Hunting Steelhead in Low Clear Water by Roger Hinchcliff

Hunting Steelhead in Low Clear Water by Roger Hinchcliff

In the Great Lakes Region we have a lot of anglers who fish for steelhead, and with that comes a lot of fishing pressure. Not to mention the unpredictable weather patterns from the Great Lakes.

When you have no rain in the forecast for long periods and with added fishing pressure, that can mean a tough day on the river.

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With that being said, these conditions present challenges for the everyday steelhead angler and when faced with low, clear conditions we must make things happen to maximize our time on the water. 

In this article we will discuss rigging techniques for low and clear water. Some of these tips can be vital to your success when the conditions get tough.

Smaller is better (In Cold/Clear Water)

Everything needs to be smaller. Forget standard sizes, the smaller & colder the stream the smaller and stealthier you need to be. Delivering your smaller offerings from a distance is critical to getting bit. If the fish know you’re there or they can see you coming forget it, Game Over!

Now let’s talk gear and stealth rigging.


Many fall or winter steelhead anglers can be seen on the river wearing their Hunter Safety Orange jackets because they are warm. But bright clothing is not a good idea; you need to blend in with your surroundings. Try wearing your actual hunting camo or something dark brown and olive drab. These are better choices to conceal your movements.

Remember when the water is low and clear these fish are very spooky, ready to disappear at the slightest thing out of place. The fish feel uncomfortable and vulnerable to predators. That is why they try to seek out broken, faster water or log jams for security.

Instead of fumbling your way down the river through the holes, you must be a predator and fish hunter. Diligently stalk the runs and holes that you suspect fish are holding in. A slow but methodical approach from afar works best. Longer drifts should be the norm.

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When it comes to rods for this type of fishing I would have to say at a minimum a medium-action, 10'6-foot spinning rod will get the job done. However I prefer even longer rods from 11 to 13 feet. I use Lamiglas float rods to deliver long drifts with a center-pin reel, one of my favorite ways to catch steelhead.

I can deliver a drag free drift and bait with this technique from 80 yards away. How’s that for stealth? Another important fact is a long rod is able to pick that extra line up off the water very quickly for hook sets and mending. Long drifts are essential in delivering baits from a distance—remember we’re in stealth mode. In addition these rods help protect those lighter tippets, thus helping you land more fish on lighter lines. As you can see a longer rod has many benefits. 


The float you use is important as well. I prefer to use Drennan Loafer floats. In sizes No. 3, 4 and 5 they will hold anywhere between 4.4 to 8 grams of shot. For those "low and clear" days out on the stream, using these floats will give you an edge. Made of clear plastic their shape allows a clean strike with very minimal surface disturbance when properly shotted.

Raven is another float option. They have many sizes and designs for slow-, medium- and fast-water conditions. My favorite sizes are from 2.8 through 8 grams. By running this fixed style a float can be changed very easily to match the current run conditions. The longer your rig is in the water the better your chances of catching a fish.

Split Shot

You need the weight to balance the float and get your offering down to the fish. Put larger split shot closer to the float and smaller shot closer to the micro swivel that’s attached to your leader. I personally believe the larger shots can spook fish in ultra-clear, low-water situations.

Placing larger shot up top on the shot line and smaller ones as you go down creates that tapered shot pattern. This will allow the bait or offering to swing out as far away from the float as possible. Sometimes I will use all smaller shot rather than larger ones, because I feel the smaller shot does not spook fish as much. I will use a lot of 3/0 or smaller.

Even the plop of the rig hitting the water can spook fish in these conditions.

Cast further upstream than you normally would and hold on to your spool to allow the rig to straighten. This will cause your offering to swing way out ahead of the float before you let it ride the seam. What’s happening is the bait is being presented to the fish way ahead of the rest of the rig. Anything out of the ordinary drifting above a steelhead can cause them to spook or be alarmed.

I’m such a fanatic I even dye my split shots black with liquid plumber. The next day you will have dark shot instead of shiny shot. Make sure to rinse shot well and let dry before storing. I even run fluorocarbon leader for my shot line. At the end of that are micro swivels. 

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This is important to pay attention to as well because now we’re getting closer to your offering on the business end. In low, clear water especially pressured fish can become line shy. Hence why the new fluorocarbon lines have helped steelhead anglers catch more fish than ever before.

Line diameter is something I pay attention to, along with leader length.

You can get very strong line in some crazy small diameters. 

Average leader length for me is at least two feet and as long as nine in ultra-low, clear water. Do not add any weight to your leader. This will allow bait to drift freely and more naturally through the current as it goes through the run.


I run hook sizes from 8-16. I choose light-wire hooks for better penetration. The lighter wire hook and sharpness is what’s needed to stick that fish and get good penetration.

Remember, when using lighter lines and longer finesse rods, a heavy wire hook is going to be less likely to penetrate the hard boney mouth of a steelhead. It does not work very well when running light gear and finesse presentations. Lighter is better all the way around.


I love using spawn sacks for steelhead; small bags are the key. I like to tie dime-sized bags in natural colors like white and peach for bright sunny days. For overcast days or in low light periods I will use the brighter mesh—colors like pink or chartreuse.

When leaves are in the water I use a lot of blue and purple bags.

Each spawn bag should have just a few eggs. Small dime-sized bags are what you’re looking for. Also pick your favorite scent and add a few drops before your drift. The scent attracts fish and can help mask human scent. Fish can smell in parts per billion. Many anglers ignore the scent factor and the fishes’ sense of smell.

I also love to fish single eggs on a single, small, light-wire hook or tipped with a wax worm or wiggler. Micro beads in size 4 or 5 mm in natural colors can also be deadly.

Spring and fall are a great time to have bead imitations that mimic salmon or brown trout eggs. As the months go by try jumping on the dead egg bite. Fish washed out egg colors and patterns.

Many bead companies offer pale colors, white and even brown beads. This technique can be dirty good!

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A small pink worm cut down to 2-1/2 inches can also be dynamite on steelhead.

For whatever reason most fishermen in the Great Lakes Region don’t employ this technique. The action of the tail on those worms drives steelies absolutely nuts some days. Anglers who have discovered how good rubber worms can be don’t talk about it much.

A small salad shrimp or even a small shrimp bag can be deadly on fresh fish in the fall. Sometime a nightcrawler will out fish many baits in clear water—especially on summer Skamanias.


Whether you believe it’s climate change or just a warming period there is no question low and clear water conditions do exist and have been more prevalent the past few years. Will it be more of the norm in the future? My advice is to learn and experiment with some of the listed techniques, and I promise they will help you land more fish.

- written by Roger Hinchcliff

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As usual, excellent article and insights. When tying your own egg sacks, do you cure your own eggs or use the bottled eggs? When buying sacks at the local shops I find that they’re way too big with too many eggs. Any suggestions on egg sources would be appreciated…

David McPeak

Thank you!!

Jonathan McClain

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