Catching Rainbow Trout and Steelheads: Tips and Techniques To Make You a Better Angler

A big Rainbow or huge Steelhead is the most prize for trout anglers. These trout subspecies can be a test of your fishing skills. They are smarter than browns and brookies but they don’t have the same aggressive nature.

The trick is to understand trout so that you can catch them easily.

We are here to help.

Trout Basics

Understanding what makes each species tick is the key to catching more fish.

Rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss come in an almost overwhelming variety of subspecies. They are among the most beautiful fish that any angler has ever caught, from Steelheads to Kern River Goldens.

We will be focusing on Redband forms, which is what you think of when you hear the term “rainbow trout.” Also, we’ll be looking at the Steelhead variety, which is a coastal variation of Rainbow that spends most of its time at sea.

Kern River Golden Trout

Steelhead Trout

Rainbows and Steelheads: Trout 101


Rainbow trout are named after the pink-to-red stripe running the length of their slim, speckled bodies. However, this marking is more visible in breeding males. They are native to the North West and have been introduced to cooler climates.

Rainbows can be found in clear streams with gravel bottoms and fast water, as well as in cool-water lakes. Although they are generally a cool-climate species, some rainbows can thrive in warmer waters, which allows them to live farther south than browns and brooks.

Stream rainbows are usually between 1 to 5 pounds depending on where they’re found. Lake dwellers tend to be larger. In Minnesota, the only place where rainbows are found, stream trout can be expected to weigh in at least 1 to 5 pounds and 15 inches respectively. They can grow up to 3 to 8 pounds, and 26 inches in Lake Superior.


The anadromous rainbow trout species, steelhead, is found in the waters off the coast of California. They live out to sea and start and end their lives in rocky streams. They are born freshwater and spend their first few years there before moving to the sea to grow and feed to adulthood.

Steelheads are known for their ability to focus on the source from which they came, even after years of living in the ocean. Steelhead returns to spawning via smell. As many as 10% of them survive to do so multiple times. There are two types of spawning cycles: the summer run (May-October) and the winter (November-April). Both take them into freshwater, where they are more easily targeted by waiting anglers. They’ll also return to their streams several months before they spawn. However, winter-run steelhead tends to be a little larger.

Steelheads are prized for their ability to grow bigger and stronger than their freshwater counterparts. They can reach 55 pounds and 45 inches respectively. Steelheads will weigh about 7 pounds on average, which is still a huge trout by any standards.

Trout Senses

Rainbows have exceptional color perception and vision. Although they are a bit nearsighted, they can see well in shallow streams and when looking for food. The ultraviolet range is even possible for trout vision.

It’s difficult to get up on them with eyes that provide 360-degree vision. Even the shadow cast by fly lines has been known to fool them.

This exceptional color perception makes it possible to tie flies that are realistic in colors and presentation, which is why expertly tied flies have been so successful with all species of trout.

Mike Depew, a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission fisheries biologist, says that fluorescent Day-Glo colors can still attract rainbows. Although they don’t mimic nature, small amounts of fluorescent color can make a hot spot. A little bit of fluorescent yellow, pink, or orange absorbs ultraviolet rays and projects them back into the visible spectrum. Although it is not visible from the surface, or underwater, it becomes more apparent the deeper you go.”

Rainbows and Steelheads have tiny scent organs called “nares”, which help them navigate to their local streams and find prey. The trout’s feeding behavior is influenced by their sense of smell. This makes them a powerful weapon for eliciting a bite, especially for spinners.

Rainbows and Steelheads, as with all predatory fish have a sensitive line that allows them to sense the tiny vibrations of insects, shrimp, and fish from a great distance.

Feeding Behavior

Young Rainbows and Steelheads, like many other fish species, start their lives eating zooplankton. As they grow in size, they move on to more insects. Throughout their entire life, almost any type of aquatic or airborne insect can be eaten. Young trouts also eat salmon eggs, leeches, and crayfish. They never lose their love for roe.

Rainbows are less piscivorous than brown trout and brook trout. However, Steelhead prey on marine insects like shrimp and krill as well as fishes of all types.

Tips and techniques to catch more rainbows and steelheads

Several things should be obvious from the information we have just discussed.

  • Realistic colors, including metallics, are a good choice for fishing clearer waters on brighter days. Whites, blacks, and grays are best. It is important to match the hatch’ by using lures and baits that match the prey item colors.
    You will need black, metallic flash, or glitter to fish deeper.
  • Flash and popDepew points out that bright fluorescent accents can be a great addition to any fish tank. To attract the trout’s attention, we like to see some bright colors, flashing blades, and a few strands of bright skirts. This is equally important for fishing streams as it does when working in a lake dropoff.
  • Vibration is important –Vibration is important whether you are throwing lures or soft baits. Look for lures with blades such as in-line spinners and small, realistic crankbaits. These will mimic the behavior of wounded prey. Soft baits such as worms, fluked minnows, and tube jigs are also popular. All of them wiggle when they are being worked, which sends vital information to the trout’s line.
  • The scent attracts bitesDo not be afraid to add attractants to your lures, and don’t forget the soft baits!

Get into the Early Spring Shallows and Spinners

Brian Chan, a British Columbia fisheries biologist, loves to fish shallow lakes right after the ice-out. A variety of prey items will pull trout towards water less than 10ft deep. They’ll be most active on the first sunny day when the water opens.

In-line spinners such as the Mepp’s Dressed Aglia Spinner or the Yakima Bait Wordens Original Rooster Tail and the Blue Fox Classic Vibrax Spinner are recommended for targeting live weed beds’ edges and tops. These veteran designs have caught more trout than any other.

Mepps Aglia Dressed Treble Fishing Lure, 1/4-Ounce, Silver/Brown Tail (B3ST S-BR)
Mepp’s Dressed Aglia Spinner
Yakima Bait Wordens Original Rooster Tail Spinner Lure, Glitter Black, 1/8-Ounce

Yakima Bait Worden’s Original Rooster Tail

Yakima Bait Wordens Original Rooster Tail Spinner Lure, Glitter Black, 1/8-Ounce

Blue Fox Classic Vibrax Spinner


Rainbows’ appeal is due to their combination of vibrant color, flash and vibration, and a fluttering action. To avoid tangles, pitch them with a swivel and place them right over and next to live weeds.

Keep your retrieve steady and keep those sharp treble hooks high above the green stuff. The classic colors of silver, gold, and black will entice trout to strike.

While opinions differ on the use of powerboats for native trout fishing, it doesn’t hurt to add a little Berkley PowerBait Trout Nubble to your hooks.

River Spinners

These lures work just as well in white water, but they are a little trickier to catch.

An upstream cast is the best technique. Next, you should retrieve the spinner to keep it afloat and ahead of the current. This will be assisted by the fluttering blade, which will produce plenty of flashes to attract strikes.

You’ll find that the lure is moving towards you and eventually turning it over current. At this point, you will need to slow down your retrieve. This hooking motion can make you money, Rainbows, and Steelheads alike!

Slip-Floating Tube Jigs

A slip float combined with a tube jig is another way to hit the spring shallows and reach the summer depths.

Slip floats allow you to control the depth of your bait more precisely than standard bobbers. They are also much easier to cast. Thill’s floats are our favorite, and I would throw the Thill Pro Series slip float for trout. These floats are easy to set up and adjust, they’re high-quality, and they’re easy for you to see.

It’s not difficult to set up a slip floating.

Although it may seem odd to use a tube jig to catch trout, They don’t look anything like the fish they eat, save for a Steelhead squid. They must be delicious, regardless of what the trout believe they are.

The Strike King Bitsy Tube is recommended in all colors Bass Pro features. These 2 3/4-inch wonders have a fringe skirt that wriggles with every flick of your wrist. If you attach them to an amazing jig head such as the Leland’s Lures Trout Magnet Jighead they can draw Rainbows into strikes when nothing else is working.

Strike King Bitsy TubeLeland’s Lures Trout Magnetic Jighead

Knowing how deep trout are holding is key. Next, place the float so that your jig is just above their heads. Keep going, given their tendency to feed upwards,

If the trout are not moving, which they often will, 8-10 inches should be sufficient.

These photos will show you how to rig your jig.

This is not what you want. Pay attention to where the knot leaves your eye.

Instead, you want to be your Knott at the top of your eye. This will cause the jig to move forward.

This is what you need.

These excellent lures can be fished without the float if you are confident in your technique. Simply rip the tube to the bottom. You can rip the lure and let it fall, taking care of the slack.

This is an example of the technique being used on smallmouth. This idea is identical for trout:

Popping Critters in Lakes, Eddys, and Pools

Rainbows and Steelheads both have exceptional vision. This combined with fine color perception means that lures that are more realistic than real can be a winning combination.

Fly anglers get a lot of attention in this regard, and a well-tied fly can be quite impressive.

Many spinning gear options can fool trout, and these topwater poppingpers are just as effective.

Rebel offers a variety of “critter” lures. From the Bumble Bug, the Wee-Crawfish to the Hellgrammite, the Crickhopper, and Bighopper, you will not be disappointed by the lifelike patterns, shapes, and actions.

Rebel Lures Bumble Bug Topwater / Crankbait Fishing Lure, 1 1/2 Inch, 7/64 Ounce, Horse Fly Bumble BugRebel Lures Wee-Crawfish Fishing Lure (2-Inch, Nest Robber) Wee-CrawfishRebel Hellgrammite Fishing Lure, Mature, 1 3/4-Inch, 3/32-Ounce Hellgrammite
Rebel Lures Crickhopper Cricket / Grasshopper Crankbait Fishing Lure, 1 1/2 Inch, 1/4 Ounce, Summer Hopper, Crickhopper (3/32 oz) CrickhopperRebel Bighopper Fishing Lure - Green Grasshopper, 1 3/4 inch (F73M0) Big hopper

These lures are easy to use. Cast the lures and leave them to rest for a while. Trout will usually take them as soon as they hit the water. If they don’t respond, try popping the lure again, grabbing the line, and waiting a while.

Keep at it until you have a cadence that brings in the hits. I prefer to start with a pop/pop rest.

Spawn Sacks & Slip Floats

Salmon roe, when legal, is a great “live” bait option. These eggs are a favorite of young trout, and they will never stop eating them.

Roe can be purchased at tackle shops or you can order the sacks already made. These are sold in six-packs by Atlas.

Atlas Mike's Floating Spawn Sac Salmon Eggs 1 Jar of 6 Sacs, Red


Lake Michigan Angler offers a great tutorial that explains how to make these. Of course, you’ll also need roe and spawn net, as well magic thread.

Atlas Mike's Spawn Net Squares Great to Keep Fishing Bait Together, Orange, 4 X 4-InchAtlas Magic Thread (1 Spool/Bag) 66013, 1.5 oz, Orange

You might prefer to watch a video.

Attach your finished sacks either to Angler International’s #8 Raven Hooks or #8 Gamakatsu Octopus hooks. Both of these options are great and will not let you down.

This would allow me to suspend the terminal tackle at the Thill Pro Series Slip-Float I mentioned above.

This approach is unbeatable!

Last Thoughts

Rainbows and Steelheads can be difficult fish to catch. Smart anglers will know this and take steps to increase their chances of catching them. You can learn more about these subspecies and their feeding habits so you can choose lures, baits, or other techniques that will help you tilt the odds in your favor.

These tips and techniques will help you catch more trout, and we would love to hear your feedback.

Do you have any tips or techniques to share?

Leave a comment below

Lewis Mark is a vastly experienced fly fisher. His encyclopedic knowledge of fly tying has led to start blog on fishing. He also review Fishing equipment based on his knowledge and experience.