Steelhead and salmon are some of hardest fighting and most acrobatic fish you can find. Hooking one can be a real treat however people spend a lot more time fishing for them than catching them. Both Steelhead and Salmon returning from the ocean don’t need to eat. They are focused on returning to the stream where they were raised so they can lay eggs. The salmon will then die but Steelhead  turn back to the ocean for another year of growth before returning to fresh water again.

River fishing for SteelheadEven though they don’t eat they can still be caught with a standard rod and reel or with fly fishing methods. Steelhead and Salmon are so used to striking at bait fish or shrimp they will take your lure or fly in their mouth as it drifts past the place they are holding in a river.

Here I want to briefly cover each of the main methods used when fishing for steelhead or salmon.


There are seven main methods used by fishermen when fishing for steelhead.  These include use of  flies, bait or lures. Since steelhead are sea run rainbow trout found in rivers which flow into the ocean or the great lakes each of these methods lend themselves to fishing fast flowing rivers.  However some of the methods can also be used in more gentle waters or lakes.

I want to start with the two methods that require a boat.  Back bouncing and side drifting. Either a drift boat or jet boat can be used for both of these methods.

Back Trolling for Steelhead and Salmon

When back-trolling or back bouncing the idea is to slowly back the lure down river along the bottom.  Using oars or motor keep the boat in the same place above a steelhead holding area and then back the boat through the drift area slowly.  This is a good method for using bait such as prawns or eggs fished behind a diver.  You can also use diving plugs such as a hot shot or flatfish which take your line down to the bottom when held against the current.

Side or Free Drifting for Steelhead and Salmon

Side Drifting is just what it sounds like.  Drifting your bait or lure alongside your boat at a rate that will keep you bait moving at the same speed as the current. This sets up a natural drift that is enticing to steelies.  Getting the right drift with your bait down near the bottom and through the run when steelhead will be holding is the key.  The cleaner you pull this off the better chance at boating a fish you will have.

Bank Fishing Methods

Both steelhead and salmon travel from the mouth of a river to the spawning areas so wherever you are along the river you can be sure steelhead will be swimming through the area.

When fishing for steelhead you will need to find where fish are holding.

When a boat is not available there are several methods for fishing from shore.   All of the methods mentioned here have a number of variations used by fishermen with years of experience.  Each one will have his own secrets that work for them.  The idea here is to teach you how to get your bait in front of steelhead or salmon  You can create your own special technique with some practice.

Clackamas River Steelhead Fishing

Drift fishing for Steelhead and Salmon

The most used and the very first method I learned years ago when I started fishing in North West Rivers is called drift fishing.  This method is used from the shore or from an anchored boat. The idea is get your bait to drift as naturally as possible deep in the water through  the channel where steelhead and salmon may be holding.  Drifting can be done using bait, eggs and shrimp or lures, such as corkys and yarn but requires a swift current to carry the bait along.  The setup requires a pencil lead and leader for proper presentation.

Float Fishing for Steelhead and Salmon

Float fishing for steelhead and salmon, that is using a float above your bait or lure, is becoming very popular. It had been found to work well and gives a visual indicator when the fish takes the bait presented.  It can be used in all types of water but is best suited for slower waters. Bait or lures, typically jigs placed on a leader below the float are both used equally and produce fish.  It is easy for any age fisherman to recognize a bite when the float goes under.  As with drift fishing the idea is to let the float drift downstream unrestrained which provides a free drift and irresistible presentation to the fish below.

Plunking for Steelhead and Salmon

Plunking is a much simpler method of fishing than drift or float fishing.  It is very well suited for use with bait but lures such as a spin and glow can be used or a combination of both.  When plunking the line is cast out into the river along a path though which steelhead or salmon travel.  A heavy lead will hold the bait near the bottom and as the fish pass by they are tempted to strike.  Use of an attractant is helpful and will create a path for the fish to follow.  Once the line is cast and positioned in the water a bell or line alarm can be used to flag a bite.  You can relax on the shore until the bite comes.

Fishing with Hardware

Fishing with hardware for steelhead and salmon is the simplest method for rigging.  Included in the hardware list would be various spinners, spoons and plugs.  These lures are affective against salmon and steelhead because they can be very territorial attacking any small fish that swim past.  A bright spoon or wobbling rattling plug will often produce a strike when bait won’t.   Simply attaching a piece of hardware to a swivel at the end of your line and casting across current for a slow retrieve is all that is required. Try to keep the lure as close to the bottom of the river for the best results. A fish will not travel far from it’s holding spot to attack a lure so getting the lure into the travel path for salmon and steelhead is essential.

Fly fishing for Steelhead and Salmon

Fly fishing has always been popular when fishing for these large members of the trout family. Fly fishing takes the right equipment to get the fly in front of a fish.  For steelhead and salmon large wet streamers are normally used but for summer fish in clear water a large streamer may spook the fish.  In this case using a smaller fly will produce better results.  As with hardware the fly is struck out of aggression since migrating salmon and steelhead do not feed.

Fishing for Steelhead and Salmon is something you need to enjoy

It can take many hours of fishing to catch a salmon and even more to catch steelhead.  Pick the method you enjoy most or try them all and consider yourself blessed when you tie into one.

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