Ice Bound Steelhead: The Spring Run Cometh by Matt Straw

Ice Bound Steelhead: The Spring Run Cometh by Matt Straw


Snow devils come whirling across a white expanse that extends to the eastern horizon. Under those twisting ghosts of tornados past—and several feet of ice—rainbows come in from the cold, following rituals older than the Great Lakes.

ice fishing steelhead fish great lakes

They come in waves from the freshwater seas—waves that mostly break, scatter, and return to the sanctuary of deeper water. Though low-light periods at dawn and dusk tend to see more of these waves, the timing of the next one can never be predicted.

After a quiet hour or two of watching the snow devils make our osprey kite dip and circle as we pass time, one such wave arrives under our feet. Several “traps” spring at once, causing limber sticks to wave and thrash in holders over open holes as we scramble to get there. Big-water rainbows peel line from reels set with light drags. Sometimes trout make for the river, leaping in the open water.

Sometimes they head back out to sea.

When steelhead stage outside river mouths, they become vulnerable to ice-fishing pressure. Great Lakes steelhead run rivers to spawn, staging in the greatest numbers when conditions in rivers are poor—low and clear, high and muddy, or when the river is completely frozen in places.

When conditions are right, many rivers have big fall runs. When that happens, fewer trout are left to mill about and stage outside the river mouth—which means slow ice fishing.

Moderate flows to high-and-clear conditions draw fall steelhead way upstream in fall. When conditions are just right for fall-run steelhead to run upriver in the Great Lakes region any time from October through mid January—best put on your waders and go after them honestly.  If you really need to catch them through a hole in the ice, save all your efforts for late February through March, as spring-run steelhead stage before moving upriver. And have your equipment ready.

Assembling Gear

Catching ice-bound steelhead requires a lot of stealth. In a lot of areas, the best spots to` set traps will be relatively shallow—4- to 10-feet deep. Imagine standing that far over a fish that can smell better than a bloodhound, see better than an eagle, sense vibration better than a seismograph, and hear better than you. Not exaggerating. Read the science.

These fish are homing in from a vast “sea” to a relatively tiny environment. They were suspending over depths of 100 feet or more most of the summer. Now their world is much smaller and they’re wary. Walk over their head and they will feel you.

Sit near the hole with nervous feet and they will hear you. Send a shadow over an open hole and they will see you.

Forget to use scent to hide the L-serine amino acids you left on your baits or knots and they will smell you.

So. Drill holes before dawn, set traps, set up a chair or portable shelter at least 20 feet from the nearest hole, sit quietly, then wait and watch. “Traps” are Slamco Slammer Tip Ups and Automatic Fishermen—rod holders on stable platforms that set the hook for you.

tip up fishing steelhead ice great lakes

The ice rod is placed in the holder, and a spawn bag, crappie minnow, wax worm,  plastic bait, or marabou jig is positioned anywhere from halfway down to a couple inches off bottom.

The rod is then bent over with the tip placed on a slippery peg.  If a trout breathes on the offering, the tip slips off the peg, the rod snaps up and the hook is driven home. Time to run.

In both cases—with either an Automatic Fisherman or Slammer—the bar holding the peg (the “trigger arm”) slaps down onto the platform when the rod tip slides off the peg. Everyone turns immediately, heads swiveling toward the noise. “Clunk.” Directions come from all directions with people pointing at “That one!  Over there!”

A rod thrashes in the holder, anglers running toward it.

We land lots of steelhead with rods packaged with the Automatic Fisherman rods, but I sometimes use limber ice rods or short ultralights with traps. The St. Croix Triumph TRS5OULM is only 5-feet long with a parabolic action, bending tip to butt. Don’t have your face in the way when the tip slides off the peg. The two to three feet of added graphite produce a solid hookset, but also  provide all kinds of protection for your fishing line.

Tying on a leader can be a mistake. Line can slide across the bottom of the hole when a steelhead runs, creating a groove. As the trout (could be a big brown trout, too) is brought close to the hole, knots like the back-to-back uni or a small swivel can stick in that groove made in the ice. If you can’t give line, steelhead will snap it. So I spool up a quality reel with a superior drag (usually a Daiwa or Shimano spinning reel) with 6- to 8-pound Seaguar Abraz-X or Invis-X Fluorocarbons and tie directly to the jig or hook. Abraz-X and Invis-X lines are amazing in that 1/ If steelhead do lodge them in the ice, they won’t often break; 2/ They won’t stiffen and bounce off the spool in cold weather like other fluorocarbons; and 3/ I’m convinced steelhead can’t see them, even in ultra-clear water.

steelhead ice fishing jigs crappie

When fishing with baits like wax worms, minnows, or spawn bags I use size #8 to size #6 Owner Mosquito Hooks, which come out of the pack sharp as needles and never break or straighten on a fish. Using smaller hooks is an option, but also a conceit—not big enough to bridge the gap across the jaw plate of a large specimen, often resulting in a “grapple hold.” Which means, when a steelhead goes wild (which it will), twisting, thrashing, and turning in all directions, and throws slack into the line for so much as a nano second, the hook will fall out.  In really clear water—which the Great Lakes have in abundance—small hooks might result in more hookups, but less fish on the ice.

And of course you need to drill holes. The StrikeMaster Lithium 40v is my tool of choice.

It’s an electric auger, which means no gas cans, no fumes, and less weight. I have yet to utilize my backup battery. It muscles through ice all day with a 40-volt lithium ion battery and a DC brushless motor for reliable, constant speed and torque. A planetary gear system provides lightweight durability and high power density, and StrikeMaster Lazer blades provide the fastest cutting edge. And it’s lighter than a gas auger.

Traveling light is important because typical steelhead ice-fishing venues are meant for foot soldiers. River mouth areas tend to have thinner ice that is less safe for snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles—let alone 4-wheel drive trucks. The good news is, it’s usually a short walk with a sled or portable ice shelter from the car to a good spot in many areas around the Great Lakes. But when the snow is deep, having a light, electric auger is a blessing. And setting traps doesn’t require 100 holes. In fact, it’s best to make less disturbance and drill as few holes as possible. But drill enough holes early to allow for moving traps around later on.

Finding Steel

Any influx of water can draw steelhead to the shore line. The famous drowned river-mouth lakes of Michigan’s western Lower Peninsula draw the most attention because they are sheltered, and the ice is fairly dependable. Examples include Pere Marquette Lake, Lake Manistee, Muskegon Lake, and Platte Lake. Otherwise, ice is most dependable in bays, such as the Petosky Bay Area in Michigan, where Bear Creek enters lake Michigan, or off the mouth of the Boardman River in Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay.

ice fishing matt straw great lakes steelhead

Overlooked ice-fishing opportunities for steelhead exist around remote creeks that enter the big lakes in areas that are difficult to access. But the most widely ignored opportunities exist almost anywhere ice forms along the shorelines and bays of the Great Lakes.

Sometimes, for relatively unknown reasons, steelhead gather on beaches and shorelines that exist miles from any tributaries.  Those spots shift from year-to-year, so the best way to find them is to troll the shorelines with small spoons, Rapala Original Floaters, and Flat Fish during November. If you find them, concentrated along a certain stretch, hope they’re adjacent to public land, or that private land owners will allow access after the ice forms. If it forms at all.

But the ice around a river or creek mouth remains the highest percentage target.

During cold weather, levels drop, and the water clears. I that case, the closer holes can be safely drilled to the open water or unsafe ice near the mouth, the better. (Always carry Picks of Life ice awls in a breast pocket.) After a rain or thaw, when chocolate water comes rolling out of the rivers, fish the edge of the mudline.

When ice has little or no snow, it will look brown in one area and grey, blue or clear in others. Make holes where the colors meet.  Under snow, all you can do is drill a lot of holes, place traps in the farthest ones out,  and keep assessing the water clarity until confident about the location of the mudline.

ice fishing steelhead great lakes

Often the mudline moves around, billowing out toward the lake, then receding back toward shore. You may set a trap in clear water where you can see bottom, but within 10 minutes it could be over water with visibility of 6 inches or less. Steelhead tend to avoid water so thick with sediment that they can’t see, but they will be excited by the increased flow, skirting around near the edge of the mud. Options: Set all traps outside the farthest extent of the cloudy water and wait them out, or set half the traps out there and keep moving the others to stay on the edge of the cloudy water.

Big rivers have big currents flowing way out into the lake. Small rivers and creeks have less current, reaching less far. Water temperatures in the lake will range between 33°F shallow and 39°F deep, but water of 40°F or more can be flowing in from the stream. In any case, steelhead will not fight strong currents in any of those temperatures for long.

Always monitor the current—watching the angle of the line. If the angle is too steep, trailing off to one side or the other, find areas off to the side of the flow where current has less force. Steelhead are most likely to hold in those spots, just off the main current but in still or barely moving water. It is possible to catch them even in the strongest flow, but those fish are just passing by, not holding.

Steelhead come sniffing into the mouths of rivers and creeks under the ice to assess the situation. They don’t appear to always arrive from one direction, sometimes taking long angles from either side of the river mouth, sometimes coming straight in from the deeps. Scattering traps in all directions around the mouth of a stream is a good idea.

steelhead ice fishing rainbow trout great lakes matt straw

Baiting Up

After baiting a hook and dropping it down the hole, I was attempting to slip the rod tip onto the peg when I saw her. I froze. Not five feet below me a big, pink-sided silver missile was staring at the offering. I held my breath, not wanting a sudden fog to appear over the hole. After what seemed like an eternity, the bait was gone. She had sucked it in and was still hovering there. I grabbed the line and jerked, trying to set the hook with my hand. But adrenaline did me in. I jerked too hard, snapped the line, and she disappeared as if never there at all.  Not much stretch in 5 feet of line, but such equations escaped me in the heat of the moment.

Chris Beeksma, owner of Get Bit Guide Service in Iron River, Wisconsin, looked over and laughed. “Getting a little excited over there?”

What steelhead get excited about is a whiff of sex.

They can smell fewer parts per billion of a trace scent than a bloodhound. If fish are spawning somewhere up that creek or river, they’ll know. It can trigger a run. And the scent steelhead are most tuned in to is, of course, the smell of milt and eggs from their own kind.  Though many swear by eggs from browns, salmon, and other fish, fishing with steelhead eggs in spring makes the most sense. Browns and salmon spawn in fall, and that’s when I feel their eggs are most effective. Not that brown trout eggs won’t catch rainbows in spring. I would use them in a pinch.

steelhead ice fishing tip ups great lakes trout rainbow jigs But fresh steelhead eggs from a put-and-take fishery are my first choice.

Tied up in spawn bags, fresh eggs last an hour or two before milking out and turning white. If the water under the ice is clear, most of my bags are tied up with soft peach, pale yellow, or light orange netting from Redwing Tackle. After a rain or thaw, when chocolate water comes rolling into the lake, white, chartreuse, bright pink, or fluorescent orange can be best.

Often one color takes more fish than all the others, Not always, but having bags tied in a variety of colors leads to more success. If all the bags are always tied in one color, how can you ever know if another color might have worked better?  Many, many times over the past 45 years, when comparing notes with other anglers after a day’s fishing, every steelhead caught on a particular river or around a particular river mouth responded to the same color and ignored all the others. Why? Who knows?

The same thing goes for jigs. When rivers rise, currents increase outside the river mouth, often lifting a single hook up toward the ice and out of the strike zone—especially when baited with wax worms or plastics, but with spawn bags, too. Using split shot on the line is three-fold bad. Shot can lodge in the ice below the hole just like a swivel when playing a fish. Shot can weaken the line. And shot is clearly visible to a steelhead, possibly causing it to shy away. We use small, 1/64- to 1/16-ounce TC Tackle and VooDoo Custom Fishing Tackle Jigs to keep the bait down where we want it. Our jigs are painted with nail polish or glow powder paints in dozens of shades. More often than not, one shade catches most of the fish. And jigs don’t have to be baited. Small marabou jigs often trigger more strikes than anything else, especially in a slight current that keeps the feathers breathing.

jig fishing plastic crappie steelhead ice spawn net

When fishing with wax worms, I often use a white, pale green, or pale yellow jig to emulate the colors of caddis larvae native to the area. Wax worms and little plastic grubs sometimes catch more steelhead than spawn, but we estimate that it happens only one day in five—maybe one in ten.  And I can’t isolate which conditions precipitate those kinds of days, so we always carry wax worms if we can find them. Lip-hooked crappie minnows often work as well or better than wax worms. In some areas, minnows tend to outfish everything else, and they stay alive longer than a spawn bag keeps its color if hooked right. But carrying them and baiting up can be a frozen-fingered hassle.

All these baits can be presented on a size #8 to size #6 Owner Mosquito Hook or a small jig. When the weather is cold, and the currents rolling to of the river or creek are slight to nonexistent, I use just a bare hook—less to see, less to feel. Less to mess with when snow devils come whirling across the white expanse and steelhead are travelling underfoot,  trying to get home again.

- written by Matt Straw

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