Drift Fishing for Salmon and Steelhead

Big silver salmon drift caught

Big silver salmon drift caught

Drift fishing is a very effective way to catch Salmon and Steelhead. By bouncing or drifting your lure along the bottom of the river, you present the lure straight in front of the fish. You can drift fish with floating beads and yarn, eggs, pink worms, cheaters and more. The trick is to use enough weight to get you down to the bottom so that you can feel your lure as you drift down along the bottom but not so much weight that your lure doesn’t bounce or move downstream. I prefer to use a ‘slinky’ weight as it tends to get snagged on the bottom less and I feel that it’s easier to detect strikes. Slinky weights are simply a mesh tubing materiel filled with small lead balls.

The key to drift fishing is keeping in contact with your lure at all times as you feel it bounce along the bottom. Strikes vary from rod wrenching slams to sensitive barely detectable nibbles. It’s often noted that Steelhead strikes are usually very soft and look simply like your line as stopped moving downstream. For this reason, a sensitive rod is a must so that you can feel it when a fish takes the lure in it’s mouth. To fish these rigs through a typical drift, or section of river, there are a couple things to keep in mind. First, start at the top of the drift and work your way down to the bottom. Cast out and slightly upstream, allowing your lure to sink to the bottom and continue to drift down and be sure to drift your lure through all the sections of the water where fish might be holding. Holding areas for salmon and steelhead include current seams, tailouts, deep pools, and around structure. As you run your lure through the drift make sure you don’t have any slack in your line, because if you do you won’t feel or detect the strike and will consequently end up missing a lot of fish. Once you reach the bottom of your drift reel in and start over by casting in a slightly different position.

There are variations to this technique but this is how I rig it.

drift rig

drift rig

Above – Diagram of a drift rig using pencil lead, a red bead and orange yarn.

You will need:

  • Medium size clip swivel
  • Weight. Either punched pencil lead or slinky weight (mesh tubing filled with lead balls).
  • Leader tied to standard octopus hook with baitholder knot.
  • Floating bead, cheater, spin-n-glow, etc..
  • Colored yarn


  • Toothpick
  • Scent

Rigging steps:

  1. Tie the clip swivel to your main line
  2. Attached your weight to the clip.
  3. Tie your leader to the other end of the swivel.
  4. Slide your floating bead onto the leader.
  5. Tie the leader to your octopus hook using a bait holder knot.
  6. Put yarn, or bait such as eggs or sandshrimp inside the bait holder.

Note: I like to use scent when not fishing with bait. A squirt of sandshrimp scent onto the yarn or bead really adds some incentive for the fish to strike.  Also, I use a toothpick in slow moving water so that the floating bead stays at the hook and doesn’t slide up the leader. You can fish a pink worm with a drift rig as well. Just thread the worm onto your leader using a hook threader or large sewing needle and fish it will a corky or cheater.

drift rig with eggs

drift rig with eggs