The first runs of Great Lakes steelhead will be moving upriver soon. Here’s how to kick the season off right.
[by Aaron Jasper]
Countless changes take place in the fall. The first cold fronts are followed by cool, crisp mornings. Leaves change to fiery shades of red, orange, and yellow. Water temperatures continue to drop, signaling that it is time to shift gears from fly fishing for trout to chasing steelhead. But you don’t have to travel to some remote Pacific Northwest watershed. Great Lakes tributaries boast some of the most robust steelhead runs on the planet. These anadromous fish were transplanted from stocks of West Coast steelhead during the late 1970s and early 80s. Due to the fact that each Great Lake is like a mini ocean filled with abundant food supplies, the transplants took a strong hold. This affords Eastern anglers an opportunity to catch these hardfighting, often unlandable fish, and the first opportunity of the season is right around the corner.
Timing the Run
The majority of the Great Lakes tributaries have runs of Pacific salmon, such as chinook or coho. With the exception of Lake Erie, these salmon runs precede the first steelhead, which are genetically driven to feast on their eggs. Early runs can be hit or miss. Steelhead generally do not like to travel right along with the salmon, which often attack and bite the steelhead. Instead, they trickle in behind them. Additionally, the water temperatures when salmon enter the rivers are generally above 60 degrees, which is not optimal for steelhead migration.
HOOK: TMC 2457, sizes 10 through 14.
THREAD: UTC 140 to complement body.
BODY: Poly-braid or Frostbite. (Chartreuse, pearl, pink, orange, and yellow work best.)
This fly is an attention grabber. Fresh steelhead will take this fly not only because they are targeting eggs, but also because of the flash that the fly has and its ability to trigger strikes from nonaggressive fish.
Once the water temperatures drop consistently below 60 degrees, the runs begin in earnest. However, keep in mind that this only signals the beginning of the run and generally coincides with Columbus Day. These first fish are stragglers, and the runs can be inconsistent. One day might yield excellent angling, and the next day you will have to work hard for your fish.
As soon as the water drops into the high 40s to low 50s, the number of steelhead entering the streams dramatically increases. The fish are spread out through the majority of the stream courses, and there are almost daily runs of fresh fish entering the river. Accordingly, the fishing becomes more consistent. Pods of steelhead are constantly on the move. This period generally runs from the third week in October through early November. Of course the timing depends on the location of the stream you are planning to fish. On the more southern lakes, such as Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, temperature drops can happen earlier than on northern lakes, such as Michigan, Huron, and Superior.
When the water temperatures are in the lower to upper 40s, the fall fishing is at its peak. Fish are pouring into the rivers, and those that are already there are still active and feasting on leftover salmon and brown trout eggs.
Tailwaters and Freestones
On rivers such as the Salmon River in New York and the Big Manistee in Michigan, the steelhead runs can be more consistent, as there are generally more stable flows from those dams. These rivers do not rely entirely on rain events; rather, flows out of lakes attract the steelhead to these streams. The movement of fish throughout the stream course is more consistent due to the flows. During falls where there is little rain, these streams will often attract fish that are roaming the shoreline of the lake looking to go into other tributaries. Therefore drought can noticeably increase the numbers of fish in tailwaters. The consistent flows also enable fish to spread out and not stacked up in pools, which is what happens on other rivers.
HOOK: TMC 2457, sizes 8 through 14.
THREAD: Fire Orange UTC 140.
EGG BODY: Golden, McCheese, and light yellow McFly Foam in equal parts.
This is a great egg pattern that works everywhere I have fished for steelhead in clear water. It closely imitates the colors of the eggs that the salmon or brown trout are laying. Tie this fly in the same size as the naturals, and fish it through likely holding water. The only downside to this fly is that it does not work so well when there are a lot of leaves in the water.
One thing to keep in mind here is that when the flows are low and the sun is high, you will have good fish migration during the night, and the fish will hold in the pools during the day. However, when the flows are up the fish can move freely upstream to reach their wintering holes near their spawning areas. One advantage of fishing tailwaters for steelhead is that the water tends to be clearer than in freestones, and you can catch fish even during high-water flows. During high water, steelhead will often be found along the banks or using the side channels to avoid faster currents found in the main river.
Freestone streams rely more on surface water from rain events to trigger runs of steelhead. If there is a great deal of rain during the fall, you will find steelhead in the river pretty much on schedule, concurrent with the water temperatures mentioned at the beginning of the article. However, if the fall is dry, steelhead runs in these streams will not take place until there is enough water in the river to enable the fish to migrate upstream.
Although fish begin their upstream migration with the rain, when the water is on the rise, fishing can be difficult because of the debris found throughout the water column. As the water recedes and clarity restores, the fishing will improve. This can take place anywhere from one day after a rain on smaller tributaries, up to a week or more on larger tributaries, such as Cattaraugus Creek in New York, which is a tributary of Lake Erie. Two to three days is a good rule of thumb when looking for medium-sized rivers to come into shape for good fishing opportunities.