Inshore enthusiasts can catch their fill of hard-charging steelhead trout right now all along Indiana's portion of our Great Lake. Here's where you should try!
By Mike Schoonveld
Scotty pulled an unused rod from its storage berth and started rigging it. "What are you going to do with that one?" I asked. We already had what would have been a full complement of lines set out on my boat, with downrigger sets and diving planers to position lures into the cool subsurface water under the thermocline. I couldn't see any need, or any place, to add another lure to our setup.
"This is going to be a bonus rig. If it doesn't work, we aren't out anything. If it works, we're going to be hooked up to a nice Skamania," he said. Scotty chose one of his custom-made orange steelhead spoons for the rig's lure and set it out using an in-line planer board to pull the spoon wide from the boat's trolling path.
It was July, and Scott Usher (maker of Scotty Flies and Scotty Spoons) and I were out for an evening trip on Lake Michigan on his boat. We'd been friends for several years, but just last summer started trading fishing trips on each other's boats. Both of us are long-time veterans on the big lake, but our trip swapping was a new twist and a valuable learning experience for both of us.
Each of us has our Great Lake trolling gear set up a little different. Each of us uses similar techniques, but since we were both self-taught, for the most part, we each did things with enough difference that our presentations weren't 100 percent identical. Most tactics were similar, however, and on most days the minor inconsistencies between my way and Scotty's way wouldn't make a whit of difference to the fish. Still, there are those days when the fish are being stubborn or finicky and a little tweak to a presentation can be the difference between boom and bust. Often the minor tweak we used was to adopt the lessons we'd learned from one another.
Bonus Skamanias, like these two, can be taken in the deeper offshore waters all summer long. They are a fine bonus to your catch. Photo by Mike Schoonveld
The addition of this bonus rig was a big difference between our methods, however. The surface water of the lake that day was 74 degrees and the cohos and chinook we were targeting were hovering no closer to the surface than 50 feet. That's where temperature-probing instruments showed readings in the lower 50-degree mark or less and that's where experience told me to expect to find the salmon and trout. The only way to get one of these coldwater lovers to move up into the warm zone was to hook onto it with a rod and reel and pull it toward the top. I didn't think positioning a lure at the surface would do much more than provide entertainment for us as we watched the in-line planer skip across the small waves.
Scotty was right about one thing. The planer pulled the lure way wide of the boat and really didn't get in the way of anything. The deep lines were producing a steady bite on summer cohos ranging up to 7 pounds and the side line didn't even threaten a tangle. But I still considered it a wasted effort.
My mind changed an hour later when the rod tip arched over, the yellow bird scooted backward and a split second later, a silver torpedo shot skyward from the nearly calm surface. I'd seen it hundreds of times before in the nearshore areas off Burns Waterway in Portage and near Michigan City's Trail Creek outflow when shallow-running lures lip-sting staging Skamanias. I was surprised to see it happen with a lure moving through tepid water 10 miles out in the lake.
Anything can happen once, but when it happens more than once, it's something of a pattern; and, in fact, it happened twice more before we nosed Scotty's boat up on plane for the long ride back to port, though only two of the three Skamanias that hit were boated. We had a great catch of cohos - just what we were after - but the two steelhead in the fish cooler added significantly to the heft of the cooler and were definitely the trophy catches for the day.
Adding a line or two out to the side of the boat when far offshore was a tactic I learned from Scotty. I used it while on my own boat the rest of the summer. Some days the tactic was unproductive, other days it produced strikes from fish I'm confident would have been passed it by otherwise.
Under analysis, the concept makes sense for several reasons. Skamania steelhead are proven wanderers. Fin clips (where hatchery workers snip off one or more fins before the fish are stocked to allow the fish to be identified later in life) show Indiana-stocked Skamanias are caught all over Lake Michigan. They don't just stay near Indiana for their entire lives or even restrict themselves to the southern end of the lake. In the four or five years it takes for them to mature, they may range all the way to the northern end of the lake, more than 300 miles from their stocking site.
Most of their travels appear to follow distinct breaks in the lake's surface temperature since anglers fishing "scum lines" make many of the north-lake catches. Scum lines are areas where warm currents abut cooler ones and debris tends to collect along the boundary. The debris along the scum line often includes feathers, Styrofoam cups, driftwood and insects. Not just a few insects, but millions of insects. True to a steelhead's rainbow trout heritage, insects are high on their list of preferred foods. Scum-line anglers often see the swirls of feeding steelies just like you've probably seen the wakes of insect-feeding bluegills in a farm pond.
Scum-line action is most reliable in the northern reaches of the lake where the water is deeper and takes more time to heat up in the summer sun. Anglers there sometimes report more action on the cold side of the temperature break and sometimes more on the warm side. Perhaps that has to do with the number of bugs floating on one side or the other.
It's long been known that Skamania steelhead have a wider temperature comfort range than salmon. Perhaps the steelhead Scotty and I tangled with last summer were simply fish that had developed a lifelong affinity for temperatures on the high side of normal or a mindset that told them to search for food near the surface.
But was it a fluke that had us encounter those Skamania steelhead far offshore in Lake Michigan? I don't think so.
The story of Indiana's nearshore Skamania action is almost 20 years old now. The success has even coined a specific term for the fishing action that occurs in midsummer: Skamania-Mania. This strain of fish is specifically bred to start its spawning run in midsummer instead of in the fall and winter as its wild ancestors did. Indiana's big-lake anglers have learned to fish for Skamanias in midsummer in nearshore areas adjacent to the tributaries where Skamanias are stocked. These are proven areas where Skamanias stage before they
funnel into the streams and migrate upstream on their spawning run.
It's also a familiar story for nearshore Skamania fishing to be hot one day and not so hot the next. Sometimes the nearshore fish do head on up their spawning stream. Most of the time, they just disappear from the shallows only to return a few days, or maybe a few weeks, later. If they don't swim upstream, the only other place they could have gone is away from shore, farther out into the lake.
Twenty years ago, when Indiana started this winning project, the offshore waters were almost off-limits to most sport anglers. The big charter boats could head out for deep water safely and did so regularly, along with a few well-equipped fishermen with upscale cabin cruisers. Yet few of the trailerable boats of the day were built for the rugged conditions and long hauls out to the depths.
That was the main impetus for Indiana's fisheries managers to experiment with Skamania-strain fish. Indiana had great spring fishing for salmon when the fish were in close to shore and good fall fishing when the mature salmon came home to spawn, but few salmon venture close to shore during the summer months when the lake often features calm waves, shirt-sleeve temperatures and comfortable fishing. The goal was to introduce a fish to fill in the summer void.
Since then, sturdy boats with reliable power plants and affordable sticker prices are made by dozens of manufacturers. With the advent of affordable Global Positioning System (GPS) units to get fishermen to the fish and back to shore with ease, the offshore haunts where Indiana's salmon go for the summer are no longer out of reach. Anglers from Hoosier ports need never put up their boats during the season.
If the Skamanias are schooled up nearshore, that's great. If not, the day isn't a bust. A boat ride out to where the salmon can be found may be just a few miles away. That's exactly why Scotty and I were out there that afternoon. Reports from morning anglers showed very few Skamanias in the shallows, but the same guys found cohos 10 miles offshore at specific latitude and longitude numbers we could easily steer to using our own GPS unit.
Unlike their big-lake cousins, chinook and coho salmon - which stop feeding prior to making their spawning run - Skamanias actively feed until they actually ascend into the streams. Add this all together and the result is thousands of actively feeding steelhead heading ever closer to Indiana's shores over most of the summer months. Put some lures in the zone where they will spot them and hang on for excitement.
Perhaps it's those Skamanias that are tuned into slurping bugs off the surface that the bonus lines intercept. Perhaps it's just the natural proclivity for steelhead to occupy the upper strata of the water column. Most anglers don't really care why; they are just happy for the chance to hook up with these gamesters at a place few ever thought to look for them previously.
IT'S STILL ORANGE Skamaniacs, as die-hard Hoosier steelheaders are called, will sometimes debate which sort of lure will best tempt a steelhead. Some swear by spoons, while others go with spinners. There's a large contingent that use mostly hard-bodied plugs. Most anglers will use some of each. All will agree, however, that regardless of the kind of lure being fished, those painted predominantly fluorescent red or orange will outproduce any other color about 99 percent of the time. No one knows the reason for steelhead to relish these gaudy colors above all others. Visibility has little to do with it. Most of the time water clarity in the summer months is excellent. There's just something about a brilliant orange lure fluttering or wobbling through the water that yells, "bite me" to a steelhead.
The same pattern holds offshore, as well, when steelhead are cruising up toward the surface. Certainly positioning a silver, purple, green or other color of lure in the top 25 feet or so of the water column will warrant the occasional strike, but when you are setting for fish scattered over the wide expanse of the open lake, it makes more sense to offer lures in the color pattern known to elicit the most strikes.
Probably because of the way water acts as a color filter when sunlight penetrates into the depths, the bright orange- and red-colored lures don't tempt Skamanias as reliably when the lures are angled deep in the water column. As light passes through water, the colors at the top portion of the visible spectrum are absorbed or filtered out. (Look at a rainbow or the colors refracted by a prism. You'll see red and orange at the top, followed by yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.) Once all the red part of the spectrum is filtered out, there's no more red light left to reflect off a red- colored lure. To a fish more than 15 feet deep then, a red lure will appear to be black.
A bright orange or red lure lowered down to the cool water where the cohos, chinook or lake trout are hanging will catch fish, but silver, chrome, pearl and other colors are often better producers. All of these colors will tempt any deep-holding steelhead as well. In short, rely on the red/orange lures nearshore and in shallow areas. Use lures that are working best for kings and cohos down deep and count on them to nab their share of the deep-cruising Skamanias as well.
The standard mix of lures deep-water anglers use includes spoons and dodgers, followed by trolling flies. Often the dodger/fly sets will outproduce spoons; it's easy to get into a pattern and totally rely on it to work every time. Skamanias will belt a dodger-and-fly setup on occasion, but spoons characteristically seduce their share of the summer steelhead and other species as well. Don't ever get caught without one or more spoons mixed into the array of lures under the boat if you want to optimize your chances for a mixed bag.
Though the big steelhead may enjoy feasting on bugs, they didn't grow to double-digit sizes by nibbling on insects. Steelhead can and do forage on the same bait, primarily alewives, that produce a pound-per-month growth rate in Lake Michigan salmon.
Like salmon, alewives are cool- water-loving fish. When the heat of summer warms the upper layer of the lake, alewives will school up deep at or below the thermocline. Skamanias looking for a real meat dinner readily dive down to the depths and co-mingle with the salmon.
I wish the Skamanias would school up as the cohos do in their offshore haunts. They don't. When a coho bites, it's a sure bet there are other cohos in the vicinity and savvy anglers know to mark the area with their GPS so they can make repeated passes through the hotspot before moving on in search of more fish. When a Skamania bites offshore, the next one may be only a minute away or it might be a couple miles to the next fish you find.
Since it's so random, most offshore anglers don't worry about targeting a specific area for steelhead. They hope to mark baitfish schools down deep on their sonar units and punch in waypoints whenever they find an active school of salmon. The same baitfish the salmon are slamming might have a steelhead lurking nearby, so the best rationale is to wait for the next bite and just see what it is. Most fish taken will probably
be spunky salmon, perhaps a chinook or even a lake trout. Some of the time, however, it will be one of Indiana's own Skamanias coming home, fully mature and sure to give a memorable battle for the lucky angler wielding the rod.
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