The skies are gray. It’s quiet and calm and my rod tips are bouncing under the action of large crankbaits.

The tranquility is broken by a rod being ripped back in the holder. The deep rhythmic pumping of the rod signals a good fish shaking its head on the other end of the line. In an instant, calm becomes mayhem.

For anglers around the Great Lakes, trolling crankbaits for steelhead is the best way to put dinner on the table.

Rolled Steel: Slow Trolling Secrets for Trophy Steelhead

In fall, steelhead migrate up rivers following salmon on their spawning journey. The large silver and purple trout take advantage of an easy food source of the salmon eggs and bugs dislodged from spawning activity.

Once winter arrives, salmon die and water temperatures dip below 40 degrees. Steelhead stay in the rivers until spring when the water warms and they continue on their way to spawn.

man holds steelhead caught while trolling in the Great Lakes for kayak fishing
Precision tactics for finicky trout. | Feature photo: Kyle Hammond

Steelhead find the deepest holes, they prefer logjams and moderate to slow current. The best place to find deep water is on the outside of a bend in the river. Holes with overhead cover are a great find. Current speed should match a moderate walking pace or slower.

Steelhead Trolling Setup

My favorite rod and reel setup includes a Lamiglas Classic fiberglass trolling rod. The glass rod is eight feet, two inches long with plenty of backbone but a sensitive tip. The tip is important to monitor the crankbait and make sure it’s swimming correctly and isn’t fouled with weeds or leaves.

I pair the rod with a Shimano Tekota 300 line counter reel. The line counter is extremely useful for dialing in the presentation and trolling the crankbait at the same depth every time.

I prefer PowerPro 30-pound braided line in bright colors like orange or yellow. The braided line provides plenty of power with no stretch. The bright color helps me see the line so I can troll close to a logjam without snagging.

For a leader, I use six feet of Seaguar fluorocarbon from 12- to 20-pound test. I use lighter line in low and clear water while heavier line is best in dark or stained water. The last bit of tackle is a size 1 VMC Crankbait Snap. The Snap enables the crankbait to move with maximum action and helps to speed up lure changes.

My favorite lures for steelhead include Storm Wiggle Warts and Yakima Mag Lips. I use smaller sizes when the water is low and clear and larger sizes in high, off-color water.

Water color and sun intensity are also a big factor in selecting a lure color. On sunny days, a metallic finish seems to work well. Painted colors are better under overcast skies. Steelhead can be very color selective, so don’t be afraid to swap lures and colors to entice the fish.

I upgrade my hooks to Owner 2X trebles. These hooks are strong and extremely sharp. Steelhead are powerful and large. If given the chance, a full-grown steelhead will bend and break stock hooks.

Kayak setup for trolling crankbaits can be as simple as a pair of forward-mounted rod holders and a depth finder. I prefer Scotty Power Lock rod holders. I have a simple Humminbird HELIX 5 fish finder to monitor the depth where the fish are holding and adjust my trolling spread to match.

How to Troll for Steelhead

The tactic is fairly straightforward. Steelhead stay deep, so I want my lures to swim a foot off the bottom. I don’t want the lure to bump the bottom too often or it will pick up debris and get snagged.

I control trolling depth through a variety of techniques. First, I choose a lure that runs at the desired depth. Speed plays a big part. In swift water, I can hold the kayak stationary or even drift slowly downstream and the lure will hold at the desired depth. When the current is slow, I slowly pedal forward to maintain the ideal depth.

The most important factor controlling trolling depth is the amount of line I let out. A reel with a line counter measures the distance the lure is trolling behind my kayak. All things equal, more line makes the lure dive deeper. I let out line until the lure ticks the bottom, then I reel in a few feet to position the lure in the strike zone.

Steelhead fishing requires care and finesse. Once I dial in the lure depth, I slow troll until I get a bite. What could be easier?

Cover of Kayak Angler Magazine Issue 50, Early Summer 2023This article was first published in the Early Summer 2023 issue of Kayak Angler Magazine. Subscribe to Kayak Angler Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

Precision tactics for finicky trout. | Feature photo: Kyle Hammond




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