Steelhead Fishing: Most Effective Methods And Tactics Used By Guides

steelhead fishing

River guides catch a lot more than other anglers when steelhead fishing and if you only knew how they do this you would catch more too! I have been teaching anglers how to fish for steelhead for over 20 years and these are the most effective methods, tactics and information for steelhead fishing used by river guides.

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. Guides 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. When steelhead fishing you will also need to know the best times to fish, the best steelhead rivers, the best setups, the best baits, and more, which I will discuss.

Anglers will fish for steelhead that enters the rivers from the Pacific Ocean or they can fish for steelhead that enter 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 Tips: Be sure to keep an eye out for my guide tip for more steelhead.

River Fishing For Steelhead

River Fishing For Steelhead
River Fishing For Steelhead is my specialty and anglers all around the great lakes and west coast have opportunities to fish 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.

I discuss fall, winter, and spring steelhead fishing more below.

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 starts the steelhead runs 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 River Locations

I’m about to let you in on a key secrete that can greatly improve your success on the river. And when I say fishing river locations, I’m not talking about where the rivers are, or the access spots.

You see, river guides and local experts will change river locations based on current conditions, the weather, and the stages of the run.

These experts know how to time the runs and the river conditions to maximize their success and time on the water. Doing so can be the difference between catching no fish, or catching lots of steelhead.

Not knowing how to do this well is the reason why I hear new steelhead anglers tell me they fished 20 days and haven’t caught any fish yet. Whereas I, other guides, and my buddies are catching over a hundred fish in 20 days.

In fact, sometimes, these experienced anglers catch 20 steelhead a day or a hundred steelhead in one weekend.

What my buddies do is they time the runs based on the weather and river conditions. And because they work 5 days a week, they only hit the rivers at select times when the most fish are there or when the conditions are favorable.

As a guide, I fish 7 days a week for 2 or 3 moths straight during steelhead season, so timing the days I fish or guide is not possible. However, like many guides, I will fish different sections of the river on different days, based on my knowledge of where the fish are, or aren’t.

I call this following the runs, or fishing the best waters. Let me explain.

Big rains often bring in lots of steelhead into the river and this is a great thing. However, during heavy rains, the rivers and streams can become dirty, turbulent, and even dangerous.

When the tributaries are high, anglers find it difficult to fish, especially in the lower sections of the river, where the rivers are often dirtiest or highest, thanks to all the runoff from little tributaries and fields up the river. Dirty water simply means the steelhead can’t locate your bait.

The creek’s bottoms can also become dangerous with slippery rocks and shale or deep ledges that you can’t see.

During this high dirty water time, anglers have the option to fish smaller rivers that clear faster or may not have become as high and muddy. Or, anglers can go further up into the headwaters, where the rivers tend to stay clearer. I will do both, depending on the best option.

I will also sometimes target the smaller clearer tributaries of the bigger rivers and fish up these tributaries or at the mouth of them.

During high waters, it is difficult to see where you are stepping in fast-moving and murky water. Therefore, anglers should fish near the edges of the rivers or stay in the shore.

After big rains, if the river stays clear enough to fish, or a day or two after the rains after the water clears, most of the steelhead will be near the mouth of the river or the lower few miles of the river, and this is the place to be fishing. These fresh steelhead are the hardest fighting fish and are usually concentrated.

Four or five days later, especially if no further rains occur, there will be fewer steelhead in the lower river as they move further up the rivers and spread out. This is when it’s best to pick areas of rivers where you can wander and search for steelhead in many pools. I call this following the runs.

On many rivers, the first 2 days after a rain, most steelhead will be in the lower 3 or 4 miles. three and four days later, most of those fish willl be further up the river, and 4 or 5 days later, they will be even further. On my rivers that I guide, I will fish different parts of the river based on where they should be.

I can’t say exactly where they will be on your river since they will move at different rates based on the flow, clarity, and type or river. As an example, on one slower deeper river that I fish, it takes the steelhead 72 to 82 hours to get about 25 miles up the river.

If it hasn’t rained for a week or more the rivers can become very low and very clear and this slows steelhead migrations. Clear rivers can be difficult to fish since steelhead can detect anglers walking around the waterway. Steelhead’s eyesight is incredible during these periods, as is their ability to pick up vibrations from stumbling and heavy-footed anglers.

During these low water conditions, it’s always best to fish for steelhead in the bigger or deepest pools or in section with cover like log jams where they will concentrate and wait for higher water before they start moving again.

You may also find that during these super low water conditions and when no rains have occurred for a long time, there can be a lot of steelhead staging at the river mouths, and this can be the hot spot. These are the next runs of steelhead and while guys are up the river looking for steelhead that are spread out, other guys are smashing them in the lower river.

It’s not uncommon for steelhead to move into or just below the first or second rapids of a river early in the morning, or at dusk, and then move back out into the lake if conditions are not suitable for them to run up the river.

You will also find that winter fishing spots will be different than fall or spring spots, so it makes sense to learn how to locate the best spots throughout the seasons.

As an example, if you have ever spent time with me on the river in the fall you would have heard me tell you which part of the pool is best based on the time of day, time of year, or even based on the river conditions.

This knowledge comes with lots of time on the water catching thousands of steelhead and seeing where they hold. I will share this info with you.

Fishing Steelhead Through The Season

Fishing For Steelhead

Most anglers understand that steelhead fishing means the spring steelhead runs that are triggered by rains and snow melting, resulting in high waters, but that’s not the only time the steelhead will enter or be in the rivers.

Fall, and winter can also be fantastic times to be steelhead fishing.

Steelhead Fishing: Spring

Steelhead fishing in the spring

It’s not only water levels that trigger steelhead runs in the spring or fall.

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.

However, most steelhead enter the rivers in the spring just as the ice melts and the river temperatures start to warm.

There are three stages to the spring steelhead run, and I fish each stage differently to ensure the most fish. Unfortunately, most anglers don’t understand this, and they fish the same spots and same baits, and the same methods, and then they struggle to catch steelhead.

I discuss spring steelhead fishing in detail on my page Spring Steelhead Fishing: Tips And Tactics From The Guides.

Steelhead Fishing: Fall

Steelhead fishing in the fall

Fall steelhead fishing is my favorite time and I know it is for many other guides and anglers.

The reason for this is more stable river conditions, predictable runs, and after spending the summer in the lake or ocean getting big and strong, fall steelhead are aggressive, feed readily, and fish the hardest.

The downside to the fall is steadily dropping water and air temperatures that can change the steelhead feeding behaviors, and their holding locations.

Understanding how to fish during these changing times can put a lot more steelhead in your net. To find out more, see Fall Steelhead Fishing: Proven Guide Tips And Tactics.

Steelhead Fishing: Winter

An Angler Steelhead Fishing PA Rivers in winter

Steelhead fishing in the winter is tough for most anglers. However, winter is when my clients and had the highest number days.

Sometimes over 40 large steelhead a day hit my net and not a single angler anywhere in sight.

Winter fishing means few anglers, possible solitude, and lots of steelhead just sitting and waiting. It can also mean very tough to catch steelhead if you don’t know what you are doing.

During the winter, they feed differently, the more effective baits may be different, and their holding locations can be different than at other times of the year.

The problem for most anglers is twofold. Anglers simply do not understand how to fish winter steelhead, and they don’t know how to stay warm and comfortable.

I discuss this in detail on my page Winter Steelhead Fishing Tactics and Tips From Guides.

Steelhead Fishing: Summer

In some areas, summer steelhead in the rivers is possible due to a special steelhead species known as a Skamania.

Only some states stock this hard-fighting summer-run steelhead. and only on some rivers, and this provides some interesting angling opportunities for some lucky steelhead anglers.

For more, check out Summer Steelhead Fishing

Float Fishing For Steelhead In Rivers

An angler float fishing with flies

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 want, 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 lures, and I prefer rods from 11 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 for catching 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 Centerpin 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 in 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 1 on some rivers when the steelhead 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

Boat fishing for steelhead
This is my 3 man boat that I use to guide from and I can get into rivers less than 20 feet wide and 8 inches deep. Single man boats can be a great way for the average angler to get to uncrowded water and can be light and small enough to carry out in a backpack.

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 where we fish. Using a riverboat like an inflatable pontoon 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

There you have it, the 4 most effective methods for steelhead fishing that are used by most river guides. 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.

Tight Lines

Graham

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.

6 Comments

  1. A friend claims a few drops of anise extract on an egg sack helps attract steelhead- what do you think ??

    1. It is very possible, steelhead are curious animals and if they pick up on a scent it could bring them in from a further distance to investigate, and then when they see the bait they might put it in their mouth. But to be honest with you I’ve tried all kinds of homemade and commercial scents and I haven’t found one that I thought made any real difference. If a scent gives you more confidence, then go for it.

      Graham

  2. I am reading all of your articles on troutandsteelhead.net and was wondering if you can use some or all of these techniques from a boat. Thank you.

    1. I guide and fish from drift boats and rafts all the time and I use these methods from the boat. All the boat does is enable you to be in a position that you can fish better or be nearer to the steelhead.

      However, there might be situations that might make fishing from the boat more difficult in which case just change tactics to one that can work.

      I will likely do an article on “Fishing Rivers From a Boat” this year.

      Hope that helps,

      Good luck.

  3. Hey Graham,

    When you come up to a run, how many setups would you fish it with before relocating. And what would be your go to lures and baits in the order you would rank them when hitting a run.

    Thanks!

    Kenny

    1. Hi Kenny,

      I don’t normally use multiple setups in the same spot unless I feel I can not get the proper or the needed presentation with just one setup, in which case I will change to 1 other setup.

      I will change setups depending on each spot and what would work best in that spot. As example, on a long deeper slower pool, I would go with a float or indicator method, but in shallow faster runs or pocket water, I would use bottom bouncing or Euro nymphing.

      Hope that helps

      Graham,

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