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.