As the days get shorter and the nights get cooler, many anglers in the Great Lakes region start thinking about steelhead.
Some anglers, in fact, think about them all year – their daydreams haunted by big, strong, lake-run rainbow trout that put tackle to the test and lure anglers to the rivers even in the dead of winter in downright miserable conditions.
Native to the west coast, where they run up rivers to spawn but otherwise live in the Pacific Ocean, steelhead have been stocked in Great Lakes tributaries for decades.
In the lakes – their freshwater “oceans” – steelhead feed on local forage species and are fished for with gear from boats. Their instinctive compulsion in the fall to swim up the rivers where they were born (even those born in hatcheries) to produce the next generation makes them available to fly-fishers. Finding and enticing steelhead to bite can be demanding, and landing the six- to 10-pound brutes can be even tougher, but feeling one on the end of your line is an electrifying experience.
Steelhead often co-exist with other Pacific species, Chinook and coho salmon. The Chinooks attain enormous size for stream angling, with fish larger than 30 pounds not uncommon. The coho are smaller but rival steelhead in their fighting ability.
The Pacific salmon run up the rivers at the end of their lives; after spawning, or attempting to, they die. Steelhead, on the other hand, are more like Atlantic salmon: After spawning in late winter or early spring, most of them return to the lake and many spawn again the next year and the year after.
Salmon don’t eat during their spawning runs. If they strike, it’s usually thought to be out of aggression, habit or perhaps curiosity. Steelhead and Atlantic salmon do feed during their spawning runs, so fly-fishing for them is kind of like trout fishing on steroids. But they don’t feed as reliably as trout in the spring and summer. Steelhead can be so aggressive they’re easy to catch in the early season, but as winter wears on, it can be anybody’s guess whether they’ll bite.
In most places, serious steelheading begins in October. Most of the big runs push in between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, though some come earlier, and others will migrate upriver right through the winter. It’s not uncommon to see bundled-up anglers fly-fishing for steelhead in January and February.
For many years, nymphing with a sturdy, single-handed fly rod was the standard approach for steelhead. These are strong fish, so good-quality reels, eight- to 12-pound tippets and lines weights of 7 through 10 were used. Dead-drift nymphing with standard trout flies like Pheasant Tails, Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ears, Prince nymphs and Woolly Buggers, usually with lots of split shot on the tippet to sink the flies quickly in deep runs and pools, were the standard fare. A whole category of flies that resemble salmon eggs has developed for this sport.
In recent years, many Great Lakes steelheaders have adopted a different approach: fishing with two-handed Spey and switch rods, in the tradition of Atlantic salmon anglers in Europe and the U.S. and the fanatical steelheading community of the Pacific Northwest.
This kind of fishing employs specialized lines and leaders, and the casting has a steep learning curve. Unlike nymphing, the goal of which is to sink a fly deep and follow it along as it drifts naturally near the bottom, Spey fishers use ornate, fanciful wet flies or steamers and swing them downstream across the current.
It’s essentially a very simple tactic, although it does have its subtleties, like adjusting the speed of the swing and choosing lines that will help the fly sink a bit deeper, closer to the fish.
Spey fishing is also widely agreed to produce fewer strikes. Many Spey-fishing steelheaders are content with a day that produces one good “tug,” even if the fish gets away. They’re not interested in fish that absent-mindedly grab a drifting nymph or egg pattern (or even worse, a fish snagged inadvertently.) They’re after the aggressive fish willing to rise off the bottom to attack the fly swinging overhead.
Some steelheaders practice a hybrid of the styles, using two-handed rods to drift nymphs under strike indicators. The long rods (11 to 15 feet) allow for lengthy roll casts, which are helpful on rivers where there’s no room for a back cast, and their leverage and two-fisted grip help to land the hard-charging steelies.
Whether nymphing or swinging, fly-fishing for steelhead is a challenging and invigorating game. Between the daunting winter weather and the unpredictable nature of the fish, it requires preparation, determination and stamina.
But when the rod bends, the reel sings and one of North America’s most powerful game fish comes rocketing out of the water, it’s all worthwhile.