How to Drift Fish for Steelhead Trout

Steelhead trout are an important yet underappreciated fish. They’re small but mighty, and they thrive in fast-flowing rivers with lots of gravel to climb up and down. In the stream where I fish, the water is so clear you can see the steelhead swimming upstream. Steelheads have a high tolerance for cold water, so you need to keep them warm if you want to catch them. 

Drift fishing is a blanket term to describe a practice of fishing where you let your lure float down through the water naturally. It would help if you readied your selected drift fishing rig with a bobber or float to fish at your desired depth.

Drift fishing is the perfect way to get into the world of steelhead. Not only do you get to catch them, but you’re also able to read their water-holding patterns and set your hook before they spit out the bait. This article will teach you how to drift fish for steelhead.

Things to Remember Before Drift Fishing

As many people have tried drift fishing, it will guarantee you a good catch. Drift fishing works over underground grass beds, contours of riverbeds, and other water bottoms. But there are a lot of things that you need to take down before drift fishing. Even experienced and professional anglers prepare themselves before facing the water. Here is some importance you need to remember when drift fishing.

Plan out your path before fishing

It is also essential to follow markings on your fish finder to know the fish activity below your boat. Stick to the area where you find a lot of fish activity happening.

Invest in the different common types of equipment for fishing in any species and depth

 Search for information on the best gear for the species and depth you desire by looking online. You can also look at your local sporting or fishing good dealers.

Hire a guide

If you are unfamiliar with drift fishing and not sure what you’re doing, hiring a guide can help.

Note that there are other people drift fishing like you

It’s crucial to work with others and use the same technique they are using. Make sure that you won’t disturb their fishing path with your boat or motor.

What is the Drift Fishing Technique for Steelhead Trout?

Drift fishing is different from bottom fishing, and they have different techniques too. This type of fishing can keep your bait moving and can cover more area than other fishing techniques. Moreover, most anglers used this technique in catching larger species of fish and large bodies of water, like steelhead trout. Here are the steps on how to drift steelhead trout.

Understanding the water

The temperature, depth and speed, and water clarity affect and change your target species’ location and presentation. It will also affect the fish’ sight and what you can get during your whole duration of fishing.

You can generally run a light and a long setup of light lure, long leader, long cast in the summer. During winter, you can catch the opposite. But remember that it won’t guarantee if you are ice fishing. The key to all this is a natural presentation.

Ready Your Tackle

Tackling is the essential thing that you need to prepare for drift fishing. Nevertheless, this setup may vary depending on the fish species you’re targeting.

  1. You will need a specially designed steelhead rod. This kind of rod can handle big fish like steelhead trout. Also, it has a fast action to know when to set the hook. 
  2. You’ll need a decent reel and heavy line. Make sure that your reel has an excellent adjustable drag that you can throw a fish on. A braided line is an option, but only if you don’t mind beating your gear up.
  3. You need a bobber stop attached to your actual line for your terminal tackle, a bead, a weighted bobber, another bead, and a swivel. You will attach the swivel to the line that’s a little lighter than the mainline. It would be best to have an appropriate length for different conditions—two feet during the winter and a few extra feet during the summer.
  4. For your bait or your lure, you will put it on the end of your line. Try thinking of colors and weights appropriate for drift fishing steelhead. Some anglers said that white and pink would guarantee you a steelhead.

Technique to Drift Fish Steelhead Trout

  1. Cast your bait or your lure ahead of it. Then, you need to follow the reel quickly. 
  2. In lure drifting, you need to watch closely and wait. Upon tasting the lure, some fish will spit it out. Even if you see the bobber stop, you should also be setting the hook. Make sure to hit all the sections of the hole multiple times. 
  3. If the bobber does not stop, reel the line downstream. Cast it up again.
  4. Fish all the seams, find behind every rock, or invest in a fish finder, which can also help. Big fish are sometimes picky.

How Do You Rig up for Steelhead Drift Fishing?

There are five (5) best rigs that you can use for drifting steelhead. Each of these is designed depending on water conditions, different baits, and different tactics. Here are the details of each steelhead rig for drift fishing and how to use them.

Bead Rig for Steelhead

This is one of the most effective baits for steelhead. They resembled salmon eggs, which is one of their natural diets.

  1. The best way to use a plastic bead is to use a float fishing rig set-up, like a bobber doggin’ rig or the slip bobber rig.
  2. Start with a plastic bead with a 10 or 12 mm measure. Thread your leader line through it.
  3. Tie a size 4 to 8 octopus hook to the end of the line. 
  4. Position the bead on the line 1 inch above the hook. Fix it to the line by inserting a bead peg into the bead.
  5. You need to utilize the bobber to drift the bead rig downstream with the current. 
  6. It is important to set the depth of the bobber sufficiently deep. 
  7. You need your bead to have direct contact on the bottom as it drifts along. 
  8. It needs to be like a real salmon egg when the current carries them.

Steelhead Worm Rig

This set-up was also one of the best steelhead rigs for drift fishing. It is ideal for presenting your worm close to the bottom for steelhead.

  1. Tie first the mainline to one eye of a three-way swivel with a snap attached to the other eye. You can also use a two-way swivel.
  2. Cast your set-up slightly upstream of the location you want to target.
  3. Follow the drift of the weight with the rod’s tip while the current pulls the set-up downstream.
  4. Open the bail of your reel to release more lines until you reach the end of the arc. This will prolong the drift.

Wacky Worm Rig for Steelhead

This rig looks like a standard worm rig, but you attach the middle of the worm to the end of the hook. It needs to look like a horizontal presentation of a worm.

  1. Attach a 6-inch worm to bend to a size of 6 or 8 octopus hook with an o-ring. 
  2. Don’t forget to attach it to the hook in the middle to give it the freedom to move in the water.
  3. After trying it, you can fish it the same way as a regular worm rig set up by drifting along with promising runs.

Slip Bobber Rig for Steelhead

Float set-ups are often associated with drift fishing steelhead from a boat. This can be also used as a gangbuster for fishing steelhead from the bank. 

  1. Use a bobber slip, tie it on your mainline and thread the line through a plastic bead. 
  2. Tie your mainline to a swivel, add one or more split shot weights above the swivel to weigh down your baited hook at the bottom.
  3. Tie a 2-4 feet leader to the swivel, thread a plastic worm on the other end of the leader, then a plastic bead.
  4. Tie a size of size 6-8 octopus hook to your leader underneath the head.
  5. Adjust the depth of your bobber stop to your estimated length. 
  6. Cast your rig slightly upstream, let it drift off the water for a moment. 
  7. If you notice that it is slanting a little, you need to adjust the bobber stop to a shallow depth. It should stand up naturally in the water.

Bobber Doggin’ Rig for Steelhead

This combines the strength of a classic steelhead worm rig with a slip bobber rig. It is also one of the most effective steelhead rigs on the market. 

  1. Start the same way with the slip bobber rig, and thread a plastic bead underneath the bobber.
  2. Tie the mainline to a three-way swivel with a snap or with a regular snap swivel. 
  3. Attach the snap to a pencil weight and add a 1-3 feet long with 10-12 lbs. test fluorocarbon leader.
  4. Set your bobber stop to more than the maximum depth you expect to encounter.
  5. You need to check if the float leans downstream as it pulls the pencil weight along to the bottom.

How Do You Drift Fish Beads for Steelhead Trout?

Steelheads are renowned for their incredible survival rates, so you can fully rely on plastic beads to ensure that your steelhead is thriving.

How to Tie It?

  1. When tying a bead rig, you don’t need to worry about getting the right size beads. You can use smaller or larger beads than normal because they come with peg holes. 
  2. Go with a 10 or 12 mm plastic bead, and thread your leader line through it.  
  3. Tie a size 4 to 8 octopus hook to the end of the line. 
  4. Position the bead on the line about 1 inch above the hook, and fix it by inserting the bead peg into the bead.

How to Use It?

Using a slip bobber to fish a bead rig is the best way to do it. Meanwhile, if you are fishing in shallow rivers, you can also use a fixed bobber. During a strong current, a great option is a drift rig with pencil lead that you can drift along the bottom of the river bed. It needs the rig to get down into the strike zone effectively.

When to Use It?

The bead setup is the perfect tool to use with enough current to move it along the riverside. This rig can be seen bobbing along on a stream of water. It looks very similar to a real salmon egg.

How to Drift Fish Eggs for Steelhead Trout?

You can drift fish with floating fish eggs. To achieve this, use enough weight to get you down to the bottom of the lure so that you can feel your lure bounce and move downstream. It is also important to keep in contact with the fish eggs at all times as you feel them bounce along the bottom.

What Other Fish Can I Catch in Drift Fishing?

Of course, there are many other fish species you can catch aside from steelhead trout. Here is the list of other fish that you can capture using this fishing technique.


There are a lot of fish species that you can catch using drift fishing. When fishing close to the shore, these are the following that you can catch.

  • King Mackerel
  • Amberjack
  • Dolphin
  • Redfish

When you head off to deep water, you can still catch the fish mentioned above. Additionally, these are the fish you can get in deep water.

  • Wahoo
  • Tuna
  • Swordfish


Of course, drift fishing also works on freshwater. These are the following fish you can catch.

  • Catfish
  • Crappie

As catfish are usually bottom feeders, anglers grab the opportunity to drag stick baits for them. You can find crappie in different depths. Also, you can catch it with matching speed, the size of the lure, and the length of the line. It would help if you also had a long-lining for crappie.

Lakes and Rivers

Anglers that usually spend their time fishing on lakes and rivers can use the drift technique too. These fish species you can get with this technique.

  • Trout
  • Walleye
  • Northern Pike
  • Bass


In some areas, especially in the northwest part, the drift fishing technique is popular, especially on these species.

  • Sturgeon
  • Salmon

Learning the different kinds of fish that you can catch is also essential. Moreover, you also need to know what type of gear, lure or bait, and technique you would use.

Drift Fishing For Trout: Final Verdict

Suppose you’re a beginner, and you’re confused about all the different setups and fishing rigs available to you as a steelhead angler. In that case, it is recommended to start with something very simple and then gradually add more complex fishing rigs as you gain experience.

Drift fishing can be the most flexible method of fishing for steelhead but one of the toughest to master. In doing so, you must have the right equipment, be able to read fish-holding water, know the drift fishing techniques, and set the hook before the fish spits out the bait.

To sum it all up, drift fishing can take a lot of time to learn, but it’s going to be worth it in the end. Patience is the key, and it will be enjoyable to do once you master it. Also, remember that practice is the primary key in achieving your goal.

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