Complete Guide to Spring Steelhead
written by therockyriver.com staff
Depending on where you go in North America, fishing for steelhead on spawning beds is prized, despised and even illegal. Most serious anglers in the Pacific Northwest frown heavily upon fishing steelhead on beds. This makes sense, as northwestern steelhead are not supported by stocking programs, so reproduction rates depend entirely on the ability to breed in the wild. However, opinions differ around the Great Lakes.
The largest steelhead population in the world today is in the Great Lakes and connecting tributaries. These steelhead are “naturalized,” – stocked from the eggs of wild fish from the west coast. The first stocking program was in 1876 in the Au Sable River in Michigan, with eggs from the wild trout of California’s McCloud River. Today, eggs are annually harvested from wild trout that live in the lakes and rivers, breeding wild aggressive fish, rather than tamed hatchery trout. So what does this mean for fishing spawning beds in the Great Lakes? The general feeling in most southern Lake Erie tributaries is that fishing beds is not harmful to the reproduction of steelhead, since they are annually stocked and almost all are not able to reproduce successfully. In the eastern regions of the Great Lakes however, biologists estimate up to 25 percent of the steelhead found there are reproducing naturally, and in New York’s Cattaraugus, researchers believe that almost all steelhead are spawning successfully and argue if bedding fish are left alone, the river will become a self-replenishing system. In western tributaries conservationists report 50 to 100 percent success rates for natural reproduction. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources finds that 90 percent reproduce in the wild, and have made it a punishable crime to fish spawning steelhead. Great Lakes tributaries in Ontario are closed during the peak season.
Where it isn’t illegal, the decision to fish spawning trout is up to the personal feelings of the angler. When a steelhead on a bed is hooked, do not fight the fish to exhaustion, and release it quickly. Keep it in the water, and if it must be handled, use wet hands and a gentle hold. Don’t drag the fish on the shore or hold it over ground or rocks and be sure the fish is revived before sending it off into the current. See our catch and release article for more information on handling a fish that is being released.
TIMING THE SPRING SPAWN
Trying to predict when steelhead will spawn is like predicting a 30-day weather forecast. Nobody knows, but it can be scientifically narrowed down depending on a few consistent aspects. The first is simply the effects of winter. If the winter cold lasts longer, the spawn will be pushed back. If spring comes early, the fish spawn early. In severe, unusually long winters or drought periods of low water, female steelhead can actually refuse to spawn and reabsorb their eggs. The last significant instance of this was almost a decade ago in Michigan, when steelhead that skipped the spawn were 150% – 200% heavier than any average year.
When the air temperatures rise and steady, the snow and ice melt and the water levels rise. Spring rains compound this process. This signals steelhead from the Lakes to make their runs upstream, between February and the end of April, depending on weather and the region. While increased daylight is also a contributing factor, the main indicator for spring fish moving to spawn is the magic 40° mark. This is why a water thermometer is the most important tool a spring steelhead angler can have. The failsafe rule is this: If the water temperature is below 40°F, trout hold at the bottom of deep pools. If the water is 40°F or above, the fish move into faster, shallower riffles to stage for the upcoming spawn.
The exception to the “under 40/over 40” rule, is the fall run steelhead that have been in the river all winter. These fish are far fewer in numbers and will typically already be out of the river by the time the huge waves of spring-run fish are staging. In most systems, fall-run and early winter fish spawn much earlier than previously thought, usually completing the process by the end of February. However the majority of fish are late runners, often waiting until the last chances in spring to move up the river, even during perfect conditions. In many cases, a Great Lakes steelhead can move into the river from the lake to a bed in a day. This is why a river can have low numbers of spring fish for weeks, and in a period of a day or so is suddenly packed to the banks with waves of spawning trout. The important thing to remember is that while there are certainly peak periods, all the steelhead in a river do not spawn at the same time, so targeting pools and staging areas downstream of spawning grounds can be a very productive, and often less crowded idea.
In the northern Canadian edges of the Great Lakes, the spawn may be a full month behind the southern Great Lakes tributaries, as winter stays around longer in Canada than in the States. The good news is anglers that fish in the States can fish the entire spawning season here, and then travel up north to fish it all over again (where it is legal).
EQUIPMENT FOR SPRING STEELHEAD
CLOTHING: The one important point about what you wear is this: DO NOT WEAR BRIGHT CLOTHING! Spring steelhead sit in inches of water and can be very spooky. The point is to see them before they see you. Wear drab colored clothes- browns, faded greens or grays to blend in with the surrounding banks.
EYES: Polarized Sunglasses are like X-ray vision for surface glare. The glare is dramatically reduced and you will see fish in places that cannot be seen without the polarized glasses – do not leave home without them.
THERMOMETER: If it is still questionably early in the winter-to-spring transition, bring the thermometer and get a reading on the water temperature. That alone will tell you where you should be fishing.
THE ROD: An 8-weight, 9-½ foot rod is appropriate for the majority of the rivers in the Great Lakes regions, but match the rod to the size and flow of the river and the size of the fish within it. If you are fishing a smaller stream, or one with a lower average weight of fish, a 9-½ foot 6-weight is best. Generally, a fish over 9 or 10 pounds (which is a legitimate expectation on most of the popular Great Lakes rivers) on a 6-weight rod is going to be big trouble. For spinning gear anglers, see the end of this section.
LINE: For shallow steelhead on beds, a floating line with a triangle taper is the best bet, especially for the short distance casting typically associated with spring fishing. This line provides easy mending and drifting with minimal drag, but strong enough to handle a fly rig and the heaviest of fish.
LEADER/TIPPET: Leaders for fishing shallow beds should be no shorter than 8 feet. For targeting deeper beds in runs or in pools, extend the length to 12 feet. The most used tippets for steelhead are 3X (6-pound test) but four to eight pound test is common. A popular method for added strength is to simply use fluorocarbon line as the tippet. The line is virtually invisible in the water and is stronger than tippet; however the thickness of the line itself will hinder the action of smaller flies in the water. Many anglers use 10-lb. test fluorocarbon, but this devastates the action of most flies, which means fewer strikes. If using fluorocarbon, do not exceed 8-lb. test.
INDICATORS: Anglers have countless preferences and available options for floating line indicators, including twist-on foam, slip-ons, bright yarn tied to the line, and even an unsinkable dry fly as a strike indicator. Each has pros and cons, but this is really up to the preference of the angler.
WEIGHT: If you are not bumping the bottom periodically, you are missing the fish. Have enough weight on the presentation to tap the bottom, but not so much that you are getting hung up too often. If you aren’t losing flies, you are losing fish.
SPINNING RODS: A good 7 to 9 foot, medium-action rod with a sensitive tip will handle the meanest of fish and has enough length and sensitivity to manipulate drifting line and lure/baits.
SPINNING LINE: Fluorocarbon is invisible in the water, which is important for not alarming the excellent vision of steelhead. Don’t exceed 8 to 10-lb. test for larger waters with bigger fish in the 8 – 12 lb. range. In small streams with average fish of 5 – 7 lbs., the line should be reduced to 8 or even 6-lb. test.
IN YOUR FLYBOX:
STREAMERS: Clouser Minnow, Spring Wiggler, Egg sucking Leech, Sculpin patterns, Gummy Fly, and Woolly Buggers in white, silver, yellow and black.
EGGS: Glo Bugs, Sucker Spawn, Clown Eggs in orange, peach, yellow, pink and the loved by all, Oregon Cheese.
NYMPHS ETC.: Hex, Mysis Shrimp, Pheasant Tails, Beadheads like the Prince, Caddis Larvae, Stoneflies, Teeny’s, Kaufmann’s, Hare’s Ears in natural colors, brown, olive and black. A note about Mysis Shrimp: Biologists have found that Mysis can make up 50% or more of a steelhead’s diet in the lakes. Offering a Mysis triggers the memory of the fish, meaning frequent success.
IN YOUR TACKLEBOX:
SPINNERS: Mepp’s Spinner white, Lil’ Cleo blue/silver or black/silver, Blue Fox Vibrex Spinner, Rapalas and Rooster Tails in white, silver and natural brown/olives.
SPAWN: You’ll have to use canned stuff if nothing else is available, but you’ll have much more success with natural eggs that aren’t treated or sealed. Check local fly and tackle shops, as most offer fresh spawn daily.
JIG RIGS: Small, single-tail grubs in white or black can be very effective as a generic baitfish imitation. A popular and highly effective setup is a black or brown hair jig tipped with two or three maggots. Among the best is the Mini Foo Jig with black hair and a bright red head.
LIVE BAIT: Minnows work well, but hook them properly. Run the hook through the lower lip and out of the upper lip, allowing the minnow to swim in the water. Threading it through the body of the baitfish will kill it, and not appeal to any trout.
LOCATING SPRING FISH
Steelhead in the west leap waterfalls to get to upstream spawning grounds, and they tend to move in droves during high water when leaping barriers is easier. Great Lakes steelhead are essentially western steelhead, and are programmed to do the same. During stretches of warm weather with low water levels, many fish that have not entered the rivers yet will stage at the mouth of the rivers waiting for higher water.
As the water approaches 40 degrees, steelhead will begin to move out of the deep pools they’ve been holding in, and into quicker water just below the shallow gravel runs where they will spawn. This can happen up to a month prior to the actual spawn. The increasingly active fish will collect here in groups, picking off insects and eggs washed into the current by females digging redds in the spawning grounds upstream. This often creates aggressive, competitive feeding among the staging steelhead.
The ideal spawning grounds are in clear, quick riffles in inches to 4 feet of water over dark gravel bottom. Around these breeding grounds are deep pockets and pools, as well as deeper runs that hold pre-spawn and spooked fish. Dams, fords, waterfalls and other impassable barriers will hold stacks of steelhead directly below them, and are an ideal location for finding steelhead without being able to physically see them. These spots however, are usually the easiest to access and packed with anglers who have the same information.
UNDERSTAND THE SPAWNING PROCESS. The female moves up into the breeding ground and digs out a redd by turning on her side and making powerful sweeps through the gravel with her tail, pushing the rocks out and clearing a dishpan hole for the eggs. When this happens the males take notice and will start to compete with each other for the rights to join the female. The victor will be the larger male with the more hooked lower jaw, which is called a “kype.” The male uses his girth and kype as defensive weapons to push smaller trout out of the redd. Sometimes two equal males will fertilize the eggs of one female, who will drop about 1/5 of the eggs she is carrying on the bed. The female then moves upstream and immediately starts clearing another redd. The gravel she kicks up covers the eggs she just dropped in the bed behind her. This process continues until all of her eggs have been released.
POOR VISIBILITY. Often spring rains and melt will bring high, muddy water, which can ruin the excitement of sight fishing that the season brings. So how do you find the steelhead in these conditions? We cannot stress enough the importance of polarized sunglasses. In poor visibility the female becomes the target for finding fish. Females in spring are silver, and give off bright flashes as they turn on their side to clear beds in the gravel. In muddy water, look for flashes of silver or gold, and then mark the spot on the bank with a stick or boulder. Move immediately downstream of the spot and you will be above the aggressive males waiting to move up into the breeding ground.
FISHING A BED
There is one simple rule to a successful day of fishing beds: FISH FOR THE MALES. For one, there are far more males in the area and they are aggressively looking to take out sexual frustration. The main reason though is if you hook the female, all the males will leave. Catching the female on the bed can easily ruin the bed for hours. The males are simple to distinguish from the females. The females are bright silver and have small mouths. The males are dark, often appearing black and have large mouths with hooked lower jaws.
THE APPROACH AND CAST: First off, see the fish without the fish seeing you. The good news is while they are usually in inches of water; they will always be facing upstream. Stay behind and to the side of the fish you are targeting. If you can’t, stay low to the ground and try to position yourself so that to the fish, you are just part of a background of trees, bushes or bank. Before you cast, study the lane of current that the fish you are targeting are holding in. Trace the lane with your eyes back upstream, far enough above the fish that your rig can sink completely and won’t be seen plopping into the water. If you get the fly into the right lane of current, it should drift down naturally into the hovering fish.
THE ALL IMPORTANT DRIFT: Use the lane of current to present your fly to the fish. Do not “assist” the fly to get in front of the fish, as this is unnatural and will tip the fish off that something is up. Practice hitting the current lane, and if you miss, just let it drift down naturally until it is behind the fish, and try again. You may throw anywhere from 1 to 70 perfect casts before a steelhead grabs the fly, so don’t get discouraged – in spring, a strike is just a matter of when, not if. Make sure you are lightly bouncing off the bottom, bouncing the rod tip to shake the fly loose of hang ups. Keep your line managed and tight, so when a trout opens its mouth to take the fly, you can set the hook with perfect timing and leverage.
THE HOOK-UP: The majority of strikes on beds are not chasing, violent thrashes, instead you may only notice the fly disappear as it approaches the face of the fish, or your line simply stops drifting. Lift the rod tip slightly to check if you are hung up. If you think that it may be a strike, set the hook. It’s better to be wrong than to miss a fish. If the bed is disturbed, it will only be temporarily and you’ll be able to come back to it. Most times the fish will stay right where they are or will fall back a few feet and immediately re-enter the bed. When setting the hook, set it side-armed and back, to the downstream side. This will ensure the hook isn’t pulled out of the mouth of the trout, but rather will set in the back corner of the mouth.
THE BATTLE: Stay calm and let the fish run. Keep light pressure on the heel of the reel (not the reel handle!) by placing your hand flat, palm up, underneath the base of the reel. Think of it like setting drag on a spinning rod, except the drag system is your palm. If the fish takes off, let it run. When the run pauses, get on the reel and put some pressure on the fish when it allows you to. If the fish is insistent on running downstream, slowly walk your way down the bank with the fish, keeping light pressure with your palm on the reel base. Keep firm pressure on the fish with your rod, holding it back and sideways to the downstream side, so the angle of the rod doesn’t pull the hook out of the mouth. If the fish jumps, keep light pressure with the rod tip, while holding the rod down toward the ground until the fish falls back in the water. Any slack line will likely cause the fish to get free.
UP YOUR ODDS: ADVANCED TECHNIQUES FOR SPRING
The Big/Little Tandem Rig: A very effective technique is fishing a small egg or nymph fly with a large streamer chasing a few feet behind it. With a proper drift, the large fly will reach the bed of steelhead first. Most times the spawning fish will move out of the way of the large streamer, usually to an inside position where the smaller, second fly is now drifting. The fish is now activated as it was forced to move, and will often take the smaller fly.
The Little/Little Tandem Rig: A great approach for steelhead that are constantly side shifting on the beds is drifting two smaller flies on a tandem setup. Monitor the side-to-side distance of the steelhead’s movement, and use that estimated measurement for the distance between your two flies. This could be a foot or six. The steelhead will encounter one or both flies each time it moves.
The Induced Take: Another increasingly popular technique requires some Chuck Norris stealth, as it breaks every rule about approaching fish on a bed. The method requires the angler to stand directly upstream of the bedding fish, but obviously has to be pulled off without spooking the pair. Then extend the rod out and drop the fly directly in front of the noses of the steelhead, holding it stationary in the current or gently swinging it from side-to-side. This technique seems to induce some fierce strikes from the males.
Streamer Swingin’: For adjacent, deeper waters where steelhead stage, cast a streamer directly across the stream and let the fly sink. Then tighten the slack line and let the current swing the fly down, and back across the stream toward the casting side. At the end of the swing, let the fly sit for a few seconds. It will now be almost directly in line with you downstream, but the current will tighten the line and the streamer will rise up and hold in the stream. Many times this rising action can induce a violent strike. This is also a popular technique during hatches with emergers and stoneflies, as it mimics the action of the natural larvae rising to the surface to attempt flight. Step downstream a few feet and cast again. This is a great way to cover a lot of water and find fish that are not visible.
Spinning Gear: Spawn and nymph drifting works the same under a small float as a dead drift method does for flies. Using lures that require retrieval is a different story, because drifting is not an option. The best thing to remember is to keep it natural. Imitate real minnows in the water, casting upstream, or across and retrieving down the current. Reel the spinner in only fast enough to keep the blade moving consistently in the water. Racing a lure through the current, or casting downstream and reeling back upstream are unnatural and will spook the fish. The streamer swingin’ method (above) can also be an effective approach with a lure like a Mepps or Rooster Tail. The current will spin the blades of the lure as it hangs in place, or swings side-to-side in front of the fish.
Special thanks to Nate Kay, John Patton, Jessie Hollenbeck, Greg Shields, “jewelsbuddy” and Brian Muraco for their permission to use the beautiful images found in this article.
Special thanks to Chris Deboer for contributing his photo for the billboard for this article, as seen on our home page.