Catching Lake Michigan's Summer Steel!
September 24, 2010
Now's the time of year when Skamania steelhead will congregate at the mouths of rivers and inlets -- and that's where you'll catch your share of big fish right now.
Summer-run steelhead are nomadic creatures. Once they've been stocked, one never knows if, where or exactly when they'll show up. Steelhead spend much of their time roaming the wide-open expanses of Lake Michigan, siphoning bugs and baitfish off the surface over hundreds of feet of water in the middle of nowhere.
These same steelies will suddenly make a beeline for the shallows in the middle of the summer -- long before typical winter-run fish are even considering it. The one thing that's for sure is when they do show up off natal pierheads and river mouths, it doesn't take long for the word to get out and for "Skamania Mania" to set in.
The roots of the Great Lakes' summer-run steelhead program can be traced to stockings made by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) back in 1975. Initial stockings were the Skamania strain of summer-run steelhead, which migrate into streams during the summer and early fall months. Today, Indiana stocks upward of 275,000 Skamania steelhead, with the St. Joseph River getting the bulk of these fish.
Michigan initially experimented with four strains of summer-run steelheads during the early stages of its summer-run steelhead-stocking program. Originally, Michigan's DNR planted Rogue, Siletz and Umpqua strains, in addition to the Skamania, but the stockings resulted in poor returns and success. Currently, Michigan's entire Skamania stocking contains some 33,000 fish in total. These fish go into the Big Manistee River.
While Wisconsin stocks several strains of steelhead, the Skamania is the only true summer-run strain. Wisconsin dumps between 150,000 and 160,000 Skamania into their streams annually and targets their larger-class ones in rivers that offer consistent water conditions. Illinois lacks any suitable rivers to attract or receive Skamania stockings, but the state's Great Lakes anglers benefit from the plants of other states. Today, the summer steelhead of choice is the Skamania. These rainbows grow up to 25 pounds and provide more bang for the hatchery's and the angler's buck.
The shallows of southern Lake Michigan can get fairly tepid during the summer. If the lake is too warm, the steelhead may just shoot up the river to find cool water or retreat back into the lake. Ideal conditions occur when strong offshore winds push warm surface water offshore, which allows cool water near the bottom to well up near the surface. Big rain events that cool the water and increase the river flow can jump-start steelies, too. Rainbows usually respond accordingly then and make a mad rush to the pierheads where anglers have a ball trying to corral the rambunctious rainbows.
Pier anglers are usually the first to discover that the steelheads are in. Many a perch angler has watched as his reel sings as a sleek Skamania grabs the rig, or the rod suddenly gets yanked off the break wall by a cruising silver bullet. Anglers armed for battle with the big rainbows do well with a jumbo shrimp suspended below a slip bobber. Fishermen who have mastered the art of cast netting catch live alewives and fish them under a bobber or anchor them with a pyramid sinker for steelies. The alewives can be caught using plain gold hooks as well.
Another option is hardware. Spoons and spinners draw the wrath of ornery steelheads. Lures that feature hot red or orange seem to work the best during daylight hours. Glow-in-the-dark versions excel during low-light hours in the morning and evening.
Heavy 2/3-ounce models of Cleos, Kastmasters and K.O. Wobblers are proven producers. Hardware users need to experiment with their retrieves until they hit on the right combination. Some days you'll want to burn the lure just under the surface; other days you might want to let it flutter enticingly toward the bottom. Let the steelheads tell you which action they prefer. Go spooled with a high-quality line in the 10- to 15-pound category and a reel that has a good, smooth drag.
"In-line boards are the No. 1 tool for targeting Skamania when they're schooled near the pierheads," said Four Seasons charter Captain Bill Doak. "Divers would be a close second."
Getting lures out and away from the boat is important when targeting summer steelheads in shallow water. The average depth where the steelies can be found is 15 to 30 feet. If the lake is exceedingly warm, the rainbows may retreat to water from 40 to 60 feet deep and will position near bottom in the cooler band of water. When that happens, downriggers are another option.
The theory is that summer steelheads move into the shallows and then cruise the shoreline searching out the river where they were originally stocked. The color line, created where the river spills into the big lake, contains the chemical signature of each river. The rainbows usually take up residence in the tainted water and it's important to stitch the color line to stay into the fish.
Most Skamania between 9 and 12 pounds are 4- or 5-year-old fish. Unlike Michigan-strain steelhead that mature at 2, 3 or 4 years old, Skamania steelheads mature at age 4 or 5. If a mature fish survives to age 6 or 7, you might get a steelhead that tops 20 pounds!
Skamania seem to have an affinity for crankbaits and body baits. The hands-down favorite for summer steelheads is a Rattlin' Thin Fin in hot orange or hot red with black squiggles on it. Originally manufactured by Storm Lures, the Thin Fin is now tough to find and anglers are using an alternative called a Thin Fish.
Other crankbaits like Wiggle Warts, Hot-N-Tots, and body baits like Long A Bombers, Rapalas and Rattlin' Rouges, again in hot colors, will draw strikes from summer steelies. Be sure to beef up the treble hooks and split rings on the lures. Many an angler has endured the disappointment of losing a big steelie only to find the fish ripped the hooks off the lure. Thin flutter spoons, like Fishlanders, Dreamweavers and Silver Streaks, fished off divers produce, too. You can use any color you want -- as long as it's orange!
In small streams and rivers, spinners are a viable option. Using hardware with heavier line gives you some advantages when battling a rampaging steelhead in close quarters. You can muscle them as much as they want to be muscled with heavier line and stand a fighting chance of steering them away from snags. You can also cover plenty of water with spinners.
Once in the river, summer steelheads are sometimes starved for oxygen and then can be found schooled where cooler streams and creeks enter the main river or where springs or seeps add to the flow. The fish are often packed by the dozens into a small area and are often indifferent to anything that passes in front of the
m if the water temperatures are high. Frustrated anglers often resort to lining and snagging the fish, which is a shame, illegal and a lack of respect for such a magnificent fish. The fish can be caught. It just requires a little patience and finesse.
As summer wears on and water temperatures rise, steelhead become more concentrated near creek mouths and springs. The key then is to try different baits and presentations. The fish know where they're comfortable, so they aren't going anywhere. Try rolling spawn bags or drifting skein spawn under a bobber through the school.
Fish that are hooked will go berserk and usually scatter the rest of the school for a short period of time. Give these fish a little time to regroup, calm down and then change tactics if they ignore your standard offerings. Instead of spawn, offer the rainbows a juicy crawler or run an in-line spinner by them. Quite often, you can convince another fish or two to bite. Sometimes you have to take summer steelhead anyway you can (legally) get them!