I have been teaching anglers how to fish for steelhead for over 20 years and these are the 4 best methods for steelhead fishing in rivers around the great lakes and for west coast rivers. I will also discuss the best times to fish, the best steelhead rivers, the best setups, the best baits, and more. Literally, everything you need to know to catch steelhead in a river is here.
Steelhead fishing can be done using many methods but the most effective methods for steelhead fishing are float fishing, fly fishing, bottom bouncing, and lure fishing. Anglers might change the method they use in different rivers and in different conditions, or even at different times of the year.
Some methods will work better under certain conditions and I will discuss this below.
Anglers will fish for steelhead that enters the rivers from the Pacific Ocean or they can fish for steelhead that live in the Great Lakes and then enter the rivers around the great lakes. Because of this, you will see me say lakes or oceans a lot and the simple truth is that most of the same methods used for the great lakes steelhead will also work on the ocean run steelhead.
Guide Tip: Be sure to keep an eye out for my guide tip for more steelhead.
River Fishing For Steelhead
One of the most popular ways to catch steelhead is fishing for them once they enter the rivers to spawn. Steelhead can often enter the rivers by the thousands and this can make for some easy and exciting fishing.
There are times when so many steelhead will enter smaller rivers that they are so concentrated that anglers can sometimes catch 50 or more in a day.
The great thing about steelhead fishing in rivers is that steelhead can sometimes be caught in rivers 12 months of the year and that they like to eat once they enter the river.
There are many methods that can be used when fishing steelhead in rivers and I will discuss them below.
When Do The Steelhead Enter Rivers – Timing The Runs
We should probably discuss when and why the steelhead enter rivers because if you know when they enter the rivers in large numbers you can catch a lot more steelhead. We call this “timing the runs” and this is a part of steelhead fishing.
There are certain things that trigger the steelhead to run and if you know what they are you can be there on the good days.
In most areas, the bulk of the steelhead will enter the rivers in the fall and in the spring. Some steelhead will also enter the river in the summer which we call summer-run fish, and some will enter the river in the winter.
Most steelhead will spawn in the spring but some will spawn late fall and in the winter if the conditions are right for them.
Oftentimes, water temperatures, rains, and even wind directions will trigger the steelhead runs. In some cases, steelhead will even follow schools of salmon up the river and then gorge on their eggs.
Rains Trigger Steelhead Runs
Big rains will increase water flows in the river and those heavier flows will flow further out into the lake or ocean, and as schools of stagging steelhead swim through these flows they will turn and head up the river. The higher the water the further the flow will go out into the lake and the further the current goes the more fish will find that flow and go up the river.
Steelhead fishing a day or two after a big rain can be a hot time to be on the water.
The increased flows also offer the steelhead a sense of security and make it easier for them to get through shallow sections and over obstructions like dams and falls. Higher flows can also make the steelhead less weary and bite more.
Temperatures Trigger Steelhead Runs
On some rivers that already have large flows without the extra rainwater, once the river temperatures hit the desired temperature of the steelhead, the steelhead can run up the rivers based on just the temperature alone.
On many rivers that I fish, the temperature that start the the steelhead running in the fall is between 55 and 60 Fahrenheit or 12.7c to15.5 celsius and this is when the steelhead fishing starts to get good.
Wind Can Trigger Steelhead Runs
Another factor that can trigger runs is the wind. There are times when strong winds blowing into shore can push steelhead closer to the river mouth where they will swim through the current from the river that is flowing out into the lake or ocean. When they find that current it can trigger or signal them to run up the river.
Anglers that know this can capitalize on these hard to predict runs and they can experience some great steelhead fishing.
The wind is more of a factor when the steelhead are staging closer to the shoreline and near the river mouths or when they are roaming and looking for their preferred river.
I say preferred river because it’s common for most steelhead to want to find and return to the same river they were born in.
Fishing Steelhead Through The Season
Most anglers understand that steelhead fishing means the springtime runs, but that’s not the only time the steelhead will enter or be in the rivers.
The time of year can also be a trigger. In some cases, the steelhead won’t have ideal conditions like big rains to trigger the runs, but as their biological clock ticks in the spring and the steelhead can’t wait any longer, the urgency to get up the river to spawn can make the steelhead run even under super low water conditions and bad temperatures.
The urgency to enter the rivers can also be there in the fall, and for some steelhead on some rivers, that urgency will hit them in the summer and winter too.
When unsuitable river conditions last for too long and the spawning urgency takes over, I have seen small runs of steelhead enter very low rivers during the low light hours and through the night. These runs are nearly impossible to predict. Steelhead fishing during these times can be tough.
Float Fishing For Steelhead In Rivers
One of the most effective methods for steelhead fishing is to float fish.
Float fishing for steelhead simply means you are presenting a bait below a bobber which is more commonly called a float by river anglers. You drift your float and your bait down the river to the fish in the most natural way possible.
The float suspends your bait just off the bottom and keeps it in the strike zone longer.
Float fishing can be very effective in any water that is over 3 feet deep and under 15 feet deep. However, the use of slip float can allow anglers to fish deeper if needed.
Float fishing can be done using spinning reels and long rods, Centerpin reels and rods, or even with baitcasting reels. Depending on what part of the country you are in different methods might be more popular.
Many anglers like to use spinning reels for float fishing. I discuss the best methods for float fishing on my page Float Fishing For Steelhead – A River Guides Advice
Float fishing requires the use of baits and the most common bait is the spawn sac or roe bag. I use a lot of baits and will rotate baits to find the best one based on the conditions or what the fish what so it’s smart to have a few options in your vest or pack.
I also found that some baits work better at certain times of the year. I discuss the top baits on my page 4 Best Steelhead Baits, however, I have recently updated that page and it now has 7 of my best baits and link to more great baits.
Spin Fishing For Steelhead In Rivers
Spinning rods are popular everywhere that guys fish for steelhead. With a spinning reel you can float fish, bottom bounce, cast lures, and even still fish. Spinning reels are also used when trolling from a riverboat.
When spin fishing for steelhead you want to get a reel that has a good smooth drag system that can handle fast pulling fish like steelhead, good bearings are also important and a spool that can hold a lot of line.
I discuss the best spinning reels for float fishing and for lure fishing or just general steelhead fishing on my page Best Spinning Reels.
I also like long rods from 8 to 10 feet for casting and rods from11 to 14 feet for float fishing. A good rod for both casting lures and for float fishing would be between 9 and 11 feet. Check out Best River Fishing Rods Of 2021: Trout And Steelhead Rods.
I also tell you what the best lines are for steelhead fishing on my page about float fishing lines.
Check my page on spin fishing for steelhead for full details, my tactics, and tips to catch more steelhead with spinning reels.
Although spinning reels can be used for float fishing, if you are new to float fishing and are just getting set up I recommend float fishing with Centerpin reels instead.
Centerpin Fishing For Steelhead In Rivers
I have been Centerpin fishing for over 30 years and I have been guiding and teaching anglers how to Centerpin fish for steelhead for about 20 years and I can honestly say that in most rivers Centerpin fishing is by far the best method for catching steelhead in rivers.
Centerpin fishing is simply using a large round reel that looks like a fly reel, but it holds mono or braided line and it has no drag. The Centerpin reel free spools and it’s designed to drift a float with a bait down the river. The free spool of the reel and the smoothness of the reel allows for the best possible presentation of the bait.
The Centerpin reel is combined with long rods which help with presentation and help to fight and land big fish.
This method is deadly on steelhead, salmon, and even trout in rivers if it is done right. I discuss the setup, the leaders, the baits and how to present the bait, and more on my page Centerpin Fishing For Beginners: 20 Steps From A Top Guide. Basically, everything you need to know to be a great Ceterin angler can be found on that page.
If you are a river angler that wants to catch more steelhead, then I highly recommend you learn about this method.
Fly Fishing For Steelhead
Fly fishing for steelhead is my preferred method for fishing for steelhead because I find it more challenging than some of the other methods and because it’s fun. If done right, fly fishing for steelhead can be very effective and in some river situations, it can be more effective than bait and float fishing.
Fly fishing for steelhead can be done using 4 different methods of fly fishing which include Nymph Fishing, Streamer fishing, Spey fishing, and even Euro Nymphing. Fly fishing for steelhead is often most effective in river sections from 2 to 8 feet deep.
I discuss each of these fly fishing methods and how to do them as well as the best setup, leaders, flies and more on my page Fly Fishing For Steelhead: Great Lakes Style .
If fly fishing is something you think you might be interested in, you won’t find another resource that will provide you with as much information, tips, and proven tactics on fly fishing for steelhead as you will find on my series on fly fishing for steelhead, starting with that page.
Bottom Bouncing For Steelhead In Rivers
Bottom bouncing is an old-school method that anglers used to use when steelhead fishing and some anglers still use it today. It has been overshadowed by the float fishing anglers that seem to catch more fish.
However, bottom bouncing can be the most effective method in smaller shallower rivers and creeks and in pocket water. It can also be very effective for trout and for salmon.
I have outfished the float fishing guys 5 to 1on some rivers when the fish are on the move and are spread out in the pools, riffles, runs, and pockets using bottom bouncing.
I have also made the old style of bottom bouncing much more effective than it ever has before using what I call advanced bottom bouncing which you can see on my page Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish.
Lure Fishing For Steelhead In Rivers
Lure fishing is a favorite and effective way of fishing for steelhead. Casting lures can be exciting and it can provide anglers the opportunity to have hard hits and multiple steelhead.
Lure fishing can be done effectively from the river banks, the shoreline of the lake or ocean, and from the pier of the river mouths.
On my page 4 Best Lures For Steelhead – A Pro Guides Recommendations I discuss the best lures and tips on how I use them to catch more steelhead.
Guide Tip: Catch More Steelhead
Steelhead fishing along many rivers can mean crowds, and many anglers fishing in the same area can make the steelhead go lockjaw and stop eating.
A tip that I give to my buddies and clients is to get away from the crowds by using riverboats. I use 1 to 3-man pontoon-style boats that range from under 30 pounds to about 130 pounds, which enable me to get far away from the crowd or get me into sections of the river that flow through private property where nobody else can fish.
You can do this easily and cheaply and I will tell you how.
Some years I will spend 100 days on the water during the fall months and only see about 10 anglers in the sections that we fish. Doing this has been the reason why many of my clients will experience 10 to 50 steelhead a day when other anglers in the public sections are only catching a few.
To see how I do this and all the ways to do it easily with 1 or 2 anglers and to see the best boats for this, check out my page on River Boats For More Fish.
Boat Fishing For Steelhead
Steelhead fishing by motorboat is another method that anglers use on bigger rivers and lakes and oceans. I will cover motorboat fishing methods that are used out in the lake and in the bigger rivers at a later date and in a separate article.
Shore Fishing And Pier Fishing For Steelhead
Pier fishing is popular with anglers because this is where you have the opportunity to catch large fish that are full of energy and are at their strongest. Steelhead that have not been fighting the current for miles will often fight harder and longer because they have more energy which is why many anglers will gravitate to the lower sections of rivers and to the piers.
I will cover pier and shore fishing methods in another article so check back soon.
Steelhead Fishing: Commonly asked Questions
If you have a question or comment, or a tip for the readers or myself, or anything about steelhead fishing, just add it in the comment section below.