Great Lakes steelhead anglers can choose from a variety of patterns and tactics ranging from dead-drifted egg and nymph patterns to swung streamers to skated dry flies. There is such a wide array of flies available that many anglers have a difficult time determining which patterns to tie or buy and which to carry on stream.
As a steelhead guide on many of the Great Lakes tributaries for over 15 years, many factors influence my fly selection. Water temperature, clarity, and flow; prevalent food items; the type of fly pattern I am using; and the specific technique I am using—whether bottom-bouncing, using a floating indicator, swinging, or skating a fly—all play important roles in helping me determine which fly to choose.
Steelhead are natural egg eaters and voraciously take egg flies even when no naturals are available. Dead-
drifting egg patterns along the bottom in front of the fish is one of the primary late-fall to early-spring tactics for catching steelhead that become lethargic and finicky in the cold water, which is generally at or below 40 degrees F. during this time. Egg patterns such as Glo-Bugs, Sucker Spawns, Scrambled Eggs, Blood Dots, Estaz Eggs, and Nuclear Roe Bugs are simple flies and mainstays in the Great Lakes region.
The particular egg pattern you choose is not as important as varying the size, color(s), and density for the water conditions. In high, stained run-off flows, big (#6-10), densely tied, bright-colored eggs have an opaque silhouette that steelhead see better in murky water. In low, clear flows, smaller (#12-16), sparsely tied, pastel-
colored flies have a translucent, ambiguous profile that works best. Adding a little Krystal Flash or Lite Brite, or motion from marabou or rubber legs, can make egg patterns even more effective, especially in stained water.
Chartreuse has always worked well on Great Lakes tributaries due to its high visibility in off-color flows. A good searching fly I use in heavily to slightly stained water is a standard Glo-Bug tied with half Alaskan roe (top) and half chartreuse (bottom) Glo-Bug Yarn that I call the Half-n-Half. Adding a brass or tungsten bead (vary the size depending on the current flow) helps sink the egg pattern faster, and you don’t need to use as much split-shot on the leader.
To dead-drift eggs on Lake Erie’s shallow, shale-bottomed tributaries, I most often use a floating indicator with a floating fly line, a long leader, and a tandem fly rig. I lift the rod high to reduce the amount of fly line in contact with the water for long drag-free drifts along shale ledges and drop-offs. Migrating, pre-spawn steelies school along slow current breaks as water temperatures drop in the fall.
Place the indicator on the tippet section of the leader at a point approximately the depth of the water (distance from indicator to bottom fly), forming a right angle at that point on the leader. Use a more supple (but abrasion resistant) tippet material like Frog Hair fluorocarbon to help form this right angle. The flies are rigged close together (6 inches or less) so the steelhead can see both flies at the same time. The top fly is typically the egg and the bottom fly a bead-head nymph or streamer. The bright egg fly attracts the steelhead in stained water, and if the fish doesn’t take the egg, it often takes the nymph or streamer.
Every season, nymphs catch some of the largest steelhead. Like egg patterns, they are most effective dead-drifted. This is especially true on tributaries with rich aquatic insect life. Michigan tributaries are well known for their Hexagenia nymphs and caddis larvae, and several Lake Erie tributaries like the Cattaraugus in New York and Conneaut Creek and Grand River in Ohio support Golden Stoneflies and caddis larvae.
Mark Kasubick of Chagrin River Gillies in Gates Mills, Ohio, ties a caddis larvae imitation based on his aquatic surveys of several southern-shore Lake Erie tributaries that have revealed a large (#10), uncased, bright green caddis. He finds it most effective during post-runoff periods when fresh steelhead key in on tributary naturals. Tying caddis larvae bodies with bright orange, pink, and red colors can also be effective since those colors resemble colors in eggs.
Steelhead guide John Rochus of Ohio has developed a Golden Stonefly pattern for Lake Erie tributaries tied with rubber legs in sizes 8 through 14 to match the different year classes of the insect. Rochus likes to dead-drift his stonefly pattern in rocky bottomed, fast riffles and runs where these stoneflies live.
Beaded attractor nymphs like the Hare’s Ear, Prince, Pheasant Tail, Copper John, and Half-Back as well as beaded soft hackles like the Gartside Sparrow and Bloody Mary work well on all the tributaries, even on those with minimal aquatic insect populations. The buggy, natural look of these flies is a fresh alternative to steelhead pressured with egg patterns. Adding flash, glow-in-the dark materials, or neon colors helps make them more visible in off-color flows.
Low and clear tributary water conditions have always challenged Great Lakes steelheaders. Steelhead feel safe in stained runoff from rain and snow melt and are cooperative fly takers. As runoff flows drop and clear steelhead become more difficult to catch because of stress from increased light penetration, smaller physical confines, and increased fishing pressure. Under these conditions forget about fishing slow moving pools and try the fast, shallow runs and riffles. Steelhead are more secure there due to the broken surface water and routinely take dead-drifted egg, nymph, and streamer patterns. Ray’s Steelhead Brassie works well in the low, clear water of a dry fall or during the low base flows that invariably follow tributary runoff periods.
Nymphs with a movable joint between the thorax and abdomen drive steelhead crazy. Guide Greg Senyo of Holland, Ohio, has an articulated nymph he calls the Steelie Wiggle Stone that he ties with a blue or peacock thorax for clear to slightly stained water and in fluorescent orange, chartreuse, and pink for murky water. You can impart action to this fly at the end of a dead-drift by slowly lifting your fly rod and retrieving with short line strips and slight bounces of the rod tip. Articulated Woolly Buggers and sculpin patterns are also effective.
Smaller nymphs, bead-head soft hackles, and egg patterns (#12 and smaller) seem to become more effective as water temperatures drop in late fall and early winter and eventually register in the 30s on a daily basis. Great Lakes steelhead become fussy in these icy flows and will softly take tiny dead-drifted flies in slow runs and pool tail-outs, but usually only after multiple, perfect drifts.
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