6 Best Steelhead Fishing Rigs That Guide Use

A nice steelhead I caught on one of my favorite steelhead fishing rigs.
The author with a nice steelhead caught using the same proven and effective steelhead fishing rig he uses when guiding for steelhead. These same rigs are responsible for putting over 300 steelhead a year in the net.

I’m about to share six 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 situations.

I have extensively tested and used numerous rigs for steelhead fishing that I’ve learned from fellow guides and skilled steelhead anglers.

Additionally, I will highlight common rigging 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. A guide like Alex has figured out the leader rigs that work consistently.

Essential elements of an effective rig include the hook, weights, and the leader. These must all be the right size and in the right places.

If any part of the setup is wrong, your ability to catch fish will be compromised.

Selecting The Right Hook

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 a proven rig for steelhead.

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.

All the fishing guides I know are very picky when it comes to the hooks they use.

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. They must also be very sharp.

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

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 proven steelhead bait rigs.

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

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

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.

They may choose not to bite if they spot the hook, especially the wiser, more experienced, 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. A hook that is too small may go unnoticed, which is great, but extra small hooks have a lower hooking and holding ability, and, they are more prone to bending or breaking.

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 is 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
This is 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.

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

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 leader setup, 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, and the length is usually dependent on the average depth of the river.

I use different leader strengths 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.

Pound Test

Diameter Size




6 pound

0.007 in. / 0.18 mm

Float Fishing

- Small to Medium / Under 60 feet wide

- Clear Water

Great Lakes

8 pound

0.008 in. / 0.20 mm

- Float Fishing

- Bottom Bouncing

- Plunking

- Small to Medium / Under 60 feet wide

- Clear water

Great Lakes

10 pound

0.009 in. / 0.22 mm

- Float Fishing

- Drift Fishing and Bottom Bouncing

- Plunking

- Larger Great Lakes Rivers and faster currents

- Off colored rivers

- Small West Coast Rivers

Great Lakes and West Coast

12 pound

0.010 in. / 0.25 mm

- Lure Fishing Great Lakes

- Float Fishing West Coast

- Drift Fishing West Coast

- Plunking on West Coast

- Large Great Lakes Rivers

- Small to Medium West Coast Rivers

Great Lake and West Coast

14 pound

0.011 in. / 0.28mm

- Float Fishing on West Coast

- Drift Fishing on West Coast

Medium to Large Rivers

West Coast

16 pound

0.012 in. / 0.31mm

Lure Fishing

Large to XL

West Coast

My Steelhead Fishing Rigs

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

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.

Float Fishing Rigs For Steelhead: 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.

NOTE: If the depth exceeds the length of my rod, I use a slip float. A Slip float makes it easy to cast when you need depths up to 20 feet deep.

In rivers, under 12 feet deep, I prefer a fixed float.

River floats 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 Rig For Steelhead

Improved Drift Fishing Rig For Steelhead
This improved drift fishing rig is more stealthy and abrasion-resistant because it has 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 Leader 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 the best method in shallow riffles, small runs, small pools, and pocket water.

Still-Water Rigs For Steelhead Fishing: Plunking Rig

A bottom rig for trout , steelhead and salmon fishing ponds, lakes, and in reservoirs.
This is the bottom rig I use for steelhead fishing. I use 8 to 14 pounds for steelhead. Lighter leaders might be required in very clear water.
The steelhead plunking rig when using baits
This is a common steelhead plunking rig that works well for baits. Adjust line sizes based on the 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. The plunking rig is a steelhead rig for rivers or for casting out into the river mouths and ocean.

Bobber Doggin 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.

The Chuck N Duck Rig

Chuck n Duck fishing is used around the Great Lakes region, primarily on the USA side. It is a method used to fly fish deeper and faster rivers for steelhead.

The rig uses a weight called a “Slinky”, but can also use Pencil Lead, Drop Shot weights, and my favorite is a tag with spit shots on it. See these rigs and learn this method at Chuck And Duck Fishing: A Complete Guide.

This is the standard Slinky sliding weight Chuck N Duck rig.
This is the standard Slinky sliding weight Chuck N Duck rig.

Tight Lines,


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