The Steel Deal: How to Catch Great Lakes Steelhead in the Fall
Caught the chromer bug? Make your fly reel scream louder than ever with our crash course in crushing it on the Great Lakes tributaries
They call it steelhead madness for a reason. Obsessed is not too strong a word to describe the afflicted. In fall and winter, I’ve driven five hours to a Great Lakes tributary, slept for four, was on the water at 5 a.m., and was headed home at noon. I’ve stood for hours in 33-degree water, endured all manner of stinging precipitation, seen rods snap like twigs on days when the mercury never made it out of the single digits, and still not had a single touch from a steelhead. Is the suffering really worth it for a fish? You bet.
No other freshwater species can match the strength and wildness of a fresh chromer. Steelhead are capable of blistering runs, instantaneous 180-degree turns, and cartwheels that would put a gymnast to shame. The good news is that many Great Lakes tributaries are within driving distance of major metropolitan areas, and when the bite is hot, it seems you can’t help but hook up. But reality is a harsh master. The steelheading learning curve can be steep, the seasonal conditions brutal, and the nature of the beast fickle. Don’t let your cold bones and those cannonball runs be for nothing. Here are the most critical lessons for success—some I’ve learned from years of experience in New York, and some are gleaned from a steelhead veteran in the heart of Michigan’s chrome country. They apply on any Great Lakes tributary.
You can make do with a general-purpose 9-foot rod you’d use for trout, but a longer rod is better. Since you could be fighting a 10-plus-pound fish on tippet as light as 4-pound-test, a soft, forgiving tip is a must, but you also want a stout butt section. A switch rod—so named because you can cast it single- or double-hand style—is a great choice. I’ve been using one for years on the New York tributaries, but Matt Supinski, Michigan-based guide and author of Steelhead Dreams, is also a big fan of these sticks. “An 11-foot 7- or 8-weight switch rod is all you need,” he says. “It allows you to do everything. You can swing, chuck-and-duck, and strike-indicator nymph through pockets.”
Supinski believes a switch rod helps you get a better feel when you’re bouncing a fly along the bottom. These rods also give you better mend control and let you fight fish faster. As for a reel, it’s worth investing in one with a smooth, reliable drag. Most important, it must be sealed so it won’t freeze up when the temperature drops.
String Up Strong
Nylon or fluorocarbon? Steelheaders will endlessly debate which material is best for leaders. Both materials work and have pros and cons. As examples, nylon is praised for its stretch and abrasion resistance, while fluorocarbon does a better job of disappearing in the water, which can be important considering steelhead often get leader shy. My go-to is Drennan fluorocarbon. Supinski is a big fan of Cortland and Maxima fluorocarbon. I’ll match the tippet diameter and strength to conditions. Low, clear flows and bright days might call for 4-pound-test, while in high, stained water, 6- or 8-pound is a better option. If you plan to swing streamers instead of drift nymphs or egg patterns, bulk up to a 10- to 15-pound leader in the material of your choice so it doesn’t instantly snap when a steelhead delivers a powerful blow to your moving target.
Make the Switch
You can find all manner of trippy Day-Glo hues in steelhead fly bins. Some anglers swear by certain colors; for others, color selection is all part of the seemingly random crapshoot that is steelhead flyfishing. The bottom line is that I’ve had days when steelhead hit everything I threw at them, and others when one color seemed to outfish the rest. Like all other trout fishing, you’re either “matching the hatch or you’re piquing aggression,” as Supinski puts it. “Steelhead turn on and off when they want to. If a steelhead isn’t taking your fly, it’s more likely that the fish isn’t in an aggressive or feeding mode rather than the problem being a poor fly choice,” he says. There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to how often you should change flies, but Supinski thinks that switching flies is simply a matter of making yourself feel good—which is not a bad thing if you believe that confidence catches fish. I divide steelhead flies into three food groups: eggs, nymphs, and streamers. I prefer to fish nymphs, streamers, and soft hackles in natural colors, but if they’re not working, I’ll switch to patterns that incorporate some flash, fluorescent colors, or hot spots to try to trigger an aggression bite.
Mark Your Spots
Where you fish can mean the difference between double-digit hookups and getting skunked. Successful steelheaders know that their first order of business is finding the fish. Learn to recognize productive holding water, which varies according to season and conditions. For example, in low, clear autumn flows, steelhead tend to congregate in snotty pockets, riffles, and bubbling runs. In the midst of winter, the fish favor deeper pools and runs with a more moderate flow. Take notes: Where are other anglers catching? Where are other anglers not catching? How are they fishing in these locations? You’re building a mental database that will help you avoid wasting valuable fishing time over unproductive water.
Double-Up the Jab
Most steelhead are won or lost at the hookset. So a sticky-sharp hook is crucial. Get in the habit of constantly checking your hook points. If the point is bent or even slightly dulled, change flies immediately. Presenting along the bottom for hours can cause you to lose focus, but you have to stay vigilant because the day’s only fish could come on the next cast. Look for a reason to set the hook on every drift. Don’t worry if it’s just the bottom—a false positive lets you know your fly is down where it needs to be. Set hard downstream, into the mass of the fish, or sweep off to the side. Never set with an upstream pull; you’re taking the fly away from the fish. After a good set, come tight to the steelhead, and then reel up any loose line. This is where the fun begins. Supinski is a big fan of what he calls insurance hooksets. “I always tell my clients that once the fish is on, do another hookset. It’s a short strip set, with the rod moving, to make sure the hook is firmly planted.”
Hammer the Metal
Make sure your drag isn’t so tight that you’ll pop the fish off during its initial surge and run. Once the battle begins, you can make adjustments: Keep it loose enough to maintain the integrity of the tippet but tight enough to make the fish earn every foot of line it takes. Steelhead are renowned for their dragster speed and frenetic leaping. Don’t let them intimidate you. Enjoy their antics, but when they stop running, it’s because they’re exhausted. The best advice on fighting a steelhead I ever received came from Salmon River guide James Kirtland: “Don’t let them breathe.” At the end of the first run, point your rod handle upstream and crank that reel. If the steelhead wants to run again, let it. Then crank again. Far too many anglers are fearful of pressuring a steelhead. But the longer you keep a fish on your line, the more things can happen, and most of them are bad for you and the fish.
It’s hard to keep your attention on your drift if you’re miserably cold. And while you can’t control the weather, you do have some control over your comfort. For me, the notion that properly fitted stocking foot waders and boots will keep anyone warm in 33-degree water is absurd. When water temperatures plummet, I’ll be wearing 5 mm neoprene insulated boot-foot waders. The bottom of many Great Lakes tributaries is treacherous, so make sure your boots have studs. Dress in breathable layers. Get out of the water every hour and walk around so your legs don’t freeze. And never leave home without hand and toe warmers.
Go, Weather or Not
There’s no question that water level and weather affect steelhead fishing. High water flowing into the lake gives steelhead the green light to return to their birthplace. Of course, there’s such a thing as too much—or too little—water, so pay attention to how flows affect your favorite tributaries. When it comes to weather, sudden changes in both temperature and barometric pressure can shut down the bite. Supinski has been tracking such things for decades: “A fresh-run fish is more positive during times of dropping barometric pressure, which means clouds and rain. Steelhead that have been in the river for a long time do not like barometric changes, dropping or rising.” For those fish, he says, stable pressure is best. Sometimes, of course, you can only fish when you can fish, and if you want to catch more steelhead, there’s no substitute for time on the water. That’s when you truly figure things out. “You’ve got to envision that the pool you’re fishing holds steelhead, and that you’re going to catch them,” Supinski says. “Flyfishing for steelhead is a matter of persistence, determination, and positive attitude.” Work through the lows, savor the highs, and understand it’s all part of the glorious disease we call steelhead madness.
Don’t hit a Great Lakes tributary without these four patterns.
Tied with sparkle braid, this riffs on the classic Sucker Spawn pattern. I’ve had steelhead go out of their way to chase down this fly. Experiment with color; I do well with chartreuse and orange.
Rusher’s Steelhead Nymph
Cross an Estaz egg with a stonefly nymph, and the result is this classic pattern. I prefer darker bodies with a contrasting thorax, and I’ll change colors to match light and water conditions.
Bead Head Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail
Soft hackles have been fooling fish for centuries, and steelhead are as susceptible to their charms as any species. I like this fly in early fall when there’s still some bug-hatching activity.
Two flies in one, this proven winner combines the seductive movement of marabou with a highly visible hot spot. Fish it on the swing, slow strip, or drifting along the bottom like a nymph.