The beauty of steelhead is that they have a habit of biting a wide variety of natural and artificial baits. The best steelhead bait is what imitates their natural food choices.
From flies that imitate the natural bugs found in the river environment to the sweet smell of a fresh spawn bag, steelhead will often see a variety of presentations throughout the season.
A lot of steelheaders tend to have a very narrow selection of favorite baits that they use. However, there is actually quite a large range of bait that you can use if you take into account both natural and artificial baits.
The maddening part is deciding what baits or steelhead lures to throw at any given time. Since steelhead have been programmed to eat natural food sources, such as salmon eggs and worms since they were a smolt, it pays to keep imitations of these preferred food items handy when plying the waters of your favorite steelhead stream.
Let’s take a look at both natural and artificial baits that have been proven to attract and catch steelhead across the vast amount of Lake Ontario watersheds.
Best Steelhead Baits
Eggs are by far the classic steelhead bait. During spawning season when eggs are a plenty steelhead will gorge themselves on trout and salmon eggs.
If you can present that bait in a natural manner like drifing it with nothing else but a hook you really have to try hard not to get at least a bite.
You can buy your eggs in either natural or cured. The cured eggs will last a lot longer in the fridge. However, it's pretty hard to beat the natural smell of an un-cured egg.
Lot's of anglers will add all manner of additives to their eggs in order to get them to smell strongly.
What could be more basic than fishing with a nightcrawler or worm? Steelhead love them! Just like eggs they can be drifted on very little gear.
Spring is the ideal time to use a nightcrawler as the higher water levels may well wash worms out from the soil in the river banks.
A simple rig is to run them on a bait hook threaded all the way up the leader. You can also put on an artificial egg just above the eye of the hook.
Or if you happen to have some corn handy instead of an artificial egg you can slip that on instead.
The corn gives you a atural scent combined with a bright yellow color that the fish can lock onto especially in fast moving waters.
The use of shrimp or prawns is certainly on the rise. They give off a very different smell than other baits. If you can get live ones then the natural action they give out can drive steelhead wild.
I've seen guys use a small elastic band fix the shrimp to their hook. This means the shrimp stays alive on your rig un-injured and is free to swim naturally through the water.
Their hard back shell means that you can use a fairly strong elastic band. Throw one of these into a deep hole that fish are waiting in and you are onto a sure fire winner.
Steelhead love free flowing eggs in a river environment, there is no secret about their fondness for the protein filled little orbs of orange goodness.
Anglers in pursuit of steelhead have used all sorts of materials from yarn to pom-poms to imitate a salmon or trout egg pattern. But few compare to the visual esthetics that a Trout Bead provides when it comes to imitating the real deal.
From the varied sizes, to the myriad of colors that imitate the stages a natural eggs goes through while rolling around in the gravel strewn river bottom, the bead is so simple yet so deadly effective.
Beads became a popular steelhead egg imitation thanks to some crafty Alaskan fishing guides who grew tired of tying hundreds, if not thousands, of yam flies like glo bugs throughout the course of a season.
Someone had the bright idea to slip an orange bead on a leader and the rest is history. Companies like Trout Beads, have taken the plain round bead to the next level with colors and finishes that fool even the wariest of steelhead.
Rigging the bead is quite simple. Slip the bead on your leader and then tie on an egg hook. Jam a toothpick in one side of the bead and break it off; this will keep the bead in place while drifting down the river.
Keep the bead 1 to 2 inches above the hook to avoid hooking the fish deep; set the hook hard and you’ll have the fish hooked in the corner of the mouth every time.
Otter Soft Milking Eggs
Relative newcomers to the egg imitation scene, Otter Eggs are a unique spin on the rubber egg imitation.
Formulated from a plastic that gives the egg a soft feel, Otter Eggs are meant to look and feel like a real egg. This can be a real advantage when facing pressured fish that have seen a lot of different presentations, as the longer the fish hold onto the bait the better.
Another key to the success of the Otter Eggs is their ability to hold scent, since they are soft and have an absorbent material wrapped around the outer portion of the egg.
If you really want to maximize the scent effectiveness of the Otter, try soaking them in your favorite oil or scent overnight in order to allow the scent to really permeate the bait.
I have even seen some crafty anglers smash a few real salmon eggs in a small jar and then let the Otter Eggs soak in the natural juice of the egg. It’s the best of both worlds as the Otter Egg with have the natural scent of a real egg while being much more durable that the real thing.
Available in varying sizes of single eggs, clusters and sucker spawn, these eggs can be used to match the correct size and shape no matter the water conditions. Try using the glow colors during low light conditions and the sparkle patterns when fishing off color water.
Worms are a natural food source that steelhead see quite often after a fresh rain. While carrying and using real worms can be a hassle, small plastic worms, such as the Berkley Trout Worm, make for an effective replica.
Even though these worms are available in a variety of colors, the pink version has become a staple item in the vests of steelhead anglers.
Whether it’s a carry over from the “pink worm” craze that started out west, or just a coincidence that steelhead just seem to have an affinity for the pink plastic, these worms catch fish and do it well, in pressured situations.
Trout worms can be rigged in a couple different fashions. First is called the “Wacky” style, taken from the popular bass fishing method. Put the hook through the worm at the mid part of the body, allowing for the worm to hang over the hook in a uniform manner.
When the worm drifts down the river, it gives off a unique action that drives steelhead crazy. I know one veteran steelheader that does exceedingly well on winter steelhead bottom bouncing the worms and the strikes are so violent, they nearly tear the rod out of his hand.
Another method to rig the worm is to thread the worm on the leader using a bobbin threader. Begin at the top of the worm and bring the end of the leader out 2/3 of the way down the body of the worm.
Place a small bead on the leader before tying on the hook as this will keep the hook from tearing into the worm on repeated hook sets. When float fishing with worms in this rigging manner, be sure to hold back on the float periodically and give the rod tip a shake to give the worm some added action.
Hang on tight when the worm settles back in the drift as steelhead tend to hit the worm hard as it falls back to them.
Artificial baits have their time and place for steelhead anglers. They last longer than real baits during the repeated casting and drifting during the course of a day on the water and the more you are putting baits past a steelhead, the more fish you will catch.
Give these baits a try on your next steelhead trip and you to will become a believer that artificial baits can catch fish as well as the real stuff.