Matching The Steelhead Hatch
March 12, 2014
The Great Lakes is the "Russian front" for meteorologists. Inaccurate forecasters are shipped there for punishment. Mention Buffalo, Cleveland, or Grand Rapids to a weather anchor and they break out in a cold sweat. It's a Gulag where a weather forecaster is almost always wrong, and endlessly apologizing for it.
One March afternoon I was guiding clients for steelhead on Michigan's Muskegon River in an unusual heat wave that approached 90 F. The heat brought out a gray blizzard of little black egg-laying female stoneflies (Allocapnia sp.) at the peak of the sunny afternoon. Resident trout, yearling steelhead, and salmon parr and fingerlings were in frenzy as they catapulted in the air in spring's first feeding orgy.
We sat in my jet boat during lunch and watched the surface-feeding display. "Did you just see that huge boil on the surface?" my guest mumbled as he attempted to chew on his teriyaki pork loin. "Oh my gosh, again!"
A male steelhead with red cheeks was feeding on egg-laying stoneflies. Even though there were good brown trout also creating a surface ruckus, the steelhead's crimson sides gave it away. And the very next steelhead we landed regurgitated several small black stonefly nymphs as I unhooked it.
Hatch-oriented steelhead rarely expose themselves in these types of surface-feeding displays, or during subsurface feeding on the biological drift, where Great Lakes steelhead have proven to behave like resident stream trout, and selectively key in on specific food items.
Whether it's drop-back steelhead feasting on Hexagenias in the Pere Marquette river, or a big silver-and-gray predator hunting down midge pupae in the cold beach waters in an onshore temperature inversion, matching the hatch for Great Lakes steelhead is critical for success.
The West Coast swinging tradition has taken the Great Lakes by storm. Many steelheaders are picking up two-handed rods, swinging Intruders, and enjoying the process to the point that they refuse to fish any other way.
As a lover of the two-handed swing myself, it's an exhilarating way to pique the predatory instinct of a steelhead intent on destroying your fly. However, conditions perfect for the swing don't last very long in the cold weather of the Great Lakes region. Unlike the West Coast, where ideal water temperatures are prolonged by warm Pacific currents, winter in the Great Lakes comes early.
Despite the cold water temperatures, the potamodromous freshwater migration of Great Lakes steelhead does not obstruct their impulse to feed. Ocean-raised steelhead undergo a physical change to move from salt water into the rivers and this may explain their relative lack of appetite. Couple this with the fertile and diverse ecosystems of the Great Lakes tributaries, and you end up with inquisitive steelhead acting like feeding rainbow trout.
The first published account of steelhead selectively feeding on riverine ecosystem food sources appeared in the Fly Fisherman article "Steelhead on the Grab" (Feb. 1991) by Dick Pobst. The Johnson brothers—both guides on the Pere Marquette—and Pobst examined stomach samples of steelhead and found evidence of selective feeding upon caddis, mayfly nymphs, eggs, and baitfish at different times of the year. The steelhead had seasonal preferences, and trout anglers who were used to "matching the hatch" soon reaped dividends by creating flies that mimicked what was going on in nature.
Two-handed swinging has been a boon to tackle sales, but from a practical angling standpoint, matching the hatch using "trout" techniques and tackle is more consistently effective. The beauty is that we have choices allowing us catch steelhead using the entire spectrum: nymph, swing, streamers, and even drys. The versatility of the Great Lakes is what makes the steelhead experience here something to be proud of.
Matching a hatch when only one type of insect is on the water is relatively easy. It is when several insects are on the water at the same time that things get difficult.
For instance, you think the trout are taking the large, white Ephoron mayflies you see on the water, but they are actually feeding exclusively on size 24 midges. You have to experiment to find out what they are really feeding on.
Fall steelheading also has similar scenarios when steelhead are obviously feeding downstream from spawning salmon and brown trout. I have pulled my hair out in frustration after sight-fishing with perfect egg imitations, in an obvious egg situation, only to get refusals. When I switched to a Shaggy Rock Worm Caddis as a last-ditch effort, it was instantly "game on!"
What I hadn't considered was that the female salmon upstream was kicking up gravel with her tail, and she was dislodging caddis larvae. So the steelhead downstream could pick and choose like a Delaware brown during a mixed Sulphur and Blue-winged Olive hatch.
A similar masking hatch often occurs in the spring when female steelhead are digging redds in the riffles. Even though other steelhead and trout lie downstream, and at some point will consume an egg smorgasbord, the digging steelhead are dislodging both stonefly and mayfly nymphs. A Pheasant-tail Nymph in this situation is deadly.
And when you're swinging bright, flashy Intruders in the fall, don't forget that the rivers are loaded with chubs and dace from the warm summer. So use some barred-olive color schemes in your fly creations to match the shoreline minnow hatch, or try swinging a Steelhead Soft Hackle for a more natural presentation.
Presenting the Fly
Great Lakes steelheaders have been called "chuck-and-duckers," a stigma which in most cases is undeserved. Chuck-and-duck is a term used for those who use heavy lead with running line to get their flies down deep. Some crude setups eschew fly line completely and use only heavy monofilament or Amnesia to cut through the current and get their flies deep.
While some purists insist the only ethical way to catch a steelhead is by swinging a fly, there is an art to steelhead hatch matching no matter what rod and line combination you use. And because of the new switch rods that are becoming so popular, it has never been easier to switch from swinging, nymphing, to streamers in a heartbeat.
With the new switch and Scandinavian lines on the market, you can use T-14 (and up) sinking heads or buoyant strike indicators and get down to whatever depth the fish are at. There's really no need to engage in any kind of chuck-and-duck.
I have come up with a method called "swing chucking." Using a RIO Aqualux clear WF5 line on a 7- or 8-weight switch rod, I cast two-handed and use a water haul to load the rod. The stealth of the clear line is amazing in clear water, and I can use a sliding tungsten weight or short section of T-20 to get my flies deep. After the cast, I hold the rod butt against my chest to both swing and drift the flies by pumping the rod up and down to produce slack. This often elicits aggressive strikes from bored steelhead that won't react to constantly dead-drifted flies.
Finally and most important, get to know your river's primary vertebrate and invertebrate food forms. Upturn rocks, use a stomach pump on the fish you catch, and really see what's down there in the biological drift the steelhead experience every day.
Make a fact-finding trip to your favorite steelhead river during the summer when the water is low, and take note of the pools, holding lies, and drop-offs, and while you're there, you can seine the river for prey clues. This will help you tie the right flies for the upcoming steelhead season, and put you one step ahead in the chess game we call matching the hatch.
Matthew Supinski is owner of Gray Drake Outfitters in Michigan. He is the author of Steelhead Dreams: 10-Year Anniversary (Frank Amato Books, 2013) and Selectivity: The Theory and Method to Fly Fishing for Fussy Trout, Steelhead, and Atlantic Salmon (Stackpole Books, 2014).