5 Best Steelhead Fishing Rigs That Guide Use

A nice steelhead I caught on one of my favorite steelhead fishing rigs.
A nice steelhead I caught on one of my favorite steelhead fishing rigs.

In this article, I will share five highly effective steelhead fishing rigs that top steelhead guides use to maximize their clients’ success when using bait. These steelhead fishing setups are suitable for various fishing environments, including still-water lakes, ponds, reservoirs, and rivers.

As an experienced guide with over 20 years of expertise, I have extensively tested and used numerous steelhead fishing rigs that I’ve learned from fellow guides and skilled steelhead anglers, and the ones I’ll share with you are the best of the best.

Additionally, I will highlight common steelhead fishing rig mistakes that unknowingly hinder anglers from catching steelhead. By avoiding these errors, you can significantly enhance your chances of landing fish.

The Key Components Of A Good Steelhead Fishing Rig

Alex from Fire Plug Charters with a nice steelhead caught on one of his steelhead fishing rigs.
Alex from Fire Plug Charters with a nice steelhead caught on one of his steelhead fishing rigs.

To achieve a successful steelhead fishing rig, two essential elements must be carefully considered: the hook and the leader. These components play a crucial role as they are what the steelhead sees when it approaches your bait.

The weight also plays a role since it makes the steelhead rig present properly.

If either of these elements is wrong, your ability to catch fish will be compromised, and maybe even to the point where you catch absolutely nothing when you could have caught many had these things been perfect.

However, don’t worry, as I will provide you with the specific hooks and leaders and the sizes that I use in my own steelhead fishing rigs and the rigs I use when I’m guiding.

Selecting the Right Hook And Hook Size For Your Steelhead Fishing Rigs

John from get Bent Guide Service with a huge steelhead caught on one of his steelhead fishing rigs.
John from Get Bent Guide Service with a huge steelhead caught on one of his steelhead fishing rigs.

A high-quality hook should effortlessly penetrate the fish’s mouth during the hookset and maintain a secure hold throughout the fight. Unfortunately, not all hooks fulfill these criteria.

Some hooks, popular among novice anglers, are actually inadequate and prevent them from successfully catching steelhead.

I see these hooks on the rods of anglers all the time and when I see them I know these anglers are not catching anywhere near the amount of steelhead my clients are catching.

Regrettably, many anglers unknowingly use bad hooks due to misleading articles written by uninformed authors who advocate for bait-holder hooks. These bait-holder hooks are even recommended by store staff at certain large retailers, as well as by anglers who lack proper knowledge.

Allow me to be brutally honest with you, reputable fishing guides and experienced anglers never use bait-holder hooks because THEY SUCK!!

Fishing guides are very picky when it comes to selecting hooks.

To provide their clients with the best chance of hooking and landing steelhead, guides rely on hooks that can efficiently penetrate the fish’s mouth and securely hold it during the battle. And they must be very sharp with a super sharp and fine hook point.

If bait holder hooks were truly superior for bait fishing, all guides and seasoned anglers would utilize them, but they don’t because good guides know how bad they really are.

Instead, skilled anglers and guides opt for proven short-shank wide gap hooks such as the Raven Specimen or the Gamaktsu Octopus hook.

Best Hook Size For Steelhead Fishing Rigs

Alex from Fire Plug Charters with a huge steelhead caught on one of his steelhead fishing rigs.
Alex from Fire Plug Charters with a huge steelhead caught on one of his steelhead fishing rigs.

Furthermore, using the wrong hook size in relation to your bait can also impede your fishing success.

Unfortunately, many anglers believe the bait they are using is the problem, I know this because when I tell them how many fish my clients have caught, 99% of the time the question they ask is “What bait are you using?”

Unfortunately, a great bait is nearly useless on a bad hook or with a leader so thick that the fish can see it from 10 feet away.

Bait and hook size
This bait is way too small for this hook which could result in the fish seeing the hook and refusing to eat the bait. Match the hook to the size of the bait.

Steelhead possess excellent vision, especially in slow currents or still water where they have ample time to inspect the bait.

They may choose not to bite if they spot the hook, particularly the more experienced and larger wild steelhead.

Choosing the appropriate hook size is also crucial to success with any fish. An overly large hook is easily noticeable to the steelhead, while a small hook may go unnoticed but fails to provide adequate penetration and grip on the fish.

Good Hook Size For this bait
This bait is a good size for this hook and the hook gap is wide enough to hook a fish.

You need to use the right-sized hook based on the size of your bait. So, unless you only use one bait and one size, you need multiple-sized hooks ranging from size 2 to size 10.

In the great lakes steelhead region, sizes 6 to 10 are perfect.

For west coast steelhead where sometimes shrimp and large chunks of skein are used as bait, a size 2 hook might be sufficient, but you could go as small as a size 10 for use with beads or plastic worms.

Also, cheap hooks are more likely to bend and break, so stick with these good-quality hooks.

Proper Bait Placement On The Hook

How to put a bait on a hook
An example of where you want to put your bait on a hook to be sure most of the hook is covered but also to be sure the hook gap is wide enough and the hook point is not covered.

While having the right hook is crucial, improper rigging can diminish its effectiveness.

Unfortunately, numerous steelhead fishing setups promoted online are incorrectly rigged, greatly reducing the chances of catching fish.

Drawing from years of experience and extensive trial and error, I can confidently state that covering the hook point or filling the hook gap is a big mistake for most baits.

By keeping the hook gap open and the hook point exposed, the fish often hooks itself, especially in currents. This simple adjustment can significantly increase your catch rate.

Choosing the Appropriate Leader Size for Your Steelhead Fishing Rig

When I'm guiding, I sometimes get to net some massive steelhead and without a good steelhead fishing leader we would catch a lot less fish.
When I’m guiding, I sometimes get to net some massive steelhead, and without a good steelhead fishing rig we would catch a lot less fish.

When referring to the leader size, I am specifically discussing the pound test, not the length. The ideal leader length for each setup can be seen in the diagrams provided below.

I use different leader strengths and lengths depending on the size of the steelhead and the conditions of the river.

Through extensive testing under various conditions, I have found that the diameter of the leader line plays a significant role in fishing success. My general rule is to select a line that is thin enough to remain undetected by the steelhead, yet strong enough to prevent break-offs.

Unfortunately, not all brands accurately rate their leaders, which can hinder your fishing success and even completely prevent bites.

For instance, one brand’s 8-pound leader may have the thickness of a 14-pound test, which is unfavorable for steelhead fishing as it becomes more visible to the fish.

To mitigate this issue, I recommend purchasing leader lines based on the diameter provided on the box rather than relying solely on the pound test rating advertised by the company.

Here are some basic guidelines for selecting the appropriate leader size:

Trout Leader: 2 to 6 pounds, with a diameter ranging from 0.004 to 0.007 inches.

Steelhead and Bass or large trout: Great Lake Region 6 to 10 pounds, with the ideal size being 8 pounds, and a diameter of 0.008 inches.

Steelhead – West Coast Region: 8 to 12 pounds, with the ideal size being 10 pounds, and a diameter of 0.009 inches.

Salmon: 10 to 16 pounds, with the ideal size being 14 pounds, and a diameter of 0.011 inches.

A Brief Overview of My Steelhead Fishing Rigs

Allow me to provide a brief overview of the setups I use for steelhead fishing. It’s important to note that these setups are adaptable to various baits, including spawn bags, worms, minnows, shrimp, or any other bait you choose.

These steelhead rigs have been proven effective by myself, fellow guides, and experienced anglers, making them the best rigs for maximizing your fishing success.

Float Fishing Steelhead Fishing Rigs: Bobber Rigs

Steelhead Leader Formula
My Steelhead Leader Formula when using 2 baits. You could also omit the middle bait.
Setting your float by using this drop shot rig for more trout and steelhead
This drop shot float rig is a great rig for helping you find the bottom so you know how deep to set your float.

Whether I’m fishing in lakes or rivers, I utilize the same float fishing setup. The only distinction is that in a lake, if the depth exceeds the length of my rod (typically over 7 feet), I use a slip float. A Slip float makes it easy to cast when you need depths up to 20 feet deep.

In rivers, where longer rods ranging from 10 to 12 feet are preferred, I always preffer a fixed float in water depths up to 12 feet.

One last thing about bobbers and floats, use the long narrow float designed for river fishing. These are the best in currents and in still water. River float with a pointed tip are best as they enable you to get advanced drifts as I explain in my article on Float Fishing. Advance drifts can double your catch rate on steelhead.

Drift Fishing Steelhead Fishing Rig

Improved Drift Fishing Rig For Steelhead
This improved drift fishing steelhead rig is more stealthy and abrasion-resistant because there is an added length of fluorocarbon leader. This removed the thicker and more visible mainline from the strike zone and fish’s view.

When fishing in large rivers with strong currents or deeper water, the drift fishing method proves to be highly effective.

This approach has yielded successful catches of steelhead, salmon, carp, bass, and catfish.

Bottom Bouncing Steelhead Fishing Rig

An advanced steelhead bottom bouncing rig

Similar to the drift fishing method, I always use the Bottom Bouncing method when fishing for steelhead in smaller and shallower sections of rivers.

This is by far the best method in shallow riffles, small runs, small pools, and pocket water.

Still-Water Steelhead Fishing Rigs: Plunking Rig

A bottom rig for trout , steelhead and salmon fishing ponds, lakes, and in reservoirs.
A bottom rig for trout, steelhead, and salmon fishing ponds, lakes, and in reservoirs. Use 2 to 4 pound leader for trout, 6 to 10 pound for steelhead, and 10 to 14 pound for salmon
The steelhead plunking rig when using baits
This is a common steelhead plunking rig that works well for baits. Adjust line sizes based on desired depth, and the size of the steelhead in your area.

This method which many anglers call Plunking is suitable for fishing in still waters such as lakes, ponds, and reservoirs. It will also work well in rivers.

The bottom rig is most used in still water to target steelhead, salmon, trout, bass, carp, and catfish. The plunking rig is a steelhead and salmon rig for rivers, however, it can also be good for casting out into the river mouths and ocean.

This setup is versatile, accommodating both daytime and nighttime steelhead fishing. As steelhead often exhibit increased activity during the night, still fishing can prove to be a fruitful strategy.

Bobber Doggin Steelhead Fishing Rig

Bobber doggin rig
This is a standard bobber Doggin Rig for Steelhead, Salmon, And Trout

Bobber Doggin is a relatively new bobber fishing technique gaining popularity among anglers.

This method is applicable for fishing in rivers and can be utilized to target various bait-eating fish species found in currents.

The Steelhead Float Fishing Jig Rig

My steelhead Jig Leader Float Fishing Rig

The other thing some anglers like myself do is fish jigs below a float. I also fish jigs with the drift fishing method and when bottom bouncing.

This is my basic steelhead float fishing jig rig setup but I have five steelhead jig rigs in my article Steelhead Jig Setup.

Steelhead Fishing Rig Queries and Advice

If you have any questions or insights regarding steelhead fishing rigs and setups, I encourage you to share them in the comments section below. I wish you the best of luck in your steelhead fishing endeavors!

Tight Lines,


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