Author with colored spring buck.
As I write this in mid-December, the steelhead run so far could be sized up as one that is quite light in numbers. My fishing has been concentrated on Lake Michigan tributaries as usual and the Quagga mussels seem to be continuing to affect the food chain. Surprisingly the size and condition of the individual steelhead does not seem to have been affected.
There has been a substantial call from both anglers and guides for reducing the limit for steelhead. Some progress has been made in this vein. Check out the sidebar for more information on this.
My initial title for this article was “Bridge to Bridge for Steelhead” but that would only fit for some of our streams, mostly in southern Michigan. Whether wading or floating, covering a substantial section of river will increase your chances for finding relatively scarce fish that haven’t been pressured and are more likely to strike. The monofilament line and floats dangling from the overhanging trees near the access site tell you that the steelhead get to see lots of angler’s offerings. It follows that the fish in the holes and runs that are far from the access points will see a lot fewer angler offerings.
Bridges and public access sites will provide the starting and ending points for your fishing outing. You will have to experiment a bit with how much time it takes to float or wade a particular river. The larger and more sinuous the stream, the longer it will take you to fish the section between two bridges that are one mile or a certain distance apart. When wading small rivers I can cover that mile in three to five hours but if the river is large, has lots of bends, and is on the turbid side, it may take eight or nine hours to fish it all. As I age I am finding that the time to wade from point A to B is increasing significantly. Floating usually takes one half to two thirds of the time compared to wading upstream.
Hefty spring hen caught with a minnow plug.
Initially, fishing with a partner and leaving a vehicle at each bridge is a good idea. That way you can determine how long it will take to fish a stretch without being pressured to get to the end at a certain time. Once you’ve got a river down pat you can fish two adjacent sections with a friend(s) using only one vehicle. The first angler or pair gets dropped off at one bridge and the car is moved to the bridge where they will finish. The second angler(s) fishes to the next bridge where he or she will be picked up by the angler fishing to the car or truck.
In the fall and winter steelhead prefer river reaches with moderate flows and rocky or firm sand bottoms. Fallen trees, boulders, logs, and overhanging vegetation all provide cover and a place for these fish to rest on their river migration. As spring approaches, it will be time to increase the focus of your efforts on reaches with lots of spawning gravel.
When wading it is a good idea to move in an upstream direction. All river fish orient to the current. Much of the time steelhead will lie behind an obstacle or in the slot between a side eddy and the main current, resting before proceeding upstream. Since they are usually facing upstream, approaching from behind or to the side and casting above the fish is a good plan. This allows you to retrieve or drift your offering with the current in a natural manner.
Another real big plus to fishing upstream is that the fish remain unaware of your presence. Steelhead remain wary in their new, shallower environment and it is important to not be sending sand or ripples ahead of you. When floating you should try to be as quiet as possible and drifting by along the shallow edge of a good-looking hole or deep riffle and then fishing it back upstream is often a good idea. Whether wading or floating, fishing the holding water from the downstream edge up gives you the best chance to catch more than one steelhead from the hole or run. More often than not, hooked steelhead run downstream when you put the steel to them and will likely spook any other steelhead in the run. This has been illustrated for me many times. More often than not times when I caught 2 steelhead in the same run the first fish surged downstream immediately after being hooked. My feeling is that I would not have hooked a second fish if I had hooked the upstream fish first.
Author with a plug-caught steelie.
Utilizing a personal watercraft works especially well when fishing low, clear water. A small anchor or brush clamp will al-low you to stop and fish as you go if you are using a canoe or small boat. Floating to the lower end of the holding water and then wading and fishing back up will greatly in-crease your chances of hooking more than one steelhead in the prime water.
Jigs, spoons, weighted spinners, crank baits, and beads are good lure choices for steelhead in rivers. While weighted spinners are my favorite, I have added minnow plugs to my arsenal and tend to match the lure type with the river habitat and how the fish are reacting.
Weighted spinners are especially effective lures in moving water and are a great choice when you are exploring and covering lots of water. They really get the attention of the fish and have action at very slow retrieve speeds, which is quite helpful when the steelhead are not particularly active, or the water is on the turbid side. While this lure doesn’t really represent any natural food, it appears alive and attracts the steelhead’s attention fish through both sight and sound. Spoons are easy to get down to the fish in deep holes but must be retrieved faster to impart their wobbling action. Thus, they are less frequently tied on my line, especially when the visibility is low. Plugs work especially well in situations where the steelhead can get a long look at the lure such as long runs in relatively slow water.
Plugs that imitate minnows are especially productive as spawning time approaches. Thinking anthropomorphically, it makes sense that spawning steelhead would not want to have egg eating minnows close by their spawning area.
As you search and explore for steel-head from bridge to bridge don’t forget your polarized sunglasses and billed cap. They will be a great aid in reading the water and finding the submerged logs, root wads, boulders and other cover that these fish like to lurk near and under. Try to cast and retrieve your lures as close as possible to this fish holding cover. Similarly try to judge the currents and land your drifted lure so that it will drift by the log or rock. Having said this, it is better to miss the target by being a bit wide of the target rather than getting hung up on the first cast. Make your first presentation as close as you can within your casting ability and then try to get closer with subsequent casts.
As I move upstream, I have a rigid two cast rule to every good looking spot for a resting steelhead. Your first cast may get the fish’s attention but the steelie may not see it in time to grab it. If the spot looks really good you will want to cover it with a bunch of casts. Likewise, if a steelhead follows, you see a flash near your lure, or you get another hint that one is present you will want to make even more casts. Changing to another lure will also be part of fishing the spot thoroughly. As I have been preaching for a while now, utilizing a black duo lock snap on the end of your line will facilitate a quick lure change.
Terri Bedford with spring steelie hooked on a spinner.
Even with a lighter than normal run of migratory rainbows, great sport still awaits you on our steelhead tributaries this spring. Perhaps the spring run will compensate for the relatively light run of fall steelies with a push of extra fish. Most likely some of the steelhead will continue to be larger than normal so make sure that your tackle can handle some double figure steelies.
For the first time in this senior angler’s memory the DNR is going to take some action in response to the unusually light run of steelhead in Lake Michigan tributaries. Discussions on reducing the possession limit on steelhead were initi-ated by anglers and guides at this past October Natural Resources Commission Meeting, continued at the November meet-ing and acted on at the December Meeting. For a 60 day period this spring (March 15 through May 15) the steelhead possession limit will be reduced to one fish in the following rivers: The Big Manistee River and its tributary, Bear Creek, the Little Manistee River (our principle brood stock stream), the Pere Marquette River and its tributary, the Big South Branch, and the Muskegon River. The Carp River, a tributary to Lake Superior near Marquette, and the Manistique River below the paper mill dam were also slated to have a one steel-head limit this spring. A more restrictive limit for wild steelhead was also discussed but not acted on by the Commission. Look to the DNR for more information on this regulation change.