Autumn in the Great Lakes region is prime-time for the steelheader.
Whether you tromp around the creeks of Erie or the whitewater of Superior, the onset of cold nights, frost, and November rains bring steelhead within reach of the river angler. When it comes to pinpointing the Great Lake’s top steelhead destinations of fall, you would be hard pressed to beat the flows north of the border.
Here is a secret…Ontario is home to the finest fall steelheading on the planet.
Yes that is right…the PLANET.
The sheer geographical size of Ontario sets the province up for some incredible fall steelheading opportunities. Every Great Lake with the exception of Michigan borders the province. Superior, Erie, Ontario and Huron are steelhead hotbeds, and no single U.S. state can lay claim to as many steelhead filled tributaries as the Trillium Province. Want to catch more steelhead in variety of places this fall? If yes, you had better pack the truck, remember your passport, and get ready to sample some Canuck mykiss!
Lake Ontario boasts some of the largest steelhead anywhere in the Great Lakes. Chambers Creek and Ganaraska strain fish can push the scales over the 20-pound mark, and they find their way into the hands of steelheaders each fall.
From the mighty Niagara east to the Ganaraska in the town of Port Hope, the Big Lady O coughs up monster fish in a very accessible array of rivers. The QEW highway and the 401 both parallel the lake from east to west. This major highway provides instant access to the lower sections of popular rivers such as the Credit, Humber, Bowmanville, and Ganaraska.
Lake O tribs tend to fish small, meaning the steelies can pile up in small areas of open angling sections. Major runs of fall steelhead enter local rivers a little later than the more northern lakes, but consistent fall fishing can be expected by late October. Driving the northshore from Hamilton all the way east to the Bay of Quinte will allow anglers to access dozens of small to medium sized tribs with excellent fall steelheading opportunities.
The Credit holds the most water east of the Niagara and draws the largest angling focus in the Greater Toronto Area.
With that being said, the Credit is a phenomenal fishery regardless of how busy the banks can be. Both wild and hatchery steelhead call this river home, and it lays claim to strongest run of fall migrating fish on the Canadian shores of Lake O. The Credit begins to fish well after the major push of Chinooks die off and the heavy artillery crowds disappear. Aim to hit the Credit in late October on until the weather gets really cold in the winter. A good portion of the river is open to fall angling, up until late December.
The Ganaraska is worth every steelheaders attention.
It has a storied history of big runs and big fish with pristine spawning water in the upper stretches. The big river sits just outside of the Greater Toronto Area and is conveniently located off the 401hwy. The “Ganny” has minimal open angling water after October (read the OMNR Regulations), but the small stretch of open water in the lower end yields some off-the-charts steelheading for fish fresh in from the lake.
The Ganny supports a run based of mostly wild steelhead. Hot chromers start to appear in late September, with major pushes entering the lower end after the cold rains of late October. The section known as the “trench” in the bottom end is the place to be when the lake kicks up big waves and the river is swollen with rainwater. Small floats, natural roe presentations and centerpin setups are the top pick here.
In terms of the steelheading on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes, Erie is the sleeper. The steelhead tributaries are few in comparison to the shores of Erie in NY and PA, but what Ontario lacks in rivers is made up substantially in the waters of just two flows. The Grand and Upper Niagara are top producers in Ontario for Erie anglers, and the Grand is a true gem for the adventurous angler looking to tap into some of the hardest fighting steel anywhere east of the rockies.
The upper Niagara doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its ability to cough up steelhead with regular occurrence and in good numbers. This outlet of Erie is big water, with the major steelheading-focus taking place in the rips and seams within walking distance of the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie. Shore angling is the norm here, with no need for waders, although brave souls can wade a few locations to prime boulders where they present baits to fish that seem to have never seen an offering.
Upper Niagara chrome are suckers for baitfish imitation presentations, as they feed primarily on shiners which they binge eat once the water cools in late fall.
Niagara region guide Paul Castellano is a big river pro who has been targeting Niagara steel for a very long time. As one of the top guides on either side of the border, Castellano knows just how good the “upper” can be. He says both bank anglers and boat fisherman score well on drift fished roe presentations, plastics and hardware.
“Float fishing roe is productive as well”, he notes, “it is big water, and you are normally dealing with very aggressive fish which opens up the window for fishing spoons, spinners, streamers and jigs”.
The Grand River enters lake Erie in the town of Dunville.
This massive watershed is one of the most important aquatic life-lines for southwestern Ontario. It also happens to have an incredibly strong run of fall steelhead without any stocking.
Big, wild bruisers enter the Grand fairly early on in the fall, and can be found resting in areas where cooler feeder creeks enter the main-stem. As temperatures drop below 55F in late September and early October the fish really get moving, and can be found anywhere in the lower 45miles of river. Drift boats access some of the most productive holes near the town of Brantford, with plenty of shore access for the walk and wade fisherman too. The Grand has plenty of specific regulations so be sure to check the OMNR regulations booklet. In the fall, Anglers present Grand chromers with float fished roe, minnow imitating flies and plastics, and crankbaits.
Lake Huron provides some of the best fall steelheading of all the Great Lakes both in the U.S. and Canada. The number of productive tributaries is off the charts, both on the main shores of Huron and throughout Georgian Bay. Wild stocks are strong on Huron and a few watersheds see very good returns of hatchery fish. The trip around the lake from Sarnia, up the Bruce Peninsula, around the Bay and up to the Soo opens up dozens upon dozens of prime walk and wade water in fairly pristine settings. Huron fish can grow big, pushing the scales past 20 pounds on occasion, but fish in the 5-8 pound range are the norm.
One of the most attractive aspects of fishing Huron tributaries is the great variation in run timing. Some Huron tribs start seeing arrivals of early fall steelhead in September, while others get going near late November. Some location will always be fishing well, the questions is “how far do you want to drive?” Prime fall picks for the travelling angler include the Maitland, Saugeen, Beaver, Nottawasaga, and the Rapids in Sault Ste Marie. We will focus on the big two.
Huron’s most productive, and possibly most popular steelhead destination is the Saugeen.
Much like Erie’s Grand River, the Saugeen encompasses a massive watershed and reaches Huron in the town of Saugeen Shores near the base of the Bruce. This river provides an outstanding steelhead run with excellent returns of hatchery fish from the Lake Huron Fishing Club and Ontario Steelheader’s stocking program. The “Geen” also supports a strong wild run of fish as well which adds to a return of over 40,000 steelhead. The most intense fishing pressure comes in the couple mile section of “open all year” angling waters below Denny’s Dam near the lake. Here, anglers start battling chrome steelhead in September with large pushes of fish entering the system on rain events right through the winter. Above Denny’s exists nearly 80km of extended fall fishing opportunities, which can be plied from a drift boat or on foot for adventurous anglers. Centerpin floatfishing is the norm for most of the big river, but hardware fisherman score on small spoons, and plenty of the Geen is set up perfectly for swinging a fly.
At the far corner of Huron, the Soo Rapids is a popular destination of steelhead junkies in the fall. The short stretch of fast water is the outlet of Lake Superior, providing cool water temps year round. Steelhead start showing up in late August with steady pulses of fish entering the river well into November. Soo fish are strong, and have plenty of current to add to their fight once hooked. This is big, fast water and requires cautious wading.
Centerpin float fishing, bottom bouncing, chucking hardware, and swinging Spey flies all produce good catches of fall steelhead on the Rapids. Bonus opportunities exist here for late run Chinooks, Coho and Atlantics. The Ontario side of the rapids is known for the fact that it provides bank anglers with better access than the American side. Seams, pools and smoother water is found along the eastern bank, with foot access to the base of the gates.
A roadtrip along Ontario’s Superior coastline should be at the top of every Great Lakes steelheader’s bucket list. Fall steelheading the rugged tributaries across the fairly remote landscape of Superior is an experience all to itself. Wild steelhead call these rivers home and they happen to be strong; very, very strong.
Water levels play the most important role for autumn fishing in these tributaries.
Some years the fishing can be great in September if rainfall has saturated the creeks, other years the fall runs are nearly non-existent due to lack of water. Superior has some very large, fast flowing rivers that always draw a fall run, and there are loads of tiny, wild and remote creeks that have fish that go totally untapped by anglers. Timing is tough, but those who hit the right water conditions can have great success on a number of different rivers. The big rivers include the Michipicoten, the Steel, Gravel, and Nipigon.
The smaller ones will be left un-named until you find them!
Superior steelhead are aggressive in nature.
Big fish crest the 10-pound mark and prove to be battle worn migrants worthy of a quick photo and prompt release. These wild fish average 2-5 pounds across most the region and take a keen liking for spoons and spinners fished in the fast sections of local rivers. Bottom bouncing roe is a proven tactic and float fishing with either beads or roe scores big too.
Superior tributaries are hard on tackle. Expect to lose lures, hooks and floats thanks to abundant sharp rocks, and ample amounts of wood. Expect to drive over plenty of prime creeks that look like they belong on the west coast of North America. Bush whacking to productive holes is the norm. Do not expect to find many fully stocked tackle stores in the north, and remember to fuel up when you get the chance!
Ontario offers 100’s of productive steelhead waters for anglers to sample. Far too many rivers exist to possibly cash in on all opportunities. Home grown anglers from Ontario are some of the most versatile trout fisherman I know. We are blessed with ample water, plenty of fish, and a wide array of tactics to employ. No matter how you want to fish them, steehead exist in water for every technique. From small creeks, and urban harbors, to remote wilderness settings, there are places to find steelhead in the north and the south of the province over the entire fall season.
For the do-it yourself steelheader looking to find some new water to fish, Ontario offers the greatest variety on the Great Lakes come autumn.
- written by Josh Choronzey