How to Fish for Steelhead: Fly & Lure Techniques Explained

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How to Fish for Steelhead: Fly & Lure Techniques Explained

Tackle Village is reader supported. If you buy a product through links on the site we may make a small commission

Updated on:
How to Fish For Steelhead Feature Image

It doesn’t take long for anyone pursuing steelhead to understand the highs and lows that occur when targeting these fish. They’re known as the fish of 10,000 casts for a good reason. Regardless of the technique you’re using to target these fish, you’re in for a treat. They fight hard, hit hard and take you for a ride whenever you hook into one.

About Steelhead (and steelhead anglers!)

Distribution

Steelhead are found all the way from the northern parts of Canada all the way down to Argentina. The east and west coast of Canada and the United States have populations of these fish. You’ll even find them in the midwest in the Great Lakes region.

Characteristics

Steelhead range anywhere from 2-35 pounds and from 12″ to 46″. Depending on where you’re fishing and the time of year you target these fish, you’ll find that they vary in size. They’re a sea-run rainbow trout, so they have similar features to any rainbow trout that you’d catch in a river or lake. However, the usually are a little more silver and look a little more weathered due to their life cycle.

These fish are anadromous, so they return to the rivers and streams where they were born to spawn. Once steelhead are born, they’ll make their way out of the stream or river and into the ocean or Great Lake. Once they reach spawning age, they being the journey to their spawning grounds. Some of these fish travel upwards of 800 miles to spawn. Steelhead rivers are found all throughout the United States are a result.

Steelhead tend to be aggressive fish and that’s why steelhead anglers are such fans of these fish. To catch steelhead, you must be patient and unafraid of failure. Many steelhead anglers are willing to try different fishing techniques to catch these fish.

Summer Steelhead

You’re able to catch summer steelhead while boat fishing, drift fishing or bank fishing.

When you hear the phrase “summer steelhead run” this means that the fish are returning to the streams and rivers to spawn in the summer (May through September). Summer steelhead are unique. Unlike winter steelhead, these fish enter the water when they’re not fully mature. They take time to fully mature once they enter the freshwater streams and rivers. This is called a staging period.

Also, summer steelhead generally run longer than winter steelhead. For example, the steelhead in Idaho run in the summer since they have to travel several hundred miles to get to their spawning grounds. They take upwards of a month or so to spawn.

You’re able to catch summer steelhead while boat fishing, drift fishing or bank fishing. However, weather often dictates the quality of fishing you’re going to find. Due to the warmer temperatures, it’s best to spend time fishing early in the morning and late in the evening.

If it’s early summer, you are able to get away with targeting these fish all day, but that doesn’t last long. The water levels lower throughout the summer and the temperatures rise. Stick with the deeper sections throughout the warmer months up until late fall.

In terms of bait and tackle, you’ll find that summer steelhead love salmon roe/eggs. Bank anglers can have success lobbing salmon eggs into some riffles and letting it flow into a deeper pool for holding fishing. Most anglers resort to this tactic in the summer.

You’re also land fish using simple egg imitations, jigs and buggy looking flies. Steelhead aren’t overly different in their feeding patterns compared to salmon. They’ll eat anything out of aggression!

A spinning rod or a fly rod is going to land fish. Many anglers choose spinning rods in the summer, but don’t count out the productivity of a fly.

Winter Steelhead

When steelhead enter the rivers in the winter, they’re much further along in their reproductive maturity than the steelhead that run in the summer.

You’ll find that winter steelhead fishing is the best once things begin to freeze. Early winter is one of the most productive times of year for these fish. As air temperatures cool, precipitation falls and water temperatures cool, the fishing gets more productive. You can find fish in both shallower water and deeper water.

There are many debates about the most productive temperature for winter steelhead. However, these fish are willing to eat in cold water temperatures as long as the flies are presented properly. As long as you’re not fishing in the midst of a severe drop in water temperature, you’ll find fish. Slight warming of water temperature is always a great sign. Consistent water temperatures are best, but an increase is the next best thing 

When steelhead enter the rivers in the winter, they’re much further along in their reproductive maturity than the steelhead that run in the summer. As a result, they can complete their spawn in just a few days.

In terms of the best time of day to pursue these fish, you’ll find that you don’t have to be on the water as soon as the sun rises. Give the temperatures time to warm. Hit the water around 9:30 0r 10 and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to hook into fish the rest of the day.

In the winter, you’ll still find steelhead holding in pools. If possible, find a wide section of river bookeneded by two sections of riffles. If you do, you’ll notice that steelhead feed in different sections of pool depending on the time of year. The middle of pools is where many fish will hang out all winter. It has the least amount of current and has a consistent flow of food. The high sun will keep the fish warm.

If it’s the dead of winter and bitterly cold, stick to the back end of the pools. The water is cold and fish hold here waiting for food to find its way to them. It’s important to understand how many feet deep the pool is you’re fishing and have your bait in the appropriate place.

Lures, floats, flies and bottom bouncing are all techniques that work well for winter steelhead.

Fly Fishing For Steelhead

Tackle

Fly fishing for steelhead, in my opinion, is the best way to target these fish. Hooking into any fish with a fly rod is a blast, but a strong steelhead is arguably the most fun. For tackle, you’ll find that anywhere from a 7-weight to a 9-weight fast action rod is best. These are heavy enough to make long casts, big mends and fight fish.

For your reel, you’ll want one that matches the weight of your rod. For example, if you’re using a 7-weight rod, you’ll want a 7-weight reel. This keeps the balance on your rod and helps in casting and mending!

For your line, you want to make a decision depending on the depth and speed of water you’re fishing. For many steelhead anglers, a floating line works fine. The water isn’t more than 7 or 8 feet deep and a leader is able to get to those depths.

However, if the water is fast and deep, you’ll want a sink-tip line. A sink-tip line is going to get your fly deeper and in position faster than a floating line would.

For leader, most anglers use a 0x or 1x 7 to 9 foot leader. This is heavy enough to withstand the runs and head shakes that you get when you’re fighting these fish.

Techniques

Swinging streamers and dead drifting nymphs and streamers are the most common tactics anglers use when fly fishing for steelhead. Many anglers claim you’ll catch more fish swinging than you would dead drifting, but that depends on the river. One river may work well dead drifting while other rivers are best for swinging.

To swing, cast your fly up and across stream. Let it drift down river and as it drifts across your body it will start to swing across the water towards you. As it swings, fish will hit it!

To dead drift, you just have to make sure the fly is doing the work. Cast out and across the stream and strip in line as it drifts towards you. As it’s moving towards you, raise your rod tip and make sure you have no drag from the line downstream.

Favorite flies

Some of the best summer steelhead flies are the Neo Classic Methow, Marabou Tail Bugger and Egg patterns. You’ll also land fish using stonefly nymphs and woolly buggers.

How to Lure Fish for Steelhead

Steelhead sit behind large rocks, laydowns and any slack water.

Tackle

Many anglers will use somewhere between an 8 foot and 10 foot spinning rod when fishing for steelhead. Generally, a medium or medium heavy rod is going to be enough to fight any steelhead you hook into. You’ll also want to make sure that you have a fast action as well! You need the power and force on an immediate hook set.

For your reel, you want to something around the 3000 size. It has plenty of size, and is going to be able to retrieve the bait at whatever speed you want. You can spool a 3000 size reel with around 150 yards of 10-12 pound test. This should be enough, but if you know you’re targeting monsters, you may want to increase the pound test you’re using.

Techniques

Similar to fly fishing, you want to find pools and slower moving water. Steelhead sit behind large rocks, laydowns and any slack water. Essentially, anywhere in the water that makes sense for a steelhead to sit, you’ll generally find them there. It’s not overly complicated to catch steelhead with lures, so that’s reassuring.

Cast your lure in a pool, let it get to the right depth and begin your retrieve. It’s smart to vary the speed that you retrieve your lure. It often takes time to figure out the best speed to find these fish.

Favorite lures

Some of the best lures for steelhead include a Mepps or Vibrax spinners. Also, the Kwikfish, Crankbaits and spoons all work well.

Steelhead fishing with a Bobber

Tackle

When float fishing for steelhead, you’ll want to use something between 9 and 11 feet. Many anglers choose to use a baitcasting reel when they use a float system. Managing the line with a baitcasting reel isn’t overly complicated.

For your leader, you’ll want to use somewhere between 12-20 pound test. This can be fluorocarbon, so it stays out of sight for the fish. For your main line, stick with braided line.

Many anglers will use 3/8 ounce to 3/4 ounce bobbers for their float setup. If you want, throw a jig below the float and let that act as your bait. You can also use beads and salmon eggs. You’ll also want to make sure you have a float weight and bobber stops to make sure your line gets to where you want, and the float will stop the float from moving.

Techniques

Cast upstream from where you think the fish are holding. Let the float drift downstream and be sure you manage your line. This means you can’t have your line dragging up or downstream. You want your float to be as vertical as possible, so the bait sticks exactly where you need!

If the water is clear, the fish are going to stay in the heavy current since they don’t have anywhere else to hide. If it’s murky, they’ll stay shallow hide in places that they don’t have to exert too much energy.

Final Thoughts on Steelhead fishing

Steelhead fishing is something that every angler needs to try. It’s going to test your patience and perhaps even impact the confidence you have in your fishing abilities. However, once you learn the proper techniques and land your first fish, you won’t be able to help but continue targeting them.

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AUTHOR
Danny Mooers is a passionate fly fishing and angling writer from Arizona. Danny loves sharing his passion for fly fishing for trout and other species through his work for Tackle Village.