Techniques for Steelhead Fishing

With the recent rains and fall weather, steelhead fishing is at its best. Whether fishing in Oregon, Washington or Idaho; now is the time to catch the big ones as they head up the rivers. Each fiver presents its own opportunities and challenges. There is no one type of rig that meets all criteria.

Steelhead on the line

Steelhead on the line

There are many different techniques that an angler may choose when fishing for steelhead. All of these techniques will catch steelhead under certain conditions. The key to success is to develop several techniques that can be matched to the kind of  river, or drift, you are fishing, based on the current river conditions. Water depth, clarity of water, river bottom topography and the timing of the fish run all have an effect on the technique that works best

Some techniques are better suited to steelhead fishing from a boat, such as trolling plugs, while others will work well while bank fishing. Some techniques are better suited to fishing downstream from the angler’s location, while other can be fished upstream.

Years ago fishing was almost exclusively with standard drift gear (corky/yarn & eggs). A lot of steelhead were caught this way, but I knew a lot of fish were being missed in certain types of holding water because the drift gear could not be presented properly. Although other techniques were known, there was not a lot of confidence in them, so I never took the time to learn how to fish them properly. When I made the decision to learn these other methods, success did not come right away. But I stuck with them and read everything I could about these other techniques. Soon I started catching steelhead, which led to increased confidence in these techniques. After awhile my success rate started to climb. I am now hooking more steelhead than ever. I am not saying that these other techniques will guarantee you more hookups, but they will provide you with the ability to more effectively cover certain types of holding water.

The only way to determine what works best is to learn several techniques and try them under different conditions. Keep a record of what works best under certain conditions so that a lot of time can be saved in the future by not having to keep trying a different technique each time.

Since a Steelhead fisherman spends most of his time fishing, rather than catching, it is important to choose a technique that is enjoyable. The information below will provide you with information on some of my favorite techniques for catching steelhead.

Drift Fishing

Fishing on or near the bottom with bait and/or drift bobber’s such as Corky’s, Spin and Glo’s, Cheaters, Okies, etc.

Drift fishing or bottom bouncing is by far the most popular technique for steelhead fishing Terminal tackle for drift fishing is rather simple. Tie a swivel on the end of your mainline, and attach pencil lead or a slinky. Add a leader with a drift bobber such as a Corky, Okie, Cheater or Steelhead Rag and you are set. Any type of bait can be added to the basic corky and yarn setup. Use roe, prawn meat, sandshrimp, squid, and nightcrawlers, and catch steelhead with all of them. The added scent and taste will help a steelhead find your rig in off colored water, and may cause the fish to hold onto your hook a little longer, giving you a better chance of feeling the bite and setting the hook. Although fresh bait can help, it is not necessary

Float Fishing

Fishing with a float or bobber, with bait or a jig suspended below it. One of my favorite year round techniques.

This involves fishing with a jig while floating down the river. Most of the jigs used are made up of marabou or rabbit fur, and range in size from 1/32 oz. to 1/4 oz. For summer runs I use mostly 1/16 oz. or 1/8 oz. sizes. Don’t be shy about fishing the soft current seams right next to shore. This water is often overlooked by drift fisherman. Color is not as important as is the presentation. Steelhead will take different colors at different times. Generally, bright colors at dawn and sunset or cloudy days are best. more muted colors work well in bright sunlight. hooks home. Heavier line will help get these natives in quicker, increasing their chance of survival upon release. It is always a good idea to land these fish quickly, instead of fighting them until exhausted.

Spoon Fishing

Quickly becoming my favorite Winter Steelhead technique.

Typical Spoons

Typical Spoons

Good quality spoons can be found anywhere, but I usually get mine from alibaba, an online mail order  shop linked below . They are high quality and are a much better value than buying your spoons from a sporting good store. You can purchase these spoons ready to fish, or buy the components and do some minor assembly to save a few bucks.  You can find a link to Alibaba’s web site on the link at the end of this article.  If you prefer to shop at a local tackle shop, pick up some 2/5 oz. brass Little Cleo’s. I have had good luck with these spoons. The only recommendation I have is to replace the cheap treble hook that comes on the spoon with a good quality wide bend treble or single siwash.

Spinner Fishing

Very effective for both winter and summer steelhead.

Typ. Spinners

Typ. Spinners



Summer run steelhead seem to respond well to spinners in virtually any conditon you may encounter. With the higher metabolism due to warmer water, summer runs will strike a rotating spinner with wreckless abondon, often as soon as it hits the water upon making a cast. Other times they will attempt to seperate your arm from its socket with an arm wrenching yank as they hammer your spinner while it swings seductivly through a shallow riffle. These types of solid strikes will forever be embedded in your memory and be relived many times over when discussing summer run steelhead with your buddies.


When choosing spinners for summer steelhead  stick with just a few proven patterns that have worked well  over the years. These are typically smaller darker spinners without a lot of flash. You do not need the same flash and vibration that is required to wake up lethergic steelhead found in the cold water of winter. You only want your spinner to have a presence in the water, enough to elicite a strike without spooking the fish. Summer steelhead rivers will usually run much warmer, and the result is that steelhead holding in this warmer water become hair trigger torpedoes, ultra aggressive. A small spinner cast anywhere close to these fish will be attempted to be removed from the food chain with savage  strikes. Surface strikes are fairly common with fish in this state of aggression. These surface eruptions have provided some of my fondest summer run memories.strikes. Surface strikes are fairly common with fish in this state of aggression. These surface eruptions have provided some of my fondest summer run memories.

Pulling Plugs

Deadly technique when fishing from a drift boat or sled.
Pulling plugs, or “hot shotting” as it is often reffered to, can be an absolutely deadly steelheading technique when done properly. This technique is commonly used by guides in the northwest, and is a great way to get a beginning steelheader onto their first steelhead.

Pullingplugs is a technique that incorporates diving plugs, such as “Hot Shots”, “Wiggle Warts”, or “Tadpolly’s”, that are let out downstream from the boat, while the boat is held against the rivers current with oars or a motor. When the plugs have been let out the proper distance from the boat, around 35′ – 40′, the force of the rivers current will cause the plugs to dive. The boat is then allowed to move slowly downstream, letting the plugs wiggle enticingly into the hole, and hopefully right into the face of a holding steelhead.

Many fish are caught by fishermen anchored up in a drift with plugs working below them. Although plugs will catch fish this way, they are much more effective when worked slowly downstream through likely holding water. By allowing the plugs to work slowly downstream, any steelhead that may be in the area are forced to make a decision. The fish will either strike at the lure to remove the threat, or move downstream as the plug moves towards it. If the fish continues to be “pushed back” into shallower water at the tail of the drift, it will once again have to make a decision to strike the lure or move out of its way. Many times the decision will be to strike the plug, which can result in savage hooksets that will bury the tip of the rod beneath the rivers surface.

This is the time of year to get out and get fishing.

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