Fall-run fish, the ones we’re targeting right now in rivers all over the region, tend to spawn early, too—in February or March in most areas. Water temperatures might be in the mid 30°F range when fall-run fish take to the redds, but spawning usually follows a late-winter warming trend.
Mary Savage with another nice Big Manistee chromer on Mark Chmura’s jet boat. Pier Pressure Charters, (231) 864-4051.
We anxiously negotiated the last few steps along a well-worn trail and emerged from the cloying woods. Our eyes smiled down on the river. Conditions seemed perfect, but after a hard day the smiles were gone. We turned just one 7-pound steelhead.
Matt Wolf, fisheries biologist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said when fishing was tough a few autumns back, anglers blamed his agency. “I told them last year nobody called me at all because they were catching fish,” Wolf laughed. “Now they’re not catching any and blaming the DNR. The truth is the fish didn’t run because it never rained. It does get frustrating. Steelhead are so dependent on Mother Nature.”
Steelhead success in late winter and early spring often depends on conditions that occurred in fall. By now, most steelhead anglers probably realize fall-run steelhead don’t need to run. If conditions are poor in the river, steelhead stage and run the beaches all winter. No sense blaming fish-and-wildlife agencies for weather-dependent results. Better to use weather-related data to determine where to go and how to fish, but too often our predictions are based entirely on flow data. Rain, or the lack thereof, water levels, and many other factors are involved in determining optimum conditions for a steelhead run.
STRAINS AND LATITUDE
Some strains of steelhead have been reproducing naturally in the Great Lakes since the late 19th century. Science calls them naturalized. Too many syllables. Many biologists just call them wild. Out West, wild and native may imply the same thing, but the term serves to distinguish naturalized from stocked fish around the Great Lakes—which has no native steelhead. Some have consistently reproduced for over a century, however, producing wild fish that are well adapted to Great Lakes environments.
Fisheries managers commonly claim that hatching eggs from these wild fish results in better, healthier runs of fish around the Great Lakes, when compared to using West Coast eggs. It probably has to do with acclimatization and genetics. Two of the most popular wild strains hail from Michigan’s Little Manistee River and Ontario’s Ganaraska River. Wild strains can also be found in Michigan’s Pere Marquette River, the Souix River in Wisconsin, the Salmon River in New York, Northern Ontario’s Montreal River, and many others. Many stocked rivers that get too warm for over-summer survival of young parr may produce wild fish if hatchlings can find smaller, cooler, spring-fed tributary streams to escape into until fall—a fact many biologists either overlook or deny because no studies have been done to prove or disprove that possibility.
Different strains tend to spawn at different times. Skamanias spawn earliest. Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, and other states used the strain in an effort to create summer runs. But Skamanias have a tendency to run later and later each year where natural reproduction occurs, eventually becoming fall-run fish. It’s an acclimatization response to their new Great Lakes environments. According to the Wisconsin DNR website description (Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan Steelhead Strains), Skamanias spawn anytime from late December to early March, with the peak occurring in January or February. Even when compared to steelhead farther south in Ohio, Skamanias are the earliest spawners found in the Great Lakes. (Stocking has ceased since about 2009 due to problems with viral hemorrhagic septicemia in hatcheries, but some wild Skamanias persist).
For steeheaders, it’s good to see snow on the banks in spring. Cold water keeps spring-run steelhead milling in pools and off the redds, and may delay fall-run fish from spawning in late winter.
Fall-run fish, the ones we’re targeting right now in rivers all over the region, tend to spawn early, too—in February or March in most areas. Water temperatures might be in the mid 30°F range when fall-run fish take to the redds, but spawning usually follows a late-winter warming trend. Which explains that late-winter gap in river populations. Sometimes a massive fall run produces fantastic fishing all winter long followed by incredibly slow fishing in March. The spring run hasn’t started yet, and the fall-run fish have spawned and left, leaving a void.
The latest spawners are the Ganaraskas, arising from a Lake Ontario trib of the same name in Canada. The Wisconsin DNR website article claims Ganaraskas often spawn in early May: “This is the last strain to leave the stream, extending angling opportunities for an extra 2 to 4 weeks.” The Chambers Creek strain from Washington is stocked in many of the same rivers, and spawning for them peaks between late March and early April. So if a river has all three strains, peak spawning may occur at significantly different times for each, extending from January into May.
Otherwise, the most prominent factor determining when steelhead spawn is latitude. The Little Manistee strain now dominates Niagara River action on Captain Joe Marra’s Niagara Rainbow Charter Service boat (715) 754-0951. stocking efforts in Ohio, representing the southern-most runs in the region. “In those rivers surrounding Cleveland, spawning peaks between late March and early April most years,” Wolf said. Yet in the Little Manistee River itself, spawning typically peaks from early to mid April, as it does in other rivers nearby. The farther north a river is, the later steelhead tend to spawn.
Little Manistee steelhead have been reproducing naturally since about 1887. After more than 130 years, the strain has become acclimated to the Great Lakes region, which is far colder than the Pacific Northwest. Anglers in the Northwest rarely experience air temperatures below 0°F, but it’s quite common around the Great Lakes. So it’s also rare for steelhead in the Northwest to experience “anchor ice,” which covers the rocks and gravel on the stream floor. Fisheries scientist Dr. Paul Seelbach of Michigan published a study years ago demonstrating a correlation between the number of days colder than -20°F and percentage of over-winter survival. Anchor ice starves steelhead parr by covering insect forage with ice. The more days and nights that reach such algid lows, the more parr will die. After an extremely cold winter, send a note to your future self. Three to five years later, it might be a good idea to try southern Michigan, Indiana, or Ohio tribs.
The naturally-reproducing steelhead that spawn in Lake Superior’s north shore tribs thrive in a climate far colder than the steelhead of Alaska, at the northernmost extent of their natural range. Superior steelhead parr experience anchor ice like nobody’s business, yet still they thrive. The province of Ontario actually stocked few if any steelhead in any North Shore tribs, yet naturally-occurring steelhead occur in almost every river, stream, creek and rivulet entering the lake. They tend to be spring-run fish (though notable exceptions occur), and they tend to run late (May, even June in some cases).
Strain and latitude are not the only factors. If a river’s steel-head population primarily runs in fall, the spawn tends to occur earlier. In nearby rivers populated primarily with spring-run fish, peak spawning tends to happen weeks—even over a month—later. “We have a major fall run and minor spring run here,” Wolf said. “The Little Manistee produces a fall-run strain that spawns much earlier, sometimes during mid-winter.”
About three years after Ohio began stocking Little-Manistee strain steelhead, runs doubled in both number and size. Lake Erie has continued to produce better runs of fish averaging about 8 pounds ever since. I think 130-plus years of acclimatization to our region is the reason.
Even so, anglers often get mad at the Ohio DNR, Wolf pointed out, because they perceive the “fish are gone.” But that’s rarely the case. Though the 2014 fall run was poor in rivers, Mark Tonello, fisheries biologist for the Michigan DNR, said beach and pier fishing was awesome. “It’s not like there are no fish out there,” Tonello said. “They just didn’t run up the rivers. We had a lot of rain in September and October, but it wasn’t at the right time. You want that rain late in October. Last November was phenomenal because we got rain at the right time. But they have to be at the river mouth when the river goes up. If Lake Michigan doesn’t cool off, steelhead may not come inshore.”
Captain Joe Marra nets a Niagara River steelhead for Dante Gramuglia of Flambeau Outdoors during a typically late spring run in mid-May.
Good fall fishing in the rivers of the Great Lakes depends on several factors. An extremely warm summer followed by a late fall, with uncharacteristically warm weather extending later into the season than usual, keeps steelhead off shore. Not until water temperatures on the beaches finally drops below 50°F will steelhead begin to arrive in big numbers. And that doesn’t mean they will automatically dash upriver. Spring-run fish may run into flood-stage rivers full of silt and debris during the height of the spawning window (determined, in all probability, by day length and moon phase), but fall-run fish will not. Urgency isn’t an issue. Most fall steelhead are happy to hang around on the beaches and in the harbors, waiting for water levels to drop. And the few intrepid individuals that do run continue far upstream, to areas where the water clears, primarily in long rivers without dams.
STRAIN AND LATITUDE
Peak spawning times for steelhead tend to happen first in the southernmost streams of the Great Lakes region in March (Ohio), progressing north gradually into May. However, different genetic strains also demonstrate tendencies to spawn at slightly different times even when inhabiting the same streams.
RIVER LOCATION PEAK SPAWNING
- Lake Michigan Tributaries, WI (Skamania Strain) Jan 15-Feb 15
- Lake Erie, Ohio (Little Manistee Strain) March 20-April 7
- Lake Ontario Tributaries, New York (Hatchery) March 20-April 10
- Lake Michigan Tributaries, WI (Chambers Strain) March 20-April 10
- Lake Huron Tributaries, MI (Little Manistee Strain) March 25-April 10
- Lake Michigan Tributaries, Lower Peninsula MI (Wild) April 1-15
- Lake Michigan Tributaries, WI (Ganaraska Strain) April 15-May 7
- Lake Michigan Tributaries, L.P. MI (Little Manistee Strain) April 10-20
- Lake Superior Tributaries, MI (Wild) April 15-May 5
- Lake Superior Tributaries, WI (Wild) April 20-May 10
- Lake Superior Tributaries, Ontario (Wild) May 1-May15
OPTIMUM CONDITIONS FOR A STEELHEAD RUN
- Water Levels: Moderately rising to just above average flows.
- Water Temperature: 36°F to 44°F in the river, depending on strain and fall or spring orientation
- Water Clarity: About 2 to 4 feet of visibility
- Flow Rates: Different for each river (expressed in cubic-feet-per second or cfs—See waterdata.usgs.gov and keep track over time)
- Lake Temperature: 49°F or lower than stream temperature and stable
- Sky: Overcast with some precipitation (preferably warm rain) Wind: South or blowing into shore
- Weather history: Gradual warming Flow data: waterdata.usgs.gov or the Steelhead Site.com
Most fall-run fish won’t run up rivers that are extremely low, either. Typically, during a dry fall, steelhead stage a lot—some nosing into the river at dawn, only to back out again by about 9 or 10 a.m.—depending on how many people are marching around on the banks. Way up river, frustrated anglers are shaking their heads, contemplating an angry call to the DNR.
THE SKY IS FALLING
Calm down, Chicken Little. The fish aren’t gone. Any steelhead angler worth his adipose fin knows rain and increased flow triggers steelhead to run, but that’s just a few pixels of the big picture. “Wind conditions, timing, and temperature have everything to do with triggering runs,” Tonello said. “Here it’s a northwest wind. If we see a northwest wind when other conditions are right, fish run. We’re not really sure why one wind is better than another. And we don’t have any lake temperatures nailed down, but steelhead won’t appear at the river mouths until lake temperatures are right. That sets it up. If those factors line up with late runoff, steelhead will run.”
Niagara River action on Captain Joe Marra’s Niagara Rainbow Charter Service boat (715) 754-0951.
Captain Mark Chmura of Pier Pressure Charters in Manistee (231/864-4051) has watched and noted big-lake factors that drive steelhead runs for decades. “Stable lake conditions are the key,” Chmura said. “When Lake Michigan is warmer than the rivers in November, as it was the past two years, steelhead don’t need to be in the river. They follow 49°F temperatures out in the lake, and if they can follow that band right into shore they will—if it remains stable. The first temperatures to change are close to shore and the last ones to change are off shore. If it’s changing too much too fast near shore in either direction—getting colder or warmer—they don’t come in.”
And just because steelhead come to shore doesn’t automatically mean they run. “A lot of years, steelhead funnel right into the river and won’t run the shorelines or stage at all,” Chmura added. “When the river’s too high, too low, or colder than the lake, they stop, mill around, and run the shorelines.”
As Tonello pointed out, wind seems to have a lot to do with creating the stability that keeps steelhead inshore. “In early fall you want a northwest wind,” Chmura agreed. “Later in fall you want southerly winds that warm things back up. But if the water’s too low or too high, more fish stage and less fish run.”
Chmura defines the absolute optimum conditions for trigger-ing runs: “Early in fall, when the lake and the river are comparable in temperature, it’s overcast, the wind is out of the northwest, and river levels have just climbed at least slightly, that’s a perfect invitation. Every morning you have new hope when conditions are good like that because steelhead run heaviest at night, even in spring.”
Spring runs are less about wind and more about temperature, runoff, urgency, and timing. Fall-run fish that staged all winter will run earlier than true spring-run fish, then linger longer. Staging fish can be triggered by thaws during winter. The bulk of a true spring run waits for an increase in flow within that optimum day-length window described by historical peak activity. Spring runs commonly ram up the river en-masse, spawn and leave, all within about 48 hours in that peak window.
“Starting mid-March, if you have a slow, continuous warm-up through the middle of April with ample rainfall to create increased stream flow, steelhead runs will increase steadily right up to those peak windows,” said Bradley Eggold, Wisconsin DNR fisheries supervisor for Lake Michigan. “Big temperature swings and Arctic cold fronts in March will shut things down.”
Captain Mark Chmura, Pier Pressure Charters in Manistee, Michigan, has made some critical observations on what triggers steelhead to run in fall over many years.
Typical is one thing the Niagara River is not. Flowing between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, draining all the Upper Great Lakes, the Niagara is deeper, heavier and more powerful than any steelhead river in the region. But that’s not all that makes it unique.
Captain Frank Campbell owns the Niagara Region Charter Service. “Optimum conditions for steelhead runs here in the fall include good runs of salmon, brown trout, and lake trout,” he said. “Steelhead love free drifting eggs. When those other fish are spawning, steelhead runs peak. We see the first steelhead in October when salmon are dropping eggs, but only if the water drops below 60°F. Steelhead follow the salmon up in October, stay to feed on trout eggs in November into December and stay right through winter. What really spurs the spawn in spring, though, is the power company. When they start fluctuating the release of water on April 1 every year, it really drives a lot of heavy spawning activity. Changing current flows really move spawning activity around, too, from one segment of the river to another.”
The rise and fall of water levels due to hydroelectric operations, as happens daily on Michigan’s AuSable River, can trigger spawning activity when power demand or snowmelt calls for a bigger release of water with longer duration. Daily fluctuations can confine spawning activity to certain hours of the day. Steelhead follow salmon and brown trout up many rivers, triggering fall runs, all the way up the watershed to Lake Superior, where Seeforellen and other browns actually start running in July, and the runs may peak in August or early September—too early for steelhead to follow. The wild strains of steelhead found in tribs surrounding Superior sometimes follow coho salmon runs in October.
LATE ARRIVAL TACTICS
Peak spawning activity tends to take place when water temperatures broach the 40°F mark. But when snow-covered banks linger into April, as happened in 2014, the peak often occurs later than the historic average. Skamanias and wild, fall-run fish often spawn early, in 35°F water or colder, during thaws in February and March.
“I honestly believe most fall-run fish spawn late winter,” says guide Steve Martinez of Indigo Guide Service in Michigan (231) 301-4967. Biologists see no genetic distinction, but “I can see a distinct difference between fall and spring steelhead. In February, depending on the weather, we see gravel scratched out from steel-head spawning late in the day. Progressively, those dark, fall-run fish increase spawning activity until they’re gone and sometimes a gap occurs before the big push in April. But April, hands down, is always the peak time, as those spring-run fish mass up the river in a bunch just as optimum conditions arrive.”
Cold conditions during peak times spreads the action out. “When you can extend that part of the season for targeting fish behind redds, that’s ideal,” Martinez said. “Cold weather definitely slows them down. We drift egg patterns and nymphs under indicators in pools and runs below the spawning riffles. At times nymphs outfish eggs. Watch the banks, even when snow covered. If things are crawling around, try a nymph.”
When lakes stay warmer into late fall, in-shore movement by steelhead is often delayed. Runs that once took place in late October often occur in early December these days.
Martinez prefers not to fish for spawning steelhead. “I would rather target those fish holding back in the pools below spawning riffles, sipping eggs and invertebrates,” he said. “We also go for a territorial response by stripping streamers on 8-weigh floating or sink-tip lines. People often complain about declining fish numbers, but if you saw how much of the gravel gets annihilated by anglers walking on spawning redds, you’d be appalled. I try to talk all my guests into leaving those fish alone.”
Where natural reproduction occurs, walking on redds during the spawn destroys fertilized eggs. Anglers doing that deserve reprimand, but be diplomatic about it. Getting punched in the face tends to ruin a good day on the water. I don’t mind targeting spawning fish in put-and-take rivers that get too warm in summer to allow survival, however. Stocked fish are a great source of bait for the remainder of spring and the following fall season.
A strike indicator on fly gear is basically a bobber. I prefer float fishing with beads from BnR Tackle, Great Lakes Steelhead Company, TroutBeads, Heavi-Beads, and other companies. An 8- to 10-mm bead is pegged to the leader 2 inches above a size #6 Owner Mosquito Hook and allowed to drift under an Ultra Grayling, Redwing Tackle Blackbird, Raven, Drennan Crystal Loafer, or Eagle Claw Steelhead float. A swivel separates main line from leader, and enough Thill Center Cut Soft Shot is placed on the main line between float and swivel to pull the float down to the water line (separating the colorful top from the woodgrain bottom on the float’s body.) If I see stonefly nymphs crawling around on the snow, I slip a black Northland Impulse Mayfly or Lunker City Hellgie onto the hook. Or I just tie on a stonefly imitation from my nymph box. When stonefly nymphs are crawling over melting snow on the banks, spawn, beads, and everything else pales beside the triggering power of a black stonefly imitation under a stream float.
Otherwise, beads rule when spawning is going on. With beads, matching colors to freedrifting eggs can be critical. In Alaska, guides simply step into the river, take a handful of gravel from just about anywhere, and find eggs in there. Then they pick a bead that matches that shade for their clients. In the Great Lakes, it can only be accomplished by trial and error, but starting and ending with natural shades tends to produce best.
When spawning peaks, seeing all those magnificent silver fish crowded into shallow water tempts all of us. But it also insists that even more fish are staging or have dropped back into the pools and runs immediately below the spawners. “People get up in arms about declining numbers of steelhead then walk out on the riffles and crush their eggs,” Martinez said. “You’ll find just as many fish in the pools during the peak.”