Steelhead Fishing Tips and Techniques – How To Catch More

If you’ve never fished for steelhead before, you might be wondering how you can make the most of your time on the water. 

Steelheads are unique fish, closely related to the rainbow trout (in fact, the only difference between the two is their choice of habitat). 

Rainbow trout spend their entire lives in rivers, but steelheads eventually migrate to oceans or other large bodies of water. 

Because of this, steelheads reach a much larger size than their river-loving counterparts – and they can be much more enjoyable to fish for, too!

Fishing for steelhead requires a certain finesse but it’s not exceptionally hard. Consider these top steelhead fishing tips for your next adventure. 

Pick the Run Wisely

If you’re fishing for steelhead, you’re probably going to be doing it in a river – and you will have two separate runs to choose from. 

Summer run steelheads generally arrive between May and October, traveling inland up long rivers. They aren’t quite mature, so they spend several months here before they spawn.

The winter run will occur between November and April, during which time the steelhead will travel just a short distance, spawn, and then return to the sea.

Fishing for summer run steelhead is a good idea if you want a longer period in which to fish. 

Summer run steelhead move more slowly than winter-run fish and tend to be more lackadaisical, improving your odds at a decent catch. 

That being said, winter-run steelheads are harder to catch.

If you have a bit more experience in fishing for steelhead, you might want to target the winter run, as it will likely require more technique. 

Tie Leaders Ahead of Time

Whenever Possible, tie up all your leaders before you leave home. That way, you can swap them out quickly whenever you find that you’ve snapped a leader off or need to replace it. 

Make sure that all your baits, leaders, and drift bobbers are in easy reach. You might not use them all in one day, but it’s good to have them in case you need them. 

And if you are a beginner you’re going to have to choose an appropriate rod and reel combo to make your life a lot easier. 

Consider the Environment 

Your success in any kind of fishing – but particularly for steelhead – will almost always hinge upon having good knowledge of the waters in which you are fishing. 

When you’re fishing for steelhead, try to gather as much information as you can about the body of water. For instance, make sure there’s a good run, as steelheads are hard to catch in empty waters. 

Also, check with locals to find out the best information on a river. My recommendation? Check with the local bait shop – that’s where you’ll find the greatest amount of intel.

In general, though, most steelheads prefer hanging around in waters that are at least two or three feet deep, if not deeper. 

They move briskly and can be tough to find in swollen floodwaters. They won’t hang out in the shallows because this will expose them too much. 

You might be more likely to find steelhead in rocky waters. If the bottom is rocky, there’s a good chance that you will find fish – especially if there are large rocks and boulders around. 

Cast right to the boulders – there’s a good chance you will find a fish there. Another popular hiding spot for steelhead? In the calm areas down from a fast stretch of water. 

They’ll be taking a breather in the calm waters before readying themselves to move through the rougher spots ahead. 

Switch Things Up

Whenever you’re fishing – but especially when you’re fishing for steelhead – you’ve got to be willing to change things up and adapt your strategies! 

If you think that steelheads are in the water, but they aren’t responding to you, consider changing just one small piece of gear.

Don’t move mountains, though – only change one thing at a time. Otherwise, you might not know what worked and what didn’t when it comes to fishing for steelhead in the future.

There are all kinds of options when it comes to fishing for steelhead, and it could be a minute change that gets you a bite – or a big one.

Some suggestions if you just aren’t feeling that nibble?

You might want to give one or two products a try. For example, Sand Shrimp, Krill, Anise, Shrimp, and Shrimp Krill are all excellent scents that steelhead absolutely love. 

You could also try the Fuze Steelhead Blend Egg Cure for Eggs Oil if you’re using bait (it works well in both inland and estuary settings). 

Another option? Give a gel a try if you’re using an artificial bait. 

This works well for all kinds of artificial baits, from plugs to swim baits, but it’s especially effective when you’re fishing artificial bait for steelhead. 

Since it’s made from actual bait, the steelhead won’t even know what’s coming their way.

Ultimately, it’s being aware of these changes that differentiate an exceptional angler from the rest of the crowd.

Be On the Move

Steelheads are quick-moving, even in the summer when they tend to be more lethargic. 

Summer run fish tend to hang out in their favorite areas longer, but you still must remember that they are on the move. 

Don’t get too hung up on any one area and instead be willing to move around. 

Have all your gear ready and make sure it’s packed up logically so that moving it is easy as you travel from point to point.

Plan for the Water Conditions

In fast water, you might have to take a faster and more aggressive approach to get the attention of the fish around you.

If you see a fish, cast right to it – you’ll need to make sure you move your lure enough to be visible. 

Of course, you want things to look natural, but in fast-moving waters, a bit more movement won’t be out of the ordinary.

You can use flashier lures and flies in fast water, particularly if there’s a hatch of bugs occurring. Try to mimic what’s hatching to get the fish to strike. 

In slower waters, though, you’ll need to move more cautiously, as this can scare the fish. Cast upstream and work downward. 

You’ll find that in fly fishing, it might be harder for the fish to notice you at first. Resist the urge to move right away. 

If the fish are still around, stay where you are. Steelhead, like all other fish, can be finicky. 

Follow the Crowds

While an early start is often the best time to catch fish, a late start can often be beneficial, too.

When it comes to fishing for steelhead, there tends to be a lot of early morning pressure, particularly for bank fishing. 

However, after a few hours, the crowds usually start to thin.

Want to avoid crowds? Follow them. Head to the river after most have left – and plan on offering the fish something they haven’t seen yet. 

Check the River Level Ahead of Time – and That Day

You can do all the research you want about a river ahead of time, but if you get there and find out that the water is too high to fish, it’s not going to do you much good.

Therefore, it’s essential that you check this information in advance as well as close to the time you plan on fishing. 

If you’re fishing in the spring, river levels can change overnight. Tracking and approaching storm systems can save you hours of frustration and disappointment.

There are all kinds of regional websites you can check that will give you updated river-level monitoring stations. 

These tend to be frequently updated. You can also check with local radio stations, newspapers, and television channels to find the information you need.

Knowing how much water is going to be flowing through a river can play a major role in how you choose to fish.

Being aware of the conditions will help work out the best approach to find steelhead.

Be Patient – and Practice!

Steelheads are finicky fish. You can go for many years without ever catching one, even if you’re an experienced angler who has logged plenty of hours on the water. 

Try often and try not to let yourself get discouraged. If you see fish and just can’t get them to bite, change up your approach!

Make sure you use trial and error and only change one thing at a time – that way, you’ll have a good idea of the steps you can take in certain situations to make things work. 

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Sean Ward

Hey there, my name is Sean – OnTrack Fishing is my site. I’m based in the UK yet I’ve been fortunate enough to catch bass in the States, barramundi in Australia, trout here at home and carp on the Danube delta. If I’m not fishing, or talking about fishing, then….I’m probably asleep.


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