The Best Bait for Spring Steelhead

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.

Spring steelhead

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.

Rigging Up

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.


Baiting Up

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.


  1. Steve says

    Hi JD.

    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.


    • says

      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…

  2. 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

  3. squirrel says

    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 ?

    • says

      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!

  4. Gary says

    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.

  5. 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

  6. nik says

    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”

      • jake says

        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!

  7. Rene says

    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

  8. 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.

    steelie 21

  9. Bingo says

    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?

  10. wade says

    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 ?

    • says


      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.

  11. 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.

  12. James says

    do you use a tail hook while side drifting do you . i have guys tell me that’s the best way to drift bait .

  13. says

    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!

  14. 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

Leave a Reply