Spin Fishing For Steelhead: 5 Most Effective Methods Used By Guides

Spin fishing for steelhead

In this article, I will discuss spin fishing for steelhead and what I and other steelhead guides use to make spin fishing for steelhead in rivers more effective. I will discuss the best gear and the best methods and share 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

Reels for spin fishing for steelhead
Some of my reels that I use for spin fishing for steelhead. Some have yellow mono and some have braided line and there is a reason for this.

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 drag smooth system that once it is set up properly it does all the work for the angler and it maintains nice steady pressure.

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. I discuss the best spinning reels for steelhead on my page The 4 Best Spinning Reels For Steelhead

Best Line For Steelhead Fishing

When it comes to the best line for steelhead fishing with spinning reels you have a few options and it will depend on the methods that you use.

The best line for steelhead fishing with spinning reels is a 10-pound monofilament line like Sufix Elite which is strong, thin yet still supple and is 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’s thin, strong, and supple, and it works well on spinning reels as well as baitcasting reels and Centerpin reels.

Other good lines include:

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 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, they can provide better action to your lures, they are much lighter which prevents line sag or line sink when you are float fishing. 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 to use 20 pounds or 18-pound line for steelhead because that’s what they use when spin fishing for steelhead on great lakes rivers. The honest truth is that this is just dumb!

The reason they do this is that they think to land big steelhead they need a heavy line to get them in. The reason I say this is dumb is that most of the time, you need to use a lighter leader and a lighter smaller hook just to get the steelhead to bite.

What these guys don’t realize is that if your leader is 10 pounds, why do you need a 16, 18, or 20 pounds mainline? You can’t use all the strength of the 20-pound line anyways or you will just break off your leader or you will bend or break hooks. Using too heavy a leader and too heavy of a hook is why most guys catch one when guys like me and my clients are using 8-pound leaders and are catching 25.

Not sure what line is best for you, your method, and for the rivers that you fish, let me tell you what I use.

When I’m fishing a small to medium-sized steelhead stream which can be 12 to 50 feet wide, a lighter line of 8-pound line 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.

I get all the benefits of the lighter line while still being able to land fish. I probably land 999 out of every 1000 steelhead on 8-pound test without breaking my mainline. If my 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.

The only time I would prefer a 10-pound line on small rivers is if I 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.

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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 different 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.

I discuss the best spin fishing rods for all the different methods on my page Best River Fishing Rods.

Lure Fishing For Steelhead

Lures for spin fishing for Steelhead
Some of the lures I use when spin 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 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 what lures are the most effective and how to fish them will also help you catch more fish. I discuss the best lures and how I fish them on my page Best Steelhead Lures.

Jig Fishing For Steelhead

Jig fishing for steelhead is a lesser-known method of spin fishing for steelhead, however, it can be very effective. I drift lightweight jigs under a float when I’m float fishing for steelhead.

You can also fish jigs using the bottom bouncing method, or you can cast and retrieve jigs.

If fishing with jigs is something that you are interested in check my page Steelhead Jigs: The 11 Best Steelhead Jigs And How To Fish Them.

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 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 and I discuss some advanced methods to help you catch more steelhead. Check my page Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish.

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.

Drift fishing can be done in deep or shallow sections of the river and drift fishing with spinning reels allows you to cast far out while still controlling your drift.

For details on how to set up a drift fishing rig, or how to do the drift fishing method, check out my page on Drift Fishing For Steelhead

Float Fishing For Steelhead

Spin fishing 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 long times and it allows you to cover the water very effectively.

I discuss float fishing for steelhead with spinning reels in great detail on this website as well as how to do float fishing with Centerpin.

Plunking For Steelhead

Another method of spin fishing for steelhead is known as plunking. Plunking for steelhead is a 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 there is a chance to catch a fish.

To see the best setup for plunking for steelhead and the methods on how to do it effectively go to my page Plunking For Steelhead.

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.

You can see all of that on my page River Fishing Gear: Everything You Need To Succeed In 2022.

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.

Tight Lines,


Cool River Fishing Accessories

Simms Taco Bag

Simms Taco Bag

It’s a wet wader bag for storing your waders after a day on the water and it’s a mat to stand on to keep your feet dry when getting your waders on and off.

Duffel Bags and Stream Packs

SIMMS Duffel Bags and Stream Packs

Having a dedicated bag to pack and carry your waders, vests, boots, jackets, and more is a good idea. Waterproof and mesh bags are available.

Waterworks Release Tool

Waterworks-Lamson Ketchum Release Tool

Protects your flies from damage caused by forceps, This tool gets all hooks out easily. Even deep hooks come out with this tool.

Clip-on Magnifiers

When I flip these down to tie knots a lot of guys say ” I need to get some of those”. These are great for anyone that ties knots. Make sure they are lined up properly for the best view.

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  1. Hi Graham, Long rods are used for Steelhead Nymphing and I have a 9 ft 6 in fly rod and a 11 foot Noodle rod. I see no reason why I couldn’t use the Noodle rod and a spinning reel for Nymphing for Steelhead. I would just have to construct a Leader to use with the Nymphs. I doubt very much that the fish would know which rod I am using. I think the Leader would have to be fairly long.
    Any comments?

  2. Graham,
    Thanks for your articles. I do a lot of bottom bouncing in Michigan and started using sinking tips instead of droppers. It takes some trial and error and sometimes changing out the leader but once you get it figured out it almost eliminates getting hung up in the rocks. I get a nice drift and seam to be able to detect the bite a little easier. I like your idea of the sighter and will put it to work this year.
    Keep your line tight!

    1. Thanks for the input Cary, I do know guys that use sinking tips when fly fishing, and it’s sort of works OK, but I have never been able to catch more with this method for a few reasons.

      I’m not sure how you actually do this with spinning gear, however, I think I understand your method, and I’m thinking that you are dragging your tips across the bottom instead of bouncing your weigths along the bottom, and if so then yes you would likely get hung up less and the tight line of the sink tips would help detect strikes better.

      However, my biggest concern with that would be the potential for slack in the bottom part of the leader where your bait is, and not being able to know where your fly is at all times. If your tip is dragging slower than your bait and the bait happens to be downriver from your sink tip, there will be no strike detection at the moment the fish grabs the bait. This gives the fish time to spit the bait out without you ever knowing it is there.

      Also, I would be concerned that if you run a very short tip off your sink tip it could spook fish.

      I would also be concerned with a tip that is dragging across the bottom spooking other fish that are not in line with your bait. An example would be if you are fishing your bait 20 feet across the pool, the fish that are between you and the bait will be getting hit or spooked by the sink tip that runs between you and the bait. Does that make sense? If that’s the case you may be spooking a lot of fish that you might have otherwise been able to catch if you were using a straight up and down verticle presentation like you would get with a bait suspended from a float.

      Maybe I’m not understanding you exactly… so, if it’s working for you and you have confidence in it then stick with it.