Steelhead are an anadromous (sea-run) strain of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) native to the Pacific Ocean and the rivers of western North America and Siberia. But they also exist in large numbers in North America’s Great Lakes, thanks to ambitious stocking programs launched by several states that have at least some of those waters under their jurisdiction. Each fall, the fish return from the Great Lakes to the small feeder streams they were stocked in as juveniles on a spawning run. They will remain until the spring, when, unlike their Pacific Salmon cousins, they’ll return to the lakes for another summer of feeding. This is the general rule, but a few varieties of fish will run the streams in the summer, and some will run late in the winter or even in the spring.
While steelhead run the streams to spawn, they also continue to feed during this period, and a lot more actively than the salmon that intend only to live long enough to churn out the next generation of fish.
Fishing for steelhead in the Great Lakes can usually be done with much lighter and less complex rigging than is used on the West Coast, though many anglers continue to stick to the heavy stuff for whatever reason. Many of the Great Lakes tributaries, especially those in Pennsylvania’s “steelhead alley” which is stocked with more than a million fish each year, run low and crystal clear for a large part of the steelhead run each year. Because of that, a more finessed approach is called for.
In this entry, I’ll describe some of the most common rigs I use when fishing the Great Lakes tributaries, something I’ve done repeatedly since childhood with a good level of success.
First up are poles. Long, light rods are key here. When using light line to fight some of the strongest and feistiest fish that swim in moving waters, you’ll appreciate the ability of a long pole to absorb shocks and give you room to maneuver. “Noodle rods” over 10 feet in length, and usually rated for 8-12 pound test line have always been popular, though they seem to be a bit less so in recent years. I usually stick to a 9.5 foot rod designed for fishing small jigs when in Pennsylvania and a slightly longer, stronger pole by Okuma when fishing in New York’s Lake Ontario tributaries.
In almost all situations, I will spool my reel with clear 6 pound test Berkley Trilene XL monofilament line. Though the fish often run much larger than six pounds, the proper rod and a reel with a smooth drag will more than make up for the difference. Too heavy a line will be unmanageable and do nothing but cause problems and spook fish. Sometimes I’ll carry an extra spool filled with dark, 15 pound braid for use when float fishing, more because it floats and thus cuts back on unnatural drag when float fishing than because of its strength.
The type of leader I use depends on the style of fishing I’m doing, and the style of fishing in turn depends on the conditions I face. When fish are moping near the bottom, especially in cold, clear water, I will bounce my bait on the bottom. When they are active and suspended, I will drift fish with a float. In deeper, darker waters, I will sometimes through a lure like a Little Cleo or one of my custom spoons. When the water is murky or the fish otherwise not visible, I will try any or all of these rigs to find out what works.
The main rig I use for bottom bouncing is also popular for salmon fishing in Lake Ontario tributaries, though of course it needs to be scaled down for the smaller steelhead. I tied the main line directly to a small barrel swivel with a Trilene knot, leaving a tag end of a few inches hanging instead of trimming it off. At the end of this tag end, I will tie one or two overhand knots. A series of dull-colored split shot are then pinched on this tag end, in an amount corresponding to the flow of the water. Ideally, you’ll want to feel your rig “tick” the bottom every second. If you don’t feel anything, you need more weight. If you keep getting hung up on rocks, you have too much. At the other end of the swivel, I will tie a 1 to 3 foot long leader of fluorocarbon line. In low, clear water, I’ll use four pound test.
In higher water, I’ll go up to six pound test. In extreme low or clear water conditions, line as light as 2 pound test may be necessary. I can say from experience that the use of fluorocarbon line, which is more translucent in the water, absolutely makes a difference.
The beauty of this rig is that when you inevitably get snagged on the bottom of the waterway you are fishing, you can usually pull the rig free, losing only a split shot or two. The split shot are free to slide off the end of the tag line rather than breaking your entire rig. In particularly snag-filed waters, you can leave the tag on the lighter leader end, so that it can break off while still leaving your main line to the swivel intact.
How do you know when you have a take? You’ll have to feel the line as it drifts. Sometimes you will feel a strong pull, but other times your rig will simply seem to “stop.” Practice is important in getting the feel down. Even for experienced anglers, a snag can sometimes feel like a fish, and vice versa.
When float fishing, which is my favorite and usually most productive approach, I stick to one basic rig. The main line is attached to a fluorocarbon leader of four to six pound test with a blood knot. Again, in extreme conditions, it may be necessary to use line as small as two pound test.
A small float is attached to the line at a place that allows the bait to float about two thirds of the way down between the surface and the bottom. Three or more dull-colored micro split shot are then pinched onto the line between the hook and the float, bringing the bait to the strike zone as quickly as possible and keeping it there.
The large slip floats common on the West Coast are usually totally unnecessary in the smaller Great Lakes tributaries, though they can have their applications in deeper or wider waters. With light line and a long whippy pole, you should be able to cover most stretches of water even with a small float and little weight.
Be sure to maintain a drag free drift. Maintain your drift at the same speed as the water. If your float shoots ahead faster the current, or lags behind leaving a wake, you have a drag problem that you need to deal with. Lift your line off the water, reel in your slack, and otherwise manipulate your line to keep your rig floating naturally in the water. Watch your float intently. Even a small pause can indicate a take from a finicky fish which will spit out your offering as quickly as it took it in.
When actively fishing lures, which usually means spoons or occasionally small crankbaits, I will tie my main line directly to the lure, or to a swivel which I will then attach to the lure. This is as easy as it gets. Takes will be unmistakable.
What about bait? When not using lures as described above, I mainly stick to a handful of baits whether I’m fishing on the bottom or the top. Berkley Trout Worms fished on small collarless jigheads are my top choice, followed by hair jigs (small jigs of 1/124 to 1/64 ounces made of hackle or marabou feathers–I usually tie my own, but many like the Little Nipper are sold in stores) tipped with maggots or a small piece of trout worm, synthetic eggs (Gulp egg clusters are especially effective), and cured fish eggs fished as singles or in sacks. Minnows and night crawlers can also take fish in the right conditions, especially in spring or early fall. Egg imitations and flies can also be fished with these rigs.
Hooks need not be large at all. In fact, the smaller and more discreet your hook, the more hookups you’ll likely have. I seldom use a hook larger than a size 10. More common is a size 14 or 12 hook. Strong hooks are important. Steelhead can straighten out or break off weak hooks quite easily. Don’t worry if you lose a few fish, that’s the name of the game when catching these lightning fast, high flying salmonids in relatively small waters. If the steelhead on the end of your line doesn’t break you off, there’s a good chance the rocks or streamside vegetation will. Fishing reports will usually give numbers of both hookups and actual catches. For my part, I usually bring the vast majority of the fish I hook in with the rigging described above, though I’ve been at it for a while. Knowing when to give the fish room and when to retrieve, moving around obstacles, and staying aware are most vital. But even with all that, you will certainly have a few fish get away.
No matter which rig you fish, a stealthy approach is necessary. Whenever possible, stay out of the water and behind the fish you are targeting. Steelhead of twelve pounds can hide in an eight inch deep riffle. Fish like these are appropriately wary and thus very easily spooked. Avoid being seen or dropping your bait or lure directly on the fish’s head. Wear drab colors and cast far enough ahead of the fish to make a natural presentation. Once a fish is spooked, it’s unlikely they will strike for quite some time.
The most important thing is to get out there and get your line in the water. After all, you can’t catch any fish until you do.