spin fishing for steelhead is the 8 to 12-pound test, but the leader strength really depends on a few factors such as the size of the steelhead in your area, the method you use, clarity and speed of the river, and the size of the river.
Guide Tip: I always use a slightly lighter leader than my mainline, I never use a stronger leader than my mainline. Doing so risks losing your entire leader setup.
Caution: Not all brands rate their leaders properly which is why I purchase and choose my leaders based on the diameter size listed on the spool which is generally far more accurate. Why does this matter?
The fish can see the leader if it’s too thick!
Using too heavy a leader when using slower fishing methods such as float fishing or drift fishing is why some guys catch one fish a day when guys like me and my clients are using 8-pound leaders and are catching 10 steelhead a day.
When I’m fishing a small to medium-sized steelhead stream which can be 12 to 50 feet wide, a lighter leader of 8-pound is what I use because I know that I or my clients can walk the banks easily and chase the fish up or down the river if needed.
With such a light leader, I get all the benefits of the lighter line while still being able to land most steelhead. I probably land 95 percent of my steelhead on 8-pound test leader without breaking my leader or my mainline.
If my leader or mainline breaks, it’s often due to the line being old or some damage on the line. These small to mid-sized rivers are great with 8 and 10-pound mainline and 6 to 8 pound leaders. FYI – I upsize 2 to 4 pounds when fishing West Coast rivers.
The only time I would prefer a 10-pound line or leader on small rivers is if I need to upsize my leaders due to heavily wooded sections where I will need to apply more pressure to steer big steelhead away from logs and wood.
For larger rivers of 60 to hundreds of feet wide, and rivers with very fast flows, I would go with a 10 or 12-pound test line and leader.
FYI – A 10-pound leader is generally 2 to 6 pounds lighter than a 10-pound mainline based on the ratings on the labels. Therefore, using a 10-pound leader is Ok with a 10 pound mainline.
Not Sure what leader size is best for steelhead, check out my page What Pound Test Leader Is Best For Steelhead? or if you want to see my float fishing leader setup, check out Steelhead Leaders: Best Float Leader And 2 Proven Setups.
Spinning Rods For Steelhead
I like longer rods when spin fishing but I will use and recommend a few different spinning rods for different methods.
For casting lures for steelhead I like rods in the 8 to 9-foot range. You could use a standard 7-foot rod for steelhead but if you are serious about fishing for steelhead and want to be able to catch as many as possible, there are many advantages to a longer spinning rod when fishing for steelhead.
The longer length of 8 to 9-foot spinning rods gives you longer casts with lighter lures such as spinners. The longer rod also helps you play the fish better and can keep your line higher and away from shallow rocks when a big fish runs far up or down the river. The long length can also help protect lighter leaders.
When float fishing for steelhead I like rods 11 to 14 feet long. Longer rods help with casts, they help with line control by keeping the line up off the water and with the mending of the line, and the longer rod acts like a giant shock absorber that will protect light leaders.
Lure Fishing For Steelhead
Lure fishing for steelhead can be a very effective and a fun way to catch steelhead. There are a lot of anglers that use spinning reels to cast lures. I use techniques that enable my clients to cover the water more effectively which in turn means more steelhead in the net.
Covering the water effectively means covering it from top to bottom of the water column and also being able to cover the spot well.
With lure fishing, it’s also important to know what types of lures to use to entice bites from the steelhead. With some lures, I will impart action to them, and with other lures, I allow the lures’ own action to do the job.
Getting the lure down to the fish is equally important and I have found that many anglers just cast and retrieve but they have no idea if their lure is deep enough or not. A lure that is 10 feet over the steelhead head might not get noticed or is too far from the steelhead to trigger a bite.
However, a lure that is 2 or 3 feet in front of a steelhead becomes an easy target and will get grabbed much more often.
I even have lures that I use specifically when fishing for steelhead in the winter when the water is ice cold, and I have other lures that work great in spring and fall.
Knowing which steelhead lures are the most effective and how to fish them will also help you catch more fish.
Jig Fishing For Steelhead
Jig fishing for steelhead is a lesser-known method of spin fishing for steelhead, however, it can be very effective if you use my recommended jigs and the jig fishing methods that work for me and other guides.
I drift lightweight jigs under a float when I’m float fishing for steelhead but I also fish jigs using the bottom bouncing method, or when drift fishing. All of these methods work great, just be sure to use small light jigs and fish them the same way you would fish any type of bait
Another method I use that is great for steelhead is twitching jigs for steelhead. You can cast and retrieve these jigs using a variety of retrieves.
Bottom Bouncing For Steelhead
Bottom bouncing is another method of spin fishing for steelhead and is a good method to use in shallow sections of the river and in pocket water. Bottom bouncing is an old method but it still works well in the right situations.
Bottom bouncing is often done using spinning reels but could be done using baitcasting reels or even Centerpin Reels.
You can bottom bounce in most types of water but I use it mostly in shallower faster runs, riffles, and in pocket water where float fishing just doesn’t work so well.
I also use some advanced methods of bottom bouncing that are much more effective than the traditional setup and if used properly it will help you catch more steelhead.
Drift Fishing For Steelhead
Drift fishing for steelhead is basically the same as bottom bouncing with some minor changes. Most anglers that do drift fishing will use spinning reels or some will use baitcasting reels.
Drift fishing can be done in deep or shallow sections of the river and I use it mostly in bigger faster sections of the river. Drift fishing with spinning reels allows you to cast far out while still controlling your drift.
Using the right drift fishing rig as well as knowing how to do the drift fishing method will mean a lot more landed fish.
Float Fishing For Steelhead
Spin fishing with a float for steelhead which is also known as just float fishing is arguably the most effective way to catch steelhead. Anglers interested in spin fishing for steelhead should learn this method because there are times when other methods just won’t work.
Float fishing allows you to drift a bait just off the bottom and in the strike zone for a long time and it allows you to cover the water very effectively. The key to float fishing is using the proper presentation and the right leader setup.
The only method that I know of that is more effective than float fishing with a spinning reel is float fishing with a Centerpin Reel. Centerpin fishing is my top method and what i do the most when guiding for steelhead.
Plunking For Steelhead
Another method of spin fishing for steelhead is known as plunking. Plunking for steelhead is a still fishing method that can be used in rivers, in slow water, on piers, and out in the lake or ocean. Spinning rods and reels are the preferred choices for this method.
Plunking simply refers to casting a bait and a large heavy weight that sits on the bottom. The weight anchors the bait close to the bottom where steelhead swim and then you wait for the fish to swim by and eat your bait.
Anglers will cast the bait out and put the rod into a rod holder and just wait. They might reel in and try another spot in 10 or 20 minutes.
If the fish are not on the move this is not a very productive method, but if the steelhead are swimming through the area or are active and feeding, there is a chance to catch a fish.
Make sure you use the right Plunking setup and the methods that other guides and I use to do it effectively
Best River Fishing Gear When Spin Fishing For Steelhead
I am often asked either what should I bring on a guided trip, or what gear do I need when fishing for steelhead.
So I made an entire page on all the essential gear that I recommend to my clients and river anglers. This is stuff you should have or consider, and I also discuss which products and brands are guide tested, field-tested, and are best buys.
Spin Fishing For Steelhead FAQ
I hope you enjoyed my article on spin fishing for steelhead. If there is something I missed or you have a question, or you have some tips to share, please leave it in the comments section below.