How to Boost Your Success on Great Lakes Tributaries

Steelhead; everyone wants to catch one. Thousands of anglers make the pilgrimage every year to the tributaries of the Great Lakes with the hopes of catching one of these hard-charging chrome-bright fish. Each fall, these fish stage themselves in approximately 20-25 feet of water off the shores of Lakes Huron, Superior, Michigan, Ontario, and Erie waiting for the right conditions to make their annual run up the many tributaries that feed the Great Lakes. Everyone wants to be there when the first big push of fish enter the tributaries, and crowds can be hectic.

To me, the thing that’s so infatuating about Steelhead is that these fish spend most of their life growing up in the Great Lakes. As far as the fish are concerned, that’s the ocean to them. When these fish are fresh out of the lake, they are dime bright, and there’s a good chance you’ll see your backing if you manage to hook into a fresh “chromer.” After Steelhead have been in the streams for a little longer, they will darken up and get hues of gorgeous purples and blues. I won’t ever forget catching my first Steelhead, and every one I’ve caught after that still feels like the first one. There’s no arguing that the fight these fish put up is unprecedented, It’s one of those things I don’t think will ever get old. Before you embark on your next steelhead mission, take these few tips along with you, and I guarantee you’ll have more success.

Timing & Conditions

Steelhead will usually begin to trickle in during the last couple weeks of September and the beginning of October. Great Lakes tributaries can see pushes of fresh fish right up until mid-January, but typically the first week of November is usually when the height of “steelhead season” begins. However, like anything else in fishing, it’s all contingent upon conditions.

Typically, all “steelheaders” seek to chase high water on the drop. The first big rainstorms of the fall will bring the water levels in the tributaries up again, and a few consecutive cold nights will lower water temperatures. Just like any other salmonid, steelhead require cold water. More water in the tributaries makes it easier for the fish to begin their migration. Usually right at dusk and into nightfall is when I’ve seen some considerably large pushes of fish making their way through the creek mouths or estuaries. These fish can cover an astonishing number of river miles in a pretty short amount of time. Steelhead are almost constantly on the move and never resting for very long periods of time. I only have experience fishing tributaries of lakes Erie and Ontario, but I always try and plan my trips around the conditions I mentioned above.

Use lighter tippet

One of the biggest misconceptions in Steelhead fishing is that must use heavier tippet. I’ve found the only advantage to using heavier tippet is that you may limit the number of breakoffs you have. Don’t be afraid to go lighter, you may have a few more breakoffs, but you’ll have far more hook-ups. Most of the time I like to use 4x fluorocarbon from Cortland. Their “Top Secret” series of fluorocarbon has been excellent for me so far. I’ve even used it as light as 5x for Steelhead and haven’t had many breakoffs. Fluorocarbon is more expensive, but it’s definitely worth investing in. It’s much more abrasion resistant than nylon, and it’s stronger and stretches more. It’s also nearly invisible to fish, sinks faster, and doesn’t absorb water.

Use smaller flies

While big egg patterns and nymphs have their place under certain conditions, most of the time I’ve found going smaller (when you can) to be far more effective. Steelhead don’t get much of a break from angling pressure. They are used to seeing big globs of skein on treble hooks, egg sacks, and who knows what else. They can become highly selective and often aren’t just eating anything. Using egg patterns and nymphs down to sizes 14s and 16s can be the difference in catching several versus just a couple or none. Many of your standard trout nymphs can be very effective on heavily pressured fish. You don’t always need bright and big patterns to catch these fish, more natural presentations will work just as well, if not better.

Have a good understanding of the flows

It’s really important to keep a close watch on the stream gauges. A big part of having success on your Steelhead trips is going when the flows are right. The USGS provides stream discharge information for many Great Lakes tributaries. Knowing when water levels are too high or too low is a crucial element to success, it can really make or break your trip. I always like to fish high water on the drop, and I almost never like to fish rising water. Many of the smaller tributaries will drop extremely fast, while the larger ones might take a few days to drop and clear up. Keeping an eye on the turbidity is also important. I usually like the water to have a little stain, almost so that it looks green.     

A body of water

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Don’t follow the crowd

I’m certainly not one that wants to fish next to a bunch of people. I’d much prefer to walk away from the crowds that pound a pod of fish all day long to try and find my own fish. A lot of times I’ve found fish sitting in shallow runs, riffles, shelfs, and buckets that people just walk right past. These fish can be relatively easy to catch with the right techniques because they haven’t seen another fly, egg sack, or anything else all day.

Don’t be afraid to target fish in faster moving water. Steelhead will either hold or run, and they tend to be far more reluctant to take a presentation when they are on the go than just resting in a deeper run or pool. Steelhead will still rest in pockets within swift water; the key is just knowing where to look. If you have a riffle that averages two feet in depth, locate the trenches, troughs, buckets, and shelfs that are deeper. Steelhead will seek the deepest depressions in the stream. These fish spend most of their lives in the lake, therefore they are used to the comfort and security of deeper water. The best way to find the deeper depressions is to look for the color transition along the bottom. The deeper water will always appear darker. Many people overlook and walk right past these spots to fish the largest pools where fish are more likely to be stacked up. There can be plenty of fish podded up in these types of spots, and chances are you’ll have them to yourself. I don’t mind walking a few miles to find the spots nobody wanted to walk to.

Terminal tackle I like to use

I like to build my leaders out of Maxima Ultragreen or Maxima Chameleon, both do a pretty good job of blending into their surroundings, and more importantly are both very strong. Tributaries where the water is more tannic such as the Salmon River in New York, I prefer to use Maxima Chameleon. If you prefer a knotless leader, Rio’s leaders in 9ft or 12ft will do fine. I recommend using a tippet ring to attach your tippet to leader. I use Rio’s 3mm size tipper rings, but I’ve used their 2 mm size and experienced no issues. Like I mentioned before, my choice of tippet is Cortland’s “Top Secret” Fluorocarbon. Make sure your flies are tied on good quality hooks that you can trust not to bend out or dull on you. Having quality in all aspects of your terminal tackle is key to landing Steelhead.    

About the Author

“Hello, my name is Beck Chickillo, I’m from Northeastern Pennsylvania and I’m currently in my sophomore year at Juniata College, located in Central Pennsylvania. I started fly fishing when I was 12 years old. All throughout high school and college I’ve fished avidly, making it a practice of mine to fish at least 150 days a year. My angling experiences primarily consist of fishing the many wild trout streams across Pennsylvania and New York, and tributaries of Lakes Ontario and Erie for Steelhead during the fall and winter months.”

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