How to Fish for Steelhead Trout

Steelheads are legendary game fish that can be difficult to catch and are considered big fighters when hooked. But to fish for steelhead comes with a reward that is always worth it. Steelhead is known worldwide for its line-peeling runs and spectacular fights. Not to mention, they are prized for their size and taste for their delicate and flaky texture as one of their characteristics.

To add information, steelheads are a unique species, for they develop differently depending on their environment. Rainbow trout, for example, stay in freshwater all their lives. Steelhead trout that migrate to the ocean grow to be much larger than those that stay in freshwater. After spawning, they return to freshwater. 

The steelhead can live up to 20 years and weigh over 30 pounds. Given this information, the next big question is – How do we fish for steelhead? Get yourself hooked as this page will give you the tips and tricks on how to catch your first steelhead. Let’s dive in!

Best Time to Fish

If an angler can follow the run upstream, the best time to do it would be any month from July or August through May. As the run builds, fishing gets better, and catch rates can be pretty good through December. Catch rates can be impacted, however, by colder water temperatures.

To find the best fishing experience of the year, you have to take into account your location. Each month provides different fish varieties, which are plentiful in some locations but not others.

Where to Fish

Rivers that are close to the Pacific in California provide some of the steelhead caught in the country. This fish species likes cold water. Additionally, they are more common in rivers in the northern part of California. Here’s the list of rivers where to fish for steelhead.

Klamath River

This river has a massive river system that provides some steelhead that runs on the California coast. It is typical to catch a 3-7 pound steelhead fish in this area.

Trinity River

Many steelheads that flow in the Klamath River go to the Trinity River. You can expect to catch from 4 up to 8 pounds of adult steelhead. In this river, you can also catch a lot of salmon. It also offers fly-fishing runs, as well as the feel of a classic fly-fishing stream.

Smith River

Smith River is one of the finest places in California to fish for steelhead and also Chinook salmon. Steelhead fishing in this river usually starts in December and peaks in January or February. The catch depends on the weather condition during that time.

Eel River

This river is well-known for the origin of salmon and steelhead in the state of California. You can catch the winter steelhead here around November.

Mad River

This river has two types of steelhead runs in the winter and the summer. In January and February, the winter steelhead runs are the most significant. You can have a good chance to fish for steelhead measuring 8-12 pounds here.

American River

Steelhead begins to show in the American River in early December. Still, it peaks up in January. Expect to catch a lot of 5-8 pound steelheads in this stream.

Feather River

This river is recognized as one of the major steelhead streams in the country. The majority of steelhead here are raised from the Feather River Hatchery near Lake Oroville. The catch runs on the said river occur from mid-December until the end of January. But some anglers can still catch steelhead in the area until April in most years.

Best Techniques On How to Fish for Steelhead

Bobber and Jig or Bait

A good technique for both bank and beginners on how to fish for steelhead. Use a weighted jig or bait, tie it below a floating bobber, and drift it in the current. When it dives, stops and wobbles, set the hook to retrieve.

Drift Fishing

The bait or the lure bounces with the help of significant weight. Keep it near the bottom of the river beds and drift along at the same speed as the current. The effectiveness of this makes it one of the most widely-used steelhead fishing techniques.


A heavyweight holds the bait in the current near the bottom of a river. It is the type of technique that you can use when the water levels are very high. Additionally, you can use this when the steelhead is traveling in soft waters near the bank. Good for beginners and anglers with limited mobility.


Those who master the cast and swing presentation have the best catch to fish for steelhead. It needs to cast the spinner slightly upstream and let it drift naturally in the current. After this, “swing” it toward the bank.

Pulling Plugs (Hot-Shotting, Back Trolling)

The plug is a plastic lure that was designed to dive and wiggle in the current. These plugs can also be cast from the bank and slowly swung with the current.


Anglers used single or double-handed rods to swing the flies through the current. It is a challenging technique for targeting Steelhead. But once you learn this technique, it is rewarding as you can catch a lot of steelheads.

Best Fly Fishing Methods to Catch Steelhead

Cast-and-Retrieve Technique

Cast and retrieve fishing is a type that casts and retrieves the lure or bait back to the boat, but this motion is continuous. To catch the big early steelhead and autumn salmon, use this technique in the calm waters. You can also use this in lower tidewater pools. This method is the best one to fish for steelhead in California rivers.

Steelhead Greased-Line Presentation

In catching the traditional steelhead runs, use this floating-line method. If the water temperature is 45 degrees below, use the sinking line.

Wet-Fly Swing Technique

Try this technique during chilly winter days when the water temperature is less than 45 degrees. You can also use this technique when the steelhead is sluggish. In this technique, you should use a tight sinking-tip line. Swing the fly slowly and deeply. 

You can hook more trout in this technique by giving you a side view of the fish. This way, they take the fly from behind.

Best Baits to Use To Catch Steelhead


It is the all-time best bait for steelhead. You can throw almost anything resembling an egg in the early season and may still catch one. However, as time progresses, you need to be a lot more careful with your presentation.

For the best chance at success, it’s always wise to carry a variety of different egg colors. Do not assume that 1 type of egg will always work.

They are the most important food source for steelhead. That is why eggs are still and probably will always be the best bait for steelhead.


Minnow is a great decoy to use when fishing steelhead. Minnows are best for catching fish when they’re bounced downstream on a single hook, maybe a small weight, or underneath a bobber. It will give you a natural presentation lure. 

You can use preserved or fresh minnows to create a more emotional effect. If you want to dye them, you can soak them in different colored brine.


The best time to fish for steelhead with worms or nightcrawlers is when the water levels start or after a storm. To train its long length, it needs to be threaded onto the hook and leader.

Steelhead will ignore them if your nightcrawler is balled up on your hook. Remember, presentation is the key when using this type of bait.


Prawn or Shrimp is the best steelhead bait when water temperatures are below 45 degrees. This lure will give you that all-important scent, and they also tumble down through the current in a much more natural manner.

Pink Worms

Artificial pink worms are very useful when it comes to steelhead fishing baits. They are cheap, easy to use and store, and won’t die on you. Unlike real worms or nightcrawlers that eventually die, these artificial baits are the best alternative for a lure.

Best Lures To Fish For Steelhead

The Spinner to Fish For Steelhead

Fishing lures that rely on a retrieve to activate their action or wobble is the most effective way to get a steelhead strike. Also known as “the in-line spinner,” this is considered the best lure for steelheads in rivers. The spinner can move fast and cover water quickly, which makes it a great type of lure.

The KwikFish Lure to Fish for Steelhead

This lure is best in all kinds of water conditions. What makes it a good lure is its ability to move slowly through the water. It drives fish crazy because it can wobble crazily back and forth wide. Some models of Kwikfish have a built-in rattle that the steelhead can pick up on from a greater distance.


Like the Spinners and the Kwikfish lures, this needs to be used for slow and low-moving water. It needs to be cast across and slightly upriver, then let the spoondrift freely within 5-10 feet down. Once the spoons go downriver, you need to lower your rod tip and start a slow retrieve.

The Hard Baits

The hard bait is also known as “crankbait,” “body bait,” or a plug and is considered as one of the best and must-haves in any anglers tackle box. These are used for shallow diving lips for faster shallow water. You can use medium ones for deep-diving hard bait so you can control the depth by lifting or lowering your rod tip.

Best Flies To Fish for Steelhead

Worm Fly

A steelhead worm pattern is by far the most productive bait used these days. They also work under most conditions. Red has been the most effective alternative pattern. Because of its bright color, it is a massive aid to fish for steelhead. Purple is a good alternative too.

Unlike many worm patterns, some anglers tied the hook at the end of the worm material for a good reason. It is the best strategy as tying the fly in the middle often causes the other fly to fold in half or a V-shape. It happens a lot when being dragged by the current in the river.

Yarn Egg Fly

It is one of the best flies to fish for steelhead. Some angler called it a ‘glo-bug,’ or an ‘egg fly.’ In picking the right fly, you should consider the color when using this one. In clear water, you can use the colors peach, white, and light pink. Although in all water conditions, you can use the colors salmon, orange, and yellow. In dirty water or off-colored water, you can use chartreuse and hot pink.


A stonefly is one of the most productive baits when float fishing or bottom bouncing. But be careful when choosing a stonefly. There are crappy stonefly variations in the market and are not great for steelhead fishing.

By choosing the right color of this fly, it would work on different species of steelhead.

Wooly Buggers to Fish For Steelhead

Wooly buggers are larger and have a lot below the surface. This action can get the attention of a steelhead. Wooly buggers also come with a bead head or without. Both of these work equally well. This works on steelhead, brown trout, and salmon.

Steelhead Fishing is as Easy as 1-2-3

Due to their popularity as a fishing game, some states and countries may have open fishing laws, including fees for a fishing license to preserve their species. Remember, always check the local restrictions or contact the local government’s department of fishing or wildlife. 

Steelhead fishing is one of the most exciting ways to catch fish. It’s a sport that can be enjoyed by anyone who likes to fish. The thrill of catching these beautiful fish is worth the work it takes to find them. That’s why steelhead fishing is as easy as 1-2-3!

Whether you are a veteran or a new angler, it is a very fun pastime to fish for steelhead, plus you get to enjoy the wonderful outdoors and natural scenery. When it comes to fishing, it is important to stay patient and reel in the steelhead carefully. Steelheads may be strong and stubborn fish, but you can properly and efficiently catch fish of all sizes and varieties with proper education and preparation.

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