Great Lakes Steelheading

The fish accelerated down through the rapids below me faster than anything I’d ever hooked before. He tore flyline, then backing from my reel, then right at the next bend in the river the fish cartwheeled into the air. After crashing down violently, he held tight to the bottom like a stubborn bulldog. My increased pressure had apparently stopped him from taking all of my line downstream around the bend. This fish took my Egg-sucking Leech on the dead-drift behind a large boulder in a swift run. He came to the surface lazily right away, and spit the fly in an instant. I whipped out a sloppy roll-cast in slight disgust, the fly swung quickly past the boulder, and the fish charged and engulfed it once again. This time I jammed the hook home hard, and the battle was on.
       With the fish still holding fast way downstream, I began to make my way down the treacherous river and started gaining line. Manuevering around a downed tree I lost my footing and free-floated for a short while, soaking my vest and raincoat. I felt the sting of icy water in my waders now, but it was soon forgotten as I saw a broad tail break the surface only 50 feet downstream. This was a big fish, possibly pushing the 30-inch mark, and I knew he had been holding here regaining his strength and plotting his next move.
       The fish’s next move surprised me. He charged straight toward me, then angled upstream toward the far bank. Now heading straight upstream, he leapt again and kept on speeding. A large log lay before him, and I had to keep the fish from reaching it. With my increased pressure he leapt wildly twice more, then drifted down my way. I worked him ever-closer, until just fifteen feet out he held immovable once again as if nailed tight to the riverbed. The fast water poured against me as I stood chest-deep in the run, my long flyrod deeply bowed. I reached behind me and unclasped my net. Still, the fish and I were at a stalemate.
       I now took position at a slight angle below the fish, and he released his hold in the curent. A broad, silver fish rolled at the surface, and I guided him toward the net. Just inches away, he took off directly downstream at a blistering pace. Down he went, straight toward a tangle of downed trees below a newly fissured slope. I had to attempt to turn the fish, so palmed my reel in hopes of stopping him short. Suddenly, my line went slack. A second later the big Steelhead leapt high out of the river just past the downed trees. He had won. I reeled up, and held the broken tippet as I waded ashore. Once there I flopped down on the bank, and took out my pack of cigarettes. All were soaked and ruined. After a short while my brother showed up, and asked what had happened.
       “Got a smoke?”, I asked, and he sat down and shared one of his cigarettes. We talked about our experiences from the day. We had each hooked into some big Steelhead, and landed some while others had beaten us. Some daylight still remained, but I was done for today. I had just lost the same big fish twice. Morning would come and surely bring another battle with one of the river’s silver bullets.

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    Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead truly is rough fishing. The rivers are brawling and menacing, and the best fishing takes place in harsh weather and turbulent river flows. The fish themselves are exotics, strains of anadromous Rainbow Trout imported from the West Coast. These fish adapted well to the vast expanses and rich food base of the Great Lakes, and have established self-sustained, wild populations wherever tributaries exist that provide good spawning habitat. Great Lakes Steelheading is markedly different than West-Coast fishing. The wide, stable rivers of the West are well-suited for drift boats, spey-casting and trolling plugs. Our rivers are smaller and flashier, and more precise tactics are necessary. Several local techniques have been developed over the years to fit the situation, born of industrious anglers searching for a more efficient way to cover water. Using typical West-Coast techniques on a small Midwest river will only leave you frustrated and most likely fishless.
       Some Steelhead enter Great Lakes tributaries in the Fall and stay in the river over the winter, while others wait for high Spring flows to run upstream. All Steelhead spawn in the Spring. Each river is different, so getting some local insight on the rivers you plan to fish is essential. High volume flows brought on by rain or snowmelt in the Spring or Fall will prompt large runs of fish, so watching the USGS water flows is also a good idea. After the river crests and gets back down to fishable levels is the best time to be on the river. Doing your research and planning yor trip when the fish are running and conditions are favorable will definitely increase your odds of hooking into a Steelhead. Be prepared for inclement weather. Snow, sleet, rain, hail or hot sunshine are all possible in a single day due to the “Lake Effect” weather.
       The spawning run of the Steelhead is a magnificent display of nature. These giant trout enter the river of their birth raging with hormones, with nothing on their minds but the spawning ritual. On the spawning gravel males jockey for position, chasing each other and fighting to determine dominance. Many fish bear battle scars or tails chewed to a stub, and some even die. In the Spring they do not feed, but rather take baits out of aggression or to protect their prospective offspring. Eggs will always be taken out of the drift, and nymphs, minnows and leeches will be taken around the redds to protect their own eggs.
Your choices of gear should be based only on practicality. Take only what you wil need, and make sure your gear is quality. First and foremost you will need to keep yourself comfortable in often harsh weather. A good pair of Neoprene waders that don’t leak is a must. You will be living in your waders all day, sometimes walking through brush or starting a campfire to warm up, so I prefer the comfort and durability of Neoprene. Bring a raincoat and a warm hat, along with some type of gloves. A pair of polarized sunglasses is necessary for spotting subtle holding lies and also for spotting fish. A net is a big help when the time comes to land a Steelhead. Long-handled nets are best and can double as a wading staff, but any net is better than no net. A thermos full of hot coffee is a godsend on the river, and can be stashed in your back vest pocket. I know my Dad would rather stay in the tent than go Steelhead fishing without a small thermos of coffee.
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Tackle choices among Great Lakes Steelheaders are varied. The flyrod and flyreel loaded with monofilament is a regionally devised outfit which allows for short, accurate casts and gets your offering to the bottom quickly. This rig is basically only used for fishing with yarn or spawn, and is deadly in experienced hands. Very efficient, it keeps your offering in the strike zone instead of up in the air. An 8wt. rod is standard, in 8 to 10 foot lengths. Generally anglers use 10 to 17 pound test mono as their running line, with lighter tippets. A more versatile option would be standard fly tackle. Once again, an 8wt. outfit is the norm and most often floating lines are best. Fly tackle can be used for the “chuck and duck” yarn and spawn method, while at the same time allowing the angler to switch to shot-and-indicator nymphing or swinging streamers. Your choice of tippet strength will vary on your technique and river conditions, usually falling somewhere between 4x and 1x (6-12 pound test). Noodle rods and Centerpins are specialty rods used for presenting subtle baits on light tippets, as their length and full flex absorbs much of the fish’s fight. These outfits excel for drifting baits under sensitive floats. A medium-action spinning rod also has it’s merit on a Steelhead river. They can be used either for casting lures or stationary bottom-fishing with natural baits, work somewhat for drift-fishing with yarn or spawn, and can be used to fish a float as well.

Ask every Steelhead angler you run into on the river what they are using and you’ll often get a different response from each one. People generally become proficient with one particular method and practice it to the exclusion of all others. However, it pays to be flexible and have a few techniques up your sleeve at all times.The most common method among Great Lakes Steelheaders is the chuck-and-duck drift-fishing method using either plain yarn flies (egg patterns) or spawn. This is the deadiest technique most of the time, and you would be wise to learn it. I will describe the technique later. Yarn flies and glo-bugs are basically egg imitations in attractive colors tied on either mosquito, octopus or salmon-egg style hooks. Popular colors are pink, chartreuse and orange, with a dark blood-spot for added attraction. Keep many colors on hand, because at times fish will prefer one color to another.
chinook spawnFresh spawn is a deadly bait for Steelhead everywhere. Those jars of commercially-produced spawn bags offer none of the appealing characteristics of good, fresh spawn. The aroma of spawn is irresistible to Salmonids, and their keen sense of smell detects it easily. Procuring fresh spawn is not an easy proposition, but however you can get your hands on it, do it. Any eggs from a Salmonid will work, but some better than others depending on the river you are fishing.
       When drift-fishing with yarn or spawn, split-shot or a slinky weight can be used to keep the bait bouncing along bottom where it has to be. Slinkies are snaggless weights created by filling a section of nylon cord with round shot, then melting the ends with a lighter to seal it. Attach the slinky with a snap-swivel. When drift-fishing with a flyline, long leaders must be used when drifting yarn or spawn to allow the bait to reach bottom quickly. A leader of 12 feet or more is often necessary. Drifting baits under a sensitive slip-float allows you to effectively fish deep, slow water. Learning how and where to float-fish will make you a better angler in the long run.
Other natural bait options exist besides spawn. Like seemingly all other species of fish, Steelhead will take a nightcrawler fished either stationary on the bottom or on the drift. One of the deadliest tactics is to collect live nymphs like Stoneflies and drift them in the currents on light tippets. A thin, sensitive float is very useful for this kind of presentation, especially when using a noodle or centerpin rod. This subtle tactic will take Steelhead when nothing else will.
                                                                                                             spook.jpg                 Streamers and Spey-type flies can sometimes be extremely effective. Often the gaudier the better when it comes to Steelhead patterns. A short list of effective patterns would include the Spook, Bunny Leech, Popsicle, Egg-Sucking Leech, Skykomish Sunrise, Sculpin, Black-nose Dace and Grizzly King. A nymph and indicator rig can be effective in low, clear water conditions. Fish this rig just as you would for stream trout, with upstream and up-and-across casts and mending the line when necessary to keep your fly very near bottom. Hexagenia nymphs and giant Black Stonefly nymphs are top patterns, but smaller patterns like Princes or Copper Johns may produce at times. Use long leaders, large indicators and ample shot to cover water effectively.
       Plugs, spoons and spinners will produce savage strikes at times. A medium-action spinning rod will work well for casting these lures. One top choice is the Lazy Ike, which produces an irresistable wobble when allowed to swing downstream against the current. Whatever bait you decide to use, keep your hooks honed sharp and your gear in top shape. It may be hours or days before your next strike, but you want everything to be ready when it comes. Have confidence in your presentation and expect a strike on each drift.
       Your Steelheading tactics will vary greatly depending whether you are fishing in the Spring or Fall. Let’s first assume you find yourself on a Great Lakes tributary in the Fall, well after a heavy downpur spiked river flows in October or November. The river has come back down to fishable levels, and you know a fresh run of Steelhead have dispersed in the river. Only lengthy rivers with adequate deep wintering holes and good spawning gravel will receive Fall runs.
The Steelhead that enter the river in the Fall are all fresh from the lake, and shaped like chrome footballs. They are also more willing to feed now compared to Spring when their minds turn to the spawning ritual. At this time of year swinging flashy lures through the head and tail of holes will bring savage, rod-jolting strikes. Early morning is by far the best time to be on the river. Swing spinners or plugs around any boulders, logjams or other current deflectors, and also use the current to your advantage by sweeping your lures across the tails of holes.
      Since no fish will be visible up on gravel, blind-fishing and methodically covering water is the order of the day. Salmon, Brown and Brook trout have been spawning all Fall, so Steelhead are keyed in on taking eggs from the drift. Fresh spawn from any of these species is the deadliest bait at this time of year. This is when the “chuck-and-duck” method excels. Concentrate on deep, swift runs and the heads of holes, and cover the water thoroughly with yarn or a yarn/spawn combo. Wade into position and make short, precise flips of 10 to 30 feet, slightly up-and-across stream. Follow your bait with the rod-tip, making sure you feel your weight ticking bottom and keeping in constant contact. Add weight until you can feel your offering bouncing along bottom.
      Cover every inch of bottom in the run, taking a step downstream when necessary. A take will often be no more than a slight pause in the drift or ceasing of the bottom-ticking, so you must have a hair-trigger and set the hook on anything out of the ordinary. This method has been dubbed “chuck-and-duck” because until you become adept at it your weights may smack you in the back of the head, unless you duck. This most deadly of tactics will take Steelhead Spring or Fall, but during Fall when blind-fishing is the only option it is your best bet. The low, clear flows common in Fall are also ideal nymphing conditions. Turn over a few rocks or logs and imitate the biggest, juiciest nymphs you find.

brule2004_9.jpgThe real action comes in the Spring, when Fall-run fish are joined by a fresh Spring run and the river is full of Steelhead raging with hormones. Shallow, swift gravel runs are preferred spawning sites. A female or “hen” will dig out a redd with her tail, and numerous males or “bucks” will jockey for position and fight to engage in the spawning act on the redd with the hen. Keep a watchful eye for redds when wading, and avoid walking on them as any eggs will surely be crushed under your feet. A hen will stay on a redd for days unless disturbed, and wherever there is a hen there is sure to be multiple aggressive bucks.
      The male Steelhead chasing each other on the gravel will smack a streamer or plug out of sheer aggression. Take position upstream and swing your offering across their vision. Multiple drifts are often necessary, and it isn’t uncommon for a big buck to smash your streamer on the 50th time it swings by. Very early in the morning is by far the best time to target these fish up on the gravel, as new fish have moved in overnight and they are getting juiced for the day’s activities. Often a Steelhead will engulf your offering on the first pass at this time. Switch flies or colors often when repeatedly swinging over visible fish like this. If you can have your streamer or plug in front of a dominant buck right after he’s chased off a few smaller fish and he’s angry, most often he will strike savagely.
       It is truly magical to watch this all unfold before you. The fish are so preoccupied with the spawn that you can approach rather close, but don’t push it and spook the hen or the gravel will be void of fish. A hen on the redd will sometimes take a streamer or plug, but most often they are taken on egg imitations or spawn. Repeated drifts right past her nose are usually necessary to induce a take. These fish up on the gravel have probably been fished over already, so they are sometimes very tough to catch. Visible fish up on the gravel are always attractive to passing anglers, so plan on being on the spot very early to beat them there.

       Gravel isn’t the only game in the Spring. The Steelhead not up on the redds are either moving farther upstream, returning to the lake, or simply resting. These fish will be found in holding water, like deep runs and the head and main pools of holes. Resting fish will also hold behind boulders and anything else that deflects the current. On popular rivers, anglers will be found on every piece of gravel and each deep hole. This is when finding subtle lies and hard to reach runs is advantageous. Almost any good run is always fished from the same basic standing position by every angler who fishes it. The smart angler will cross the river wherever possible and hit the spot from the opposite bank where you can present your lures a little differently to the fish. Fresh, unpressured Steelhead can always be found if you are willing to bushwack a bit and find untapped holding water. Blind-fishing these holding areas gets us back to the Fall tactics of drifting yarn and spawn or nymphing. Cover every square inch of water methodically. Remember to check your hooks and terminal tackle often to make sure that you are ready when a Steelhead takes.
      Now you have paid your dues, and finally hook up with one of the river’s bruisers. It is nearly impossible to be prepared for the speed at which these fish take line, but just know that it is going to happen. Let them go, but be aware of any logs or debris in the river that the fish could get into. Steelhead seem to know enough to head for these snags, like they have avoided capture this way before. You must stop the fish short of the snag, or the battle will be over. Increased pressure must be applied, and this is when you’re glad you tied on that fresh 2X tippet. Once you have stopped the fish, it will generally hold for a while to regain some of it’s strength. You must gain line at this time by wading up or down river, and preferably end up below the fish before it’s next run. If you can stay below the fish, keep it from any potentially disastrous snags, and tire it with constant pressure, the odds of landing the fish are very good.
       send3.jpgOnce tired and spent from the battle, a Steelhead will come to the surface and it is then that you should lead the fish into slack water, if available, and net it head-first. If you have no net, grasp the fish by the wrist of the tail and support it’s head with your other hand. Enjoy the moment, because these incredible fish are not easily caught and trout this big are creatures most anglers only dream of. The bright silver “chromers” fresh from the lake are truly a beautiful fish, one of nature’s jewels that only a Steelhead fisherman will get to admire.
      If regulations allow and you wish to keep the fish, kill it, clean it and get it on ice as soon as possible. Steelhead are delicious whether broiled, baked, barbecued or smoked. The first Steelhead I killed was a large buck that we had for dinner back at camp. A veteran old-time Steelheader showed me how to broil the fish on the coals of our campfire, and it was a meal to be remembered. The aroma of the great fish attracted other fellow anglers, and everyone congratulated me on my good luck. All knew the difficulty in getting such a fish in the foil. Sharing this incredible meal with those who loved the river and the fish as much as I made me realize that this is the best way to enjoy a Steelhead dinner. We raised our glasses and toasted the fish along with the river whose rapids roared in the blackness below our camp.

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