Tips for Early Spring Steelhead Fishing by Paul Liikala

Steelhead Fishing

great lakes steelhead fishing

Let’s face it, after a hard winter, steelhead anglers can’t wait to start fishing.

However, the key ingredient for your first outing is where can you catch early spring steelhead? This is especially true if sections of your favorite streams were or are iced over.

However, there are a few early spring spots that usually get little to no fishing pressure. These are small creeks that flow into the Great Lakes. The mouths of these small tributaries often have slightly warmer waters and currents. Where they enter the lake’s water, creates open areas for early season anglers willing to brave extra chilly conditions.

Steelhead will move towards these small outflows, to feast on the baitfish that congregate at the creeks’ mouths. Shiners, often, are here in numbers. These draw in the silver sided trout. However, the anglers may have the problem of getting the right bait. At this time of the year, many bait stores don’t have emerald shiners.

In my freezer are packages of emeralds, caught and frozen in the fall. I hook one through the head on a Min-Foo jig. Put a split shot about 12 inches above it. Set the float’s bait so it is in the upper half of the water column.

The best times to fish a creek’s mouth is after a rain or snow thaw. Don’t feel that long casts are necessary. A short cast followed by an open bail, lets the current flow carry the bait a long distance from shore. Since the steelhead wait for prey in the seam, direct the float along the current’s edge. Before cranking the bait in, close the reel’s bail, and let the bobber swing away from the current. Steelhead often hit when it stops and swings to the left or right. Sometimes popping the bobber during the retrieve triggers a bonus strike.

Yes, steelhead will hit live emerald shiners on size 2 or 4 red hooks, or on marabou jigs. If emeralds aren’t available, try bass shiners. In fact, a light Mini-Foo jig, loaded with maggots will take these super early spring fish. Choose a jig pattern that mimics an emerald shiner. At times, a black model works. Fishing a jig with a strand of Mylar, can trigger bites from reluctant fish.

Yes, fly-rod anglers can get in on the creek mouth steelhead. Use a streamer that imitates emerald shiners.

Now, I admit that catching early spring steelhead, the past few years, has been challenging. The lower stretches have been decent. Yet, the upper river sections have been much tougher than years gone by.

While there may be a few dark fish upstream, their numbers, especially the larger ones, appear to be less than previous years. Some early up-river trips came up empty. Those, kind of days, don’t satiate steelhead fever, just increase it.

In fact, one early March day, I had a severe case of this illness. On the day in question, the sun was shining. In fact, the temperatures were above freezing for the first time in months. I went to a favorite early spring hole. An ice shelf made for a very difficult presentation. The fever may have addled my brain a bit because I walked out onto the ice. I hooked a fish and lost it when the edge of the ice cut my line. I moved farther out.

You guessed it, the ice shelf broke loose from the sun warmed bank and started floating downstream. As it approached the rapids, I hoped my life insurance policy was up-to-date. Luckily, I was able to step off, while the rocks and rapids ground the iceberg into slush. As they used to say on TV, “Kids don’t try this at home.” Needless, to say my ice shelf fishing days are over.

During the early spring season, yes, I was catching fish in the lower stream stretches that were relatively close to the harbors. However, the upstream waters were frustrating. Was I not making the correct presentations or were there fewer fish up river?

When I have steelhead questions, I contact Jeff Liskay. He is known as one the most respected steelhead anglers in the Great Lakes. When I called him, he also said the early spring steelhead patterns seem to be changing with the climate change.

“There’s a double stage of fish in the spring.” said Liskay. “During the cold springs, generally, we will have the largest fish in the lower part of the system. Warm springs have a more general filtration of larger fish throughout the system.”

He added, “With a prolonged cold spring, the larger females tend to hang around the harbors and first riffles. If the weather doesn’t warm up until late spring, they often will do their thing in the first riffles they come to. However, even when it’s cold, there will be smaller numbers filtering upstream. During these cold springs, it’s not unusual to get giant pushes of fish, the first of May. ”

great lakes steelhead fishingThe first stages of early spring fishing occur just before the ice shelves are gone. Some very good fishing can occur in late February or March, when a warm spell moves in. With the temperatures in the 40’s and 50’s, the dark over-wintering fish can fire up. Even when there are fewer numbers, some very good catches can occur because the dark over-wintering fish, along with the arrival of some fresh steelhead, are active. They readily hit because no one has pounded on them all winter.

The angler who gets to these fish, during the warming spell, can have some memorable days. Unfortunately, when a cold spell comes back, the action slows down.

Whether fishing downstream or upstream sections in early spring, Liskay has some general rules as to where the majority of the fish are resting.

“The best pools have to be near spawning gravel,” he advised. “If the water temperature is around 38 degrees, they can be in the main part of the pool. When the water is 40 to 42 degrees, they will move up into faster water at the base of the gravel, but not onto the future spawning gravel. The best part of a big pool will be the upper third.”

When fishing this upper section of the hole, set the float’s depth so the drifting bait just skims over the rocks. This is in the first 10 feet of the pool’s shallow upper portion. Too often anglers set the float’s depth too deep. They try to fish the shallow faster water and the pool’s deeper section in one pass. In the shallow fast water, the longer line snags, scaring the fish. After thoroughly fishing the upper 10 feet, reposition the float to fish the deeper waters in the upper half of the hole.

In early spring, Liskay tends to avoid the lower half of the hole when at normal or low pool. However, when the water is high, he will fish the funnels at the back end of the pool. In the elevated flow, he intercepts migrating fish.

Liskay will not always fish the deepest pools, in early spring. He often pays attention to the secondary waters, such as chutes, and smaller pockets of water, between the larger pools. Some of these honey holes, can be covered with one or two well placed casts.

Now, early spring has conditions that differ from later spring waters. Right after ice out, obviously the water is much colder. At times, the water is gin clear and low. This can be especially true in Michigan tributaries.

“In really clear water, with a slow flow, I will let my 8 mm Trout Bead go downstream, with no weight on the line,” advised Liskay. “Lemon/yellow or any Trout Bead that looks like an egg can take these fish. In these clear conditions, I will change my fluorocarbon leaders to six-pound test and make them longer than normal, six feet or more.”

A favorite early spring setup, in the river’s lower sections, would be a yarn fly followed by a Clouser emerald shiner, dropper fly. Further upstream he changes the dropper fly to a brown and white Clouser minnow. This matches the upper stream’s native bait fish. If the minnow patterns aren’t working, he will switch to a chartreuse, caddis fly. Liskay will use these fly and yarn patterns on his fly rod or spinning rod.

When fishing spawn in cold, early spring waters, try to match the water’s conditions. In clear waters, dime size or smaller spawn sacks are a first choice. Personally, a hot pink sack mesh is a favorite. However, the fish can be picky and want white or chartreuse mesh.spawn sacks great lakes anglers Always, carry all three colors. On my early spring rigs, below the spawn sack, a size 12 Black Bird Sabre Tooth hook is tied to a 12- to 16-inch dropper leader. In the clear water, a half inch piece of Glow Bug yarn is fed through the loop formed in the egg loop knot. Niagara Gold is the first color choice, followed by white, chartreuse, pink and Oregon cheese.

These past few springs, have had many days of dirty water. Some anglers get hung up on fishing their favorite rivers, even when they look more plowable than fishable. Under these conditions, don’t ignore the smaller feeder streams that flow into the rivers. When the big waters are near flood stage, the steelhead seek shelter from the raging waters. Hence, fish venture into the smaller tribs.

However, if they are near flood stage, it may take a day or two before the small creek’s flow starts to lessen. Fish them when their waters start receding, and the big streams aren’t fishable. Like all things there are different small creeks. Those with mud banks, stay dirty longer. Creeks, with stone and shale bottoms and shores, clear up faster. Thus, they are fishable sooner, even in high water times.

One early spring day, we trudged through the melting snow to fish one of our favorite creeks. It was like chocolate milk. We only hooked and lost one, possibly a sucker. The stream’s fast moving water stripped mud from the banks.

My partner had a severe case of early spring steelhead fever. I wanted to go home, and he asked if there was any other place that we could try? I was doubtful but stopped at another creek on our way home. From the top of a hill, the small stream’s waters were close to raging. However, there appeared to be a tinch of semi-clear water. The creek had a shale bottom and banks.

We walked towards a hole that often held a few fish. Once there, I couldn’t see it. The stained high waters hid it from view. After scanning the water thoroughly, I finally noticed a small area of slack water. I cast a spawn sack to it. No hits. My buddy’s cast also came up empty. Grasping for straws, I took out a large piece of fluorescent red/orange Glo Bug yarn.

I tie all my steelhead hooks with an egg loop knot. On the spawn sack’s hook, I pushed the yarn through the knot’s loop and cinched it tight. This hook combo provided bright color and spawn smell to the fish.

Normally, my yarn piece is and inch or shorter, not on this trip. On that day, the yarn was close to two inches long, and fluffed out. On the first cast, the float disappeared. The steelhead ran back and forth in the small pool of semi-calm water. Suddenly, it bolted downstream. In the surging waters, it literally flew downstream. My reel was close to being spooled.

Off I ran downstream, tripping and stumbling over the rocks. During the chase, I came to a waterfall cascading off the cliff. Normally, in dry conditions, there was no waterfall. However , not that day. My choices were to stop and lose the fish or get wet. The 30-inch steelhead, that I caught, was worth the soaking.

By day’s end, that small patch of semi-calm water, generated seven hits, and five landed fish. What made this spot so desirable to the fish, was the hole had a semi-circle shelf of shale. It gave the steelhead a respite from the fast moving current.

Whether fishing large or small streams, early spring times often have rainy days or heavy snow melt offs. As seen in the episode above, a large piece of brightly colored orange yarn turned the trick. Surprisingly, in muddy waters, black can be a productive color. Fish can see black in the brown waters because it appears as a discernible silhouette. Other colors often can be lost in ultra-brown waters. Large black stone flies or dark streamers can produce, as can black yarn.

In stained waters, larger pink spawn sacks, with chartreuse floaters, can take fish. If the stream’s flow is somewhat slow, add extra scent by popping one of the spawn’s eggs. I also, bring along some sacks that were treated in Pro Cure. In lightly stained waters, try the clear Pro Cure. In fairly dark waters, try sacks treated with the bright pink cure. This provides color and added smell.

This last stained water bait might rile up some steelhead purists. PowerBait’s trout bait (dough) in chartreuse or pink/chartreuse sparkle can be formed into a ball or put in a spawn sack. At times, it catches fish when other offerings come up empty. It too offers plenty of color and smell.

Finally, the placement of split shot in dirty waters is important. The weight should be placed no more than 12 inches from the bait in stained waters. The clearer the water the farther the shot should be from the bait, along with a lighter lead.

A little caveat is in order when venturing forth on your favorite stream, after a severe winter. Some holes, may have disappeared due to high waters carrying ice bergs and other debris. Be careful when stepping into water with poor visibility. One early spring day, I walked off the bank into water that used to be three feet deep in normal pool. That spring day, the hole, at the bank, was scoured out two feet deeper.

This spring get out early to get rid of your steelhead fever. Hopefully, a few of these tips, gives you the prescriptions for finding and catching some silver sided, fever busters. Good luck, and be careful out there.

- Jeff Liskay

For those who would like to contact Jeff Liskay for a guided steelhead trip, call 440-781-7536.



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