September marks the start of steelhead season all around the Great Lakes. While steelhead can be caught in the deep waters of the lakes during the summer, it is the autumn steelhead spawning run that brings out the biggest number of anglers.
Steelhead are larger than the vast majority of trout in the United States, and they swim into the tributaries around the Great Lakes in huge numbers every fall. It is easy to see why so many people show up to fish for them.
Regulars return year after year. Some catch huge numbers of fish. There are also people who come for the camaraderie and countless new anglers come to chase chrome for the first time each fall. There are always some anglers who obviously under equipped too. They might enjoy their time on the water as much as anyone, but they usually aren’t very successful in terms of catching fish. Here’s a basic list of everything you need to catch steelhead in the Great Lakes tributaries.
Rods and reels
Technically you could use a hand line or even tie your line to a tree branch, but that probably wouldn’t work out so well with a speeding steelhead. Noodle rods have long been favored on the Great Lakes tributaries. These long and light rods allow you to cast light lures and play big, fast fish on light lines. Noodle rods aren’t as popular as they used to be but they still work well. Nowadays, a lot of anglers use shorter rods.
As with anything you can buy a cheap product or go for top of the line equipment. When it comes to fishing for steelhead in the Great Lakes tribs, you don’t need to break the bank to get a set up that works. The South Bend Black Beauty is an inexpensive fishing rod that is more than sufficient. The more expensive Daiwa Acculite accomplishes the same task but is a little easier to handle.
Inexpensive reels like the Daiwa Crossfire 2000 will pair with either of those rods, but you’ll have a better time and a better chance at actually getting steelhead to the net if you use a more expensive reel with smooth and reliable drag like the Abu Garcia Pro Max 5 or Okuma RTX.
Baits and lures
Of course you need to have a lure in the water to catch fish, so you should also stock up on some of the best baits and lures for Great Lakes steelhead. That usually means carrying around some proven standbys like the pink trout worm, the Little Cleo, some Gulp! salmon egg clusters and an assortment of Little Nipper jigs in various colors.
Hook, line and sinker
Baits and lures only work with the proper terminal tackle. When fishing for steelhead in the Great Lakes tributaries, you’ll need some clear 6 pound test monofilament fishing line, an assortment of micro split shot, and some salmon egg hooks in sizes 8 and 12. You’ll also need some small EZ Trout Floats and an a larger round split shot assortment so you can do some proper drift fishing.
Depending on where you wet your line, you may be able to fish for steelhead in Great Lakes tributaries without ever getting wet. Putting on a pair of waders makes everything from finding to landing fish much easier though. In some of the smallest streams a pair of hip boots will work, but you’re much better off wearing a pair of insulated chest waders like the Hodgeman Caster Cleated Boot Foot waders.
If you do wear chest waders, don’t forget your wading belt. This will keep water from filling up your waders if you happen to fall over. They cost less than $10 and they can save your life. You should also consider carrying a Hamer’s wading staff to keep you from falling into the water in the first place. No one wants to take a dip in December (other than these people).
You can do without a fishing vest too, but I wouldn’t advise it. Searching through your pockets while you stand in the middle of a cold flowing stream isn’t my idea of a good time on the water. Being organized makes everything easier. It’s tough to recommend a vest. You need to try a few on and figure out which one is right for you. That said, it’s hard to go wrong with the Fishpond Tech Pack. It’s one of the best vests around and sure to last a lifetime.
You can definitely do without a net, especially if you plan on releasing the fish you catch. Most trout nets are too small for steelhead. Most of the nets large enough for steelhead are too big to carry around while walking a stream bank. It’s quite the conundrum. There are some solutions. The Frabill Tear Drop Wade Net is just big enough to scoop up nearly any steelhead you’ll catch in the Great Lakes tributaries yet it is small enough to wear on your back. You could also pick up a pair of landing gloves like these Maxixum Catch mesh gloves. These work better for salmon than steelhead, but they can help you land a steelhead when you don’t have a net.
If you use maggots, you should pick up a Strike Master Bait Puck. They keep your bait alive and protect it. The last thing you want in your vest is a smashed plastic container, some saw dust, and a few dozens maggots crawling around.
If you use minnows, you should think about picking up a Bait Up Live Bait Container They keep your minnows alive and accessible when you’re out on the water. You don’t need to plunk your hand down into ice cold water trying to fish out a baitfish. You just flip the cap and a minnow drops right out into your hand.
Some things that you cannot, or at least shouldn’t do without are polarized glasses, hemostats and snips.
Polarized glasses cut the glare off the water and help you see the fish and your lure. They also protect your eyes from the sun’s rays along with any run away lures. If you’ve ever seen someone get hooked in the eyeball you’ll know what I mean. You can get a cheap pair of polarized glasses like these South Bend SBGS-1 or you can shell out some more money and get a comfortable high quality pair from Costa like these Harpoon Sunglasses that you can wear on every outing for the rest of your days.
Hemostats are needed to get hooks out of the steelhead you catch quickly without doing undo harm to the fish. Hemostats make unhooking fish much easier. On really cold days, when using small hooks or when dealing with a deeply hooked fish, they are basically a necessity. Dr Slick scissor clamps are the best and they don’t cost the world.
Snips are a no-brainer. I have gone fishing without snips a few times before. It was no fun. It felt like I had no brain. For years now I have kept a pair of snips like these SAMSFX FISHING Line Clippers pinned to my vest. It has saved me a lot of hassle and probably saved my teeth too!