Lake Michigan's Offshore Steelhead On Cue

When the dog days of summer warm Lake Michigan's inshore hotspots, pockets of cooler, deeper water can serve as steelhead magnets. Here's how to tap the offshore advantage this summer!

Though many anglers target chinooks during the summer months, steelhead are common on Lake Michigan. Combined, the Wisconsin and Michigan departments of natural resources stock more than 800,000 steelhead here every year.
Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

Charter captains affectionately refer to the north-central portion of Lake Michigan as "bird land." It's here that upwellings, wind, current and temperature breaks form scum lines that attract steelhead. Nomadic rainbows from all over the lake are drawn to the cool, midsummer temperatures found over the deep recesses in the northern part of the lake and a plethora of terrestrial insects on which to gorge.

Charter captains discovered the bonanza somewhat by accident back in the early 1980s, when chinook salmon populations in the lake crashed and captains had to find some fish to keep their customers happy. They reasoned that the same steelhead that showed up to run the rivers in the spring and fall had to be out there somewhere in the big lake. The question was, "Where?"

Surface temperature maps generated by satellites went a long way toward solving the mystery. The images showed a giant pool of cold water situated smack-dab in the center of the lake. Captains reasoned it had to be where the steelhead spent the summer months. After a lot of trial and error -- and a lot of gas -- captains started to take advantage of the opportunity. They discovered that even though they were fishing over hundreds of feet of water, the steelhead oriented to the surface and the food source found there. Terrestrial insects would collect in thick windrows along the scrum lines formed by clashing currents, upwelling and wind. Seagulls would line up like robins on a picket fence taking advantage of the bounty. Minnows, like young-of-the-year bloater chubs, shiners and sticklebacks, would forge under the trash. For steelhead, it was like bellying up to the buffet table. Most times the rainbows could be caught within a yardstick of the surface.

Downriggers were just about useless for targeting the spooky steelhead in the gin-clear water. Savvy captains found that small in-line planer boards and stealthy diver set-ups were ideal for getting baits away from the boat and in front of the recalcitrant rainbows. One of the first commercially made in-line planers was fashioned by a pair of Sheboygan, Wis., anglers and was called a Yellow Bird. The lightweight planers were perfect for presenting small spoons and crankbaits to the cruising rainbows. In addition, they were simple to use and didn't require a mast like traditional planer boards. It wasn't long before a 10- or 20-mile run to the steelhead grounds was termed "heading to bird land."

The fantastic steelhead fishing anglers discovered 30 years ago is still there. In fact, it might be better than ever.

"Our latest studies found fish up to age 8, so there are a tremendous number of steelhead in the lake and a variety of sizes," said Jim Dexter, Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "Our stocking studies show that these fish gravitate toward the middle of the lake during the summer months, regardless of the strain or where they are planted."

The MDNR plants upwards of 475,000 steelhead in the lake annually. Natural reproduction contributes another 20 to 40 percent, so there's no shortage of steelhead. Dexter said that while the state's river steelhead fishery may fluctuate up and down, fishing on the big lake for steelhead is usually very consistent all summer long.

That may change now that gas prices have declined again and chinook salmon fishing has leveled off to some extent. Dexter pointed out that steelhead are not as dependent on baitfish as salmon, so their numbers have been more stable. That's one reason the future of steelhead in Lake Michigan looks bright. Dexter said that the MDNR is exploring ways that they can rear more steelhead to plant in the lake.

Michigan isn't the only state dumping young steelhead into the lake. "We are stocking about 350,000 steelhead annually in Lake Michigan," said Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Paul Peters. Peters said that the number is below the WDNR's target of 500,000 steelhead. "We've had some major problems in the hatcheries with water problems and reduced flows that have limited production," Peters said, adding that the team of six biologists that manages Wisconsin's steelhead program had a 10-year plan to improve the steelhead fishery in Lake Michigan. The hatchery problems and the lack of available brood stock have resulted in fewer steelhead being planted than desired, but the WDNR is still making substantial contributions to the overall population.

Wisconsin currently plants two strains of steelhead -- the Chambers Creek strain and the Ganaraska strain -- in Lake Michigan. "Initially, we'd hoped to plant three strains of steelhead to provide a more diverse fishery over the entire year," said Peters, "but our inability to find a disease-free egg source of Skamania steelhead has put the Skamania program out of business."

Peters echoed Dexter's comments in that the location where the fish are planted has little to do with where the fish are caught. Peters said that steelhead provide great fishing not only in the northern half of Lake Michigan, but at other Wisconsin ports as well when the wind blows from the right direction. Peters was quick to point out though that offshore steelhead fishing is often a "here today, gone tomorrow" proposition.

Capt. Bill Warner has been chasing steelhead on Lake Michigan out of Ludington for more years than he'd like to admit. And while chinook salmon are the most dependable and economical way to fill the box, anytime you get to spend a day catching cart-wheeling steelies is special.

"We haven't had to fish specifically for steelhead in recent years because the salmon fishing has been so good," explained Warner. "The fish are there if you want to go after them. There are times in June and early July when the salmon haven't shown up in big numbers yet and it's nice to have the steelhead to fall back on." Warner said two locations produce out of Ludington for steelhead most of the summer. Head southwest out of the harbor to the 200- to 400-foot depths or head northwest, where if you go far enough, you'll find some of the deepest water in Lake Michigan. Boats from Ludington to Manistee to Frankfort end up fishing basically the same water when the breaks and scum lines form in the middle of the lake.

Prime time for offshore steelies starts in early June and continues into July. The steelhead are still present in August, but the surface temperature breaks dissipat

e and the fish are less concentrated then. The steelhead are still there, however, and fishing deeper can produce a mixed bag of salmonids.

"Finding the fish is half the battle," said Warner. "The surface temperature maps will put you in the general location, and then it's more hunting than it is fishing."

To try your hand catching steelhead on the Michigan side of the pond, contact Capt. Bill Warner at (810) 730-3818 or online at

Fishing for summer steelies can be equally fantastic on the Wisconsin side of the lake. The last couple of summers have been a little different, but in a good way.

"The last few years the rainbows have been in 300 feet of water or less," offered Captain Keith "Tiger" Ihlenfeldt, who fishes out of the port of Kewaunee. "Usually, to find the rainbows, we head out six to 10 miles to 500 to 600 feet of water, but they've been shallower the last couple of years." He advised that at times the trout can be widely scattered and the breaks that concentrate them hard to find, but rainbows usually fill the box in June and July. Ihlenfeldt has seaworthy Chris Crafts Tiger and Tiger II that he charters out of the port. You can reach him at (920) 493-6748 or online at

Ihlenfeldt said the hottest steelie spoon was one made by Big Lake Tackle (920-983-0804), which locals call neon/pink. "The spoon has a copper back and the regular size seems to be the most productive," he said. Like Lake Michigan steelhead anywhere, the rainbows prefer hot colors like pink, orange and red. Inlenfeldt said he sticks the hot pink spoon behind Yellow Birds and Dipsey Divers and spots them just below the surface when targeting rainbows.

With gas prices less than half of what they were last year and salmon numbers predicted to be lower this summer, it might be time again to head to "bird land" in search of rainbows.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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