August 30, 2015
By John Nagy
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 steelhead fly box 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 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.
Great Lakes steelhead have a varied diet before entering the tributaries in the fall, including feeding on freshwater shrimp like Mysis relicta (opossum shrimp). These crustaceans are prevalent in lakes Michigan and Ontario. Great Lakes guide Don Mathews's Fool's Shrimp works well in the fall for fresh run steelhead, especially in the lower part of a steelhead river. The hot colors are white, orange, and pink in #8-16.
Imitating the prevalent baitfish triggers the feeding response of migrating Great Lakes steelhead, especially early in the run when the fish are fresh from the lake and have recently been actively feeding on lake gizzard shad, alewives, smelt, and shiners. These patterns also work when drop-down steelhead become ravenous after the rigors of spawning. Steelhead are more active and aggressively chase baitfish patterns in the warm flows (above 40 degrees F.) of early fall and early spring.
Jim Guida of Buffalo Outfitters in Williamsville, New York, has developed a simple baitfish pattern for steelhead in Cattaraugus Creek that he calls the Mirrored Minnow. Jim likes to fish it on the swing or strip it, and he ties it to his tippet with a nonslip mono loop to give it more action.
Many tributaries also have good baitfish populations like sculpins, small chubs, and darters, as well as crayfish and leeches that can be imitated with different sizes and colors of Woolly Bugger, sculpin, and leech patterns. Muskegon River steelhead guide Kevin Feenstra's top-producing sculpin pattern is the Emulator Sculpin, swung deep and slow. Feenstra says that the takes with this big sculpin are vicious, often with a steelhead bumping the fly midway through the drift only to come around and hammer it at the end of the swing. He finds Emulator Sculpins especially effective in the spring, but they even work in the dead of winter.
Adhering to the old adage of "using dark flies on dark days and light-colored flies on bright days" helps steelhead see a fly better. In stained water, try using a large, dark fly like a black or purple leech or Woolly Bugger to get a steelhead's attention. The large blocky profile of the fly is hard for fish to miss at short distances in murky water. Large, dark flies get the fish's attention at even farther distances in clear water during the low light of early morning or late afternoon or overcast days. On sunny days, lighter colored flies like a blonde or white Zonker show up well due to their ability to reflect available light, but this effect is reduced on overcast days and in deeper or stained water.
Under the right conditions, swinging soft hackles, streamers, Woolly Buggers, traditional steelhead wets, and Spey flies is both an effective and exciting way to hook a Great Lakes steelhead. Active steelhead (usually in water temperatures above 40 degrees F.) will "grab" a swung fly hard, typically at the end of the downstream swing.
Bigger tributaries such as Cattauragus Creek have wide, long runs and pools with consistent depth and are ideal for this presentation. Weight-forward floating fly lines with interchangeable 15-foot sinking tips of various sink rates are effective for swinging in this big, heavy water, especially in medium to high river flows. Shorter sinking tungsten leaders of various sink rates like Rio's Powerflex Core or Airflo's Polyleader work well for medium to lower flows.
You can also swing flies in smaller tributaries with small slots and shallow, short runs and pools by downsizing your sinking system. I make my own tips for smaller water by cutting fast-sinking Rio T-14 tungsten shooting-head material (8-9 ips) into lengths from 1 to 8 feet. By attaching small braided loops at the ends of each section, I can switch to the right tip depending on the water flow and depth.
My mini-tip rig consists of a 4-foot-long section of .015-inch-diameter hard nylon (15-pound Maxima Chameleon) connected to a weight-forward floating fly line with a nail knot or loop-to-loop connection. I attach this section to the looped end of the mini-tip with a clinch knot or loop-to-loop connection. From the remaining mini-tip loop attach with a clinch knot or loop-to-loop connection a straight piece of tippet in the appropriate size and length for the water conditions (2 to 4 feet long, 8- to 12-pound-test fluorocarbon) or a simple tapered leader.
I build a simple 3-foot leader for medium flows in smaller tributaries (using 3-, 4-, and 5-foot tips) from 12-inch sections of .015- and .013-inch diameter Maxima Chameleon and roughly a 12-inch section of 10-pound Frog Hair fluorocarbon connected with blood knots. For higher, faster flows, shorten the tippet to keep the fly riding closer to the bottom; lengthen the tippet in slower flows to help prevent the fly from hanging up on the bottom.
Certain fly patterns are ideal for swinging. Thin-profile Spey flies are not only beautiful, but they are dressed with long, soft hackle materials that move as they swing down and across the current flow. Intricate Spey flies with hard-to-obtain materials are not necessary. You can use rabbit-fur strips, Icelandic sheep hair, arctic fox tail, marabou, schlappen, guinea feathers, and some of the new long fibered, soft synthetic materials to tie Spey flies with tremendous movement.
Joe Penich of Hamilton, Ontario, designed a simple and durable fly he calls the Buggsy Spey that uses a dubbing-loop collar of rabbit fur instead of hackle. Joe finds the lifelike action of this fly extremely effective on clear, heavily fished steelhead rivers. Guide Jerry Darkes of Strongsville, Ohio, ties a rabbit-fur-strip Spey fly with a collar of schlappen or guinea feathers that incorporates a rabbit-fur-strip overwing and tail. The wing is tied Zonker-style but with only the front of the rabbit-fur strip secured to the hook shank (behind the hook eye). This allows the fly to have better swimming action on the downstream swing.
Though not often used, dry flies have a place on some tributaries under the right conditions. The wild steelhead running into Ontario's Grand River and its tributary Whitmans Creek (Lake Erie system), have a history as juveniles of feeding on mayflies and caddis. Swinging adult caddis imitations, like the October Caddis or Great Orange Sedge, and dead-drifting mayfly duns on the surface are effective ways to catch these wild steelhead. On the Grand River the caddis action occurs from mid-September to the end of October and the mayfly activity starts in April.
Even tributaries that have runs based on steelhead stocking programs have potential for dry-fly action. Hatchery steelhead still have predator tendencies (if it is moving they are going to chase it and eat it!) and the late Ohio steelhead guide Michael Bennet proved this by fishing dry flies early in the fall on many Ohio and Pennsylvania tributaries.
He found the best conditions for dry-fly fishing were water temperatures in the 50s, medium to low run-off flows that had decent clarity, and steelhead that were fresh from the lake and aggressive. His technique was to cast up-and-across at a 45-degree angle and skate or wake the fly cross-current as it swung. After the fly straightened out below, he applied a short and quick strip retrieve. Ideal dry-fly patterns for skating and waking include #8-12 Adams, Mosquito, Elk-hair Caddis, Bivisible, and Bombers.
Tube flies are becoming popular with Great Lakes steelheaders primarily due to their ability to use small, short-shank hooks that can increase hooked-to-landed ratios compared with large, long-shank hooks. Flies tied on tubes also are lighter than those tied on conventional hooks, so bulky flies become easier to cast. Also, tubes last longer because they generally slide up the leader after hooking a fish, preventing the fish's teeth from tearing the fly, and you can easily replace the hook if it becomes dull without discarding the entire fly.
New York steelhead guide Greg Liu has been swinging tubes on the big water of Lake Ontario's Salmon River for years. On this river, the fish are heavily pressured with small flies, so he likes to fish large flies with lots of movement (especially when the water temperatures are in the 40s) to get the attention of the more aggressive fish that he calls "players." Liu ties his 41/2-inch version of the Temple Dog Leech on light plastic or aluminum tubes instead of heavy brass or copper tubes because he believes that the light tube combined with fast-sinking-tip lines allow the fly to move in the current more than flies tied on heavy tubes. Liu and his clients get most of their takes on this pattern when it is fished within 18 inches of the surface.
Scandinavian-style salmon flies also have applications as baitfish patterns for steelhead. However, the problem with tying these flies on standard-diameter metal tubes (which are ideal for swinging in faster water and getting down to bottom-holding steelhead in cold tributary flows) is that the wings are typically complicated layers of wing, flash, and hackle materials that can result in bulky heads due to the large diameters of these tubes.
Atlantic salmon fly fisher Jurij Shumakov of Sweden solved this problem by designing new metal tubes that are 1/2 inch long and come in various models including the Long Range, Long Range Heavy, Skittle, and Summer Arrow. The fly is tied on the exposed forward portion of a thin-diameter, hard-plastic tube liner inserted into the metal tube. The liner's thin diameter helps reduce bulk.
Shumakov's Long Range brass tube is ideal for reaching deep steelhead lies, the Long Range Heavy for getting down deeper to winter holding steelhead, the Skittle for holding flies in heavy current flows, and the Summer Arrow for low-water situations. The tubes' weight-forward design eliminates hook "hang-down" (which causes the wing of the fly to tilt down due to the weight of the hook), allowing the tube to swim properly on the downstream swing. Also, the upward-slanting taper of the front part of the tube keeps the wing pointed up and helps to prevent the wing from entangling with the hook.
Several of my own patterns use Shumakov's tubes. I really like one I call the Lake Erie Emerald Shiner. I also tie marabou Speys, traditional steelhead wets, leeches, and various streamer patterns on these tubes. John Arnold of Falls Outfitters (www.fallsoutfitters.com, 406-727-2087) carries Shumakov's tubes as well as the plastic tube liner, the silicon and vinyl junction tubing, and tying instructions. Shumakov's detailed instructions for tying his tube flies can be found at the Swedish fly-fishing site http://www.rackelhanen.com/eng/index.html. Tube-fly vise adapters and other accessories are available from HMH (hmhvises.com).
Steelhead anglers have a variety of fly patterns to choose from during the course of the season, but by becoming more versatile and basing fly selections on water conditions, the technique, and the type or design of the fly patterns, they can become more successful at hooking up with Great Lakes steelhead.
John Nagy is a guide and author of Steelhead Guide: Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead (Great Lakes Publishing, 2003). He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.