January 22, 2021
By Matt Straw
Snow devils came whirling across a white expanse that extended to the horizon. A quiet two hours passed as we watched the twisting ghosts.
Suddenly, several "traps" sprang at once and pandemonium ensued. Limber ice rods waved and thrashed in holders over open holes. We scrambled to grab them before they tipped over and vanished. Under our feet, big-water rainbows peeled line from reels set with light drags. Sometimes they headed for the river, leaping in the open water. Other times they made screaming runs back to the depths of the main lake.
In fall, Great Lakes steelhead run rivers to spawn, and when conditions are right, many tributaries see big runs. However, when conditions in rivers are poor—low and clear, high and muddy or extremely cold—the fish stage at river mouths in great numbers and wait for things to get right. When that doesn’t happen until spring, scenes like the one above become a common wintertime occurrence around the Upper Midwest.
SETTING THE STAGE
The traps in question were Slamco Slammers and Automatic Fishermen—tools of the trade for ice-bound steelheaders. The rationale for using them is simple: Steelhead are spooky. Standing or sitting a few feet over their heads, shuffling feet on the ice and throwing shadows over the holes is a good recipe for getting skunked. Traps allow anglers to keep their distance from the holes.
Winters like that one a few years ago were perfect for setting traps—bitter cold, with ice covering more than 95 percent of the Great Lakes. It meant from late winter though early spring, steelhead spent more time staging than running rivers. In some river mouths they numbered in the thousands.
Staging steelhead don't just sit around and wait, though. They roam up and down the shorelines, haunting the beaches like silver ghosts. They come and go, arriving silently in packs, tripping several traps at once. Certain times of day are key. Steelhead like to nose into the current of the river in the pre-dawn darkness. As the sun rises, they slowly back off, just as they do in open water around piers. The difference in winter being when ice covers the surrounding areas, steelhead filter back under it and roam the shallows under the protection of a snow-covered ceiling. This is especially true when heavy fishing pressure pushes steelhead away from the river mouths.
"A good fall run generally means ice-fishing isn't as good," says Matt Schalk, designer of the Slamco Slammer, a tip-up that employs a rod holder. The device works like much a trap, hence the moniker. The rod is bent and loaded, and when a fish strikes, it pulls the rod tip off a peg. The rod springs up and sets the hook. The Slammer was developed for steelhead, but it works great for walleyes, pike and other species, too.
In Michigan, where Schalk sets his traps, rivers historically formed drowned river-mouth lakes long ago. This results in two mouth areas—one on Lake Michigan and the other at the end of an inland lake, which formed in ancient times when storms on the big lake closed off flow and caused the river to back up. Steelhead behave differently in these environments than they do around river mouths that open directly into the Great Lakes.
Guide Chris Beeksma works river mouths along the shorelines of Lake Superior, where steelhead often find adverse conditions in the river during winter.
"It takes a special kind of river to entertain a fall run of steelhead here," Beeksma says. "Most rivers don't have enough ground flow to moderate temperature, so all steelhead that run those rivers stage all through spring."
Most days, the key to location is simple: Drill holes as close to the open water of the river mouth as safely possible. Where rivers enter directly into a Great Lake, the depth tends to range from 4 to 10 feet deep and substrates consist mostly of sand, but even gravel and rock beaches can have wave shoals. Those rolling rills are formed by wave action during the open-water months. Steelhead like to travel in the troughs, especially when the tops of these shoals are less than 5 feet deep.
Traps should be set above troughs. Generally, in these clear waters of the Great Lakes, visibility is about 8 feet. So, after drilling a hole, you can usually see whether you're on top of a shoal or in the trough. If you're on a shoal, walk six feet straight toward or away from shore, drill, and check again. Depthfinders tend to spook fish in water this shallow; however, if the water's cloudy, having one on hand can prove useful.
Runoff affects locations around wild river mouths. Big thaws that muddy the river create mudlines. When snow cover is gone, the muddy currents from the river are visible, changing the color of the ice. Lake currents can send the muddy flow in any direction, up either shoreline or directly out into the lake, and those currents can change direction. It's best to have a lot of holes spread out over a wider area in that scenario so traps can be quickly moved to the edges when visibility drops to zero. Typically, steelhead roam the edges of mudlines.
Some good spots can be miles from the actual river mouth and dangerous or impossible to access.
"It's death ice out there most years," Schalk says. "You can surf fish those areas in open water and catch big numbers, but when ice piles up, it can be 12 feet thick in places and thin in others."
He adds that anglers can fish anywhere on drowned-river-mouth lakes such as White Lake or Manistee Lake, as well. While some anglers jigging with Swedish Pimples for perch and walleyes out in the middle catch a few steelhead, Schalk says that most are caught with spawn bags, usually outside the main currents and along the edges. He suggests this is particularly true on White Lake, which has ample current running down the middle. Often, he adds, consistent spots are also directly in front of the river mouth.
Traps like the Slammer and Automatic Fisherman can be rigged with a variety of rods. The Automatic Fisherman comes with a rod that works very well, but I rig with a 5-foot ultralight St. Croix Triumph—a whippy stick that stores a lot of kinetic energy when doubled over. That energy is released when a fish touches the bait and the rod tip slips off the steel trigger shaft. It sets hooks with authority while the soft tip protects the line.
"I use whatever rod I can find that works with the Slammer," Schalk says. "Lots of rods work, but the best is a 5-foot, light-power model. Some use 4-foot, 3-inch ultralight Shakespeare Ugly Stiks."
He says that the reel needs a quality drag, and he typically uses Shimano 2000 size reels.
Steelhead have great vision, so a fluorocarbon main line is a good idea. Seaguar AbrazX and InvizX stand up well if a steelhead takes off on a run and lodges the line in the bottom of the hole. They also don't coil off the spool in a big wind like so many fluorocarbons and stand up to gill rakers when steelhead roll on the line.
When fishing outside the river mouth in shallow troughs, the weight of a hook is all we require. Split shot and swivels add negative visual cues, so I tie hooks directly to the fluorocarbon main line. Size No. 6 Owner Mosquito Hooks are a good choice outside the current. A 1/64- to 1/32-ounce TC Tackle or Voodoo Tackle steelhead jig is used to anchor the bait in current. Baits can be suspended anywhere from 2 inches off bottom to halfway down the water column.
Schalk slips a single size No. 6 Mustad 9260D hook through the middle of a Gulp! Minnow so it hangs horizontal, or he slips the hook into a spawn bag.
"I deploy 2- to 3-inch smelt-colored Gulp! Minnows most of the time," he says. "But I usually have at least two kinds of spawn with me. You never know which will be better—steelhead, brown trout, coho or king salmon eggs. We tie them into spawn bags about the size of a nickel and try to hide the hook inside."
Kerry Paulson, inventor of the Automatic Fisherman, mostly fishes the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan, sometimes drilling holes right on the big, slow rivers there. He typically uses 6-pound Berkley Trilene XL in these often-cloudy waters. In January, when water can be "gin clear," he suggests 4-pound line is needed, as steelhead are more wary, especially loners.
"For the most part we're fishing inside the coastal river harbors and on some of the deep, slow rivers like the Keewaunee," Paulson says. "We add some float beads or foam to the bags and drop the rig to bottom, letting the spawn bag float up. A quarter-ounce egg sinker sliding on the line holds the rig in place, letting the 15- to 22-inch, 6-pound Trilene Fluorocarbon leader below the swivel drift downstream. Pick it up and drop it back down several times to get it downstream of the hole, then throw snow in the hole to reduce light streaming in from above."
Beeksma says the best time to hunt steelhead is any time you can get out there, but most fish are caught during warming trends.
"I doubt barometric pressure has much to do with it," he says. "Warming trends are accompanied by snowmelt and rising water levels. Even if it doesn't trigger steelhead to run, it gets them excited and they start nosing around in the currents leaving the river in bigger numbers."
Great Lakes steelhead often average 8 pounds, but they can exceed 20 pounds. Snow devils whirling past, the rod bent and two-dozen feet of light line going down the hole every second—few experiences in ice fishing can top that.