Spring Steelhead Fishing: Tips And Tactics From The Guides

Spring steelhead fishing is great for big fish like this.

The spring steelhead fishing methods that myself and other guides use are often different than at other times of the year. These are the tips and tactics for spring steelhead fishing that you need to know.

Spring steelhead fishing can go from ice-cold rivers in late February, to steelhead up on the spawning beds in late March and early April, to steelhead dropping back to the lake in April and May. Good anglers will use multiple methods and different baits to adapt and catch more steelhead.

As a river guide, I know that adapting is the key to catching steelhead but it’s even more important in the spring. Anglers that use these methods and tips will catch more steelhead.

When Is Spring Steelhead Fishing?

A spawned out spring steelhead
A spawned-out spring steelhead caught in a pool below a bunch of spawning steelhead.

I break the spring steelhead runs into 3 different stages to help my clients know what to use, and where and when to fish.

Stage one is during late winter and early spring and is when the ice and snow around many rivers start to melt. This melting raises the river levels and can trigger the first runs of spring steelhead.

On many rivers around the southern great lakes region, the first spring steelhead runs usually occur in late February and early March. For anglers fishing in upper Michigan, Wisconsin, or the north shore of Lake Superior the steelhead runs can be delayed by 2 to 4 weeks.

Stage 1 steelhead are fresh in from the lake, they are aggressive and will readily grab a well-presented bait, fly or lure.

This is a great time for spring steelhead fishing because these fresh fish are also mixed in with the steelhead that have been holding in the lower parts of rivers all winter which are also now active.

Stage one steelhead are often caught in the pools since they move through rapids and shallow sections too quickly.

Stage 2 steelhead are steelhead that are up on the spawning beds and are actively spawning. Steelhead that are on the spawning beds rarely eat, they fight poorly, and they are not great for harvesting.

Steelhead on the spawning beds are often in shallow water and are easily seen by anglers. Because they are in shallow water they can see anglers coming from a long way away and they can be easily spooked which is another reason that they do not eat. Most steelhead caught on the spawning beds are caught by snagging them.

Steelhead on the spawning beds should be left alone and anglers should target steelhead in stage one and stage 3 instead. Doing so usually means a lot more fish.

Stage 3 steelhead are steelhead that have already spawned and are resting and recuperating in the pools or they are slowly working their way back to the lake. These steelhead are often called drop-backs and they are often hungry and agressive.

These drop-back steelhead will sometimes sit in the pools behind spawning steelhead and gorge on eggs. Anglers should avoid spawning steelhead and focus on these steelheads instead.

Stage 3 steelhead are often caught in the pools but I have had excellent success fishing for them in the fast runs, rapids, and behind rocks.

GUIDE TIP: While other anglers are having a tough time fishing for spooked steelhead in the pools, I will often try and find single steelhead holding in pockets in the faster water.

Timing The Runs

An angler spring steelhead fishing in clearing water.
An angler taking advantage of clearing water with one of over 50 steelhead he hooked on a guide trip with me.

Anglers and guides that know how to time the runs can be on the rivers when the spring steelhead fishing is at its best.

The steelhead will usually run when the rivers rise and start to dirty. This rising water draws the steelhead in from the lake. The higher water helps them navigate through very shallow sections and over dams and other obstructions.

High water also helps them get further up the river to the best spawning grounds. The downside to high water on many tributaries around the great lakes is that the river will go muddy. Some anglers describe this dirty water as “chocolate milk”.

When the water is super dirty the steelhead can’t see your baits and this makes it almost impossible to catch any steelhead. When I contact my guides or my friends to find out about river conditions, I often do not care about the height or flow of the river, all I care about is the clarity.

I can catch steelhead in high water if it’s clear, but not in muddy water. What I tell my clients is that if I stand in 10 inches of water and I can’t see the tops of my boots, it’s probably too dirty to fish, so go home or go find a clearer river.

I discuss some tactics that I use after rains on my page Trout Fishing After A Rain and on that page I discuss tips for finding clearer water.

If I can see the bottom in 10 to 12 inches of water I can probably catch fish. With 12 inches of clarity, you need to get your bait within 12 inches of the fish and this is definitely possible. 14 to 20 inches of clarity is when the steelhead fishing can be fantastic.

Anglers that know what they are doing know that as the rivers start to drop and clear is the best time to hit the river.

Spring Steelhead Fishing Methods

The methods that you use to catch spring steelhead is often a personal choice since all the methods I discuss below will work. The problem that I see anglers making with most of these methods is not setting up their rig properly, not fishing it properly, or using the wrong baits or lures at the wrong time.

Float fishing for Spring Steelhead

Float fishing is effective and popular for spring steelhead fishing. Float fishing is best done in pools, on deeper rivers, and in slower water. Float fishing is simply suspending a bait below a float.

However, I say simply, but the honest truth is that if float fishing is done poorly or is set up wrong, or you use the wrong floats, line, leaders, and hooks, you will struggle to catch steelhead.

If you want to get better at float fishing, check out my page Float Fishing For Steelhead.

Centerpin Fishing For Spring Steelhead

float fishing for steelhead in the spring
Float fishing can be the most effective method when fishing spring steelhead.

Centerpin fishing is basically the same as float fishing however instead of using a spinning reel you use what is called a Centerpin reel. The Centerpin reel combined with an extra-long rod gives you the advantage of being able to get the best presentation possible.

After using and teaching anglers how to float fish with a spinning reel and Centerpin reels I can honestly say that the Centerpin reel is superior and can’t be beaten. There’s a reason why I have a hard time getting my guides to do float fishing with a spinning reel. Some of them even refuse!

For more information on my guide tips and advice on Centerpin fishing for steelhead, trout, or salmon, check out my page Centerpin Fishing For Beginners: 20 Steps From A Top Guide

Fly Fishing For Spring Steelhead

Fly fishing is my favorite way to catch steelhead on most rivers around the great lakes except for huge deep rivers.

Fly fishing for steelhead can effectively be done by either nymphing, Euro nymphing, or Spey fishing. For detailed information about fly fishing for steelhead, check out my page Fly Fishing For Steelhead: Great Lakes Style.

Click the picture to watch the guys from the New Fly Fishing fishing spring steelhead.
Click to watch the guys from the New Fly Fishing fishing spring steelhead.

Nymphing with an indicator is often the most popular and effective method that you will see anglers using.

I use this a lot with beginner clients or when fishing larger, deeper, or slower sections of the rivers.

For more info, check out my page Nymphing For Steelhead: The 3 Most Effective Methods

Euro Nymphing for steelhead is something that many anglers haven’t even heard of yet but it’s often my most effective method on smaller sections of rivers or in fast or pocket water.

If you think Euro nymphing is something you want to try, or you want to know more about it, check out my page Euro Nymphing Steelhead: Everything You Need To Know.

Bottom Bouncing / Drift Fishing For Spring Steelhead

Bottom bouncing and drift fishing are very similar. I use these methods with spinning reels and the idea is to cast the bait out and then let it drift freely down the river with the current. It does not use a float.

The tricky part for most anglers is detecting a bite and controlling the speed. For my advanced methods check out my page Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish.

Lure Fishing For Spring Steelhead

Some anglers like to use lures when spring steelhead fishing and the spring is a great time of year for this method.

Some of my favorite lures for spring steelhead are spinners, spoons, crankbaits, and even jigs. Yes, I said jigs! Jig fishing for steelhead can be very effective times.

For all the details on the best lures, sizes, colors, and how to fish lures check out my page Best Lures For Steelhead – A Pro Guides Recommendations.

Some anglers might also find my page Spin Fishing For Steelhead – 5 Most Effective Methods Used By Guides very informative.

Best Baits For Spring Steelhead

The best baits for spring steelhead are spawn bags, worms, beads, and flies. I will change my baits, the sizes, and the colors depending on the conditions.

In dirt water, I will use larger and brighter baits lake ping pong ball-sized spawn bags in chartreuse color. In very low water I might prefer a natural-looking stonefly nymph or a single egg pattern. It’s important to know what bait to use and when.

I have found that my method of rotating baits has been exceptionally effective at putting my clients onto fish when other anglers are not catching anything. I even have certain baits that I use when the fish are pressured by other anglers.

I discuss my tips and tactics on my page Best Steelhead Baits And How To Maximize Their Effectiveness.

I also have 2 great articles on Fall Fishing For Steelhead and Winter Fishing For Steelhead so be sure to check them out.

Got A Question About Sring Steelhead Fishing?

I hope you enjoyed the article on spring steelhead fishing. If you have a question, tip or some advice related to fishing for spring steelhead let me know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,

Graham

Author

  • Graham - River Guide / Instructor

    I am a full-time river fishing guide with over 20 years of guiding experience and I run one of the top river guide services with a team of great river guides. I have guided about 3000 anglers and this website is a compilation of the tips and methods that I teach my clients and other guides. Check the About Us page in the bottom menu for more about me and our river guide contributors.

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