For the majority of anglers natural bait is still the go to for steelhead, the choice however will vary depending on location and most importantly season.
For example a nightcrawler can be the best steehead bait for spring but can be almost useless when steelhead have their minds and noses on eggs.
Just like using bait for any other kind of fish it is important to “match the hatch” as the saying goes.
Don’t get me wrong in the right conditions a spoon or spinner can be super effective but…..
Even the most reliable steelhead lures run a close second to just how successful eggs are when the steelhead are getting ready to spawn around winter and early spring time.
Natural baits have one major advantage over lures and that is that they give off a scent. Fish have a keen sense of smell and lures tend to zero scent on them.
Fishing with bait requires a bit more finesse than when using lures and chances are your steelhead rod setup will probably either be a spinning rod and reel or a centerpin reel and a long float rod for drifting.
All reels need to have a high quality drag and should be able to hold at least 110 yards of 8 lb line.
Best Steelhead Baits
Eggs are easily the all time best bait for steelhead. Nothing could be more simple and yet extremely effective than drifting a couple of eggs down a steelhead run.
Drifting in this manner with or without a bobber or float is the most effective method for catching steelhead. In fact it is the standard technique that any angler thinks of once they hear the word steelhead….
An egg drifting along with the current is about as natural a presentation as you could ever imagine when trying to catch steelhead.
During early season you can throw almost anything that resembles an egg and still catch, However, as the season progresses you need to be a lot more careful with your presentation.
Carrying a variety of different egg colors is always a smart move. Don’t get lazy and assume what worked last year will work again this year.
Steelheed have a habit of preferring one type of egg over another and unless you can experiment to see what is working you may be left empty handed.
A simple change in color can be all that it takes. Sometimes single eggs are working other times you need a small cluster of eggs.
The sure that has been used on the eggs can also have a major impact on what works. Most cures have a mix of borax, salt and sugar and also krill powder.
An added bonus is that the curing process will also help to toughen the eggs up a little so that they can be used on multiple drifts.
Because they are the most important food source for steelhead eggs are still and probably will always be the best bait for steelhead.
Shiners and minnows make an excellent steelhead fishing bait as they are a food source that they are well accustomed to feeding on.
You can fish them either as live bait or as dead bait. Just be sure to check the local regulations for the water that you are fishing on as to whether or not live bait is legal.
You can use minnows that have been either soaked in brine to help preserve them longer or are fresh and can also be dyed with different colored brine for better affect.
They are excellent when bounced down stream on a single hook and perhaps a small weight or underneath a bobber. This will generally give the most natural presentation.
You can hook them either through the tail or through the top lip. in very strong currents you may have problems keeping them on the hook.
If you a constantly losing them off the hook then you can use some like mono through the gills and tie that directly to the hook as backup.
They can also be used with a jig head. The jig head adds a bit more life to them as weight helps to keep them upright buy also a removes the need to add weight further up your leader.
Tackle wise seeing as they do tend to be a very delicate fishing bait your best best can be to lightly bounce them on a centerpin reel and a long float rod using roughly 10 lb line.
A longer rod allows you to get a decent cast without having to really whip the rod out with a snappy motion like you would with a shorter one.
Nightcrawlers have introduced more kids to the world of fishing than any other type of setup. They are a natural food source for a lot of freshwater fish particularly those that live in rivers and small streams.
They are also free and really easy to find if you happen to have a garden or a small wooded area lose by.
The best time to catch steelhead with nightcrawlers or worms is either just after a storm or when the water levels are starting to fall.
This is because worms will generally be washed into the rivers from the river banks when waters recede.
Presentation is key when you are using a worm. Steelhead seem to ignore them if they are all balled up on the hook.
They need to be threaded onto the hook and leader so that they still retain their long length. The use of a barbed bait hook is a big advantage as it will stop your worm slipping back down onto the shaft of the hook.
Like most baits bouncing them down a drift either with some small wait or using a bobber and weight to really control the depth at which they drift at are the two best option.
Using shrimp as a steelhead bait is best done in low water temperature conditions. Once temps start to drop below 45 degrees then I will routinely throw on a shrimp.
I’d favor real versus plastic when it comes to using shrimps or prawns. Real bait gives you that all important scent and they also tumble down through the current in a much more natural manner.
You can of course cure your shrimp to add even extra scent and increase it’s shelf life. There are numerous products available but the old reliable like Pautzke Nectar is a solid favorite for steelhead and other trout bait. It also works wonders when curing eggs too.
You can of course also use crawfish if you can get your hands on them. As always check your local fishing regulations to see if these types of baits are allowed. In some states even transporting them from one river to another is illegal so always check to make sure you are not in breach of any rules.
5. Pink Worms
For some strange reason artificial pink worms seem to be absolutely killing it when it comes to steelhead fishing baits.
Once considered as purely a bass fishing lure or bait pink worms seemed to have found a serious foothold in the steelhead fishing worm, which is strange for something so artificial looking.
They are cheap, easy to use and store and won’t die on you or mess all over your tackle bag like real worms or nightcrawlers can if they spill out of their container.
No major brand is better than another and one pink worm is as good as another. My tackle box has a constant supply of them stored away ready to use.
Their only major drawback is that they become less effective as the water visibility reduces.
They can be drifted just like any bait for steelhead with either a sinker or a bobber as the rig.