Catching Rainbow Trout and Steelheads: Tips and Techniques To Make You a Better Angler

For trout anglers, there’s probably no greater prize than a big Rainbow or a massive Steelhead. Armed with sharp senses, but not as aggressive as browns or brookies, these trout subspecies are a real test of your fishing skills.

But the better you understand trout, the easier they are to catch.

We’d like to help, and we’ll get you up to speed on their keen vision and feeding behaviors before offering a few tips and techniques guaranteed to tilt the odds in your favor.

Trout Basics

The secret to catching more fish of any species is understanding what makes them tick.

Rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss, come in a nearly bewildering variety of subspecies. From Kern River Goldens to Steelheads, one thing they share in common is that they’re among the most beautiful fish any angler has ever landed.

We’ll be focusing on the Redband forms–what you probably think of when you hear “rainbow trout,” as well as the associated Steelhead variation, a coastal variety of Rainbow that spends much of its life at sea.

Kern River Golden Trout

Steelhead Trout

Rainbows and Steelheads: Trout 101

Rainbows

Rainbow trout are named for the pink to red stripe that runs the length of their sleek, speckled bodies, though this marking is most visible in breeding males. Native to the North West, they’ve been introduced broadly into cooler climates, and are regularly stocked in some places to preserve fishable numbers.

Rainbows inhabit clear streams with fast water and gravel bottoms, as well as cool-water lakes. Generally a cool-climate fish, some strains thrive in warmer water, too, allowing rainbows to live further south than brooks and browns.

Wherever you find them, stream rainbows usually run between 1 and 5 pounds, with lake dwellers growing much larger. For instance, in Minnesota, just one place where rainbows have been introduced, expect stream trout to average roughly 1 to 5 pounds and about 15 inches. But in Lake Superior, they grow to a whopping average of 3 to 8 pounds and 26 inches.

Steelhead

Steelhead are the anadromous form of rainbow trout, meaning that they spend much of their lives out to sea, starting and ending their life cycle in rocky streams. Hatched in freshwater, they spend the first few years of their life there before moving out to sea to feed and grow to maturity.

One notable fact about steelhead is their ability to hone in on the stream from which they came, despite spending years in the ocean. They return to spawn by smell, and as many as 10 percent survive to do so more than once. That spawning cycle takes two forms: the summer run (May to October) and the winter run (November to April). Both bring them into freshwater where they can more easily be targeted by waiting anglers, and they’ll return to their native streams several months before the spawn. But winter run steelhead are generally a bit bigger.

Steelhead are particularly prized because they tend to grow larger and stronger than their freshwater cousins, growing to a line-breaking 55 pounds and 45 inches. Expect more average steelheads to weigh in at about 7 pounds, which is still a monster trout by any standard!

Trout Senses

Rainbows sport outstanding vision and excellent color perception. While somewhat nearsighted, they see very well in the shallow water of streams, especially when searching the surface for an easy meal. Trout vision even extends into the ultraviolet range.

With eyes placed to provide nearly 360-degree vision, it’s tough to sneak up on them. And even the shadow cast by fly line has been known to spook them.

That outstanding color perception places a premium on realistic colors and presentations, helping to explain the success of expertly tied flies for all species of trout.

But as Mike Depew, a fisheries biologist for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, explains, fluorescent, day-glo colors can still help attract rainbows. “Small bits of fluorescent color don’t imitate anything natural, but they can create a hot spot. A bit of fluorescent orange, yellow or pink absorbs UV rays and projects that back into the visible spectrum. It’s not really visible to them on the surface or just under the water, but it gets more visible the deeper you get.”

Rainbows and Steelheads also feature tiny scent organs called “nares” that guide them to their native streams and help them find prey. Scent is an important component of the trout’s feeding behavior, and especially for spinning tackle enthusiasts, a potent weapon to elicit a bite.

Of course, like all predatory fish, Rainbows and Steelheads have a sensitive lateral line, allowing them to detect the minute vibrations of shrimp, fish, and insects from quite a distance away.

Feeding Behavior

Like many other species of fish, young Rainbows and Steelheads begin their lives with a diet of zooplankton, moving on to insects of all kinds as they gain in size, and throughout their life cycle, pretty much any aquatic or airborne insect is fair game. But salmon eggs, leeches, crayfish, and snails are also important components of a young trout’s meals, and they never lose their taste for roe.

In comparison to brown and brook trout, Rainbows are not as piscivorous, though obviously Steelhead prey on marine invertebrates like krill, shrimp, and squid, as well as fish of all kinds.

Tips and Techniques to Catch More Rainbows and Steelheads

A few things should be clear right away from what we’ve discussed above.

  • Realistic colors – When fishing clearer water on brighter days, realistic colors–including metallics–are a good bet. You’ll want to stick to whites, blacks, grays, silvers, and golds. You should generally ‘match the hatch,” throwing lures and baits that reflect the colors prevalent in prey items.
    The deeper you’re fishing, the more you’ll need to rely on black and metallic flash or glitter.
  • Flash and pop – As Depew notes, a bright fluorescent addition can work wonders. We like to see a few dots of bright color, a few strands of bright skirt, sparkling glitter, or a flashing blade to help attract a trout’s attention. This is just as important when fishing streams as it is when working a drop off in a lake.
  • Vibration matters – Whether you’re throwing lures or soft baits, you want vibration. With lures, look for bladed models like in-line spinners or small, realistic crankbaits that act like wounded prey. We like soft baits like worms, fluked minnows, and tube jigs, too. They all wriggle when worked, sending vital information to a trout’s lateral line.
  • Scent attracts bites – Don’t be afraid to sweeten your lures with attractants, and please don’t leave the scented soft baits at home!

Hit the Early Spring Shallows with Spinners

Brian Chan, a fisheries biologist from British Columbia, likes to target shallow lake waters just after ice-out. You’ll find a variety of prey items pulling trout toward water that’s less than 10 feet deep, and they’ll start to be active on the first sunny days when the water opens.

We recommend targeting the edges and tops of live weed beds with in-line spinners like the Mepp's Dressed Aglia Spinner, the Yakima Bait Worden’s Original Rooster Tail, and the Blue Fox Classic Vibrax Spinner. Each of these veteran designs has caught more trout than you ever will!

Mepp's Aglia Dressed Treble Fishing Lure, 1/4-Ounce, Silver/Brown Tail
Mepp's Dressed Aglia Spinner 
Yakima Bait Wordens Original Rooster Tail Spinner Lure, Glitter Black, 1/8-Ounce
Yakima Bait Worden’s Original Rooster Tail 

Blue Fox Classic Vibrax Spinner

 

Their appeal to Rainbows is a combination of life-like color, a spinning blade to add flash and vibration, and an almost irresistible fluttering action. Pitch these with a swivel to avoid tangles, and run them just over and beside live weed beds.

Retrieve at a steady cadence, keeping those sharp treble hooks above the green stuff. You’ll entice waiting trout to strike, especially if you keep the classic color choices on hand: silver, gold, black, and white.

And while opinions vary on the applicability of “powerbaits” for native trout, it never hurts to sweeten your hooks with a tad of Berkley PowerBait Trout Nibble.

River Spinners

These lures are just as effective when the water’s white, though they’re a bit trickier to fish.

The best technique involves an upstream cast. Then, retrieve to keep the spinner just ahead of the current and afloat. The fluttering blade will help you here, and it will create plenty of flash to attract a strike.

As you work the lure toward you, you’ll eventually turn it across current, when you’ll need to slow your retrieve. That hooking motion is often money for both Rainbows and Steelheads!

Slip Floating Tube Jigs

Another way to hit the spring shallows or to reach the summer depths is to use a slip float in conjunction with a tube jig.

A slip float lets you control the depth of your bait with precision, and it’s far more castable than a standard bobber. We’re partial to Thill’s floats, and for trout, I’d throw the Thill Pro Series Slip Float. They’re easy to rig and adjust, high quality, and easy to see.

If you’re not familiar with how to rig a slip float–no worries; it’s easy!

It may seem strange to pitch a tube jig for trout. After all, they don’t look like anything they feed on, except maybe a squid for Steelhead. But whatever the trout think they are, they must be delicious!

I recommend the Strike King Bitsy Tube in all the colors Bass Pro features. These 2 ¾ inch wonders feature a fringe skirt that wriggles with every twitch of your wrist, and if you rig them on an awesome jig head like the Leland’s Lures Trout Magnet Jighead, they can draw Rainbows into a strike when nothing else is working.

Strike King Bitsy Tube

Leland’s Lures Trout Magnet Jighead

The trick for trout is to know how deep they’re holding. Then, set the float to dangle your jig just above them. Given their propensity to feed upward, hold on!

If the trout are holding on the bottom, and they often will, 8 to 10 inches is enough.

If you’re not sure how to rig a jig, pay close attention to these photos:

This is not what you want. Note where the knot leaves the eye.

Instead, you want your knot at the top of the eye. This will tilt the jig forward.

This is what you want.

If you’re confident about your technique, you can also fish these excellent lures without the float, ripping the tube just over the bottom. Rip the lure and let it drop, taking up the slack as you go.

Here’s an example of this technique used on smallmouth. The idea for trout is very, very similar:

Popping Critters on Lakes and in Eddys and Pools

Both Rainbows and Steelheads have outstanding vision, and that visual acuity, combined with fine color perception, means that the more realistic the lure, the better.

Fly anglers are generally given top billing in this respect, and a well-tied fly is pretty amazing.

But there are options for spinning gear that will fool trout just as easily, and these top water poppers are simply murder where you can find still water, whether that’s on a lake, in an eddy, or in a shallow pool.

Rebel makes a wide range of “critter” lures, and from the Bumble Bug to the Wee-Crawfish, the Hellgrammite to the Crickhopper and Bighopper, the life-like patterns, shapes, and actions won’t let you down.

Rebel Bumble Bug Fishing Lure - Horse Fly
Bumble Bug 
Rebel Lures Wee-Crawfish Fishing Lure (2-Inch, Nest Robber)
Wee-Crawfish 
Rebel Hellgrammite Fishing Lure, Mature, 1 3/4-Inch, 3/32-Ounce
Hellgrammite 
Rebel F73-314 Crickhopper, 3/32-Ounce, 1-1/2-Inch, Summer Hopper
Crickhopper 
Rebel Bighopper Fishing Lure - Green Grasshopper
Bighopper 

These lures are simple to work, too. Cast and let them sit for a few seconds–trout will often take them just after they hit the water! If that doesn’t happen, pop the lure a few times, retrieve the slack from your line, and wait a few seconds.

Once you find a cadence that calls in the hits, keep at it. I like to start with a pop-pop-rest.

Spawn Sacks and Slip Floats

Where legal, salmon roe is an awesome “live” bait choice. Immature trout develop a taste for these eggs in the first few years of their life, and they never lose it.

You can purchase roe from tackle stores, or if you want to skip the set-up, you can buy the sacks pre-made. Atlas sells these in jars of six.

Atlas Mike's Floating Spawn Sac Salmon Eggs 1 Jar of 6 Sacs, Red
Amazon 

Lake Michigan Angler has an awesome tutorial with instructions on how to make these. You’ll need roe, of course, as well as spawn net and magic thread.

Atlas Mike's Spawn Net Squares Great to Keep Fishing Bait Together, Orange, 4 X 4-Inch
Amazon 
Atlas 66013 Magic Thread
Amazon 

If you prefer a video, check this out:

I recommend attaching your finished sacks to either Angler International’s #8 Raven hooks or #8 Gamakatsu Octopus hooks. Both are excellent choices, and neither will let you down.

I’d then suspend this terminal tackle below the Thill Pro Series Slip Float we mention above.

You just can’t go wrong with this approach!

Final Thoughts

Rainbows and Steelheads are challenging fish to catch, and savvy anglers know that they need to step up to improve their odds. By learning more about these subspecies, and by studying their senses and feeding habits, you can better select lure, baits, and techniques to tilt the odds a touch more toward you.

We hope these tips and techniques help you catch more–and bigger–trout, and we’d love to hear from you.

Do you have a tip or technique to add?

Please leave a comment below!

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