Season’s Close: End-Game Steelhead
by Matt Straw
The river was an impressionistic painting—more Monet than real. A thick cloak of fog removed all detail and filtered bright color from the world, leaving dull pastels. Snow melt trickled from needles on overhanging pines. “Plop.” Rings rolled away in the current, distorting the window-pane clarity of the water.
Soft, diffused light streamed through the snow-laden trees. A late-March snow storm had passed. The wet, heavy kind that turns a walk through the forest into a slapstick comedy. Steelhead were spawning heavily a few days ago in water reading 45°F. But a constant, 48-hour influx of snow fall and snowmelt dropped the river into the mid 30°F range overnight. The redds—circles of bright, clean pebbles rolled over by spawning rainbows days before—were vacant.
But I didn’t need to go far to find them. Just a few hundred yards downstream, steelhead were packed into slow water like sardines in a can. I thought most steelhead enthusiasts would have found them, but even though the spawning areas were crowded days before, I was amazed to find myself alone on the nearest pools immediately downstream. Sometimes, if pools are few and far below the spawning areas, the best pools to seek might be immediately upstream. But, when water temperatures drop dramatically in a short period of time, which pool will they choose? In my experience, steelhead often drop back through 3, 4, even more pools after a sudden drop in water temperature to find the flow that suits them best. With the water at 34°F, they seek the slowest pool they can find. A wide pool in an area where the gradient of the land levels out becomes ideal. Doesn’t have to be very deep, just slow. It’s a perfect wintering hole, the kind I’ve described in winter issues in the past.
Late in the season, an untimely snow storm is just one among many unstable conditions that can interrupt or interfere with the spawning cycle. Decades ago, spring conditions seemed a little more predictable. More consistent snow cover in winter led to more consistently high water levels throughout spring. In the 1970s, on Michigan’s Rogue River, the spawn always peaked around April 10. But these days we may experience drought in late winter and spring, accompanied by the kind of low flows and clear water generally reserved for late summer and mid winter. Floods are always a possibility, if not a certainty. Peak spawning times vary more today, but still peak earliest down on Erie and latest up on Ontario’s North Shore.
Most steelhead anglers abandon the game after the peak. For a week or more, rivers are full to brimming with steel. Suddenly, as if somebody threw a switch, the fish are gone. I don’t know if most anglers are unaware of it or unwilling to hunt for them when most days turn up no fish, but late groups of steelhead come up most of our rivers. Spawning can continue, sporadically, into June—especially in rivers with natural reproduction taking place. As the water warms into the 50°F range, the fish won’t be pretty. Scars from jousting and jostling across shallow rocks in strong current become wounds that turn white with fungus. We often callously refer to these tortured beasts as “scabs.” But try to stay in your shoes if you hook one. Even the ugliest scab can reach light speed and clear the water by 4 feet in water that warm.
Last May, I had the opportunity to fish the late run on the Big Manistee with Captain Mark Chmura (Pier Pressure Charters, 231/233-1579) on Larry Raney’s river jet (http://premieranglingguideservice.com). We blew upriver toward Tippy Dam beneath high banks crowned in bright, new greenery on a gorgeous sunny morning. The trees blew past like memories of many days spent here over a half century of steelheading in every imaginable condition. A few foot soldiers were wading about, but no other boats. Rains had been slight, the flows were normal, and the shallow water was crystal clear. We slipped back down through the gravel riffles, spotting groups of spawning steelhead milling near fresh redds. We dropped the “hook” (anchor) just above and abreast of the largest groups we could find.
Our thoughts on disturbing steelhead while they spawn have been published many times. I don’t like to target spawners in streams with natural reproduction, and while the Michigan Department of Natural Resources claims the Big Manistee has “some” recruitment, most of it is supplied by spawners running the tributary creeks and small rivers that join the Manistee and by parr that retreat into those colder environments during the heat of summer. Still, we made every effort to target only males. The females—generally more silver—are the ones doing all the digging, and are usually paired up with one male ahead of a small group of “wannabe” males. Sometimes these groups of males are 6 or 7 strong, and they mill into current lanes between you and the spawners.
My favorite way to fish the redds is with a 6- to 8-weight fly rod. Short casts can be gradually increased to the precise drift you need to target. A white or otherwise bright fly can be seen slipping past, short of the spawners, revealing exactly how much more line to strip off the reel—measuring the distance precisely. The idea is to swing the fly past just short of the redd, or barely across the near lip. With spinning or casting gear, the cast needs to be precisely made each time. But this day we had spinning gear, and presented flies (nymph patterns) on size #8 hooks. Our 4-foot, 6-pound fluorocarbon leaders were tied to a swivel. Above the swivel was a bead and a sliding egg sinker. The sliding sinker provides an additional nano second to react sometimes before steelhead spit the bait. But because we couldn’t see our baits drifting along, the only way to avoid disturbing the actual spawners is to cast short of the nest each time.
Takes are subtle. Have to be a line watcher. If the line pauses in its downstream trajectory, set the hook. If the line jumps or twitches, set the hook. On my third drift the line jolted, the rod shot up, and the fish flew. Before my eyes could register the noisy reentry, the hook-jawed male was 20 feet downstream, running wild in every direction at once. “Woo hoo,” Chmura yelled, fast to a male below a different nest. Fish were spooking in every direction as Raney lifted the anchor to give chase. The gravel started slipping by 3 to 6 feet beneath us, rods doubled up, knees bent, eyes wide. Pretty much how the day went. Spawners are easy. Too easy, really. When conditions are far less perfect, and the fish can’t be seen, remember what the fish need before stumbling around in the river.
The River Rises
Fall-run steelhead may spawn in February—even earlier sometimes—in water temperatures of 38°F or less. Spring-run spawning begins to peak when water temperatures hit 40°F most years. The trend, in many rivers, has been for the biggest push of spring fish to wait until the water warms to that point before ramming up river en masse. Those fish rarely hold until they reach spawning gravel. They begin holding again as “dropbacks” after spawning. In fall and winter steelhead may hold most of the time, but in spring they move most of the time, even when the river is flooded.
Walking along flooded river banks in spring, I used to get my kicks by making drifts in 2 feet of water behind a row of wading anglers, just to see their shocked expressions when they snapped their heads around at the sound of a thrashing steelhead trying to leap into their waders. “You’re wading through fish,” I’d laugh. I learned my lesson by wading like they did—too far out before testing the shallows for fish. On several occasions I felt steelhead actually bumping into my legs on their way past. On two occasions, I dropped a float right next to my legs on the downstream side only to watch it disappear before traveling two feet. Want some excitement? Hook a steelhead a few feet from your waders.
If you can’t see your feet, a steelhead just might be nestled between them. Always start fishing where you can’t see bottom in any water deep enough for a steelhead’s back to remain submerged. The cloudier a river gets, the more steelhead gravitate to the inside of a bend or run or wherever the current is reduced. For years I’ve written about the “path of least resistance” and every species of fish that runs up river to spawn follows it. Why fight any more current than necessary? Imagine paddling a canoe upriver. You’ll end up making the same choices migratory fish do.
When fishing a pool, always start fishing where bottom disappears from view, no matter how close to the bank it is. Harder to do when fishing from a drift boat without waders. The classic move is to park on the inside of a deeper bend or run. In high water, the anchor gets dropped where steelhead were just before the boat spooked them. Park the boat upriver, walk down and approach the best spots on foot in high, cloudy water.
As the water clears, the travel lane moves closer to mid river. In high, clear water, steelhead continue to avoid cover for the most part. Steelhead stay as shallow and as close to the inside edge of pools as visibility allows. If the water is cold (in the 30°F to 38°F range), more steelhead will hold. If the water is warmer than that, chances of catching steelhead in pools dwindles with each degree of temperature—especially after the end of March in the lower Great Lakes. That’s when dropbacks begin to appear. Fish still running up to spawn in high water may hold briefly at the head and along the inside edges of pools. The best time to find them there is from an hour before dawn until an hour after. Dropbacks begin to show up mid morning, and they tend to hold in the tailouts—at the very lower end of the pool as they slide gradually back toward the big water, taking their time, resting as much as possible.
Steelhead are extremely vision-oriented. They have the visual acuity of eagles and they need to use it. In high water, look for the slowest current lanes, where more silt settles out of the flow. Less silt means a little better visibility and less discomfort. If possible, they prefer to spawn when they can see what’s happening. So the best places to set up shop in high, cloudy water are in the pools and runs immediately below major spawning riffles. That’s the only place steelhead are likely to hold for any length of time, especially in water over 40°F.
Fishing a pool in high water is often best accomplished with a simple bottom-bouncing rig. The classic rig, developed by “Steelhead Ed” Bryant back in the 1970s and modified only slightly since, starts with a tough 8-pound mono main line tied to a small size #12 barrel swivel. The leader, a 3- to 4-foot segment of 6-pound fluorocarbon, is tied to the swivel leaving a 6- to 8-inch tag end. Split shot are attached to that tag-end dropper—just enough to allow the rig to brush bottom every 2 to 3 feet. When the rig snags in rocks, the sinkers tend to slide off the dropper, leaving the rest of the rig intact. Adjusting the weight of the rig is simple. The rig can terminate in a fly, plastic bait, or a size #6 baitholder or Mustad 9260D for fishing spawn bags, minnows, nightcrawlers, or other live bait. Start at the head of the pool and move slowly downstream. Start with short casts and concentrate on that band of water where bottom disappears along the edge of the pool. Make a few casts to the middle of the pool, then the far bank, take two careful steps downstream and start over. Fish every drift until the rig nestles on bottom. In the coldest water, leave it resting there for a minute or so before retrieving.
The River Drops
Conversely, the lower and clearer a river gets, the deeper its population of migratory steelhead hold. When the water approaches its lowest, clearest levels, steelhead become more cover oriented, hiding more often under overhangs, fallen trees, and broken surfaces in the deepest possible water. At this point, they depend on the outside of pools and runs, where current gouges the deepest holes.
At the beginning of spring, from the point where snow is still covering the banks to where snow remains clinging only to shadowed spots on north-facing banks, the key spot is often the inside of the pool, the area bordering the shallow flat where you’re wading, in that lane where the bottom disappears from view. How do steelhead know when they’re visible from above? By being preyed up by birds and raccoons as parr and smolts. The stupid ones won’t survive. For the most part, steelhead know precisely where they become invisible and will hold at that depth in the slowest, shallowest current lanes they can tolerate. That’s especially true in winter and early spring, when the water is cold.
In low, clear conditions, steelhead use the head of a pool a lot, too. Broken water from a shallow run above the pool will extend down over the deeper water at the head. A few steelhead can find that special current void or “vertical eddy” created by the fastest current rolling by overhead, trapping a pocket of barely moving water below. Same thing happens at the tailout, but with no broken water overhead, steelhead may only hold there in the low-light conditions of dawn and dusk. Unless the water is cloudy, and they sense they can’t be seen from above.
In cold water during early spring, fish the pools. Start at the head of the pool. Float fishing is the most effective and efficient way to hook steelhead in these conditions. The lower the water gets, the spookier they get—reacting more to wakes created by clumsy wading, spooking from shadows, edging away from bright clothes and hovering bear-like shapes clad in waders. Floats carry a fly or spawn bag down beyond that spook zone that circles the angler. My leader is 5.6-pound Raven Invisible Fluorocarbon. I like to use small jigs (1/80- to 1/32-ounce) tipped with bait most of the time—either waxworms or spawn.
As the water warms, the more we find steelhead in pockets in faster water. In warmer water over 40°F or anytime after the end of March, grab a fly rod and look for spawning riffles (shallow gravel in fast water). Don’t wade on the redds, and try to concentrate only on the males, which the spawning females will continue to attract as long as you leave them alone. And fish the pools immediately below these spots for resting fish and dropbacks.
And when the end game comes, perhaps it hasn’t. Late groups of spawners often run unnoticed, right into the month of June. And way up north, June spawners are commonplace. What an awesome time to take a stroll along the river, in the budding green rife with birdsong and the bright punctuation points of wildflowers.
- Matt Straw