By Jason Schultz | 02/25/2014

The weather is looking good here in Idaho. All the rivers are all coming into shape and chances are that the steelhead fishing should be on fire this week. It might be a great time to head to one of the local rivers and get in on the good fishing while it lasts. You have heard from your buddies that this week on the Clearwater the fish have been biting pretty good on eggs, but the last month when you fished the Grand Ronde you hammered them on shrimp. Another fellow tells you that yarn balls are the hot bait, but you know your neighbor whacked them good last weekend back-trolling sand shrimp. There are so many different baits and you do not have much time to prepare. What will you bring in your arsenal of bait and tackle?

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Twenty some odd years of guiding steelhead on my local rivers near Lewiston, Idaho, has taught me many things. One thing I am positive of is the fact that steelhead in different rivers don’t always act alike when it comes to the bait they will prefer.

Let’s take the Snake and Clearwater Rivers for example. Water temperature, color and weather may all be the same in these two rivers, but the bait that that will work the best on the Snake may not be working well on the Clearwater. Why would this be? Steelhead are steelhead, right? Or are they???

You would think that water and weather conditions, in conjunction with the time of year, would dictate which bait steelhead in these “Sister Rivers” would be susceptible to. So why does it differ? First off, let me explain a little about what I know about the differences between the fish in these rivers and how the size of these fish may dictate your choice of bait.

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  • Younger / Smaller Steelhead act more like trout
  • Older / Larger Steelhead act more like salmon

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Younger / Smaller Steelhead

If you look at the rivers we fish here locally the Grand Ronde & Snake Rivers have the smallest average size fish most commonly known as A-Run Steelhead. These smaller steelhead return to spawn after a little over one year at sea making them an average of around 5-7 lbs. Younger A-Run steelhead are very aggressive to bite just about anything compared to their older B-Run siblings.

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A-Run steelhead in my mind are hungry and act more like trout. Forget what you have heard about how steelhead will not eat once back in freshwater. A-Run steelhead will and do eat when a food source is present. In fact, it’s not uncommon for me to find the bellies of these fish filled with loose roe when the fall Chinook are spawning.

Early in the season before water temps drop below 45 degrees these might possibly be the easiest steelhead there are to catch anywhere because they are willing to bite just about anything you throw at them. For this reason you will notice that these two rivers are also the most popular steelhead fly fishing rivers in our area.

Older / Larger Steelhead

B-Run Steelhead in our area ultimately all stem from the Clearwater River system. Idaho State hatchery efforts have introduced B-Run steelhead to the Salmon River as well. B-Run fish are large and stay at sea an additional year and grow upwards to 20 lbs. Good genetics and an additional year of growth make these B-Run fish the largest steelhead on the Columbia River system.

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With an additional year of growth comes a change of attitude compared to their younger A-Run brothers and sisters. B-Run Steelhead tends to be less “hungry” in the way they act. You don’t find B-Run fish chasing your bait to the boat the way a smaller fish will. The presence of “meat” on your hook has less to do with a B-Run fish biting than just the reaction of an irresistible opportunity.

I have always felt that larger steelhead are harder to catch and that your choice of bait is more critical than it is with smaller steelhead. Baits that cause a “Reaction Bite” more often than not are your best bet for large B-Run Steelhead. Even with the perfect choice of bait a large steelhead may pass up your presentation several drifts in a row before finally deciding to bite.

Matching your bait to the river you fish

Knowing there is a difference in Smaller vs Larger steelhead and the types of bait they prefer may be half the battle when deciding on your bait selection. As a professional guide who spends most every day of steelhead season on the water I get to see the patterns happen year after year.

The Snake, Grande Ronde, Imnaha and Salmon Rivers primarily have small fish early and you will find anglers hooking up on many kinds of lures or bait. Things change a little as the water temps cool below 45 degrees. You’ll notice the lure fishermen tend to catch less than the guys fishing bait.

Once the river temps drop below 40 degrees shrimp generally out produce eggs and other bait. This being said if I had only one bait to fish for A-Run steelhead with it would be coon shrimp. On my boat over the course of the steelhead season coon shrimp cured in Pautzke Nectar will produce more steelhead than any other bait I have used. I feel that the natural hunger of these smaller Steelhead leave them susceptible to the presence of “Meat” on your hook, especially a shrimp which they are so used to eating when in the ocean.

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On the Clearwater and Salmon Rivers when larger fish are present I go into the day with the mindset that I am going to patiently target these fish like they are salmon that are off the bite. Knowing that there will be days where the fish will be finicky and presenting the right bait over and over again may be the only answer to steelhead success.

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I like to use the steelhead’s instinct to bite eggs to my advantage when targeting these larger fish. There are many different theories on what we call the “Egg Bite” and exactly why steelhead will take roe is anyone’s guess. One thing that is for sure is that steelhead or salmon roe cured in Pautzke’s BorX O Fire works well on B-Run sized steelhead.

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Cured roe and egg imitators such as yarn balls soaked in Pautzke Nectar are my go to baits when fishing for these B-Run giants. More often than not, when I am mixing up my baits during the day, eggs will out produce shrimp on B-run fish 2 to 1. The larger fish just do not seem to click to the shrimp quite the way they do to the eggs. For my money I wouldn’t head to the river without roe or some kind of roe imitator when targeting B-Run steelhead.

At the end of the day

It always pays to experiment, be versatile and never argue with the fish. If you happen to find a bait that the fish seem to prefer that day then give it to them! Also, remember to up your odds by using high quality terminal tackle like that produced by Steelhead Leaders. A quality steelhead leader with great components will ultimately put more fish in your net this season. That being said remember that “Size Matters” when it comes to bait selection on your next trip to the river.

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Editor’s Note: Jason Schultz operates Hells Canyon Sport Fishing. For more information on his Clearwater and Snake River steelhead trips please visit http://www.hellscanyonsportfishing.com/.