7 Tips To Catch High Water Steelhead

By: Mike Ainsworth

It’s steelhead season in the Pacific Northwest and that means rain, rain and more rain. This blog will detail tips to catch more steelhead in the PNW this winter. You’ll notice a theme. Whether using jigs, shrimp, yarn or eggs these tips revolve around scent.


Soak Yarn/Rags

Typical for this time year a lot of rain has made for less than ideal conditions. However, there are ways to target steelhead in higher, dirtier water. Anytime water levels are higher than normal and water clarity is less than favorable think big, slow and smelly. What I mean by this is think big as in the size of your baits or lures. One of my favorites in these conditions are rags and yarn balls as large as 50 cent pieces. Keep in mind the larger they are the more scent they hold. I opt for darker colors of yarn. The darker the water the darker the color yarn.

Scent is essential when fishing high/dirty water. Focus on the fish’s senses, sight and smell. While a wide variety of scents are used for steelhead I soak mine in Pautzke Nectar and Liquid Krill. Make sure to reapply often. Saturating baits with scent increases your odds of success. The fish smells your bait well before it sees it. Creating a good scent trail puts the fish on high alert. I believe a scent trail gets steelhead in the mood to look to feed.


Drifting Brined Eggs

Brined eggs are a great bait in and high dirty water. Brined eggs maintain color and milk out extremely well. This all goes back to that scent trail you are trying to create. I prefer Red Fire Brine in these conditions because darker colors stand out in this kind of water. Think big. Don’t be afraid to use clusters the size of a half dollar in high water and don’t hesitate to add extra scent or team them up with Fire Brine prawns. Teaming them up creates a bigger profile and puts multiple scents in the water.


Try Prawns:

Another favorite of mine is Fire Brine prawns. Adding the Fire Brine makes the prawns more durable and visible. (I also add a piece of Fire Brine prawns to my eggs in dirtier water to create a larger profile and more scent). On the other hand, as water begins to clean and clear try curing smaller bay shrimp in Fire Brine and tip your jigs or eggs with them.


Brined prawns are a common steelhead bait. Nevertheless, in high water they are even better fished behind a rag or yarn ball. Prawns and eggs are also effective behind a Spin N Glo while fishing bait divers.


Employ Bait Divers

Don’t be in a rush when fishing high or dirty water. Take your time. Bait divers are a great way to achieve this. With a bait diver it’s easy to work the slow and shallower edges. In high water it’s always important to change your bait often. The fresher the bait, the stronger the scent.

Move With the Fish

In rising water steelhead will be on the move. When this is the case don’t hesitate to sit on anchor. Meanwhile, I tell my clients “As the water recedes from the banks so will the fish.” Move with them. Keep in mind as the skies part and conditions better I will use these same baits, just change the size and areas I fish them.


In dirty water don’t worry about leader size. Keep your leader short, between 24-32 inches. This way the bait stays close to the bottom where the fish will be hiding. Leader lengths for bait divers should not exceed four feet so they also stay close to the bottom, too. When side drifting or bobber dogging I like to use pencil lead. The lead is easy to trim and adjust for the water you are fishing.


Color Matters:

In dirtier water I prefer Red Fire Cure. I believe darker colors create a better silhouette in darker brown water. As water clears I adjust the color of my bait according to the clarity. From dirty to clear the spectrum for cured eggs goes like this: red to pink on down to orange and finally natural cured baits as water levels retreat to low and clear.

Editor’s Note: Mike Ainsworth operates First Light Guide Service in Western Washington. For more information on his guided steelhead trips please visit: https://firstlightguideservice.com.