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Find Early Steelhead in Great Lake Tributaries

Spoons, spinners, plugs and more can produce consistent action.

Find Early Steelhead in Great Lake Tributaries

Gaudy flies can often trigger aggressive responses from spring steelhead, but baitfish-imitating streamers also work well. (Shutterstock image)

Steelhead provide some of the earliest open-water fishing of the year in the Midwest. Early in March we’ll be fishing for steelhead that are already in the rivers, but thaws and rains also bring fresh steelies into Great Lakes tributaries as the month progresses. The rivers are typically very cold, but steelhead are relatively unique in that they’ll actively chase and hit lures even when the water is frigid. Choosing tributaries that already hold steelhead is key to early-spring success, as is using the right presentations to locate and ultimately catch them.

FINDING GOOD WATER

Summer steelhead, by definition, are already in the tributaries when winter starts to break. These fish ran the streams last summer and early fall and are now waiting for the water to warm to commence spawning. Meanwhile, winter-run steelhead enter the tributaries in the fall or early winter, and these fish are also found in rivers right now.

Early in the month of March, look for steelhead in the lower reaches of the rivers. As the weather and waters warm, these fish will move upstream in search of gravel runs for spawning. Your stream thermometer will tell you when to move upstream. The 40-degree mark is often the magic temperature for spawning to begin, and this is the time to fish the runs near the gravel.

Southern Lake Michigan tributaries in Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan are rivers to focus on at the beginning of the month, as these streams lure summer-run steelhead stocked by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). The Little Calumet River, Trail Creek and the St. Joseph River are all stocked with summer steelhead. Michigan shares the St. Joe with Indiana, and anglers in the Great Lakes State get first crack at the fish running this large river. Skamania-strain summer steelhead are notorious for straying from their stocked streams, so fishing nearby tributaries can also pay dividends; these areas get less fishing pressure than the planted streams.

As one would suspect, tributaries that receive winter steelhead warm from south to north in the spring, and your progression should follow suit. The Ohio tributaries of Lake Erie in Steelhead Alley are good bets for early-spring action. Like all of Michigan’s hatchery winter runs, they are stocked with smolts whose parents are wild steelhead from Michigan’s Little Manistee River. Steelhead runs in Lake Huron tributaries tend to be a bit later than those in Lake Michigan tributary rivers of the same latitude.

FIND ’EM AND FEED ’EM

After deciding which river to fish—and the specific portions of the river to target—you’ll still need to find the steelhead. Covering water is often an important part of this. Currently, many anglers like drifting a bait or beads under a float; in fact, it’s by far the most-used technique in Great Lakes tributaries. The problem with this otherwise dynamite method is that you must get your offering very close to steelhead for the fish to notice it. Going old-school and using lures, on the other hand, allows you to cover more ground and pinpoint where fish are. A great option is to pair these techniques by using lures to find scattered steelhead, then switching to drifting once you’ve pinned down a good concentration of fish.

SEARCHING WITH LURES

When fishing from a boat, it’s nothing to carry more than one rod-and-reel outfit, but it’s also possible to utilize different lure and drift-fishing setups while wading. The key is to have pre-tied leaders in your vest. When fishing lures, it’s important to match the lure with the water, and tying a black duo-lock snap to the end of your line allows for quickly switching lures to match conditions.

For example, a brass No. 3 spinner might be perfect for most of the runs you encounter, but for a much deeper hole, you’ll want a heavier silver No. 5 spinner. If you had to cut and retie, you might try and get by with the smaller spinner instead of switching. Or, at the very least, you’d lose valuable fishing time retying whenever you face conditions requiring a swap.

While drift-fishing is a game of inches, lures can attract steelhead from several feet away. Contrary to popular belief, getting your lure deep and on the bottom is not the best plan when fishing lures. Steelhead look forward and up as they navigate the river, so you want to retrieve your lure a foot or so above the substrate. Keep your first retrieve a bit high, then run it a bit deeper on subsequent casts. Follow the same plan when casting near a log or other cover in the stream. Once you snag up, you’ve likely ruined the spot.




Spinners

Spinners are especially effective when fishing moving water. They spin (and produce action) at very slow speeds, and you can cast them in any direction or at any angle to the current. When casting downstream, start and stop the retrieve to keep the spinner down, or make a short cast and then back the spinner downstream at a slightly slower rate than the current. If you want to cover water, casting a spinner across and slightly downstream, then allowing it to sweep back across the flow, works great. Casting upstream and retrieving it back is even an option. Here, it may seem like the lure is moving too fast when reeled with the current, but remember that fish are swimming in and aided by this same current.

Spoons

As with spinners, you can also cast and retrieve spoons. In fact, because they’re generally heavier, they’ll cast farther than spinners and stay down better when swept against the current. The only drawback is that they must be retrieved faster to produce action.

Plugs and Crankbaits

While you can similarly cast and retrieve plugs or crankbaits, often they are instead backed downstream from a position above the suspected holding water at a rate slower than the current. This method allows the lure to wobble enticingly as it enters the territory of the holding steelhead. Be prepared for some very hard strikes, as these fish don’t take kindly to a wobbling lure in their face. Unless you’re fishing an area of very slow current, casting a plug upstream usually isn’t a good plan. It’s often difficult to get the lure wobbling in the current and to keep it deep enough to entice a strike.

Recommended


Streamers

Fly anglers can swing or sweep streamers in much the same way lure anglers present their offerings. Flies can imitate baitfish or just be a gaudy intruder. In most cases, a floating line with a weighted streamer and a sinking fluorocarbon leader work. In deeper water, employ sink tips. As with conventional lure presentations, you’ll want to swing your fly near but not on the bottom. Add action with twitches, especially near the end of the sweep.

DRIFTING WITH FLOATS

Once you’ve found some steelhead with lures, you can rejoin the vast majority of Great Lakes steelheaders and switch to drift-fishing with floats. If you are floating via boat, your float rod is rigged and ready. If you’re a wading angler, you’ll need a leader board in your vest with a loop on one end and terminal gear on the other. You’ll also need to carry floats, sinkers, hooks and beads or other lures for drifting. When swapping from lures to a float rig, just take your lure off the duo-lock snap and hang the leader loop on it.

As before, the goal with this new setup is to present your bead or other offering near but not on bottom. Some trial and error will be necessary in positioning the float to suspend your offering at just the right depth. However, once you fine-tune it, the rig can be incredibly productive.

If you’re fishing shallow, clear water, ensure that the bead leads the way downstream with the float trailing slightly. This is tricky given that the friction of the substrate will slow the current near the bottom when compared to the surface, but you need to maintain this positioning. To do so, you’ll often need to slow or “check” the drift of the float to keep the bead in the lead. A float with a clear or white bottom that blends in with the sky makes this a little less critical, but it’s still advisable.

EARLY ACTION

Spring seems like it’s always slow to arrive, especially in many of the Great Lakes states. Thankfully, you don’t have to wait for the lakes to ice out before making your first open-water casts of the season. Steelhead will chase down various lures in 32-degree water, and they will already be present in many Great Lakes tributaries.

Remember that steelhead need cover and something to break the current as they head upstream. The current guides them, but they still need regular breaks from the flow. When the current blocker also provides cover, you have a great resting spot for a migrating steelhead. If you can find these areas, then present a lure or a drifted bait properly, you might experience one of the best battles in all of freshwater fishing.


  • This article was featured in the April 2023 Game & Fish magazine. How to subscribe.

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