Until about 10 years ago I hadn’t spent much time in waders. I’d grown up fishing from a boat, and while my early experiences allowed me to cover a lot of water and catch plenty of fish, it also kept me from some incredible fishing opportunities, namely going toe-to-toe, head-to-head with steelhead.
Steelheading on Great Lakes tributaries involves wading—hearing the gravel crunch under your boots, sensing changes in the current surging around your legs, understanding the fish’s environment through a sense of feel, rather than by staring into a depthfinder screen. It’s all about fooling and fighting powerful fish in strong current.
No matter how often I do it, it remains an exciting experience because there’s always something to learn about steel.
I’ve been lucky enough to have fished with numbers of steelhead wizards over the years, and these lessons were gleaned from my experiences with them. Hopefully, they’ll provide some insightful clues toward making your brushes with steel more productive.
1. Do The Homework
First off, steelhead are powerful, incredibly wary fish, and you need to do everything you can to up your odds of catching them. For example, fishing at the right times, under favorable conditions, tips them in your favor.
If you live close enough to steelhead rivers to fish them regularly, or even to make impulsive, last-minute jaunts, rather than planning long-distance trips, you have a major advantage: accessibility. In all instances, however, do your best to fish when large numbers of active steelhead are present, and to avoid high-, muddy-water conditions.
Steelheaders who fish the same river, or the same set of rivers, often rely upon their own information network, frequently calling each other to find out about stream conditions and get fishing reports. They want to know where and when the water is low, rising, high or falling; whether it’s clear, muddy or somewhere in between. For them, driving a bit farther to a river with more conducive conditions—clear or clearing water, or with fresh flushes of new fish—is usually more viable than toughing it out on a nearby stream soiled by muddy runoff.
You must to earn your way into such a network, though, by befriending other anglers, which only comes through effort and experience, and a willingness to share your own information.
Since I live a fair distance from steelhead water, I not only talk to anglers who know the fishing conditions, but I also check the U. S. Geological Survey Real-Time Water Data website (waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt) for up-to-date stream conditions. Once on the site, zero in on your state of choice, and examine the levels, flow, turbidity and recent changes of several candidate rivers. This is essential if you must drive an appreciable distance.
You can also scan the Internet for fishing reports, but be aware that you may have to sift through them to separate those that are accurate and timely from the out-of-date reports and those that are intentional red herrings.
2. Look Before Leaping
This is a seemingly odd, but incredibly savvy, tip: When you approach a hole that likely holds steelhead, don’t be in a hurry to fish, or make a commotion. Instead, scan the surface to assess the power and flow of the current, and the locations of current seams, while looking for fish.
When steelhead are active, you may see fins and tails breaking the surface, indicating lanes through which they move upstream, based on the prevailing depth and current. These are your prime drift paths for floats and baits. Plus, it’s just plain nice know steelhead are present; it instills confidence and amps up your excitement level.
3. Float Plan
While there are many ways to fish steelhead, float fishing is a sure way to catch them. The universal rig of choice begins with a slender float—either a river-style float, with a bulbous middle or upper end, or a cylindrical cigar float—affixed to the line with a rubber sleeve at each end. Tie a small barrel swivel to the line below the float and attach a 2- to 3-foot clear fluorocarbon leader, generally about 5- to 8-pound test. Next, tie a small jig, typically a plain 1/32-ounce head, onto the terminal end. Depending on the current and depth, the jig can be a bit heavier, or even dressed with hair or feathers for a bigger profile in cloudy water.
The genius of the rig comes in placing several split shot along the line and leader—generally larger shot at the top, smaller ones at the bottom. The size and number of shot you use depends, again, on depth and current. Here’s an example: Say you pinch two pairs of size 3/0 shot onto the line. Then, go with two pairs of smaller BB shot on the leader. With the shot spaced properly, the jig will not simply hang straight down, but rather sweep slightly downstream from the float.
To accentuate the delivery as the float drifts downcurrent, keep the spinning reel’s bail open and occasionally grip the line with your forefinger to prevent it from spilling off the spool. This momentarily rocks or “cocks” the float, tipping its top toward you. As it does, the jig sweeps out ahead of the float, reaching the waiting steelhead before the float arrives.
Cocking the float, feeding line, then re-gripping the line every few seconds allows you to do this throughout long downstream drifts; 50 yards is not unusual. Thus your reel needs sufficient line capacity, both for long drifts and fighting big, fast fish.
4. Work The Grid
Casting to steelhead you can see is easy, but if you’re fishing blind, it’s important to cover water methodically. First, make a short cast quartering upcurrent, and let the float drift downstream, feeding line as needed to enable a long drift. Make the next cast one foot beyond the first, again letting the bait drift with the current. Repeat the process, adding a foot to each cast until you locate a drifting lane that produces fish. It’s basically working a grid pattern, that covers every square foot of the river within your reach.
As your float drifts, note its behavior. If it doesn’t lag or drag every so often, it means the jig isn’t brushing the bottom, and the float’s probably set too shallow.
Before casting once more, slide the float up the line a few inches so the jig rides slightly deeper. You want to keep your bait running just off bottom most of the time.
5. Tie Your Own
Ghost shrimp, nightcrawlers, wigglers; all are viable bait options used by anglers along the steelhead belt, but when it comes to float fishing, it’s hard to beat spawnbags. Tie them up at home the night before, or make them right on the river. While the first approach saves fishing time, tying them up on site allows you to fine-tune the size and mesh color based on water clarity, fish aggressiveness and local preference. Some anglers prefer storing them in Borax. Fresh eggs are usually best, however, if available.
You may have to beg for a few spawnbags from a steelheader friend to get started, or use one of the soft plastic artificial baits now available. Make sure you carry a resealable plastic storage bag on the river. If you’re lucky enough to catch a female that’s squirting eggs, just fill it up. Where populations are maintained by stocking and harvest is allowed, taking a female to obtain eggs is perfectly fine. Plus, steelhead are tasty on the grill.
6. Stay Aggressive
True steelheaders cover water to contact pods of fish willing to bite—aggressively covering different pools, rather than sitting in one spot all day waiting for fresh incomers to arrive. Unless you see a lot of upstream movement, indicating that steelhead are replenishing the pool, fish it for awhile, then move on to the next one.
Likewise, fishing in the rain, or snow, is common. In fact, cloudy days with a light drizzle are often superb. Admittedly, it can be hard to keep your spirits up if the bite is erratic, the weather is cold, your fingers are numb, and re-rigging is an exercise in frustration.
That’s when it becomes tempting to hunker down and fish the same spot, the same jig color, and the same washed-out spawnbag for hours. But to get results, you have to stay relentless and work the system. Because in the end, little deals are big deals with steel.
Classic Steelhead Floats And Tackle
Local areas display different rigging preferences—sometimes arbitrary, sometimes for good reason. In Wisconsin, streams flowing into Lake Michigan, where agricultural runoff often darkens the water, anglers tend to prefer long, thin, brown-bodied floats, like the Thill River Master, which excel on average to dark or rainy days. They feature a fluorescent tip on the stem to keep them visible at a distance on dark days. Switch to a clear float, like a Drennan, when it’s sunny or the water is clear. They may be more difficult to see on a long drift, but they’re also more difficult for steelhead to detect, so it can be well worth the effort when the fish are spooky.
In northern Ohio streams emptying into Lake Erie, by comparison, anglers tend to use shorter and stouter floats, and baited hooks rather than jigs, in shallow, clearer streams. Jigs anchor the bait more downward and subdue the action, which is better for fishing deeper water of three to five feet. Plain hooks tend to let the bait swing and sway farther ahead of the float, often a better tactic for fishing very shallow water.
Choose 1/32- to 1/16-ounce jigs of any color, as long as they have a stout, sharp hook that won’t straighten or break under the pressure of a hard-fighting steelhead. Carry an assortment from dull to bright fluorescent to glow patterns; glow is often the way to go at first light, or during low-light weather conditions. Plain heads are often fine, although it pays to tie some with dressing to add bulk or color. Toss in a couple packages of premium, super-sharp, size 8 or 6 beaked hooks as well.
Small split shot of assorted sizes are critical to rigging a float properly. Use round shot, not the reusable versions with small wings, which make your jig spin and twist the line in current. Remember, place larger shot up top, progressing to smaller shot near the bottom.
Finally, add some size 12 or so barrel swivels, plus lightweight fluorocarbon leader material. Fluoro is clear, tough and durable, allowing you to fool, hook and land big fish in current. Raven, Cortland Climax, Seaguar and Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon are good options. Avoid dense fluoro on your main line, however; it sinks. You want a tough, yet light and flexible monofilament like Ande Premium or Maxima, which is easier to fish on the surface.
Float rigs are time-consuming and frustrating to put together when your fingers are cold, and they always seem to break or snag at the wrong moment. However, never, ever skimp on proper rigging. You need stealth to the max and light, but strong, rigging to fool and land steelhead.
Waxworms, readily available at bait shops, are a great alternative to spawnbags when the water is very cold, or when the fish turn up their noses at yet another egg entrée sliding by in the current. Thread a couple onto the jig hook, leaving their tails dangling. For extremely high-brow steelhead, small pieces of pre-cooked shrimp, available at the grocery store, occasionally excel.
Steelhead often leave big water and move up rivers at night, especially during a full moon, or as river levels begin to rise. So, you’re most likely to catch fish from that fresh flush if you get out of bed before dawn and hit the river at first light. The first few sunrise drifts to new arrivals can be lights out—with a bite on nearly every pass. Resident fish that have run the angling gauntlet are seldom as cooperative.