Monday, December 5, 2011

The Search For Steel - Great Lakes Steelhead Fishing

One of my favorite things to do this time of year, sandwiched between my hunting episodes, is to head toward the Great Lakes and fish for steelhead.  Just about every tributary of each lake has runs of these powerful strain of rainbow trout, from the smallest ditch like creek to some of the mightiest rivers on the continent.  Unfortunately for me, family obligations and other scheduling issues prevented me from making the trip this fall.  So, instead, I'll provide an overview of steelhead fishing along with some tips and fishing pictures that would make any trout angler drool.

Steve Kelley poses with a brute of a steelhead.
These strains of rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss, are native to the tributaries of the West Coast of the United States and Canada, but have been introduced into the Great Lakes and have been stocked ever since providing anglers year after year with exciting action and quality fish.  Many of these fish wind up being the fish of a lifetime for some anglers. 

Why?  Steelhead are actually sea run rainbow trout out West, and like their Western cousins, Great Lakes steelhead grow extremely large in a hurry because of the large forage base available to them.  Great Lakes steelhead are mostly stocked early in life, then spend most of their lives in one of the Great Lakes feeding heavily on alewives, smelt and other baitfish, then returning each fall and into winter to spawn to the creeks.  There have been documented natural reproduction on pollution free tributaries with suitable spawning habitat.  It's these fall runs that excite anglers from all over to visit the Great Lakes for the chance at a trophy trout.

Bob Barber can attest that fall can bring solitude along with beautiful scenery during hunting season, along with some fine steelhead action.  You have to take some time away from your tree stand however tough that might be.
Fishing for these salmonids only seems to get better as the fall waters cool towards winter temperatures.  Early on, anglers crowd many tributaries with hopes of hooking and landing these silver rockets.  When hunting season arrives many of these anglers head for their tree stands while others prefer to wait for more seasonable weather to fish for the chromers.  It's during these times that you can enjoy having a bit more elbow room on these streams.

My friend Mark Sirko is a master at catching steelhead on the Great Lakes tributaries.  I've learned so much from him over the past several years.
What techniques are employed to catch steelhead?  There are many different ways to fish for them, and depending on the size, flow and water temperature of the stream or river, some ways are better than others.  These techniques include fly fishing and float fishing as well as more commonly used spinning and baitcasting tackle.  In addition to flies, hard lures, soft lures and live bait can all be used to tempt these trout into biting.

Large rivers like the Niagara can be fished by boat or from shore.  Boaters like to drift live bait, egg sacks or crankbaits, or sometimes cast lures for steelhead.  Trolling is also very effective on these larger bodies of water.  Anglers fishing from the banks use a wide variety of tackle, from fly fishing, to drifting small jigs or flies under a float, jigging soft plastics, to chucking large flashy spinners, spoons and small crankbaits.  One thing is certain, when dealing with strong flows, the key to success is getting the lure or bait down to the fish.  Heavier lures, more weight under larger floats, or sinking or sink tip fly lines often help anglers accomplish this depending on the techniques that they prefer.

Jim Cumming with a fine Niagara River steelhead.  Jim turned me on to this type of fishing years ago.  I learned much from Jim who happens to be a fantastic trout angler on the biggest of rivers or smallest of streams.

Mark gets into the big river steelie action.
Mark McWilliams with a fat big river steelhead.

Conversely, smaller flows require a more delicate approach.  Fly anglers can use floating line with split shot on the leader to get the flies down, while float fishermen utilize floats that are designed for smaller flow combined with lighter amounts of weight.  Still, the key is to get the lure or fly down to the fish.  Live bait or eggs sacks can be very effective on these smaller tributaries when steelhead get finicky.  Fly anglers may find large spey type flies effective while swinging them across and down current when these trout are aggressive, or when they're finicky, small egg patterns or stonefly imitations could prove to be the ticket for success.

Yours truly with a colorful winter steelhead.  These fish become more colorful the longer they hold in the stream.
There are many books and videos on how to catch steelhead, so I'm not going to go into great detail, but I'll touch on each technique briefly.  Fly anglers do well with seven or eight weight fly rods and matching fly lines.  Local anglers swear by fluorocarbon leaders and I tend to agree.  Streamers in bright colors work well with wooly buggers being very effective, but don't overlook natural colors like olive or brown.  Egg sucking leeches are also very effective.  Basically, these flys look like wooly buggers munching on brightly colored eggs. 

This "chromer" fell for a chartreuse bead head wooly bugger on a 7 weight fly rod.  Fish moving in from the lake have a shiny "chrome" appearance, where the steelhead name is derived.

I teased this steelhead into striking a pink wooly bugger using a 7 weight fly rod.
Egg imitations also work well, with smaller sizes being optimal in clear water while larger more brightly colored ones being more effective in murkier water.  I really like the Otter egg flies.  Not only do they look realistic, they're made of soft plastic and kind of feel like the real thing.  There are scads of egg fly patterns and many of them are deadly on these trout.  Steelhead enter these streams early in the fall to feed on salmon eggs during their spawn while fattening up for their own spawn during the winter.

Fooled by an Otter egg!  Notice the rubberized net, perfect for protecting steelhead when fishing catch and release.

Another victim of the Otter egg.  As you can see, I really like the opaque apricot color.
While visiting these streams, steelhead will feed on just about anything that drifts by them at times, while at others being extremely finicky and difficult to catch.  Streamers that imitate minnows like the emerald shiner can be very effective.  Also, stonefly imitations of various sizes as well as other aquatic insect imitations may work when these fish are finicky.  One of the most popular types of flies are of the sucker spawn variety.  These flies sort of resemble the spawn of sucker fish (I guess), and come in a wide variety of colors, sizes and materials.  Tube flies are also becoming very popular.  The unique feature of this type of streamer fly is that the fly material is tied to a tube then threaded on the line and the hook tied on separately, making these flies versatile and also much more durable.

One things for certain, when fishing for large trout like these, when you tie your flies or purchase them, make sure that the hooks are strong.  Large steelhead make blistering runs when hooked and tend to straighten some of the light wire hooks commonly used for smaller trout.

Bob Barber with a beautifully hued steelhead caught in a Great Lakes tributary.  You need strong hooks to land big hawgs like this.  Bob has a gift for hooking these monsters.
For float fishing, the concept is pretty basic, but specialized tackle and the variety of floats and other terminal tackle makes this technique almost a science.  Basically, the float is attached to the line via little rubber bands, below that is a good ball bearing swivel, and below that a fluorocarbon leader with a number of split shot to control the depth followed lastly by a fly or a hook with bait.  Live bait, like minnows or nightcrawlers work well, but almost as effective are small egg flies or sucker spawn flies.  Many anglers use specialized float rods and centerpin reels that provide drag free drifts.  Centerpin reels resemble fly reels in shape, being levelwind, but are very friction free with quality ball bearings, allowing line to come off the reel effortlessly using the current to empty line from the reel.  Casting with this tackle is a bit tricky to learn, but once you do it's quite an effective technique.  You can cover a lot of water with virtually a drag free drift that makes fly anglers envious.

I was able to tempt this steelie on a sucker spawn fly under a float.  Notice the specialized line made by Sunline designed for float fishing and is highly visible.  It floats on top of the water while the fluorocarbon leader sinks.
Spinning tackle works well too.  Floating minnow or crayfish imitating crankbaits, small spinners, and jigs round out the tackle options for steelhead.  Make sure that you check local regulations to make sure your favorite lures are legal.  For instance, in New York, spinners can't have treble hooks and therefore must be single hook spinners.  There are all kinds of regulations on lures to prevent people from snagging these fish, so carefully read the regulations of the water you choose to fish.

This fine winter steelhead fell for an egg sack fished under a float.

When fishing bigger water, lure choices for spinning tackle offer a bit more variety as most of the regulations mentioned in the previous paragraph are designed for smaller flow and more vulnerable fish.  Heavy bright and colorful spinners designed to get deep can be very effective when temperatures are a bit warmer.  Also, spoons along the likes of Acme Little Cleos or Lure Jensen Crocodile spoons will take steelhead in larger rivers.  Jigs and slower presentations are more effective when colder temperatures set in.  A small white crappie jig is very effective under a float.  Soft plastic twister tails or Berkley Gulp minnows also work well jigged on a tight line.

After all this talk about techniques and lure choices, probably the most important thing to know no matter if you're fishing a small flow or a large river is how to read the water.  Reading the water means knowing how fish relate to cover and current.  Steelhead are like other stream fish preferring current breaks created by bottom or shore structure, holding to conserve energy while at the same time using the current as a buffet line having it bring food to them.  Once you determine where the fish are holding your chances of success increase dramatically.  Steelhead don't always hold in the same places all the time even in the same stream.  For example, even in the same day, steelhead may hold at the tail of a pool during low flow, and after strong rains and rapidly rising water may find more suitable holding in a riffle.  Likewise, the time of year and water temperatures will dicate where they hold.  The general rule is that the colder the water, think slower eddies and less current.  Think like a critter to catch a critter.  Ask yourself, where would I hold given the current conditions.  If conditions change, adapt accordingly.

Here's Mark with a beautiful Great Lakes steelhead caught while float fishing.  Look at those colors!
Once you figure out where the fish are holding, what depth to fish your lure or bait, find some solitude and present a series of casts with your bait in front of active fish, you'll be in for a treat.  There's nothing like hooking a steelhead and enjoying the fight and acrobatic leaps that they offer.

I'd like to finish this post with a special thanks to two of my out of town friends.  First, I'd like to thank Jim Cumming because if it wasn't for him moving to the Great Lakes region, then learning about how to catch these fine salmonids, and then inviting me up to his fishery and showing me the ropes, then I might not have ever experienced catching these trophy fish.  Second, to Mark Sirko for showing me some of his spots and teaching me about float fishing.  He's one of the finest anglers that I know and is definitely one of the best steelheaders out there. 

There are several good books on the market that detail how to fly fish or float fish (centerpin fish) for steelhead, but I thought that I'd point this one out because it's a pretty good guide in general about how to catch these fish, but also because it has a great section about tube flies.  It's a great read, and I recommend purchasing this book: 
John Nagy's Book "Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead"


River Mud said...

This is a great fishing blog! Don't believe I've never seen it before. I've moved from fishing to hunting for the winter (I'm north of Baltimore but still in Maryland). Feel free to stop by my outdoor blog sometime - I'll be back here to visit again!!!

Fat Boy said...

Thanks reading and feedback RM, I will certainly pay your blog a visit!