Shore Easy Steelhead by Paul M. Liikala

Shore Easy Steelhead by Paul M. Liikala

I watched the sun rise, while fishing a tiny creek mouth.

A warm southerly wind created gentle waves that lapped at my boots. It was a beautiful morning to be fishing.

Creek mouths can produce some nice fall steelhead.

Creek mouths can produce some nice fall steelhead.

Slowly I retrieved the silver and blue spoon. Suddenly, the morning’s tranquility was shattered by a surge of power that tried to pull the fishing rod from my hands. Before I could catch my breath, a silver streak came flying out of the water. Then the steelhead trout charged me, only to go airborne again. This time the hook did not hold, and my line was slack. 

This episode can be a common experience for anglers who want to catch early season steelhead from lake shore areas. Best of all, it can be done with minimal equipment and is available to both shore and boat anglers.

pier fishing steelhead great lakes shore casting lures spoons

When the steelhead are hitting, the piers fill with anglers.

“This type of fishery offers the opportunity for anglers to catch large lake run fish relatively inexpensively,” said Phil Hillman, Ohio’s Wildlife District 3 Fish Management Supervisor. “This is especially true for those shore bound anglers who don’t have a boat.”

Hillman knows what he is talking about. Over the past 40 years, he has perfected salmonid shore techniques that work for him when fishing piers, break walls, and small stream mouths.

“When fishing piers and break walls, I like to use two fishing rods,” said Hillman. “One of the rods has a Mini Foo jig, baited with maggots or an emerald shiner, under a float. After casting it out, I set the rod on the pier, with the bail open. If you don’t leave the bail open, you can lose your rod to a steelhead.”

pier fishing steelhead great lakes shore casting lures spoons

In clear waters, his jigs of preference, are 1/32- and 1/64-ounce Mini Foos with red or black heads. The jig bodies are either plain black or black with Mylar mixed into the body. In stained waters he likes fluorescent orange or fluorescent red Mini Foos. He uses small one and a half inch weighted Styrofoam floats. These provide for longer casts, while offering less resistance when the fish bites. Set the float so it is about waist high above the jig.

Onto the lead heads he hooks three or four maggots once through their middle.

pier fishing steelhead great lakes shore casting lures spoons jig maggot

The beauty of the jig bite is the angler does not know what is hitting until he sets the hook. It might be a small white perch or a 12-pound steelhead.

Now, the strike on a retrieved lure is in contrast to the usual jig bite. The lure strike is savage. There is no doubt what species is at the end of the line. These lake dwelling fish are super charged silver maniacs. Often they appear to be out of the water more than they are in it. Beware of extra tight drags that instantly result in broken fishing lines.

mooselook wobbler

“After casting a Blue Fox spinner, count from 10 to 15 to let it fall in the water column,” Hillman suggested. “When retrieving, whether it is a spinner or spoon, do something erratic. While cranking the lure, thump the line with your finger, or twitch the rod tip. A little difference in the retrieve increases your chances of success.”

The spinner’s size can be between a 1/4 to 2/3 of an ounce. In clear water he likes chrome, or chrome/blue. In off color waters, he may switch to an orange/ gold or a fluorescent orange/silver spinner. He always uses a quality snap swivel with his spinners to prevent line curl. When fishing spoons, he ties the line directly to the lure.

pier fishing steelhead great lakes shore casting lures spoons

A nice assortment of fall fishing lures.

The spinner will be cranked somewhat faster than a spoon. When fishing a spoon, Hillman wants the lure at the correct speed. Ideally it has a slow tantalizing wobble. Experience has taught him what the correct speed is for both lures. To learn it, change retrieval speeds. It is better to err on the slow side. When the fish start hitting, you have the correct retrieval speed and action.

Favorite spoon colors would include chrome/blue, chrome/green, and chrome/chartreuse in hammered or regular finishes. In stained waters, try gold/orange or chrome/orange. If the hardware doesn’t produce, Hillman will switch over to shallow running stick baits. His favorite is a Wee Wart. However, if a lure has a nice wobble, hungry steelhead likely will hit it.

Just when and where to fish is important.

Even when fishing within a harbor, high winds can make for tough fishing conditions. This is especially true along break walls. The large gaps between the wall’s boulders make for tough walking. However, the moss covered rocks become extremely slippery when waves splash over them. It’s a good idea to have a long handled net when fishing break walls and piers.

pier fishing steelhead great lakes shore casting lures spoons

Another pier steelhead is landed.

Not all spots on the pier and break walls are the same. If there is a bit of current at the end of a wall or from water passing through the pier, fish it. Bait likes current and steelhead like baitfish. Also, small creeks entering the lake have current that attract steelhead. Whether fishing a break wall, pier, or creek mouth, day break and sunset hours are prime times. Soft southerly winds are preferred because the lake’s waves are negligible near the shore and make for a comfortable day of fishing.

Hillman waits until September 20 before starting to shore fish for steelhead. Usually, at this time the Lake Erie water temperature is around 68 degrees. From this date into late fall, the shoreline action becomes more consistent.

Jeff Liskay also is a steelhead expert who loves to catch steelhead. He has perfected methods for catching them from both large and small boats.

pier fishing steelhead great lakes shore casting lures spoons

“When trolling the deep harbor waters, the upper third of the water column usually is best”, said Liskay. “Eight feet down from the surface is a good starting point.”

When fishing a new harbor area, Liskay strongly suggests spending time motoring around the harbor searching for fish holding structures. He studies the walls watching for irregularities such as elbows or bends. He also pays attention to sections where the winter’s ice has deteriorated rocks, causing them to fall into the water. This forms a mini point. He also looks for turbid areas caused by waves hitting certain sections of the break wall. The stained water attracts bait and steelhead.

He also watches for current areas. Where the pier or wall has openings that water can wash through, fish it. The same applies to the end of the pier heads or break walls that guards the harbor mouth. Any moving water holds the promise of attracting fish. Also, if gulls are busting baitfish, immediately go to them. If the feeding fish are steelhead, it’s game on. By scouting first and fishing later, a lot of unproductive water is eliminated.

Once at a potentially, good looking spot, the angler can keep it simple by flat line trolling. A good standby trolling lure would be a 2/5 to 3/4 ounce Little Cleo Spoon or almost any pear shaped spoon. Silver/blue, silver/chartreuse, glow green fluorescent or some type of orange are four good choices.

pier fishing steelhead great lakes shore casting lures spoons

This orange/gold spoon was irresistible to the lake run trout.

Fish the spoons 50 to 70 feet behind the boat. A long cast is a good rule of thumb for distance. However, before casting run the spoon besides the boat. Initially, set the speed and watch if it is doing a slow wobble. Once the boat is moving, Liskay is a strong believer in stop and go trolling. The stopped boat causes the spoon to vertically drop. This often triggers strikes. Pause a short time, long enough for the lure to fall five to eight feet, then put the motor back in gear.

Now, Liskay’s methods for plugs is a bit more complex. When the water is in the 50’s to the upper 60’s he will use crank baits. For shallow runners, he likes floating Rapalas, Reef Runners, and Perfect 10’s. Silver/ blue, silver/black, orange, chartreuse, and plugs with fluorescent pink highlights are his go-to colors. Once again, before releasing the lures set the trolling speed so the plugs are just working back and forth. If the fish aren’t hitting, increase the boat’s speed.

If the boat is going over 1.5 m.p.h. and still no strikes, try a deep diving crankbait such as a Flicker Shad, Shad Rap, or Reef Runner in shad colors. These deep divers have a faster action and more vibration than stick baits pulled at the same speed. This difference might be just the ticket for triggering a bite. Deep divers become less effective when the water temperature falls below 40 degrees.

pier fishing steelhead great lakes shore casting lures spoons

In the chilly water, shallow runner stick baits can produce, but banana shaped plugs become effective because their action is more suited to slow trolling speeds. Lindy River Rockers in the 3/8 ounce (#3 size) can produce nice fish. When fishing these colder waters, K-9 Kwikfish and U-20 Flatfish lures can be very productive.

At slower speeds, banana shaped baits have an enticing wobble that can be just the ticket. When trolling deeper waters crimp two or three split shot three feet ahead of the regular Flatfish and Kwikfish. If using the Extreme Kwikfish no weights are needed because they run a tad deeper and can be trolled at a faster clip. Effective Kwikfish and Flatfish colors would be pink/silver, blue/silver, chartreuse and bright orange.

For those anglers who like wild action, try putting out a spread of lures behind a number of mini boards or regular planer boards. It’s a good idea to run one of the mini boards close to the wall without snagging the lure. When fishing lures behind boards, there is nothing more exciting than seeing double and triple headers of steelhead going crazy. Good luck at trying to keep the multiple hook-ups from tangling lines.

Now, don’t neglect upstream waters from the piers to the first riffle. At times fall steelhead roam these lower river areas. When trolling these shallower waters, try and keep the bait near the bottom. Look for deeper holes that are six feet or deeper. Run the lures 75 feet or longer behind the boat. These are perfect conditions for trolling with an electric motor. In fact, at times I like to kayak troll for these fish.

pier fishing steelhead great lakes shore casting lures spoons

When nearing the first riffle, turn and head back towards the lake. When approaching a nice long hole, don’t be afraid to turn off the motor and slow drift downstream. Try casting spoons, spinners or plugs. Sometimes they want a quiet presentation. If the lures aren’t working, fish a second rod with a jig and maggot under a float.

One problem, with fall fishing, is leaves. As the lure is moves through the water, a leaf will wrap around the line and follow it to the lure. This fouls its action. To cut down on the leaf tangles, put a size 2 or 3 swivel to end of your main line. Tie on a four or five foot fluorocarbon leader to the other eye of the swivel. After tying the leader and main line to the snap swivel, don’t be neat. Leave about a half inch tag line when snipping the lines. These little stubs stick straight out and often will catch the leaf before it slides to the lure’s hooks.

pier fishing steelhead great lakes shore casting lures spoons

When done properly small boat trolling, along breakwalls, can be very productive. Long rods help to get the lures away from the boat.

If a leaf attaches to the line, snap the rod tip hard to dislodge it from the swivel. Often the lure doesn’t have to be cranked in. However, watch your rod tip and if the lure is not acting correctly crank it in. Of course, where there are heavy leaf concentrations, avoid them. Sometimes the lower river is too full of leaves, and the angler needs to fish debris free harbor areas.

The best times to fish for these steelhead, is sunrise and sunset, with sunrise being the first choice. If it is cloudy the steelhead will stay closer to shore longer. These productive low light conditions also apply to boat anglers. However, trollers in deeper waters, can catch decent numbers during the day, even when it’s sunny.

The lures and jigs mentioned in the article are a good core collection of proven baits. However, don’t be afraid to experiment with other lures and colors. If the lure has a good wobble, try it.

wabler williams spoon

On certain days, walleye flutter spoons, with a half oz. rubber core sinker five feet ahead of it, can be just the ticke. A chartreuse red/herring bone, gold/orange or silver/blue Thin Fin Shad are favorites of mine. If making super long casts with a spoon, try a KO Wobbler. These fall fish are aggressive and if they are busting a school of shad, they aren’t super picky.

Finally, Mother Nature is the one who determines when the harbor and lower river action slows. Often it is sometime in November. However, this past fall was warm, and the harbor action continued well into December.

This fall if you are looking for some hot action, try some shore easy steelhead fishing. It is one style of angling where everyone has a chance at big lake run trout.

 - written by Paul Liikala



Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.