Steelhead Jigs: The Ultimate Guide To Steelhead Jig Fishing

Want to catch a Steelhead on a Jig?

In this post I dive into every detail you’ll need to know, to land your next double-digit chromer on a trout jig.

Selecting a winning jig is like selecting the right cologne for date night.

If you go overboard with it, you’re going to scare away your date.

Too little, and it will go unnoticed.

So let’s dive in on how to pick the right jig, for the right occasion. 

What’s a Jig Anyways?

Simply put, a jig is a weighted hook that is presented vertically in the water column.

The hook is dressed up in some sort of feather/fur combo, and then tied and died in different colors.

A trout jig comes in different patterns and styles. Each style has its own “finesse” or action to lure in the fish.

Now, most of the time, Jigs are mimicking some type of bait in the trout diet.

Steelhead and other trout species are predatory fish. Which means they will often feed on smaller fish such as smelt, herring, alewives, or fry (newborn fish). Jigs also imitate other creek dwellers like leeches, gobies, and worms.

You’ll find that the majority of steelhead jigs are made from marabou. Marabou is the soft, downy feathers that come from the undersides of turkeys and chickens.

This is a popular jig material because it is easy to come by and has great action in the water. Marabou is light and fluffy compared to other jig materials such as Mylar. Its suppleness allows the jig to pulsate through the water making it irresistible to the fish. Additionally, there are several other materials that can be added to a marabou jig to supplement its action.

We’ll discuss materials later on in this guide when we go over tie vs buy.

When and Where To Use Steelhead Jigs

Jigs are a very versatile bait.

In winter and fall, you will find these baits are the real MVP of your tackle box.

This bait is effective because you can present them to the fish quickly and they imitate things they frequently eat. 

In the colder months like December-February, steelhead are generally less active than in spring or fall.

They’ve made the journey up the streams and creeks for the spawn and will likely feed only two or three times per day.

So when you look for a place to start off, look for slower water.

Ideal trout/salmon drifts are in water that is around 4-8 ft deep and not in direct sunlight. At this point in the creek, the fish are able to rest comfortably with protection from natural predators and all while still having an opportunity to feed on the smaller fish that swim out of the riffle or rapids.

Trout are attracted to structure in a stream. Things like large rocks, boulders, and fallen trees are also good things look for. Even something as simple as a change in depth is also a great place to find trout and drop and jig.

 Another important thing to remember is that a trout, as well as its prey, will usually be a few inches off the bottom.

So you’ll need to present your bait as close to the bottom as you can without hooking the bottom and losing your gear.

Jigs have an upright hook that helps prevent these snags as they cruise along the creek bottom making them an ideal bait. 

Selecting The Best Steelhead Jig

Factors such as water clarity, depth, weather, season, and time of day all play an important role in jig selection.

Have you ever heard the term “There’s more than one way to skin a cat”?The same thing applies to jigs.

If you’ve ever browsed the web or taken a walk through the isles of your local tackle shop, you’ll find there’s an overwhelming amount of options.

You want to make sure you have the proper jig tied on your line that will bring fish to the net and not put a dent in the wallet.

Now that you know when and where to use jigs, choosing the right jig is critical for your success on the water.

Trout have some of the best senses in nature, especially their sight. So the difference in having a ten fish outing or going home skunked could come down to which jig you select.

So how do you choose the right jig to fish with?

Water Clarity

Whether the water is gin-clear or chocolate milk, there’s a steelhead jig for the job.

In clearer water steelhead are more selective of what they’ll eat.The clearer the water is, the more you’ll want your jig to “match the hatch.”

Natural colors such as brown and olive are the ideal choice for these situations.

Water clarity will also contribute to the overall profile of the jig.

Smaller, natural colored jigs will yield the best results in clear water.

Visa Versa with stained to dirty water; jigs that have higher contrast such as black, white, and brighter colors will outperform the natural colors.

Jigs with a larger profile are also a better selection since they are more visible and offer a bigger target.

Water Temperature

Water temperature also plays an important role.

Fish are more lethargic in sub 40-degree water. This means that they will have to be absolutely sure of what they are eating.

Steelhead will not go out of their way in colder water if they are not completely convinced.

You can gain their interest with a larger volume jig with more finesse. Brighter jigs are a great option because they represent an injured fish, which naturally seems like an easy target for the steelhead.

In 40+ degree water, baitfish are more active. It may be a post-spawn situation where younger trout and salmon fry are plentiful in the stream.

This is where you’ll want to select a smaller, natural colored jig such as brown, silver, or olive.

A 1/32 ounce jig with about two inches of material is a great starting point.

Water Speed

Water speed has more to do with weight than anything.

Staying in the strike-zone is critical (couple inches from the bottom.)

Therefore, the faster the water, the heavier the jig.

Adjust to a lighter weight as the current slows down.

Aggression vs Hunger

Steelhead will take a bait for one of two reasons. They are either mad or hungry.

As we’ve mentioned before, steelhead feed on small baitfish when they’re hungry.

However, they will also act aggressively toward certain organisms such as leeches, gobies, and sculpins. These organisms are notorious for feeding on steelhead eggs while they are spawning.

When will they be aggressive and when will they be hungry?In the spring when female steelhead spawn, they will be very protective of their eggs after they’ve released them. This is an ideal time to trigger an aggressive strike.

A great lure to use in these situations are heavier jigs with larger profiles or an egg sucking leech pattern.

A tactical way of targeting feeding activity is any other time opposite of their spawning schedule.

Boat traffic and fishing pressure are factors that interfere with the natural feeding pattern of a steelhead, so take note of who is around you while you are fishing.

Steelhead Jig Fishing Techniques

There’s no doubt that vertical presentations are a great way to catch trout. Whether you’re in the PNW or drifting tribs in the northeast.

You’ve either seen, or will see someone crush trout and steelhead using a float.

Vertical jigging allows your bait to be in the fish’s sight for the longest amount of time possible.

If you can present your bait to the fish more often, your hookups will drastically increase.

But how can you make successful drifts with a jig?

Let’s examine:

A typical float fishing set up will be a slip or pegged float attached to 8-12lb test monofilament line with several small split shot on it.

Monofilament is an ideal line choice because it floats.

Beneath the split shot a 12-14 inch fluorocarbon leader is attached with a jig at the end.

The fluorocarbon is stealthy due to its light refracting properties and steelhead have a hard time seeing it. It also sinks in water, helping you achieve your desired depth.

Often applying a jigging action (small, quick snaps of the rod to give the bait a more lifelike appearance) will be more enticing for the fish.

In warm, dirty water jigging is a must. The fish will be more active and more willing to chase a bait.

In water that is cold and clear, a jig that has too much movement could spook lethargic steelhead.

Float Fishing is by far the superior way of presenting a jig to a fish. A quick reaction is necessary with a fish such as a trout. They are well known for their keen senses and it’s not uncommon for a fish to spit a hook in a matter of seconds.

One of the main advantages of the float rig is the instant feedback. With the float acting as a strike indicator you can always be aware of whats happening to your jig which allows you to respond quickly to a strike. A vertical presentation also allows to track your bait is at all times.

Another place where float fishing is advantageous is when you are selecting certain areas of the water column to fish. Making a quick adjustment of the float lets you hone in on the sweet spot.

Fishing drifts(areas of water with current) are the foundation to float fishing. Using current speed with a float set up allows you to deliver a lure as natural as possible in the water. Small creatures that are mimicked by jigs are often floating through the water at the same speed as the current.

A bait that is presented too fast or to slow in relation to the current can spook the fish.

Some of the downsides to float fishing are the cost and set up time. Most floats cost about $5 dollars a piece and jigs costing several bucks, a few snags can cost you a lot in the end.

With this rig being a relatively complex set up it takes a while to re-tie. The winter months are a great time for float fishing but your hands are sure to be sore after dunking them in freezing cold water, grabbing a slippery fish, and tying small knots on light line.

Time out of the water equals time not catching fish.

A way to prevent losing your gear comes down to being smart about your set up.

Here are some good practices to float fishing jigs that will save you time and money in the end:

  • Use a main-line that’s heavier test than your leader. This way if you break off, you only lose your bait instead of your entire set up. Then you can simply get back in the water with tying on a new leader and jig.
  • Put your split shot on your main line. When fishing for trout a leader of 6 or 8lb test is common. So attaching split shot to your leader may chip your line compromising its integrity and deterring the fish from your jig.
  • Always start with your float shallow and slowly work your float deeper. This way you don’t start with a snag and spook the fish. Your first few drifts in a new spot are the most productive, so make them count.

Another option to jigging applies to the pier fisherman, ice fisherman, or boaters and that’s called “drop jigging” or “vertical jigging”.

In this style of fishing, a fisherman is simply dropping down a line with just a jig tied on and jigging the lure up and down the water column.

When paired with a flasher or fishfinder this is a lethal way of fishing.

Lethal in the sense that you will be killing it out on the water.

When bundled with a fish locator of some kind you have the ability to get an active jig right in front of the fishes face. Locating a fish is often 80% of the work.

This method just like float fishing has its pros and cons. As mentioned already the accuracy offered by this style of fishing is the key to success. Unlike float fishing, you really don’t have to worry about snags as much and not to mention if you don’t get caught up on one of those notorious grass bass.

Losing your set-up with the vertical jigging method is just a quick and simple re-tie of a jig and you can get back to it. It also more cost-effective.

On the downside, vertical jigging limits how much water you can cover. And unless you’re in a boat your presentation will not be as natural.

The method in which fish jigs really comes down to what you have access too. As an ice fisherman vertical jigging is your only option and should really be accompanied by some type of fish marker/finder if you want to be successful.

However, if you’re in a boat or fishing from shore you typically have access to both methods. Float fishing is more effective in covering lots of water and locating fish and vertical jigging is a lot more accurate.

As an angler take a minute to gather an assessment of your surroundings and make the educated decision on what you think is the most effective way to land fish knowing what you know now.

To Tie or Buy Your Own Jigs

Fishing for most people is a hobby.

Getting into jig tying is a great opportunity to advance your knowledge, become a more successful angler, and scratch your fishing itch when the weather or your life doesn’t permit it.

However, jig tying it can be very time-consuming and expensive. Its a whole other hobby of its own.To each is his own.

But as a company created by passionate fishermen who have been in the field for some time now, we want to offer you the inside scoop on the great and not so great between buying or tying your own jigs.

Tying your own jigs is a great way to improve your skills as a fisherman. It allows you to spend more time figuring out what the fish want to eat and it can get you excited for your next outing.

It’s no secret that you want to be successful when you head out fishing. The experience can only be enhanced by landing a beautiful fish with something you’ve crafted on your own,

right?

That’s the apex of fishing.

Matching your skills up against the skills of Mother Nature. 

Tying Steelhead Jigs

Tying your own jigs is a rewarding and relaxing experience.

As mentioned earlier it’s a fun craft and hobby of its own!

However, just like anything in life it also comes with its own set of problems.

If you’re considering tying your own jigs ask yourself is “Does tying jigs make sense for me?”

  • Do you have the time and patience to learn the art of tying your own jigs?
  • Do you have the money to buy all the materials and equipment to tie jigs yourself and can you afford to make mistakes along the way?
  • Are you someone who spends a lot of time on the water and goes through a lot of equipment, or are you just the weekend warrior?

When you build customized tackle, you are your own quality control, creator, and product tester.

You’re developing something that’s unique and cannot be bought in stores.

That being said, it takes a while to research and purchase all the necessary materials. Tying jigs can be addictive just like fishing. Once you start you’ll want to do it more frequently to improve on everything you make.

So where do you begin?

Getting started with jig tying you’ll have some necessary initial start-up cost.

At the bare minimum, you’ll need equipment such as:

  • Jig Hooks
  • Marabou(and any other material you wish to use)
  • Fly Tying Thread
  • Fly Tying Vise
  • Thread Bobbin
  • Jig Cement(Waterproof Flexible Glue)
  • Scissors

Now, this really just scratches the surface of the essential start-up items.

More often than not you can find starter kits online that will include all the tools that you would need to get started.

Are you just starting out?

Than getting a kit is the best option hands down.

It’s affordable and simple to get started right away.

However, if you want to make a career out of it or if you plan on spending a lot of time behind the vice, good quality equipment is a great investment.

Your average starter kit doesn’t do the best job in offering you, the craftsmen, the maneuverability needed for intricate and detailed oriented designs.

You also want to make sure your vice is durable and going to stand the test of time.

As an experienced jig/fly maker, good quality scissors go a long way. Quality scissors and a top end vise are smart investments.

With all the materials you collect over time, you need a place to store them. You’ll also need a place to work in that you don’t mind getting messy.

Speaking from experience most materials aren’t easy to work with and create a mess. Many avid jig makers have plumes of marabou and bits of thread and head cement laying everywhere in their houses.

All this being said, over time jig tying can be a cost-effective and great way to get high-quality jigs. But from the start, you’ll be paying a premium for your jigs and it’s cheaper to just buy jigs if you’re only for a handful of lures for the weekend. Jig tying is geared toward serious fisherman that want to improve their game or for someone who is looking to start a new hobby.

Let’s look take a closer look at manufacturing cost/cost per jig:

Making Your Own Jigs

  •  Jig Hooks(6 Pack) $4
  •  One pack of Marabou $3
  •  Fly/Jig Tying Starter Kit $50
  •  Fly Tying Thread $3
  •  Fly/Jig Tying Cement $4

Total Initial Cost: $64

$50 for Tools + $14 for Material

or about $10.67 per jig.

Future jigs costs. Replenishing materials (~$7 for more Marabou and Jig Hooks)

~$1 per jig. For a simple, unicolored marabou jig.

Buying Your Own Jigs

$7+ For a Premium Jig

or

$3 – $5 for a lower quality mass-produced jig.

Key Benefits:

  • Proven to work
  • Reliable
  • Easy to Obtain
  • Variety without having to buy different materials
  • Hassle Free

Tying Material

If you chose the path of making your own unique jigs you’ll quickly find that there are a plethora of jig tying materials out there. Each material serves a unique purpose and has its own benefits.

Here at Burnsly, we’ve just about strapped anything and everything under the sun to a hook. We’re proud to say that we have a firm understanding of jig tying materials to form tactical approaches that we bring to the vice. Now its time to share some of that knowledge with you as you take on this new adventure of jig/fly tying.

Whether you’re just getting started or your a Seasoned Vice-Junkie know what materials are out there and what they do will allow you to capitalize on effective patterns and how to form a high-quality jig.

Marabou

Marabou is the most common material used in jigs for steelhead and salmon. Its the main material used in iconic “Marabou jig” and in many other jigs styles. As mentioned earlier marabou is the soft, downy feathers that come from the undersides of turkeys and chickens. Its a great material for building volume to the outside of a jig body and it offers a tantalizing action that’s irresistible to fish and can entice even the most stubborn trout from hiding.

Using marabou is pretty cheap running about $3 – $4 for a package of feathers. You’ll mostly find that marabou is sold “strung” together where someone ran over the quill of the feathers with a sewing machine to keep the feathers oriented in a more manageable fashion.  Marabou could also be sold as loose marabou where its just loose feathers in the package.

Marabou can be a mess to work with. Another factor to consider is marabou when it’s in water loses 70-90% if its volume so using another material with more structure will be necessary if you’re going for a larger profile.

One last note, is the durability or lack thereof.

With the other materials, we discuss later on,  you’ll find that marabou is the least durable out of all of the materials. It rips easily and cheaper quality marabou will lose its dye over time and lessen the effectiveness of the overall jig.

Rabbit Fur

Rabbit fur comes in strips that are about 1/2″ wide and cut down the middle into two 1/4″ strips. Rabbit strips may be labeled as Cross-Cut or more commonly known as Zonker Strips.

Rabbit strips have fur on one side and a very supple leather strip on the other. This is a relatively durable material for constructing a jig that is built to last.

In the jig tying application, rabbit strips are perfect for adding length and volume to a jig. They also provide more action and movement in the water than most soft plastics.

Dubbing

Dubbing is a great choice for adding a little extra to your presentation. Its made of a synthetic material that’s shredded into smaller strands that can be twisted to the fly tying string to add a different texture. This often done with the use of a specific dubbing tool or by simply pinching off a small amount and twisting it onto the line.

Dubbing often provides a little bit shininess and body to the jig. Its a more popular material for fly tying but in jigs it can be used as a base to form marabou around so as the marabou pulsates in the water a little bit of UV dubbing can tease the fish in.

Flash

Flash can be a great addition to a jig. It is a shiny, synthetic, straw-like material that can easily be incorporated into anything. It adds brightness and shines when the sun hits it, making it more visible and attractive to the fish.

The scales of a baitfish glisten and flash when they swim in different directions.

Putting flash into your jig makes it more realistic and can increase your chances of catching a fish.

Thread

The thread is what holds your material onto the hook. This is an area where you will want quality material. There’s nothing worse than developing a jig and having some marabou slip off your hook while you’re out on the water.

It can also be another way to style a jig. A color like red, when applied correctly, can duplicate the gill plates of a bait fish.

There are a wide variety of sizes mainly because there are a vast amount of different sized flies. Something that would work on a jig may not be suitable for something like a nymph or insect pattern. But since we are talking jigs, a great size to start with is 6/0. This is a good all-around size and does well grabbing the material of the jig and securing it where you want it.

Glue

Fly tying epoxy, cement, or glue are products made specifically for jig and fly tying.

They are more flexible after drying in comparison to super glue and will not deteriorate as quickly. Jigs will be submerged in water for hours. Durability is a must.

One thing to look for when selecting jig cement or epoxy is how well it will penetrate the thread. A product that comes with an applicator that has a low viscosity.

To conclude, if you’re interested in tying jigs, you’re looking at a great way to spend time on a new hobby that can increase your success on the water.