It’s a long, cold, lean winter for steelhead in the tributaries of the Great Lakes. After feasting on salmon eggs all fall, steelhead survive on their body fat and slim pickings of nymphs and pupae until it’s time to spawn in spring. So as these “drop-backs”return to the lake postspawn, they’re hungry. Here’s how to catch them on their way back to big water.
● Tailout to Get In
Not all steelhead spawn at the same time, so on any given day you can run into a mix of spawning, prespawn, and drop-back fish. To find the more aggressive drop-backs, target the faster water at the tailouts of pools. They will also linger in the gravel spawning areas, below the spawning fish, eating wayward eggs that are swept downstream.
● Midwater Mojo
Drop-back steelhead tend to hold higher in the water column than wintering and spawning fish. While some will dip down to take an egg imitation tumbling along the bottom, often the best way to get bit is to present a lure or fly in the middle of the water column. Drop-back steelies are more apt to chase a swinging fly than prespawn fish. Match the fly color to the conditions, using darker colors in low light or on dark days and bright colors on bright days. Spinfishermen have great success using marabou jigs or tube jigs under a float. Set the float so that the jig drifts 2 to 3 feet off the bottom, which will bring it right past the nose of a drop-back. The current and motion of the float as it bobs downriver will move the tube or jig just enough to trigger a bite.
● Do the Worm
When spring rains wash worms into the river, postspawn steelhead don’t hesitate to gobble them up. This makes worm imitations a must-have for the spring steelheader. Spinfishermen score with 2- to 3-inch soft-plastic worms in pink. Hooking the worms once through the middle will allow the ends to undulate as the bait drifts downriver. Flyfishermen can’t go wrong with a San Juan worm tied on a hook sturdy enough to handle a hard-fighting steelhead. And the real thing, a nightcrawler threaded onto a size 6 hook, can save the day when all other presentations fail.
● Keep Moving
Drop-back steelhead are on the move, and in order to catch them, fishermen need to keep moving as well. Unlike fishing for winter steelhead (when staying in one spot and waiting for the bite to turn on is a successful strategy), finding these fish requires covering water. Change lures or baits a few times, but if there’s no action within 15 or 30 minutes, hop from pool to pool until you locate a pod of hungry drop-backs.
Photograph by Brian Grossenbacher