While each river mouth is vastly different, there is a general approach you can start with when trolling river mouths. First learn the run timing of the river you plan on trolling.
Bright colors are the go to early and late day while natural and metallic colors shine during the full light hours from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
I was weary after a foggy 6-hour, nail biting drive from north of Detroit past Cleveland, but I eagerly anticipating meeting up with Ohio fall river mouth steelhead trolling expert John Breedlove. John’s boat was in the water and ready in spite of the near perfect ice-skating surface on the dock. We slowly pulled out of the no wake zone and were greeted with a stunning sunrise framed against a handsome rocky shoreline. I set up the video equipment and start interviewing John while he dispensed lines along a rocky break wall near the river mouth. After John set up line 2 of 3, the drag on the second line with a jointed Flicker Shad started singing and bouncing! We put the boat in neutral, I pulled in line 2 and turned toward the fish. John skillfully landed it with a solo net job. That woke me up more than the two pots of coffee I’d had so far that morning for sure. As we continued fishing John explained his trolling method and run timing in detail as we picked up more steel-head. This article explains his system which can be applied to any Great Lakes river mouth that hosts a steelhead run.
Let’s start with the basic steelhead trolling equipment. John uses an aluminum walleye boat equip with a 40 hp Mercury 4 stroke with a troll control tiller handle and a bow mount 24 volt Minn Kota Terrova I pilot. John uses both, and the tiller handle is required to get the low rpms out of the 40 hp 4 stroke. The boat tracks as driven when set up this way in almost all but the worst conditions. The boat is setup to run up to 8 Ram Mount series 2000 rod holders. In the rod holders you will find 7-foot Bass Pro fast-action, medium-power graphite trolling rods with Okuma 20DX line-counter reels. The line counter is required to target the lure at correct depths above the fish. John uses 15-pound test Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon to provide the strength needed to prevent losing steelhead. A cross lock style #2 snap swivel is on the business end of every line. John also checks his knots and hook sharpness frequently (and after each fish) and re-ties or sharpens as required.
As far as lures John has a huge on-board arsenal along with an even larger stash of trolling lures. He keeps them all in the original packaging to prevent hooks from damaging the lures. It takes more space, but finishes last way longer than the typical throw all the same color in the same slot method. John’s favorites include Williams Quick Silver, Little Cleo and KO Wobbler spoons, J-9 and J-11 Jointed Rapalas, Flicker Shads, Shad Raps, and Wiggle Warts. Typical lead length are from 40-90 feet and is determine by many factors including lure dive profile, current/wind direction, trolling speed, and ultimately the depth of the fish. Steelhead are sight feeders and John aims his lures a few feet above the fish he is marking on his graph.
As far as lures go John has a huge onboard arsenal along with an even larger stash of trolling lures. He keeps them all in the original packaging to prevent hooks from damaging the lures.
Bright colors are the go to early and late day while natural and metallic colors shine during the full light hours from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Water clarity is super important when trolling river mouths. If the visibility is less than 3 feet it can be tough for the fish to see the lures. As far as electronics, John’s boat is equipped with an Humminbird Helix 9 which has the Mega Chirp Side Imaging. Good electronics are essential for finding the active suspended staging fish and executing John’s trolling strategy. If John sees fish on the side find-ing technology but not the standard up and down transducer on his depth finder he will often use inline planer boards as a means to target these suspended fish high in the water column, to cover more water, and get the lures away from the fish-spooking boat shadow and noises.
While each river mouth is vastly different, there is a general approach you can start with when trolling river mouths. First learn the run timing of the river you plan on trolling. Use Google maps to check out the area and locate the ramp that is as close to the river of choice entry into the lake. Often times there is a ramp right at the mouth of the river, other times you have to drive the boat to access smaller fisheries. Look for structure such as break walls with nearby deep water that the fish can use to herd bait fish against while feeding.
These migrating fish are actively feeding and often cough up gobs of bait after capture. Use your electronics to locate schools of bait and search for larger fish amongst the bait. Troll the selected lures a few feet above the large fish. Trolling speeds start at 2.2 mph early season. When the water cools, slow the trolling speed down 1.8 mph. In extremely cold water in the ‘30s you may have to troll as slow as 1.5 mph. Spoons will not work at this speed so switch out baits and evaluate the action boat side before setting the line. Lazy S maneuvers often yield fish and offer clues on trolling speed adjustments. If the outside line hits, the fish want it faster, and if the inside line hits the fish want it slower.
Time of the day also has a varied influence on fishing success. In clear water early and late day are the best especially if the river mouth is shallow. If the water is stained or cold it often pays to show up at the crack of noon for the best visibility and warming water temperatures.
Run timing varies depending on the fishery. In the Lake Erie tributaries the season starts in September and ends when ice becomes an issue which usually occurs in late December. The fact that the fish haven’t been subject to a gauntlet of lures and baits make these fish more aggressive than their river run counterparts which enhances the catchability of these fish. Keep in mind it takes quite some time to figure out each river system and river mouth fishery. Pay attention to the weather near the fishery prior to your trip. Use apps such as the Weather Channel or Weather Underground to keep track of rainfall amounts. Did run off mess up the water due to rain a few days prior? Was the water clear but leaves an issue? Take notes in an electronic journal of your choice and you will be rewarded with a shortened learning curve. Search the stocking records. The rivers with the largest plants have the best fishing, who knew!
Deep water near the river mouth is a big deal for staging fish so it pays to under-stand what the water looks like outside the river mouth. For instance, if it is shallow, it will fish good with a stain but be barren when the water clears. With a deeper river mouth the fish will hang around the river mouth waiting for the next rain event and just go deeper when the water clears or the available transient light increases. It also pays to look for river systems with a mixed plant, say summer and winter run or Ohio and Michigan fish planted in the same river for a longer season. These different strains have different run characteristics relative to the actually timing of the staging event at the river mouths. Therefore, rivers with multi strain plants will offer a prolonged season so you can master them in fewer years due to the increase in fishing opportunities. You can also take data on the river’s clearing rate. The water will clear faster at the smaller fishery river mouths. Start there after a rain and follow the clear water to the mid-size and then larger river mouths. Some rivers just run muddy so check out websites like the USGS to get flow, clarity, and temperature data. Use social media such as a FaceBook Group like Steelhead 419 to get information on the target river. Study time pays off with fish so do your homework and you will be rewarded!
Time of the day also has a varied influence on the fishing success. In clear water early and late day are the best especially if the river mouth is shallow. If the water is stained or cold it often pays to show up at the crack of noon for the best visibility and warming water temperatures. These river mouth fish behave just like fish that have run the river in that they are triggered by rises in water temperature when the water is in the ‘30s.
So there you have it, a complete trolling system for fishing steelhead at Great Lakes River mouth locations. This approach is a great way to prolong your steelhead career if you struggle with wading, and is an excellent method to introduce a noob to the wacky and wonderful world of steelhead. So get out on a boat on a river mouth and troll up some chrome fresh steelhead.