Best Baits for Norcal Steelhead

Sacramento River - Lower - Redding, CA (Shasta County)

Photo Credit: Jeff Goodwin

by Jeff Goodwin

The late fall King salmon run is on its way up river and the steelhead are right behind them. We've already seen some late fall and salmon caught in the stretches of the Sacramento River below the Coleman National Fish Hatchery as well as some great hatchery steelhead.  With continuous drops in the flows from Keswick Dam, the Sacramento River will likely see a short period where these salmon and steelhead will stall their push up river, and fishing may see a short lull.  On the other hand, we are getting some rain at least and that may keep things going until we get a nice shot of dirty water which should pull enough salmon up to keep us busy until December 16th when salmon fishing on the Sacramento River closes for the year.  Even after the salmon season closes, the steelhead will continue to push up to the Coleman Hatchery through the end of the year and usually peak in numbers up here in January-February.  In the meantime, I have some free time on my hands and thought I would share some my favorite steelhead bait presentations for catching winter steelhead on NorCal rivers. 

I have been using Pautzke BoX o Fire cure for my steelhead and trout eggs for years and have found great success using this product.  My success with Pautzke Bait products is shared by millions of other anglers worldwide, so there's no real secrets to give here, it's just an easy to use and very effective product to use for catching steelhead.  I intend to write more about how to use BorX o Fire cures for curing eggs, but for purposes of today's article, I'll just focus on how I use these baits to catch steelhead and trout.  If you have some eggs available to cure now, you can go to the Pautzke Bait Co. Fire Blog and find many "how to cure eggs for steelhead" articles at

The Sacramento River below Redding, Ca. runs "steelhead green" for most of the year and has periods where it's actually quite clear in its visibility.  Because we see good clarity up here most months of the year, it's important to know what the steelhead are looking for in a bait.  The Sacramento River contains King salmon, steelhead, and wild rainbow trout all year long.  At different times during the year, we will see ripe hens (female salmon and steelhead) in the system.  These female fish carry thousands of eggs that will eventually be harvested at Coleman Hatchery or will be deposited naturally by in-river spawners.  Many have referred to these female salmon and steelhead as "egg wagons" and even the steelhead and wild trout in the Sac know what this means.  The steelhead follow our salmon into the system to spawn, but also know they will be dropping protein rich eggs as they ripen as they prepare to spawn.  The resident rainbow trout populations are also aware of this food source and take full advantage of these periods, gorging themselves with this source of great nutrition.

Because the salmon eggs in their natural state are an orange color, the steelhead and trout will key in on these colors, especially during clear water conditions.  Its important to "match the hatch" in most cases to find the most success when fishing for steelhead and trout.  If they are eating natural color eggs dropped or deposited from salmon, they will also eat a properly cured piece of bait or an imitation egg like the Pautzke Fire Balls that match the colors of the real salmon eggs. This is why I will fish natural egg presentations 90% of the time when fishing for Sacramento River steelhead and trout.

Its important to keep in mind that these fish are not eating big globs of salmon eggs, so keep your baits small, especially in really clear water.  It can be a challenge to keep such small clusters of cured eggs on your hook while drift fishing from a boat, especially when inexperienced anglers (some clients) are casting too hard, too short, or are hook setting on every bump they feel during the drift.  Keeping your baits small will help, but they will still come off when bit or if they see too much bottom action or rod jerking.  One of my new discoveries which helps with this problem, is that by adding a similar color Pautzke Fire Ball to your presentation, you stay in the game even if you loose some or all of your egg cluster during your drift.  The Pautzke Fire Balls are tougher than cured roe and also have the color and scent needed to consistently catch steelhead and trout on their own.  Often times, I will notice my clients will still hook fish even after I'm sure their eggs are gone.  I've traditionally asked my clients to reel up after an empty hook set, but now I'm letting them stay in the game because I'm confident there will still be a Fire Ball on their hook to get the attention of a steelhead or trout during our drift.

Now with all that being said, I take my presentations a few more steps to make sure I'm going to be hooking fish.  I frequently add a small piece of UV yarn to my bait loop on my #4 Owner Mosquito hooks and usually finish off my presentation with a small Mad River Fish Pill.  This adds a few things to my presentations.  The yarn adds color, holds scent, and can get caught in the sharp teeth of a steelhead or trout giving you an extra second or two to detect a bite.  Pink, orange, or an egg yolk color is what I most often use on the Sacramento River.  Adding a Fish Pill will also help with your presentation in may cases, especially over "grabby" bottoms or areas where a lot of aquatic vegetation or moss exists.  The fish pill can also add color to your baits, but they can also add some buoyancy to your baits so they don't drag bottom and hang up or collect weeds/moss during your drift.

These are the key components to my bait fishing success on the Sacramento River, and although I deploy other techniques when chasing steelhead and trout on the Sacramento River, drifting bait has always been my favorite way to fish for them.  There's nothing that compares to a hot steelhead or wild trout going nuts on an ultra light spin rod after it grabs your eggs and gets hooked.  Line peeling runs and an "air show" displayed by these fish just never has, and never will get old for me.  I hope this article helps at least some of you find more success on your next steelhead and wild trout fishing adventure this season, and for many years to come.

Jeff Goodwin is a full time Northern California fishing guide.  He guides year round for salmon, trout, steelhead, Kokanee, and bass on Northern California rivers and lakes. He fishes many bodies of water in the Redding area, but also guides the Sacramento River and Feather River during certain times of the year. Jeff can also be found on the California coast chasing ocean fresh King salmon and steelhead each year. To learn more about the fishing trips Jeff has to offer, please visit Jeff Goodwin's Guide Service.  You can also find him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, or please feel free to call him anytime at (707) 616-1905.

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