February 14, 2023
This article was originally published in the May 2002 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine, and may contain information, philosophies, or language that reveals a different time and age.
In the spring, anglers have the most opportunities to catch Great Lakes steelhead using different techniques and fly patterns. You can swing streamers or Spey flies on sinking lines, or you can dead drift nymphs and egg flies "high-stick" style.
Pre-spawn males are aggressive and looking for anything to take their pre-spawn anxieties out on. This is the time to target the big males and expect savage strikes from ferocious fish. These fish are not nearly as concerned with eating as they are with letting go a little sexual tension. Translation: wrist-jolting strikes and screaming runs.
From early March to early May, weather in the Great Lakes can fluctuate between 2 feet of snow and 32 degrees to a sunny 60 degrees F. Though many of the spring fish are there to spawn and may have been there since last September, most of the fish have only been there a few weeks. As a rule, the fish that have wintered over will spawn earliest, some as soon as February, but most of the fish wait for the mid-April waters to warm to 45 or 50 degrees.
At any given time there may be as many fish that are post-spawn, or pre-spawn, as there are actually spawning, so please leave these vulnerable spawning fish alone. This situation leaves a lot of fish somewhere in transition.
The Great Lakes steelhead seasons vary slightly from region to region. In Lakes Michigan, Superior, and Huron, the spring fish are fished most heavily. In the areas where the river bottoms are more slate and less gravel, fall fishing is more important.
Because the eastern waters of the Erie and Ontario tributaries suffer from a heavier spring runoff than the western Great Lakes rivers, the fish are not as accessible to the angler. These fisheries are more heavily dependent on hatchery fish but do have some natural reproduction. Some estimate that as many as 25 percent of the fish are naturally born in the river. Conversely, many of the rivers in the western Great Lakes have from 50 to 100 percent natural reproduction.
Many say Pacific Coast hatchery fish are soft and lifeless compared to their wild relatives, but that is not the case here. Great Lakes fish are not raised from brood stock out of a hatchery. Instead the eggs are taken from wild fish that have lived in the lakes, rather than circled a cement pond.
After catching 25-pound fish on the Kispiox, skating dry flies for surface-feeding steelhead on the Dean in British Columbia, and catching thousands of Great Lakes steelhead, I can tell you this: There is no difference between a hot Western fish and a hot Eastern fish. The Great Lakes rivers have higher populations of steelhead than any place on earth and for the traveling angler, that means more opportunities to catch them.
Great Lakes steelhead are naturalized, meaning they were originally planted, but they have been here more than 125 years. The first stocking was done in 1876 in Michigan's Au Sable River with eggs from the McCloud River in California. Even though Great Lakes steelhead have their own characteristics, they are still Pacific Coast steelhead at heart, and so they act much like Pacific Coast steelhead.
Since Western or Pacific fish often have to jump falls in their quest for the spawning areas, they tend to move during high water. Great Lakes fish do the same and often stage at river mouths waiting for higher water, even though they might easily ascend. This is important to the angler trying to time peak runs. Even though there are fish in most of the rivers by late October, the biggest push (as much as 95 percent) of fish comes after the first big rains of late March and early April. The first rains are usually cold, so even though the rain persuades fish to move upstream, they will not start to spawn heavily until the water temperature approaches 50 degrees F.
Scores of guides and anglers have moved to the traditional style of swinging flies that is common among many Western steelhead fishermen.
I discovered how effective sinking lines could be the first time I guided my friend Jim Teeny. Jim almost exclusively fishes for steelhead with his sinking lines and a swing presentation. The first day we fished, I wasn't sure how well Jim would do in our waters, because they were 3 feet higher than normal and dirty. I learned my lesson when he caught five fish and have since persuaded many steelhead to strike on swinging presentations.
A few rivers in the Great Lakes lend themselves better to this style of fishing by virtue of their size. Waters such as the Muskegon, Manistee, Au Sable, Cattaraugus, and Salmon rivers have sufficient room to cast and long enough runs to work a sinking line effectively.
As effective as a wet-fly swing can be in Great Lakes tributaries, it is seldom as effective as nymphing. I like to fish spring steelhead downstream from the primary spawning gravel where fish will begin moving out of the deep water and nosing around. Fish will congregate here waiting to intercept the nymphs and eggs that female fish dislodge while digging spawning redds with their tails. This disturbance also draws the smaller trout and baitfish to feed. Active areas like this can stimulate aggressive competition-type feeding. Even if it is a month before any substantial spawning activity, the fish will begin to hang near these areas.
The ideal run is from 3 to 5 feet deep with a good cur rent and a bottom of baseball-size or bigger stones. If the run has larger stones, say basketball-size, you should give these areas special attention because the fish in these spots seem to be extra aggressive. Tail-outs that average 3 feet deep are also good bets, especially early and late in the day. A good rule of thumb for spring steel head is to fish slow water when it is 40 degrees or below. As the water warms, move to the faster currents.
Each season brings a new generation of Great Lakes steelhead flies, even though the old standards work well. If you favor streamers and swinging flies, standard Egg-sucking Leech and minnow patterns such as the Gray Ghost or Mike Mercer's Sac Fry are always strong producers.
Sculpin patterns are also becoming popular. The Zoo Cougar, Steelhead Woolly Sculpin, and Kiwi Muddler have been just a few of the newcomers moving to the top of steelheader's fly boxes. Sculpin patterns work well all year but are especially effective for post-spawn fish on an extreme feeding binge as they head back to the lake. I also carry a good selection of tan- and brown colored leech patterns. My top-producing streamers for the last four years have been a black Galloup's Woolly Sculpin and the Galloup's Hex Bugger.
For every steelhead taken on a sinking line, dozens more are taken nymphing. The number of patterns in this category seems to double every season as steelheading gains popularity. Because most Great Lakes rivers are incredibly fertile, many different aquatic insects are available to the steelhead. Some of the most popular patterns are larger sizes of traditional patterns such as the Hare's Ear, Pheasant Tail, caddis larva, Teeny Nymph, and stoneflies.
One of the most effective Mysis shrimp patterns is one that I originally designed for salmon in the '80s. My friend Ray Schmidt, of Schmidt Outfitters on the Manistee River, obtained the original fly, modified it, and started using it for steelhead. Since then the Ray's Antron Bug has become a staple throughout most of the Great Lakes region.
I have since started fishing another version of a Mysis that is a smaller, more exact imitation. I have used this fly on the Erie tributaries in the fall and it outfishes my egg patterns seven to one. According to steelhead biologists, when Mysis shrimp are found in the lakes, they can make up as much as 50 percent of a fish's diet. Anglers using Mysis shrimp are making use of a steelhead's memory much the same way Pacific steelhead anglers do when they tie prawn patterns.
Hexagenia nymphs are one of the most popular nymphs for steelhead fishing, and Lake Michigan rivers are home to some of the best Hexagenia populations in the world. Jeff (Bear) Andrews's patterns and the Schmidt Hex are popular in this region. One of my favorite Hex patterns, Galloup's Hex, is a simple fly made out of a rabbit strip. It's easy to tie, works exceptionally well later in the year, and the fish love it.
Stoneflies are also popular and the standard Kaufmann Stone is about as good as it gets. I like to use smaller, lighter colored patterns down to a #16 early in the year. Michigan anglers often use a two-fly combination affectionately known as "green eggs and ham" that combines a chartreuse egg pattern on top and a black Kaufmann Stone on the bottom.
Egg patterns in various shapes and sizes have accounted for more fly-caught steelhead than all other patterns combined. Steelhead are extremely cannibalistic and will gorge on any egg that floats by. Perhaps an egg is an egg, but there are dozens of different types and colors of egg patterns. New ones are introduced every year and you should carry a variety of extras. The most productive colors are Oregon cheese, chartreuse, cerise, and various shades of pink and orange tied to size 8 to 10 hooks.
These flies are just the basics. Virtually any fly that has been used for steelhead has caught fish. One of my all time favorite spring steelhead patterns is a #8 Peacock and Grizzly Woolly Worm. Go figure.
Many Great Lakes rivers are shallow and wadeable and can be fished with a strike indicator and nymph rig of some sort. I prefer the right-angle system because it allows me to use the least amount of weight to reach bottom. In this region if you are not drifting the bottom, you are missing most of the fish. They will often move several horizontal feet to pick up a fly. The key is to use enough weight to get to the bottom quickly, but not so much that your fly is continuously hung up. This is without a doubt the most important variable when fishing for steelhead with this method. You may have to change the weight often, but if you are not bouncing bottom, you are missing fish.
Tippets for steelhead are generally from 4- to 8-pound test, with 6-pound test (3X) the most common. Most anglers who use fluorocarbon fish with 10- pound test. As a reminder, just because fish don't see fluorocarbon as well as they see mono does not mean they don't see its effect on the fly. If the line is too stiff due to its thicker diameter, it may make the fly look stiff in the water. As with any nymph rig, the presentation is as important as the pattern itself.
When setting up a right-angle system, the distance between the weight and the indicator is critical. I space the indicator from the weight one-and-a-half times the depth of the water. If the water depth exceeds 4 feet, then I double the distance between the indicator and the weight.
This system has its limiting factors. I find it difficult to effectively apply this method in runs deeper than 6 feet. You should also change the spacing with each run if they vary in depth.
Great Lakes Steelhead Equipment
The equipment you choose to chase Great Lakes steelhead is no different than what you would use in Washington or British Columbia. You match your rod to the fish and the river. The average fish can weigh 8 to 12 pounds in the Lake Michigan and Huron tributaries, and 5 to 7 in the Superior, Ontario, and Erie tributaries. There have been many 18- to 20- pound fish taken out of Erie and Lake Ontario rivers, so don't let the average fool you. Be prepared.
I use two medium-action rods, a 9'6" 6-weight and a 9'6" 8-weight. I decide which rod to use by the style (nymphing or swinging), depth, and flow rate of the river. On the bigger rivers such as the Manistee where the average water depth is over 6 feet, I generally fish the 9'6" 8-weight. I like longer rods for the mending capabilities and the shock absorption they give if I am using light tippets. On smaller, more wadeable rivers such as the Pere Marquette, I like the 9' 6" 6-weight.
Ten pounds of steelhead is a lot of fish on a 6-weight and anything heavier than that can quickly become problematic. If you can bring just one rod, make it an 8-weight.
Timing the Runs
I was asked to predict steelhead runs as often as a Charles Schwab broker is asked about stock futures. My usual response is, "The crystal ball is out of order," but in some cases I will give it a shot for planning's sake. The biggest element that affects the return of fish is the length of the winter. If we have a big snow year and Old Man Winter keeps a grip on the area, the return is late. If winter ends early, the fish come early. It's that simple.
Most of the streams on the north side of Lake Superior are in Canada. Canada stays colder longer than the U.S., so those rivers can be a full month behind ours. This is also true of the north side of Huron and Ontario. The good news is that if you are willing, you can have an extra month of chasing big fish. Usually most of the Great Lakes tributaries peak between April 1 and May 1. The exceptions to this are the peaks of the northern rivers of Superior and Ontario, which usually are two weeks to a month behind the others.
While most of the rivers in the Western Great Lakes are guided by drift boat or jet sled, the eastern Great Lakes tributaries are often guided on foot.
When you travel to the Great Lakes, you will be well equipped and able to cover any situation if you take the following:
- Rod: 9' or 9'6" 8-weight
- Lines: Teeny T200, T300, 8- weight indicator line, and running line.
- Eggs: #8-#10, all colors, with extras in Oregon cheese, chartreuse, peach, and various shades of pink and orange.
- Nymphs: Hex nymphs, Mysis shrimp imitations, Hare's Ears, Pheasant Tails, caddis larvae, Teeny Nymphs, and stoneflies.
- Streamers: #4-#6 Egg-sucking Leech, #6 black Woolly Sculpin, #2-#6 Tan or Brown Woolly Bugger, or a Hex Bugger.
Great Lakes fish stay close to the bottom, so be prepared to lose a good number of flies. In rivers such as the Pere Marquette that have a lot of downed trees, you may lose two dozen flies a day.
Great Lakes Steelhead Fly Recipes
- HOOK: #10 TMC 106.
- SHELLBACK: White Antron sparkle yarn.
- BODY: Blended light olive and light grey Wapsi Sow/Scud dubbing.
- RIB: Monofilament (4-pound).
- EYES: Small mono eyes.
- HOOK: #8-#10 TMC 105.
- TAIL/ABDOMEN: Tan rabbit strip marked with brown marker.
- BODY: Cream dubbing.
- HACKLE: Brown Hungarian partridge.
- WING CASE: Same piece of rabbit as tail/abdomen.
- EYES: Small black mono eyes or black bead chain.
Kelly Galloup was a Great Lakes steelhead guide for over 20 years. He currently owns and operates the Slide Inn on Montana’s Upper Madison River.