More good summer steelhead action is on tap for anglers plying the waters of Lake Michigan and the St. Joseph River.
Photo by Dick Swan
Summertime is Skamania time here in northern Indiana. This is the time of year that tackle-busting Skamania-strain steelhead enter the shallows of Lake Michigan and begin heading up the creeks and streams on their annual spawning run. This creates a real bonanza for anglers who are anxious to catch one of these trophy-sized fish. Mature Skamania average 8 to 12 pounds, and often push the scales to 15 or even 20 pounds.
For those anglers who are not familiar with Skamania, or even steelhead in general for that matter, the explanation is not complicated. A Lake Michigan steelhead is simply a rainbow trout that spends the bulk of its life out in the lake, and then returns to its stream of birth to spawn. Presently, Indiana stocks two types of steelhead into Lake Michigan and its tributaries: Skamania-strain and Michigan-strain steelhead.
Skamania-strain steelhead are a particular strain of trout that begin their spawning run in the summer rather than in the fall. Once they enter the streams, they typically stay there throughout the summer, fall and winter, and finally spawn the following spring. After spawning, they return downstream to the lake.
Skamania are fairly easy to identify. They are long and slender, while their Michigan-strain cousins are usually shorter, fatter and more football-shaped. Both types of steelhead are bright silver when they begin their spawning runs, and they each develop a pink stripe on their flanks as the run progresses. Skamania are the biggest members of the family, and that helps make them the most popular as well.
Despite some reports to the contrary, natural reproduction of steelhead in Indiana is negligible. Even though our streams are much cleaner than they were decades ago, they are still just too warm and turbid for successful reproduction. Even when eggs do hatch successfully, warm water during the summer usually kills off the fragile fingerlings. That makes stocking larger fish essential for maintaining a quality fishery.
In order to ensure good survival rates, Indiana fisheries biologists stock fingerling Skamania steelhead in the spring when they are about a year old. At this age the fish are typically about 7 inches long and survival rates are high. After they are released, the young steelhead migrate downstream to the lake and grow for two or three years before they return to the streams to spawn.
The bulk of the steelhead that return during the summer run are 3-year-old and 4-year-old fish. The 4-year-old steelies that will be hitting the stream mouths this summer were stocked in the spring of 2002. According to stocking records from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), more than 126,000 Skamania-strain steelhead were stocked in Trail Creek and the Little Calumet River in the spring of 2002. Another 52,181 Skamania were stocked in the fall of that year, also.
When you take into account the fish that were stocked into the St. Joseph River, the numbers really soar. There were 178,903 Skamania-strain steelhead stocked into the St. Joe in the spring of 2002, along with nearly 88,000 added in the fall. The totals for 2002 alone come to more than 445,000 Skamania, and that doesn't count the fish stocked in 2001 or 2003, which will also contribute to the overall catch this year.
Luckily for anglers, the successful steelhead stockings have continued year after year. In 2004, the DNR reported a total of 125,071 Skamania were released in the spring stocking at Trail Creek and the Little Calumet River, and an additional 62,841 fish were added in the fall. At the St. Joe, the spring and fall stocking efforts resulted in another 237,309 Skamania-strain steelhead.
Although it sounds like there are lots of fish out there, where are the best places for Hoosiers to fish for Skamania-strain steelhead right now? Based upon where the fish are stocked, the answers are not hard to predict. Read on to find out exactly where these spots are.
THE ST. JOSEPH RIVER
The Indiana portion of the St. Joseph River did not always host steelhead and salmon runs. The river empties into Lake Michigan at Benton Harbor/St. Joseph, Michigan, and before any migrating fish could get upstream to Indiana, dams in Michigan stopped them. Fish ladders were constructed by both states in the 1980s so that fish could bypass the dams, and by 1992, steelhead were entering the Indiana waters of the St. Joe.
Our section of the river (between the Michigan border and the Twin Branch Dam in Mishawaka) has been a steelhead hotspot ever since the last fish ladder was completed in 1991; the fish ladder allows steelhead to migrate a full 63 miles upstream from Lake Michigan.
Summer steelhead angling on the St. Joe is a unique endeavor. When the weather is cool and the water temperature is below 70 degrees, the trout are active and the fishing can be fantastic. During normal years, however, the heat of summer often raises the water temperature to 75 or 80 degrees (or even higher), and steelhead activity shuts down.
Although Skamania are a summer-run fish, they are still a coldwater species. Water temperatures above 70 degrees adversely affect them, and fishermen find that the best time to pursue them is early and late in the day when temperatures are a little lower.
Steelhead fishing guide Josh Lantz
(www.rippleguideservice.com) fishes the St. Joe regularly; he knows that water temperatures are extremely important. "The main stream of the St. Joe routinely gets up above 80 degrees," he said. "That's about 15 to 20 degrees warmer than those fish would like to have it. Anything above 70 degrees puts them into a pretty serious state of stress."
When the water temperature goes up, steelhead look for cool spots to rest. "Steelhead will find any little tributary that runs into the river that's a few degrees cooler than the main stream, and that's where all of the fish will be," Lantz explained. "The creek mouths are the places to start for summer-run steelhead in the St. Joe River. Only a couple of degrees can make a big difference."
One of the nice things about the St. Joe is that it is big enough to accommodate both shore-anglers and boat-fishermen in large numbers. The river is wide and deep in many places, and there are logjams and root wads and undercut banks where the fish can find plenty of hiding places.
One of the more popular spots to find these hidden fish is off what is called the Isaak Walton League property, on the north side of South Bend. Unfortunately, you can only reach it by boat unless you are
an Isaak Walton League member. That's also where Juday Creek enters the river. Steelhead will often hold right at the creek mouth or just downstream from it.
Another good spot to fish is at the Frank Zappia access site, located just downstream of the Twin Branch dam at Mishawaka. According to Josh Lantz, "There's a lot of great structure there. There's an island in the middle of the river, and when you have cool temperatures, the structure really holds the fish." Eller Ditch also enters the river's right bank here, which also draws fish.
Fishing guides like Lantz are hoping for another summer just like the one we had in 2004. "We had a great summer run last year," he said. "It was probably the best summer run of steelhead that we've had on the St. Joe in six or seven years, easily. We had mild temperatures all summer long, and we had good rainfall."
Those are the two main factors for good summer steelhead fishing. The rainfall brings the fish into the river, and the cooler temps keep them moving around. Of course, that doesn't happen every year, but if we get a weather pattern this summer like we had last year, the steelhead fishing will be excellent.
OTHER SMALL CREEKS
The St. Joseph River is not the only place to catch inland steelhead in the summertime. Some of our smaller creeks provide very good action, too. Trail Creek in Michigan City gets an excellent summer Skamania run every year. It's easy to see why, since Trail Creek is one of the annual steelhead stocking sites for the DNR.
The Little Calumet River is one of the other spots that are stocked with steelhead every year, so it also receives large numbers of returning steelhead. The Little Calumet (also called Burns Waterway where it enters Lake Michigan) breaks into smaller creeks as you travel upstream, and some of these provide good steelhead fishing, too. Salt Creek is one of those feeder creeks; Coffee Creek is another.
For steelhead anglers who enjoy the small stream experience, these smaller creeks are the way to go. There is no room for a lot of anglers at each hole, and there certainly is not room for boats in most of these areas. But the solitude and good fishing make these spots unforgettable.
Small creeks do offer a distinct challenge for fishermen. If you hook a Skamania-strain steelhead in these small tributaries, it is often very difficult to land the fish. Most stretches of water are littered with logs, submerged timber and fallen trees. Logjams and tree roots are everywhere. As soon as a fish is hooked, it usually heads straight for the nearest logjam and swims underneath it. Broken lines and lost lures are the rule, not the exception. But that's all part of the fun!
Creek and river fishermen use a wide variety of baits to catch steelhead in the summer. Anglers who prefer artificial lures often use in-line spinners as their go-to bait. Spinners with fluorescent orange blades are among the most popular colors, but silver, gold and chartreuse are good, too. Small crankbaits are also productive. Flyfishermen will use a broad assortment of streamers, nymphs and other flies to hook their share of steelhead.
Live-bait anglers will use a mixed bag of natural baits to tempt their quarry. Small spawn sacs, night crawlers, minnows and raw shrimp are just a few of the natural baits that catch Skamania-strain steelhead every summer.
Although stream and river fishing appeals to many anglers, it is not for everyone. Some people, especially boat owners, would rather launch their boat on Lake Michigan and troll for steelhead. Luckily for them, trolling action for summer-run Skamania is often excellent.
Two of the most productive areas to troll for July steelhead out on the main lake are the mouth of Burns Waterway (the Little Calumet River) in Portage and the mouth of Trail Creek at Michigan City. Since both of these Lake Michigan tributaries are stocked annually with steelhead, large numbers of fish gather at these areas prior to making their actual spawning runs.
A small rocky breakwater on an otherwise sandy shoreline marks the mouth of Burns Waterway. Trolling anglers will work the area right in front of the mouth in the hopes of catching steelhead that are milling about and staging there. They'll also troll either east or west along the shallow beach areas.
When fish become finicky or the sun forces the trout to move out a little deeper, it is a good idea to troll straight out away from the mouth into water that is 40 to 50 feet deep. Summer steelhead often retreat to those cooler, darker depths during the midday hours. Those anglers who follow them can keep catching fish.
Another strategy is to troll out from the mouth of the creek and head east toward the corner of the breakwall around the Port of Indiana. The water quickly drops to about 45 feet when you get offshore from the mouth, and it stays relatively constant as you near the port. Boats are prohibited from entering the port, but they can still troll along the outer walls.
At Michigan City, Trail Creek empties into Lake Michigan right at Washington Park. When the steelies first begin appearing at the end of June or early July, trollers often fish for them right in front of the pier head at the mouth of the creek. If the fishing action is slow there, they spread out along the beach to the east and west and pick up cruising steelhead in the shallows.
Early in the season, the best trolling action can take place a little farther offshore of the pier head. Boaters working a mile or two off the mouth can expect good action, either right near the surface or down deep. Experimentation goes a long way when it comes to finding actively feeding steelhead.
Pier-fishing at Washington Park for shoreline anglers is always popular. Trail Creek flows past the pier on the west side, and many fishermen fish right there in the muddy current. Bobbers of all sizes are used to suspend the baits and keep them in the strike zone.
Although many pier-anglers cast the "old reliable" fluorescent orange spinners and spoons, live-bait fishing is also quite productive. Spawn sacs, night crawlers and small minnows also catch good numbers of steelhead each summer season.
During normal years, Skamania will show up at Michigan City and Portage in early July and stage in front of the creek mouths for a couple of weeks before heading upstream. If the rains wait until the beginning of August, the trolling action will remain hot. If the rains come too early, however, the Skamania may shoot up the stream and the trollers (and pier fishermen) may not even see a fish!
With the growing popularity of catch-and-release fishing, stream steelhead anglers should be aware of one of the dangers of releasing fish during the summer. Since steelhead become stressed when water temps rise above the 70-degree range, mortality is high among fish released during these warm-water conditions. Most fish just won't survive, even if released quickly.
If you plan to keep
your catch, higher water temperatures are not a problem. But conservation-minded anglers who always release their fish might want to reconsider fishing for steelhead when the water temperature rises. Or they might want to fish other areas where the water is cooler.
Certainly, the water off the creek mouths in Lake Michigan itself is usually cooler than 70 degrees at this time of year, so a location change might be a good idea. Trail Creek rarely gets above 70 degrees in July because it is spring-fed and there is more tree cover and vegetation along the shoreline, so it is another good bet for catch-and-release minded anglers.
Bring along a small thermometer to test the water temperature where you are fishing. When you find cooler water, you will be able to catch and release fish with confidence they'll survive to possibly be taken another day!