3 "Must-Have" Spring Steelhead Rigs by Brian Kelly

3 "Must-Have" Spring Steelhead Rigs by Brian Kelly

Spring has finally arrived and with it, a load of fish that are eager to run our rivers on their annual spawning migration. Spring steelhead fishing has its share of challenges; from weather patterns that change on a daily basis, to unyielding angling pressure, spring steelhead can be a moody lot, to say the least.

The spring season is the time to open the bag of tricks and employ tactics that will entice the fish to bite after they have seen it all. These three rigs are must-have items in the vest this time of year; let’s get into the details of these spring steel slayers!

Michael kelly steelhead great lakes fishing


The use of a jig head carrying bait under a float isn’t anything new; crafty anglers in our region have been employing this tactic since the 1970s! But there are crafty ways to use a jig to your advantage, especially when the pressures on.

Spring run-off means dirty water, which can intimidate many stream anglers.

While the steelheads’ window of vision is greatly decreased with less than ideal water color, it doesn’t mean they won’t hit, you just need to adjust your presentation.

This is where jigs can shine; tying brightly colored hair or yarn patterns onto a plain 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jig makes this the ideal platform to present bait to the fish in these challenging conditions.

brian kelly fishing steelhead

Yarn usually gets the nod from most steelhead vets as it offers a multitude of color combinations and does a superb job of holding scent. Try tying simple patterns, such as sucker spawn, in bright color combinations like red and chartreuse or pink and white on a plain jig head. Mount a spawn bag or wax worms to the hook and add a dab of scent to the yarn; now you’re giving the fish a color and scent trail to home in on, while keeping the rig down in the strike zone for an extended period.

Jigs tied with marabou or rabbit strips are another great option and these style jigs work well with or without bait. Don’t be afraid to impart action by popping or shaking the rod tip; this will bring the jig to life under the float and can often be the action that draws the most strikes.


The popularity of beads for steelhead has skyrocketed the past few seasons and for good reason, they catch fish!

The use of beads has become commonplace in the fall when steelhead are gobbling up eggs from spawning salmon. But this isn’t the only time for beads to shine; the spring run brings another shot of loose eggs to the river and steelhead aren’t shy about snatching an easy meal drifting by! Since beads come in various sizes, stick with the 6 and 8mm beads in clear water, 10 and 12mm beads in dirty water.

bead fishing steelhead

With all the bead colors available, it’s easier than ever to match the hatch and give the fish something that looks as good as the real thing! Beads can also serve as an attractor in front of an egg sac; this can be just the ticket for dirty water conditions. Bright red, chartreuse or pink beads in the 10mm size beads provide the color and profile that make your trailing egg sac stand out amongst the rest of the offerings that are drifting down the stream. For whatever reason, contrasting colors between bead and eggs sac seem to be more effective than using one color for both.

Lastly, don’t be shy about changing colors when the bite dies. Even though lime green or fire dot patterns don’t occur naturally on an egg, it doesn’t mean the fish won’t bite a bead in these off the wall colors. Remember, spring steelhead are moody, fickle creatures; rotate colors when you’re on the fish to keep the action going strong.


As with the jigs, using plugs for steelhead is nothing new. While most anglers think of plug fishing as something you do from a boat, these wobbling wonders can be quite effective for shore anglers without the boredom of watching rod holders all day. While there are a plethora of plugs styles to choose from, we will focus on the banana style plug, made famous by the Kwikfish and Flatfish brands. These wide wobbling plugs work wonders on lethargic fish that have seen it all and usually draw strikes from the largest fish in the pool. Since these style plugs don’t dive very deep on their own, you will need to add split shot a foot or so above the plug in order to get down to the strike zone near the bottom.

steelhead fishing great lakes

Cast the plug slightly upstream of the holding water and pause to allow the split shot to sink the plug. Once the line is passed you, begin reeling slowly—and I mean slowly! It doesn’t take much resistance to get these style plugs wobbling and too much resistance will cause them to roll over.

Let the plug swing across the holding water and let it hang at the end of the drift; this is when many strikes will occur as the plug just wobbles in the current, irritating the fish to no end! The use of plugs isn’t just for spinning or casting gear; wily center pin anglers will remove their float and slide the shot down above the plug to get the right drift. Since the center pin reel has no gearing, the 1:1 retrieve speed is often just the ticket to get the plug dancing at just the right rate.

Spring steelhead season brings out the crowds, as this is the one time of year many folks will hit the stream in search of fresh run steelhead.

While the sight of elbow to elbow bank crowds and obnoxious boats roaring past can leave one questioning why we do this, it’s tough to beat the thrill of hooking a hot chromer on a warm, spring day. Using the right gear will separate your offerings from the rest of the crowd; give these three rigs a shot this spring and won’t be disappointed.

- written by Brian Kelly

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Great Lakes steelhead baffle me. I have never found food in an adult Alaskan steelhead in freshwater. Yet Great Lakes steelhead seem to continue to feed after they enter the tributaries. Why the different behavior is a mystery to me!

Nice Info!

Great Lakes steelhead baffle me. I have never found food in an adult Alaskan steelhead in freshwater. Yet Great Lakes steelhead seem to continue to feed after they enter the tributaries. Why the different behavior is a mystery to me!

Nice Info!

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