Aqua-marine wave shadow plays across missile-shaped phantoms as they hesitate between two worlds.
Behind them, a vast expanse of water extends to the horizon. Ahead, a mere trickle by comparison. Genetics honed and refined by centuries of survival and selection draw them inexorably to this place, into that comparatively tiny world—a world of rushing water, noise and danger.
The world that gave them birth.
Steelhead were introduced into the Great Lakes about 130 years ago, and have persisted through natural reproduction ever since in many rivers, especially those that feed Lake Superior and northern Lake Michigan.
Steelhead are anadromous rainbow trout, meaning they learned long ago to tolerate salt water as adults, but they must return to spawn in fresh water.
Rainbows, unlike most of their fall-spawning salmonid cousins, have always spawned in late winter and spring. But, over the past decade, biologists have reported finding Great Lakes steelhead spawning earlier than ever before.
Some biologists have reported finding steelhead on spawning redds in December, when conditions are right.
After 35 years of dedication to steelhead angling, I have yet to encounter steelhead spawning in December. But, if these observations are correct, it doesn’t require a phd to figure out that things are changing.
According to 97% of all climate scientists worldwide, we’re changing our climate. After breaking the record three for “hottest year” several years in a row steelhead runs are timed differently today than 25 years ago.
However, the ways steelhead relate to current, structure, temperature and water clarity remain the same.
Back in 1988, In-Fisherman published an article called Charting Steelies. It explained how to find steelhead in rivers, using river conditions and time-of-year as guidelines. Little has changed, with regard to those basic locational tenants. When it comes to locating steelhead in rivers and streams, conditions rule.
Here, we focus on the fall run.
Understanding The Run
Steelhead run up rivers in the fall, early winter and spring for the most part in the Great Lakes region. Some biologists theorize that fall-run steelhead of the Great Lakes originated from summer-run stocks of the West Coast, though it is a point of some controversy. If so, however, fall-run steelhead are genetically programmed to run early, long before they spawn. In rivers with natural reproduction (and, for the most part, in rivers without), each run represents a genetically distinct population (though some biologists are beginning to argue the point).
Spring-run fish certainly seem to have a different internal clock than fall-run fish, and will not show up to stage until long after fall-run fish are gone. Logic seems to argue the case for some kind of distinction between the runs, whether genetic or otherwise.
But, for all steelhead, temperature is one of the key indicators for location and behavior, making a stream thermometer a critical tool.
Steelhead can tolerate 32°F water much better than 70°F water, and behave most energetically in the 50°F neighborhood.
Steelhead can spawn at 34°F to 39°F, but only if they must.
Steelhead spawn most heavily in the 40°F to 43°F range, given the opportunity. The spawning window is different for fall-run fish than spring-run fish, however. Fall-run steelhead tend to spawn earlier, and often spawn in water that reads only 36°F to 39°F, according to the observations of many biologists around the Great Lakes.
If nature plays tricks and suddenly warms the environment quicker than usual in spring, steelhead can spawn successfully in water up to about 60°F.
In fall, lake temperature has a lot to do with timing the run. In the past decade, some biologists have noted that overall global warming trends seem to have delayed (or even halted altogether) the fall run several times in various areas. Consequent drops in annual precipitation have drastically reduced levels of some streams. Biologists have theorized that, when Great Lakes temperatures remain warmer later into the fall, steelhead stage and run later if conditions allow. It seems to hold true. During an especially warm fall, don’t expect steelhead to arrive early. And, if the river stays extremely low, don’t expect them to run much at all.
However, like humans, individual steelhead can be intrepid.
No matter what the conditions, at least some fall-run steelhead seem to enter rivers between late September and late October. If conditions are perfect—water slightly higher than normal in the right temperature range—the upriver run can be massive. If conditions in the river are poor—too low, or too high, too cold or too warm—most steelhead will stage and few will migrate.
Precipitation typically triggers the most staging steelhead to run, with slightly rising water levels bringing the most fish upstream. Dropping levels or sudden, dramatic increases have a negative impact.
Perfect conditions for a big run of steelhead would begin with normal water levels.
River temperatures would be closer to the steelhead’s optimum comfort range than lake temperatures (this is especially true in spring), and steelhead would be staging as moderate accumulations of rain come down in the 2 to 4 inch range. Under these conditions, lots of steelhead will run, and they tend to continue moving upstream until they reach a barrier (dam or waterfall), if one exists. However, steelhead cover distances differently in fall than in spring; Destinations are less specific and, while progress might be steady, it’s less urgent.
Steelhead tend to migrate upstream under low-light conditions—early and late in the day and during the night. If the water is cloudy or rain is hitting the surface, steelhead migrate during the day. They find the path of least resistance, moving along the inside of bends where flow is reduced, and moving up behind current breaks like fallen trees. This behavior is moderated by two factors: The force of the current and the need for security. If the water is low and/or very clear, steelhead stay in deep water as much as possible, move more cautiously and won’t cross shallow areas during the day. If the stream is slow and running through flat country, steelhead may migrate through the deepest areas and rarely use the insides of bends. But don’t count on it.
(Fish the water next to the bank before wading in, especially early and late in the day and in cloudy-water conditions.)
Steelhead on the move tend to position at the head of a pool, or along its sides.
Resting or holding steelhead tend to use the tailout, and staging steelhead tend to use the center, tail and sides of a pool. These are generalities, however, which depend on many factors, including the makeup of the pool. And it doesn’t often matter, because a good fisherman is obligated to fish the entire pool unless time is running out on the trip.
Then it pays to work the percentages offered by such generalities.
Real location is a day-to-day thing that depends on conditions. Steelhead position themselves according to momentary needs, and, in a river, those become dependent upon oxygen content, water level, water clarity and water temperature. Understanding how steelhead relate to various conditions allows us to predict the kind of water they will be in before arriving at the river.
A perfect pool in low water can be the perfect pool in high water, but steelhead use it differently in each case. Extreme conditions—very high, very low, very warm or very cold—are limiting.
In extreme conditions, steelhead find fewer areas where needs can be met.
High water, for example, carries a high content of silt. For us it’s like walking through a burning building. Breathing becomes difficult. Silt irritates gills, and visibility is reduced while logs, leaves and other objects careen through the faster water.
Steelhead seek slow water during flooding events, such as the inside of a bend, close to the downstream end of a pool, where silt, leaves and sand have settled out. Steelhead may find a depression only 2 to 3 feet deep to hold in, if the water becomes cloudy enough to hide them.
Pay attention when wading under normal levels. Knee-deep water on an ankle-deep flat becomes a key spot in high water.
In extreme low water, only the deepest pools tend to hold any appreciable number of steelhead, especially in smaller streams. Overhead cover becomes a big plus in low water, as steelhead seek out deadfalls, undercut banks, brush overhangs, broken water on top and log jams for cover from terrestrial predators. As water levels rise from this condition, the steelhead’s world opens.
Overhead cover becomes increasingly less important to the point where, at normal water levels in an average steelhead stream, steelhead rarely use it. The smaller the stream, however, the more important overhead cover remains. Steelhead will hold in 1- to 2-foot depths under broken water just below riffles or even in rapids in those conditions.
In rising water, or at normal levels and slightly above, the key to finding specific steelhead holding areas hinges on more factors.
As their world expands, location depends first on timing.
What point have we reached on the steelhead’s calendar?
How long before they spawn? If the spawn is months away, steelhead move and locate in a different manner than they will just before the spawn.
The second critical factor in location under normal or rising water conditions is temperature. Steelhead tend to hold in fast water when it’s warm, especially in the 50°F to 60°F range, when it’s best to seek out an area of steep grade covering more riffles and rapids.
As water temperatures approach 70°F, steelhead move closer to springs and freshets, and may leave the river altogether by entering a colder, spring-fed tributary or by returning to big water.
In the 45°F to 50°F range, under normal water levels, steelhead can be almost anywhere in the river during fall. Concentrate efforts in areas with great diversity, with runs, pools, bends and riffles.
Steelhead are robust as it is, but highly energetic in this temperature range. They meander and roam across the entire river. Individual fish may pause or hold in spots that seem ridiculously shallow or isolated. If you can’t see bottom, fish the spot under these conditions.
As water temperatures descend into the low 40°F range, fall-run steelhead eventually stage near wintering holes, as opposed to spawning habitat. Absolute perfect wintering habitat is about 4 feet deep.
Anglers often assume the deepest holes are best, because the occasional pod of fish can be found there in cold water. But, given a choice, wintering steelhead gather thickest in pools that match this description: The river is straight, flowing across flat terrain, where it widens. Wider areas slow the current as it spreads. The shallower grade slows current, too. This wide pool is dish shaped with gradual slopes, 4 to 5 feet at the deepest point, and covers plenty of area in the 3-foot range. It has a dark gravel bottom and no overhead cover to block the rays of the sun.
Access to solar energy is a luxury, however. Security is job one. The smaller the stream, the less appeal this “perfect” area has. Close proximity to the bank in both directions will force steelhead to seek deeper holes and/or overhead cover.
Steelhead often enter the river in groups or pods, defined or determined by a weather-related event, like a short period of rainfall. Sometimes improving conditions or a wild hair strikes a sizeable pod of staging steelhead at the same time.
Quite commonly, pods of 50 to 200 fish move up the river “together,” meaning within a few miles of each other. On smaller streams, they might spread out over a 2- to 5-mile area, and continue upriver at approximately the same pace. At times, this pod represents the only fishable population of steelhead in the river. And, when river temperatures drop under 40°F in late fall or early winter, the pod stops migrating upstream, but may move back downstream. It’s critical to size this up and define the area a pod occupies in the shortest possible time.
When conditions suddenly worsen, pods of steelhead can be grounded.
In a sudden flood, or when the bottom falls off the thermometer, migrating steelhead might be forced to make do in areas with less-than-perfect habitat. That’s when anglers are most likely to find a pod of wintering steelhead in a big, deep bend loaded with fallen wood under a high bank. It’s not ideal, but it’s good enough—especially for fish like steelhead, which aggressively strike baits in 31°F water covered with ice floes, then proceed to ram upstream when hooked.
Few species, lake trout included, attack baits with such ferocity in 31°F water—water that would certainly be frozen if not flowing.
To understand how steelhead position in a stream, understand how they relate to temperature and season. Steelhead entertain no great fear of cold, but they use slow water in the low 30°F range.
Steelhead position progressively closer to faster flows as the water approaches 40°F. Once the water warms to 40°F and above, steelhead could be resting in deep pools or battling class-5 rapids—depending on proximity to their time and place of spawning.
Fall-run fish in the Great Lakes tend to spawn in late February or early March.
Some early spring-run fish could be meandering around slowly or shivering in a deep pool somewhere while fall-run fish are frantically battling the fastest flows in the river at 38°F during early March.
Know the stage of the run to determine how urgent, or how casual and capricious, the majority of the steelhead in a stream will be.
Water temperatures anywhere in the 30°F range will persuade most steelhead to position in “frog water” or estuary areas near the mouth of a stream, in the middle of wide, dish-shaped pools, or along the steep side and in the tailouts of deep bends and runs where they happened to be when the hammer dropped. The current in some of the best spots—the spots that consistently hold steelhead in these conditions—is so slow (less than 1 m.p.h.) it can take 10 minutes or more to make one drift with a float.
Dragging a bait rig on bottom requires just one or two small to medium split shot. In the coldest water, the best baits tend to be wax worms, small spawn bags or live wigglers (mayfly nymphs). Other methods take fish, but nothing consistently beats bait in water reading 39°F or less.
Under these conditions, look for the bulk of a river’s steelhead to be found in the lower third of its length.
From 37°F to 40°F, steelhead remain in pools, but many edge up close to the head. As the spawning window approaches, more steelhead will be moving upstream in this temperature range, or milling back downstream from pools below barriers toward spawning riffles.
Bait remains the primary choice, but plastics begin to become almost as effective. Suspending baits, slow-floating minnowbaits, small spoons and spinners can be the best option, depending on the time and place.
The 41°F to 45°F range describes an interesting time for fishermen.
Early during a fall run, steelhead can be found in all kinds of water. Active, energetic fish will be found in pockets around fast water. Runs in areas with a moderate to steep grade become primary targets—straight sections of river with a deep trough along one side and a good current running through. Concentrate on the head and tail of the run. In high water, the shallow side, where you normally wade, will hold fish.
During the spawning window, this temperature range draws steelhead to the riffles and redds where they were born. Possible tactics that might work run the gamut, and fly fishing tends to be at its most effective. During early fall, look to the lower and middle third of a river. During late fall, search as far upriver as you care to go.
Of course, all these scenarios are based on prime conditions.
If conditions are really bad when steelhead arrive—if the water is too low, or too high and muddy—few will enter the river in fall. If a run enters the river before conditions turn bad, some may turn and leave. Most probably stay, but are limited to predictable locations. The big lakes cool far slower than rivers. If the big lake stays warm late into fall, steelhead may arrive and find streams too cold to run. If the river reads 40°F or less when steelhead come in from the blue expanse, concentrate within and just outside river-mouth areas.
Say it’s November, the water is up slightly and cloudy, the sky is cloudy and the water temperature is 42°F. The spawn is months away.
Look for runs and bends in a highly diversified area of river. Start fishing from the bank (don’t wade in yet), and cover the water on the inside of the bend (closest to you) first. Make short casts first, working across the river gradually. Most bend holes and runs have a steep slope and a gradual slope. Concentrate on the gradual slope, but cover the head and tail of the pool, too. The lower and colder the river becomes, the more steelhead will relate to the steep slope of the run. At about 38°F, the run becomes a less likely area to find many fish, while the bend could be right if steelhead can’t find better options.
In very high water, when visibility is severely limited (6 to 10 inches), the most productive spots are defined by slow water, such as the inside of bends somewhere past the halfway point, along the downstream half. “Frog water” near an estuary can hold some fish, and a classic wintering pool would be another likely target.
Cover isn’t important for steelhead during high water, except to break the flow and screen out leaves and sticks. They might relate to cover, especially where the current scours out a depression by it.
Say the water is low. Look for broken water on top and overhead cover. The very leading edges of most pools and deep holes have ceilings of broken water, where tumbling, fast flows collide with slower currents, pushing ripples and waves across the surface. These act as cover. Boulders, fallen trees, deadfalls, overhanging brush and log jams create other key spots. Current hitting objects also breaks up the surface, and forces water into the bottom, uncovering gravel and creating holes.
Steelhead seldom tolerate overhead cover in large rivers or in average to high flows. But in low water, and especially in smaller streams, overhead cover becomes a necessity for large fish with a penchant for remaining hidden.
Steelhead often position under something, like an overhanging log, in these conditions, if they can remain within the main current of the pool. (If not, they seek something better.)
The only consistent and efficient way to reach these fish is to drift a simple bait rig with the current, keeping it right on bottom. I like a rig that requires the fewest possible knots, and often tie hooks and attach split shot right to the main line. Work it back in there bit-by-bit until it snags up, and 90 percent of the time only hook and bait are lost, or the hook can be straightened and retrieved.
One of the absolute best spots in low, clear water—right through normal flow levels and beyond—is a neck, where structure or a fallen tree on each side of a straight, mid-depth flat pushes the current toward midstream. This speeds the flow, and the mixing currents break up the ceiling.
Accelerated flow digs down to the gravel, creating the floor of a fit and proper “house.” The front steps of this house often create a vertical current void, allowing steelhead to hold there even in very cold water.
I call these pools Brigadoon, after the mythical Scottish village that appears only briefly every century. The next high-water event will push the trees away or redistribute the sand bars that create this temporary hole. Enjoy it while it lasts.
To find Brigadoon is to cross the bar that separates two worlds—the one you left down the road, and the world of rushing water up ahead.
Every year, steelhead reach a similar interphase, on the shoals of the big lakes. Have they, literally or figuratively, crossed the bar? Are they waiting at some intersection between your world and theirs in the river up ahead?
Have you done your homework?
- written by Matt Straw