If I could use only one bait for spring steelhead, it would be, without question, a big, juicy nightcrawler.
‘Crawlers are the perfect choice this time of year. Think about it – the high flows of spring often wash a good smorgasboard of goodies (including worms) into the water, which steelhead, of course, key in on. Rivers also run pretty cold in the spring, so the fish will be more lethargic and a big meaty hunk of garden hackle is often the only thing that will get them excited. In addition, nightcrawlers also give you a nice “changeup” bait to use on streams that receive lots of angling pressure.
Furthermore, I’ve found spring steelhead act a lot more like resident trout than their winter cousins. They’ll spend more time in a river and, eventually, start to revert back to their old ways of eating invertebrates like nymphs — and worms.
And we can’t overlook the fact that ‘crawlers stay on the hook way better than eggs and shrimp. In reality, it’s the only steelhead bait that can “die of old age” before it falls off the hook. Less time spent rebaiting means…yep, more time in the water and, hopefully, more steelhead.
The cool thing about using worms is they’ll fit right into most styles of fishing you’re into. ‘Crawlers can be side-drifted or boondogged from a boat just as if you were using roe; they can be drift-fished from shore, suspended under floats or backtrolled behind a diver.
You really don’t need to alter your techniques when fishing with nightcrawlers and only need to make a slight adjustment or two to your tackle.
For this article, let’s take a look at basic side-drifting or bank fishing. Either way, I’ll attach a Slinky-style sinker via a slider rig to my main line and then run an 18- to 36-inch leader down to the hook. Now, here’s the only area where rigging up for worm fishing is any different than fishing eggs – the hook. Instead of the classic octopus style hook, you’re going to want to run a baitholder like a size No. 2 to 1/0 Gamakatsu. The barbs on the shank will help keep the bait from sliding down around the hook, which is key because you want your ‘crawler to look as straight as possible in the water and the bronze color will blend in with the bait.
With a bait threader, slide the worm over the hook and up the leader. Traditional drift bobbers like Corkies, Cheaters and Spin-N-Glos don’t work all that well for this technique because they ride on the leader above the bait and push down on it, causing the worm to bunch up. To that end, I’ve found that foam “puffballs” like Fish Pills work best. After the worm is threaded and the hook is situated just beyond the head, I’ll slide a puffball onto the hook and let the barbs on the hook shank hold it in place. You can also run a Fish Pill on the leader above the hook instead if you prefer.
For tons more info, check out my eBook, The Ultimate Guide to Steelhead Bank Fishing.
shannon johnson says
I fish in berrionsprings st joe river starting in aug with spawning bags what is the best hook to use any body got any ideas
Great nightcrawler post. How do you prefer to drift them? With slinky or lead, or with one of those rubber balls you mentioned at the ISE last month? What about under a boober? Have you had any success with bobbers and nightcrawlers for steelies?
Thanks for all the great information on your site.
Steve, I mainly fish them with slinkies off the bank an balls from the boat. They work under floats too but not as well for some reason…
rebuilt 96 says
hi guy,s i going for steel head this sat oct 20th in port delusie ontario just below the dam , we drift fish mostly and a bit of trolling any bait suggestions
i,d like to use lures only possible coho,s running at same time
I don’t know the spot, but eggs under a float would attract both species!
Eggs and float for sure. I’ve been there many times.
Hey I fish in michigan for steelheads kings and cohos. I was wondering what would be the best lures to use. I usually use hot n tots or oslos and get a lot of fish but this year I hvnt got much I’ve even tried spawn any ideas of other things I could try . I fish on the river on shore or in waders ?
would a blue fox spinner #4 or 5 with a worm work good Also??
I know a #3-4 Blue Fox would work, too…though I have never used one with a worm. Could be a hot combo if the worm doesn’t mess up the lure’s action!
any ideas for spring steelhead in the brule river?
I’d try spawn sacs or waxies…
Try a chartuse 3 hook crawler harnesses 36″ and nightcrawlers, 1/2oz slip sinker above a snap swivel. In the local lake trolling at 1.5-2 gps mph. caught 3 so far, a 22″, 16″, 20″. A little to windy as of late. Super exciting unbeliveable fight. Used berkley fireline #10.
go to the river get some crayfish put a #4 hook on and a small bobber done
Lyndon Reddick says
JD- Yeah I,ve found the old “garden hackle” is a bait I can never grow old from. The Other day on Klamath river there were some hard hits but I wondered as I was only catching the rowdy trout, when here comes a steelhead flying out of the water almost in rocks- and what did he leave behind- a wriggling lamprey. never seen that before! Tried putting that sucker on the hook- but they aren’t user friendly. Too tough, and caused leader twirl- they are eels after all. You’d think those steely would love to pounce on them after being such a nuisance and so on. She was a bright one. LR
can you maybe show how to rig the float up. I know its simple but I always seem to screw up putting slip bobbers on and revert to the old “clip on”
How effective is this night crawler rig compared to conventional spawn drifting methods?
Depends on the day, but often we find it works better than spawn…especially in March here on the West Coast anyway…
I’m fishin in the tributary streams of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. I’ll have to give it a try. The season here doesn’t start until mid/late March, too much ice!
I too heard and thought this… maybe it was a fluke day… but yesterday I was on the stream with a lot of other folks, everyone was using spawn, I was using crawlers. Fish were being caught all over the place… except for me. Not a single steelhead seemed interested in my crawlers in the slightest. The resident trout loved them, but not a single steelhead.
People also say trout love eggs, hanging out behind spawning steelhead to gobble them up… but yet again, I have not once, ever, seen trout take my, nor anyone near me’s eggs.
i like to use wax worms and wobbel glows, yarn and flies during winter and spring.. and during the summer and fall i like to use spawn, yarn, flies, and “Hot-N-Tots” i have lots of good luck using hot n tots
What does the bait threader look like?
Just go to your favorite tackle store and tell them your looking for a worm threader, they’ll be more than happy to show you one!!
Or you can use a metal yarn needle from a craft store . same difference.
James Hooker says
Are there any steelies in the russian river now!!!!
would worms work in Oregon?
What bait is best right now for russian river fishing?
Fresh roe in the winter
donnie wells says
im new out here in yuba city and i wanna go fishing. will some one take me? i have pole and will travel
jeff williams says
Jd can you tell me , what dry flies work good on the feather in the spring.
I have used this technique on late summer steelhead with great results.
jeff williams says
Who can tell me whats up with all the little steelies in the low flow,
are they coming from the hatchry or from down river.
It seems fishing has realy turned on.
Will this work for the fall . and dose this just work for stealheads only?
Works great in the fall! Trout love it to, but not so much for salmon.
jeff williams says
fishing was good last night, got two 13 and 17. Fished the low flow
jeff williams says
i love this website. its very usefull.
if you go fishing for a stealhead and you don’t have worms what can you use?
I fish steelhead B run on the Clearwater river in Idaho. I’m catching quit a few on shrip even though they are not eating. Will these fish that are nearly at spawn take a night crawler too?
Yes, sir…they love ’em!
JD what your take on touching bait and tackle with bare hands when fishing for steelhead ? People wearing rubber gloves to wipes and sprays. Where really is the fine line at before being wasteful of the enjoyment and the time out fishing ?
I tried wearing rubber gloves one season…both in Alaska and back home in the Lower 48. All I can say is it was a miserable experience…my hands were a mess! They’d sweat like crazy on hot days and then I would get water in the gloves at some point. Between the sweat and H2O, my hands would end up super white and clammy at the end of the day…and smelling worse to the fish than had I just gone “el natural.”
Plus, tying knots and feathering a baitcaster with Latex on is a royal pain. Nope, not a big rubber glove fan here!
Instead, I will wash my hands in lemon dish soap prior to fishing and then, if the bite is really tough, I may wipe a little shrimp gel between my palms to get a little masking scent going.
Bill Martinez says
I have been using nightcrawlers for years. They have always been my first choice in front of Pautzkes salmon eggs. 2-3 on a hook use to work on the American very well. Its been years since Ive caught steelhead like i use too when I was younger.
James Hooker says
Where at on the american?
Bill Martinez says
Howe Avenue used to be the spot for me. I like Gristmill now.
Paul Kentros says
never tried worms for steelhead. i am going to give it a try this year.
do you use a tail hook while side drifting do you . i have guys tell me that’s the best way to drift bait .
I thread my worms so that the hook is near…or even haning out of…the tail.
I rig my worms so that the hook is near…or hanging out of…the tail.
I’d drift fish with crawlers or spawn bags with just enough lead to get your bait down but not anchored to the bottom. Cast straight out or slightly downstream and let the weight tap-tap-tap along the bottom. Good luck!
ryan blunk says
yea me and my buddie go fishing in ohio on the rocky river for steelhead. with r normal poles wats the best way to catch them if u dont have waiters
Yep, floats will work just fine. In fact, I find I’m going more and more to float fishing for steelhead…
Great rigging example. If you were fishing summer steelhead under a float would this work too ?