Steelhead 101: Getting Started

I know from experience that getting started in steelheading can be an intimidating thing. A quick walk down any popular steelhead river will yield ideas of having to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars to get in the game. Believe me, that time will come, but it’s not necessary right off the bat. Ease your way into it and get to know your inner steelheader before breaking the bank.

There are two essential elements to steelheading that are completely free. You can drop all the money you want to get the best of the best gear but you’re not going to accomplish anything without patience and confidence. The two go hand in hand. Without one the other is useless.

Patience, either you have it or you don’t. If you don’t, steelheading is not for you. You can stop reading. Steelheading is not as glamorous as our friends and followers on social media make it seem. We see the shots of all the fish brought to hand; we don’t see the countless fishless days that lead up to that one successful one, or the hundreds of fishless drifts taken before the one that resulted in a fish. No one wants to brag of their failures. In steelheading failure is much more common than success. You must be mentally prepared for those fishless days. You must have the patience to endure the freezing temperatures, the driving rain or the heavy snow all based on nothing more than a hope of hooking a fish.

Having the patience to go hours, days, even weeks without so much as a bump will result in the confidence needed to be successful. I know, not catching fish for weeks isn’t much of a confidence booster but when you do hook that fish, all is forgotten and the mental notes are taken. At that precise moment you know you can catch a steelhead with whatever the set-up at that moment may be. Now you have something you can fall back on if nothing is working. Confidence is born.


Not a lot, but some. Maybe you’re lucky enough to already have some useful stuff that you use for other species, but let’s assume you don’t. There are a lot of things available to steelheaders these day that may seem like a necessity but when it comes down to it you need three things: a rod, a reel and some tackle.


There’s no such thing as the ultimate steelhead rod; that one rod that does everything just right. There are technique specific rods that are just that, perfect for one technique, but if you’re looking for a single rod that will accomplish everything you’re going to be hard pressed to find one.

With that being said, if I could chose a single rod to cover multiple techniques it would be one in the 9-10 foot range, medium power; something sensitive yet powerful. It’s going to have its flaws to be sure but it can affectively handle casting spoons, spinners and crankbaits, yet is still sensitive enough to detect subtle takes while bottom bouncing and long enough to control the line while float fishing. It may not be perfect but it will work on many levels and offer you a chance to explore more options instead of picking one single technique.


As far as reels are concerned I see more and more Great Lakes steelheaders going the way of our West Coast counterparts and using a levelwind; a baitcaster. I see the advantage of line control when running a float but for an all-around reel I’m not convinced it’s the way to go. You’re going to spend more on an entry level levelwind than you would a comparable spinning reel but more importantly, the ease of use of a spinning reel far outweighs that of a levelwind.

Whichever way you decide to go when selecting a reel make sure it has a quality drag system. A fresh chrome steelhead has a habit of putting a serious hurt on a reel not up to the task and will have you wishing you had spent the few extra bucks on one that was.


Without a doubt roe is the single most popular bait for Great Lakes steelhead and for good reason; it catches fish and lots of them. But don’t get sucked into the ‘roe is the way to go’ mentality. Remember, versatility is what makes a great steelheader. Beads, jigs and soft plastics should all be a major part of any steelheaders arsenal and so should spinners, spoons and crankbaits. The best steelheaders are the complete steelheaders, the ones not afraid to mix it up until the fish tell them what they want.

I understand after reading and re-reading this post that it is very basic, vague even, but that’s precisely the point. My first steelhead was caught on the very same rod that I used for every other fish at the time. Steelheading can be as simple as you want it to be, at least at the beginning. Give it time and if you’re anything like me, or all the other die hard steelheaders I know, it will begin to consume you.

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