October 04, 2010
Inshore and stream fishing for hard-fighting steelhead trout comes on strong at Trail Creek, Michigan City and other prime areas all along our Great Lake's shoreline.
By Tom Berg
The afternoon sun glistened on the lake's surface as we trolled past the mouth of Burns Waterway. We were less than a half-mile offshore of the creek's mouth, and most of the action that we had been enjoying during the course of the afternoon was right in this vicinity. There was a slight breeze from the south and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. It was a gorgeous day!
My friend, Mike, was piloting the boat, while I took a turn manning the rods at the stern. I had just reeled in one of the downrigger lines and replaced the dodger-and-fly combination with an odd-colored spoon. It was almost yellow, but not quite. It had more of a metallic-chartreuse hue. We affectionately called it "monkey puke," and it had been a hot color on some of our recent outings.
I let the spoon out about 40 feet behind the boat and then clipped the line to the downrigger weight. As the heavy weight took the lure down into the strike zone, I wondered if the off- color lure would be lucky today. Only time would tell. Within minutes, a fish slammed the spoon. The rod buckled over and the drag screamed.
We had a total of eight other rods set, so I was very surprised that the lure I had just reset was the one that was hit. Tony, one of the other anglers on board, quickly grabbed the rod and the battle was on!
Tony had only cranked the reel's handle a half-dozen times when the fish came rocketing out of the water. It was bright silver and looked like it was an 8- or 9-pound steelhead. It landed with a shower of spray and then leaped again. Everyone on board was yelling and shouting as it cleared the water a third time. This was getting exciting!
Large Skamania-strain steelhead like this one are often caught within a few feet of the surface at this time of year. Photo by Tom Berg
After the third jump, the fish sped off toward the starboard side of the boat at an amazing speed. Within seconds, it had caught up to the boat and was threatening to pass us on that side. The fish had crossed one of the lines on that side, so I frantically unwrapped the line by weaving the rod around Tony as he fought the fish.
Soon he had his steelhead up to the stern, but it was coming in right at the corner where he was standing! I couldn't get into the corner to net the fish because he was in my way, and he couldn't hear me yelling at him because he was too busy concentrating on fighting the fish.
I finally pushed him back a little and wormed my way in, and he moved back far enough for me to get the net in position. Unfortunately, the fish was twisting and turning about 2 feet below the surface, just out of netting range. I told Tony to lift the rod to bring him to the surface, and I finally slipped the net under the thrashing fish. It was a harrowing fight, but Tony prevailed.
That's typical of summer steelhead fishing. Sometimes the hot bite takes place in the morning, while at other times the fish continue biting all day long. The fish are always energetic and full of spunk, though, and since Tony's fish was only about an 8-pounder, you can just imagine what it would be like to hook up with one twice that size. Fish in excess of 16 pounds are not uncommon during the summer Skamania run.
WHAT IS A SKAMANIA?
If you've never seen a Skamania, you should make a point of fishing for them this year. This species is truly unforgettable. A Skamania is a type of steelhead trout that begins its spawning run in the summertime rather than in the fall. Indiana currently stocks two types of steelhead into Lake Michigan and its tributaries: Skamania-strain and Michigan-strain steelhead.
In appearance, Skamanias are long and slender, while the Michigan-strain fish are usually shorter and more football shaped. Both types of fish are chrome-bright when they begin their spawning runs, and they each develop a red or pink stripe on their flanks as the run progresses. Skamanias also tend to jump more than any other salmon or trout when hooked, which makes them one of the most exciting freshwater fish to catch.
Skamania-strain steelhead originally came to Hoosier waters from the West Coast, where they had evolved over eons into a summer-run species. Indiana fisheries biologists brought the fish here to provide a nearshore summer fishery for salmonids when almost all of the action for "silver fish" was far offshore.
Since the other species of salmon and trout make their spawning runs in the fall, a summer-run species would fill this gap very nicely. Adult Skamania-strain steelhead begin returning to their native creeks and streams as early as mid-June in most years, although some of the biggest migrations usually take place in July. Actual spawning does not occur in the streams until the following spring, but early-returning Skamanias nonetheless provide excellent summer fishing for Hoosier anglers.
Indiana biologists stock fingerling Skamania steelhead in the spring when they are about 1 year old. After they are released, the young fish move out into the main lake and grow for two or three years before they return to the streams to take part in their own spawning runs. Since adult steelhead do not die after spawning like their Pacific salmon cousins, they can make more than one run at the spawning streams. Some fish survive life's perils long enough to spawn again in their fifth and sixth years.
However, most Skamanias return to the streams as 3- to 5-year-old adults, and the bulk of the fish are usually 4-year-olds. The difference in age explains why some July steelhead weigh 8 pounds, while others weigh 18 pounds. They can get even bigger than that, too. The Indiana state-record steelhead is a Skamania weighing more than 26 pounds, which was caught from Trail Creek in 1999 by Evan Nicholson.
The 4-year-old fish that head for the creek mouths this summer were stocked in the spring and fall of 2001. According to stocking records from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), more than 183,000 Skamania-strain steelhead were stocked in Trail Creek and the Little Calumet River (Burns Waterway) during that time period. When you add the 3-year-olds (stocked in 2000) and 5-year-olds (2001 stocking) that will likely join those fish, the number grows to more than 400,000 feisty Skamanias.
The successful stockings have continued, too. In 2003, the DNR reported that a total of 125,902 Skamanias were released in the spring stocking, and an additional 100,402 fish were added in the fall. That does not even include the 82,000-plus Michigan-strain steelhead that were stocked in December of 2003.
Although it is never easy to predict fish behavior or fishing success, the stocking numbers indicate that the 2004 summer run should be a good one. Brian Breidert, one of the Lake Michigan DNR fisheries biologists, reports that there shouldn't be any surprises during the upcoming steelhead season. "It will depend a great deal on precipitation and how the weather patterns for the summer develop," he said, "but steelhead fishing this year should be consistent with a normal year."
Weather is always a major factor in July steelhead fishing. Even though Skamanias are summer-run fish, they are still a coldwater species. If the nearshore waters are too warm, they will stay offshore where there is plenty of cool water. Along our Indiana coastline, south winds push the warm surface water out to the offshore reaches, causing an upwelling effect that pushes cool water close to shore to replace it.
The cooler water signals the waiting steelhead to start staging in front of the creek mouths for their spawning run. "If we get three or four days of sustained south winds," Breidert said, "we will have excellent fishing. The weather is the key. If we only have one or two days of south winds, the action is usually hit or miss." As soon as there is a good rain, the staging fish push upstream very quickly.
Michigan City is a perennial hotspot for Indiana's Skamania steelhead anglers. Trail Creek empties into Lake Michigan at Washington Park, and since this creek is one of the main Skamania stocking sites, the entire surrounding area attracts plenty of returning fish in the summer months. Steelhead are not the only creatures that are attracted, however. Fishermen flock here in great numbers, too.
When the fish first appear in mid-June or early July, boaters will troll for them anywhere from a couple of miles offshore of the pier head all the way to the mouth of the creek itself. They also spread out along the shoreline to the east and west, intercepting cruising steelhead as they go.
While trollers ply the waters around the mouth of the creek and just offshore, the pier at Washington Park is the No. 1 fishing spot for shore-anglers. Trail Creek flows past the pier on the west side, and many fishermen prefer to fish right in the creek's current. Others fish the east side of the pier, especially when the weather cooperates.
Mike Ryan, one of the officers of the Northwest Indiana Steelheaders fishing club, likes to fish both sides of the pier. "I had a couple of days last year when I limited out on one side, then the next day I limited on the other side," he said. You just never know where the hot action will be.
"The steelhead fishing on the pier was great in early July," Ryan said. "We did very well early in the morning on some days, but on other days, the action wouldn't start until 10 a.m., or not until midday. I remember one day as I was leaving for home and I was walking off the pier, the guys who were still fishing started hooking fish one after another."
Although many anglers cast fluorescent orange spoons and spinners, one of the hot new baits for summer steelhead is fresh shrimp. "I use raw shrimp in the summertime," Ryan said. "Get raw shrimp that are a little bigger than popcorn shrimp; a pound usually lasts me about a week." Peel the shell off and leave just the tail. Then suspend the shrimp under a bobber and hold on!
Besides the pier, fishermen also try their luck right in the harbor at Michigan City. The steelhead must pass through the harbor on their way up the creek, so it is a good place to fish.
THE PORTAGE AREA
The mouth of the Little Calumet River, or Burns Waterway in Portage, is another great place to fish for steelhead. Like Trail Creek, the Little Calumet also receives a large steelhead stocking every year, so returning fish seek the creek mouth each July.
The best way to fish the Portage area is by boat. There are a couple of marinas on Burns Waterway where you may launch your craft, and then it is just a short run north to the mouth of the creek. Once you hit the lake, you can troll east or west in the shallow water along the beach, or you can head straight out into the lake and troll the 40- to 60-foot depths. Some anglers prefer to head east toward the rocky breakwall that protects the Port of Indiana. Boats are prohibited from entering the port, but they can still troll along the outer walls.
Normally, the fish show up in Portage around the Fourth of July and stage for a couple of weeks before heading upstream. During very dry years, the fish might stick around for three or four weeks, and then anglers experience fantastic trolling action. It's not always that easy, though.
Steelhead anglers who routinely troll the Portage area had a difficult season last summer. July started with very dry weather, but then the rains came. It seemed like there were torrential rains every few days until about the last week of July. Fishing reports at the end of the month said that there were lots of steelhead in the stream, but very few cruising the stream mouth out in the lake. Most of the steelhead had run up the creek without stopping.
One of the most popular steelhead lures used by Portage fishermen is a large fluorescent red spoon. It's not just big, it's really big. Some trollers run it deep with downriggers, while others let it probe the near-surface waters on a flat line. This type of spoon catches lots of fish every year, too. Other productive lures here include smaller trolling spoons (silver and orange) and fluorescent orange crankbaits and plugs.
LOW-WATER STREAM STEELHEAD
Even though we did have some good rains last summer, the water level of the lake is still very low. Normally, we have heavy rains in October and November, too, but they just didn't come last year. As a result, the lake and the streams are low. Most likely, it will take a number of years of wetter-than-usual weather to bring things back to normal.
The low water over the last few years has had a pretty big effect on stream fishing, too, and it isn't changing for the better yet. The streams are low, but the worst thing is that many of the good holes are getting silted in and are disappearing. As a result, it is becoming harder and harder to fish the streams and find productive water.
Successful fishermen are able to adapt to change, though, and many fishermen have been finding new places to fish recently. According to Mike Ryan, some of these spots are still in the streams, but closer to the lake. "I think a lot of the guys found better fishing in the lower stretches of the streams, since the water was so low in the upper stretches," he said. "They found that the fish had backed into the lower stretches and they were easier to catch there."
There are still fish in the shallow places upstream, though. To catch these fish you must be willing to stalk them carefully and use a subtle approach to keep from spooking them. Small flies, tiny spinners and miniature live baits are productive. You may also find that you have to walk longer dista
nces between holes to find the fish.
Regardless of where you fish, Indiana's Skamania-strain steelhead are among the hardest-fighting fish in fresh water. They hit harder, run faster and jump higher than any other fish in Indiana. Give them a try this year and find out for yourself!
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Indiana Game & Fish