Steelheading 101: Know the Fish

Hardened steelheaders can make a tough pursuit look easy. 10% of the fishermen catch 90% of the fish for a reason. Steelheading isn’t as simple as throwing your line in and hoping for the best. If that’s your approach you may as well pack it in because you’re in for some frustrating time on the water. If you’re serious about catching steelhead, then a little prep work is necessary.

You may get lucky with a ‘have at it approach’. You might even catch a fish here and there, provided you’ve got an infinite amount of time to spend on the water. Successful steelheaders are so because at the very least they have a general knowledge of the fish.

I could fill page after page with different location scenarios based on key factors like water temps, clarity, weather conditions and so on. Instead, for the sake of this post I’ll try and keep it simple and generalize location based on the two major runs of fish most Great Lakes tributaries see: Spring and Fall. This should provide a good starting point to understanding the habits of steelhead. Yes, steelhead are creatures of habit and once you begin to figure them out they can become very predictable.

SPRING

When I was growing up spring steelheading was all I knew. I would count the days until opening weekend then I would have at best a few weekends on the water before the fish were gone. You can bet that I made the best of those days. Back then everything I knew about steelheading I learned from my father, which as it turns out really wasn’t a lot (no offence to him) but it did provide the foundation for my steelheading today.

So where do we start? It’s important to know that there are two groups of spring steelhead: those that have spent the winter in the river and those that are fresh run fish. These groups will vary based on the tributary. Some rivers get heavy spring runs while others see most of the fish come in the fall. Whichever the case these two groups lead to a couple of months of consistent steelheading.

Steelhead that have spent the winter in the river will typically spawn earlier than their spring run counterparts. It’s not uncommon for these fish to be finished and heading back to the lake in early March. Often confused with early running spring fish, these holdover steelhead can be on their way back to the lake before there is any sign of fresh fish coming in.

These holdover fish can and often will take their time transitioning from their winter holding patterns to the more spring like behavior of migrating and spawning. This transition is really weather dependent. If conditions are favorable theses steelhead can quickly begin to vacate their wintering areas to complete their journey, but early spring snow storms can send them right back into their slumber. Look for them to be holding at the head of deep pools or in the shallower runs immediately above those pools, waiting for the perfect moment to make their break to their eventual spawning grounds.

Fish that enter the tributaries during the spring can make short work of the job they need to do. They’re a little more pressed for time than their holdover counterparts were. Triggered by a combination of growing day length and increasing water temperatures, these steelhead can sometimes be a little more difficult to pin point as they alternate between holding and migrating. It could seem that there are no fish around at all when in actuality the fish are on the move and completely disinterested in anything but spawning. It’s the holding fish you need to find. They won’t be holding for long so again look for them to be sitting at the head of pools, ready to move. Don’t overlook shallow runs, they may not look like the most productive water but they could be the perfect spot for a steelhead on the move to take a quick breather.

Once they’ve spawned, steelhead will need to regain some energy to make the journey back to the lake. Look for them to be sitting in slow moving pools, behind downed trees or boulders and in slower runs. One of the most overlooked factors when targeting these drop back fish is that with the warmer water temperatures they will suspend off bottom. I see so many people fishing along the bottom and their presentation does nothing but pass under the fish un-noticed. Rig up so that whatever you’re offering them is a foot to two feet off bottom.

One more thing I feel the need to add while we’re on the topic of spring steelhead: leave spawning fish alone. It may not be illegal to target them specifically but it’s unethical. Leave them to do their thing.

FALL

It’s important to note that most strains of Great Lakes steelhead are not fall spawners. Yes there are exceptions but for the most part steelhead that run in the fall spawn in the spring. Why is this so important? Because fall steelhead are months away from spawning instead of weeks and this provides them the luxury of waiting for the perfect conditions to begin their migration. They’re in no hurry.

Decreasing day length and cooling temperatures will trigger steelhead to begin staging at the mouths of rivers but during dry years that may very well be where they hang out until rivers have enough flow. On the other hand, during a wet year fall steelhead could blast way upstream, wintering only yards from their eventual spawning grounds. Most fall runs end up somewhere in-between these two extremes but it shows just how much fall runs can differ from year to year. One year fish may be plentiful in October and the next year that same river may not see fish until December.

It’s important to know that early fall steelhead, in the relatively warm water temps, will suspend off bottom. Just like I see in the late spring, during early fall I see so many people fish as if the steelhead are holding to the bottom and it leads to the presentation passing under the fish, out of sight. Steelhead look up and out when feeding, not down.

Fall fish can be found holding just about everywhere. Pools, runs and flats can all hold fish. A steelhead can feel comfortable in only a couple of feet of broken water. There is one particular area where I will always fish first and that’s the tailout of any run or pool. There is a simple logic to this; the tailout will be the first place a steelhead has the opportunity to rest after running through fast water.

As fall progresses, steelhead begin to prepare for winter and can be found in slower flows, holding closer to bottom. I still like to fish a tailout first as it always seems to be the most productive fall water, but as water temps drop the fish will tend to congregate more towards the center of the pool or run.

There is no doubt that there is a lot more to steelhead behavior than what I’ve discussed here but my intention is to provide you with a starting point. Knowing a few basic behavioral patterns will go a long way towards landing a fish or two. As complicated as steelhead are made out to be, they’re still just a fish, a creature of habit. Spend enough time with them and they begin to become quite predictable. Knowing their next move before they do will keep you one step ahead of them at all times.

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