Best Lures and Bait For Steelhead: A Guide To The Right Choices For Steelheading Success

When steelhead fishing is hot, it can be some of the most exciting fishing going. Steelhead are big, strong, hard fighting, and incredibly acrobatic. It’s not hard to see why their popularity has been steadily increasing year after year.

But if you’re familiar at all with steelhead fishing, then you’re probably well aware that those days when they’re hot can be few and far between, and more often than not, they can leave even veteran steelheaders scratching their heads. 

The most successful steelheaders I know are versatile ones - anglers that can change tactics, techniques, or bait choice just as quickly as these fish can change their minds. I’ve watched many steelheaders leave a river empty-handed because of their unwillingness or inability to change things up.

Of course, bank fishing can limit what you can carry with you, but to be successful, you need to have options, which is why we put together this piece on the best lures and bait for steelhead.

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The Best Lures and Bait For Steelhead

Soft Plastics

With more and more companies catering to steelhead anglers, it’s not surprising that soft plastics have seen a huge surge in popularity over the years. Second only to roe, soft plastics are wildly popular for chasing steelhead.

Worms

The most commonly used soft plastic for steelhead fishing, worms can, and quite often will, out-fish just about any other steelhead bait. If you’re chasing steelhead in and around the Great Lakes, then theres no doubt you’ve heard of ‘pinkies,’ a term coined by Great Lakes steelheaders and used to describe the three inch pink trout worms, most notably the Berkley Powerbait Floating Worm that put this type of bait on the map. It’s a killer bait that works on any stream or river, any time of the year. Of course, there are plenty of manufacturers offering smaller trout worms now, all with their own unique steelhead attracting sizes, colors, and scents and all of which catch fish just as well as the last.

But steelhead worms aren’t limited to the smaller ones we’re used to here in the Great Lakes. Instead, the worms used in the ocean tributaries of the west coast are a much different breed. As with any fishing, big water and big fish require big presentations, so it stands to reason that worms used on the west coast are much bigger, both in length and profile. Paddle tail worms in the 6-inch range are commonplace on the west coast but are rarely seen in the Great Lakes. I still get some funny looks when I’m tossing a worm that would be more akin to bass fishing, but they can work just as well in the smaller rivers as they can in the big ones.

Tubes

Strike King Mr.Crappie Tube - Best Tube for Steelhead

I was first introduced to tubes for steelhead in the early 2000’s when a fishing buddy of mine put on a clinic, using them to outfish everyone on the river, myself included. He was reluctant to share, even with me, but with a little convincing he gave up his secret and I never looked back. Since then tubes have always had a place in my steelhead pack.

I’m not talking about the tubes we would normally associate with bass fishing, but instead the tiny micro-tubes we would use for panfish. Small but mighty, when run under a float, whether on a tiny jig head or a bare hook, these tubes dance and undulate in the water, representing everything and nothing at the same time. Tubes go against everything we think of steelhead wanting something natural because, let's face it, there's nothing natural about a tube. But that's exactly why they work so well. Whether they see it as an aquatic insect struggling in the current, or a small crawfish looking for a rock to crawl under, tubes have the kind of appeal that steelhead go crazy for.

Learn how to rig and fish tube baits

Curly Tail Grubs 

Bass Pro Shops Squirmin’ Grub - Best Grub for Steelhead

Without a doubt, the curly tail grub is the single most underutilized lure or bait on this list. Chances are pretty high that not a steelhead angler on the river is carrying these with them. So why is it on this list, you ask? Because this is a list of our picks for the best steelhead lures and baits, and there is no question in my mind that curly tail grubs deserve a spot on it.

Anglers can be a skeptical bunch, none more than the steelheader, so I’ll admit, when I learned these were being used to bank big river steelhead I laughed a little to myself. Eventually I tried one, and that skeptical chuckle soon disappeared. They work, and they work well.

Again, we have to think small when fishing curly tail grubs, and I won’t fish anything longer than 2 inches for our rivers here in the Great Lakes. As with tubes, micro crappie style grubs work best, especially when those grubs are in any shade of pink. 

Beads

Here are a few of our favorite steelhead beads:

When I first started fishing with beads, I’ll admit that they underwhelmed me. Keeping in mind that this was well before beads became the known steelhead catcher they are today, I just couldn’t get them dialed in and they led to more frustration than anything.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m all in, jumping on the bandwagon that is bead fishing. What I once passed off as a fad has now become one of the most important tools in my steelheading repertoire, and I find myself reaching for them more than I do a fresh roe bag or chunk of skein these days.

Whether you’re bottom bouncing them through a deep run or fishing them under a float through a pool that steelhead are holding in, there is no better way of replicating a single salmon or trout egg tumbling along with the current. It also helps that beads come in a seemingly infinite amount of colors to mimic different stages of an egg that has been in the water for a while, or to simply stand out amongst the others and catch a steelhead's eye.

There are three major styles of beads, each being able to cover all situations and at the same time, excelling in specific situations.

Hard Plastic Beads

These are the beads that originated in Alaska all those years ago and put in motion bead fishing as we now know it. Neutrally buoyant, hard plastic beads are easy to use and very closely replicate an egg tumbling down the river bed. These beads are relatively inexpensive, too, so whether you’re just getting into bead fishing or looking to stock up on more, hard plastic beads are the way to go. 

Soft Plastic Beads

Soft plastic beads are relatively new to fishing, having been making some headway over the last few years. Typically larger than their hard plastic counterparts, soft beads work great in any steelhead fishing scenario, but really shine when finicky fish need a little extra. Steelhead can be quick to spit something like a hard plastic bead the second they realize it isn’t right. Soft beads solve that issue. With a similar feel to an actual salmon egg, steelhead will hold on a lot longer, buying you the time needed to set the hook.

Glass Beads

Glass beads are exactly as they say they are: made of glass, making them much heavier than the others, even in smaller sizes. While glass beads aren’t as versatile as the hard and soft plastic versions, they do have their place, most notably when float fishing faster flows. The weight of the glass allows the bead to get down into the strike zone quicker, something that can be the difference between catching steelhead or not when fishing fast water. Float fishing is the best way to present these beads as they can be suspended up off of the bottom and out of harm's way.

Inline Spinners

Here are a few of our favorite spinners for steelhead:

Long before ever picking up a centerpin to float fish, my steelhead pack consisted of a handful of lures. Hands down, my favorite to use was a spinner. From the west coast to the Great Lakes, it’s hard to dispute that an inline spinner is one of the best ways to catch steelhead with a lure. That's why even to this day, if steelhead are hitting lures, the first one I tie on is a spinner.

Whether it's the thump of the slow moving blade, or the flash that it throws off, when steelhead are aggressive, spinners are going to catch them. But unlike other lures, spinners, when fished right and slowed down, can be just as effective on less aggressive fish. All too often, I watch steelheaders working spinners way too fast, missing out on fish that are less willing to chase down a lure. Let the lure sink and work it slowly, the current imparting the thumping, spinning action.

When I walk up to a river that is running high and dirty, a spinner is the first thing I will toss in. The faster the water is moving, and the dirtier it is, the harder time steelhead have picking up on anything. What they can easily detect in these conditions is vibration. Whether they can see it well or not, they have no problem picking up on a spinner.

That doesn’t mean they should be discounted for low, clear flows. The same rules can apply there too, it's just a matter of downsizing enough that the lure isn’t giving off so much flash or vibration that it spooks the fish and sends them running for cover.

Spoons

Here are a few of our favorite spoons for steelhead:

Over the years, I’ve watched steelhead fishing evolve here in the Great Lakes. Trends come and go, and some stick around for the long haul. The result is often a tried and true technique or lure falling to the wayside, making way for what is perceived as something bigger and better.

Spoons are one such lure. What used to be a go-to for a lot of river anglers seems to now be less and less prominent. It’s not because they’ve mysteriously stopped catching fish, however. If they had, then our west coast counterparts would have stopped using them, as well. Instead, they simply get forgotten, pushed aside for something more popular.

Spoons and spinners often get lumped together, referred to as ‘hardware’ in the salmon and steelhead community, and it makes perfect sense considering that the ‘swing’ technique used to fish them is the same. What separates the two is that a spoon can take a little more practice to get right. You want the wobble, and you want to use the current of the river to create that wobble. But that's where it can get tricky. Too slow and the often heavy spoon is going to sink and get snagged up; too fast and it will start to spin, losing the thump and wobble that make it so effective.

Yes, spoons can be tricky to master, but they are worth the effort, attracting not only the aggressive fish in a pool or run, but the finicky fish that have turned down everything else. With a little flash and an annoying thump, fish can’t help but want to take a closer look.

Hair Jigs

Here are a few of our favorite hair jigs:

The term “hair jig” can be a little misleading, as what most consider as hair jigs for steelhead are actually tied with Marabou, a feather. Hair jigs are another one of those baits that imitates nothing and everything all at once. Whatever they may look like to a steelhead there is no doubt that fish go crazy for them thanks in part to the incredible dancing and undulating marabou and other hair does in the water.

Whether you’re running a marabou jig, rabbit's hair, or even a bucktail, each has their own unique movement that requires little to no effort from the angler, instead the current does that for you. 

Because of the free flowing movement, hair jigs are often best when run under a float. The float will help suspend the jig up off bottom, avoiding nasty snags and keeping it in the strike zone while the current does the rest. The result is often savage strikes as a steelhead smashes what they either perceive as a threat, or an easy meal.

But running a hair jig under a float isn’t the only way they can be fished. Over the last few years, I’ve been experimenting with twitching jigs for salmon, a west coast technique that is overlooked here in the Great Lake. After having some success, I thought to myself that there’s no reason why this wouldn’t work for steelhead. It turns out that the same jigs used under a float can be used with a slow cast and twitch, and steelhead will go absolutely bonkers for them.

Crankbaits and Minnowbaits

Here are some of our favorite crankbaits and minnow baits:

Crankbaits and hard minnow baits are steelhead fishing’s best kept secret. A lot of us are familiar with banana style cranks like Kwikfish that are trolled or back-dropped through a run from a drift boat, but those aren’t the lures I’m referring to. Instead, I’m talking about the lures most of us would associate with bass or walleye fishing, and more specifically, working those lures from the bank.

Crankbaits and minnow baits are some of the easiest lures to use when fishing from the bank. Most of them float, so you don’t have to worry about counting it down to the right depth, but instead simply cast it out and begin the slow and steady retrieve back. Slower is better, as the current will impart much of the action to these lure just as it does with spinners and spoons.

While it is entirely possible that steelhead perceive these lures as an easy meal, they are most effective when trying to elicit a reaction strike. The wobble, flash, and sound of crankbaits and minnow baits trigger a fight or flight response in steelhead. There are times, like in very low and clear flows, where the flight response kicks in and these lures can spook weary steelhead, but more often than not, they get so aggravated they can’t help but chase them down and take a swipe.

Natural/Live Bait

Roe

I start with roe not because it’s necessarily the best bait, but because it’s without a doubt the most popular. Veteran and novice steelhead anglers alike know that roe, fresh or cured, tied in a spawn sac or a chunk of skein is like steelhead candy. Even with all the effective lures and baits available, roe is the one thing most steelheaders are going to reach for, sometimes to a fault, assuming that if they’re not catching fish with roe, they’re not going to catch them with anything else.

Its popularity isn’t just because of its attractiveness, but its ease of use, too. Roe can be run under a float, bounced along the bottom, and even fished in a stationary position, or ‘plunking,’ as it's referred to in the steelhead community. Personally, roe has moved several notches down the list of best steelhead baits, but its effectiveness and ease of use make it a go to for both new and seasoned steelheaders.

Worms

Worms remain one of my favorite spring steelhead baits. Yes, they can work anytime fish are in the rivers. But they really shine in the spring as they emerge from their slumber and spring runoff washes them into the river where steelhead lay in wait. 

While there are plenty of artificial worms available, there are times when nothing beats the real thing. Garden worms, sometimes referred to as red worms, trout worms, or red wigglers are a good go to, especially when fishing a clear running stream requires a smaller presentation. Typically, garden worms are 3 to 5 inches long, and what they lack in size they make up for in liveliness, squirming and wriggling on a hook, driving hungry steelhead crazy.

Don’t discount big fat dew worms, either. Many would look at a bait that can be 8 inches or longer and scoff at the idea of steelhead wanting anything to do with it, but there are days, especially in the higher, dirtier flows of the spring, where a big fat dew worm can, and will outfish just about anything.

Minnows

It makes perfect sense that steelhead would love minnows. After all, they spend the majority of their lives in vast open water, feeding on - you guessed it - baitfish. Yet, it was years after I started steelhead fishing that the thought of using minnows when river fishing even occurred to me. I’ll admit, the only reason it did was because I watched fish after fish get reeled in just downstream of me, while nothing I was throwing was doing it. 

I find minnows work best on bigger rivers, or the lower stretches of rivers closer to the lake or ocean, where baitfish are more plentiful and steelhead have yet had the opportunity to gorge themselves on other river food sources like eggs and aquatic insects.

What To Consider When Selecting The Best Lure Or Bait For Steelhead

Trying to figure out what steelhead want on any given day can sometimes feel like an exercise in futility, but there are a few things to consider to help narrow things down and increase your likelihood of success.

Color and Contrast

Steelhead are primarily sight feeders, so color and contrast are going to be major contributing factors in selecting the right lure or bait. What we see above the surface, isn’t always what a steelhead will see in the water based on light penetration, the amount of sediment in the water, and the backdrop the bait is presented on.

While this may seem like it only complicates things further, there are a couple of basic rules to keep in mind when selecting the right color.

When water is running clear, it’s best to select more neutral colors; something that is natural. Steelhead are very aware, and this is only enhanced when in the river, so when that water is clear, subtle, natural colors are the key to triggering strikes.

As visibility decreases you can start experimenting more with colors. In slightly colored water, pinks, oranges and chartreuse are colors that steelhead go crazy for. The dirtier that water gets, start focusing more on contrasting your presentation to make it stand out. It’s easy to assume that the dirtier the water is the brighter your lure or bait should be, but there comes a point when darker is actually better. Blacks, deep purples and dark browns will contrast the water and stand out better than bright colors.

Size

The size of bait is going to rely heavily on water clarity as well. The clearer the water is, the smaller your presentation should be. Steelhead are notorious for spooking easily in the often tight quarters of a river, so the more subtle the better. When water is dirtier, or when fishing larger river systems, you can start bumping up the size of your presentation until you find that sweet spot.

Scent

As I’ve mentioned already, steelhead rely on their keen sight more than anything else, so scent is often secondary when it comes to selecting the right bait or lure. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t play a role. Fresh roe, or salt impregnated plastics can often have that little extra to entice a bite and are baits that can stand out amongst the rest when fish are being picky, or the water is stained.

Final Thoughts

It seems more and more common these days that steelheaders focus on a single way of fishing, whether that's float fishing, bottom bouncing, or tossing lures, many find something that might work and stick with it. But just like with any other species, the most successful steelhead anglers are the versatile ones.

Do you plan on using some of these baits or lures for steelhead? We hope we were able to help you narrow down which ones might be best for you. Leave us a comment and let us know if we did!

About The Author
Dan R
Dan was practically born with a fishing rod in his hand. Growing up in the Great Lakes Region fishing has been a major part of his life from a very young age. When not on the water you can find Dan enjoying time with his family.