Looking and landing big steelhead remains as significant for me as ever, but catching one away from maddening crowds completes the experience. The Great Lakes region is known for crowded fishing conditions and solitude may seem wishful, but the fishery has greatly changed in the last decade, and the opportunity for a quality experience has never been better.
Solitude is relative when it comes to Great Lakes steelhead fishing. I define it as a feeling of personal space and having room to fish a stretch of water productively without being invaded by other anglers. It doesn't necessarily mean fishing where I can't see another person on the water. Often there are two or three anglers within 50 yards of me. But my idea of solitude may be too extreme for other fishermen who don't mind fishing among six or more people. Define solitude for yourself; what might be comfortable for others may not be for you.
Through the years I've developed a number of strategies for finding solitude on almost all the steelhead water I fish in the Great Lakes region. The keys to finding solitude are simple. Identify water you enjoy fishing and devise a strategy involving the time of year, water conditions, and weather that allows you some time alone on that water. This may include not fishing the most productive pools or fishing when water and weather conditions are not considered optimum. Fishing in solitude comes with a cost—you won't catch as many fish—but for me it's well worth the trade off.
When To Go
Good numbers of steelhead swim into Great Lakes tributaries from September until the following May. A few rivers in Canada and along Lake Superior produce from June through August because the water stays cold; however, the number of fish in the runs are considerably smaller than those in the fall and spring. Even so, this long season gives Great Lakes steelhead anglers a wide window of time to pursue their quarry. The greatest amount of fishing pressure generally occurs when the fishing is at its best—usually in late October and November and then again in March and April. Fishing during these periods decreases your chances of finding a stretch of untouched water or undisturbed fish.
I often take advantage of the weeks bordering prime time in late September and early October when fishing pressure is often light on rivers that don't receive runs of Chinook salmon. Pressure is also light in May after the best fishing is past.
The trick with these shoulder times is water conditions and temperature. In September I look for cool rainy periods that raise water levels, drop water temperatures, and bring fish into the lower ends of the tributaries. I look for the same conditions in late April and May. Water and weather conditions are the variables that affect steelhead the most, and having a flexible schedule allows you to adjust to the conditions and find both fish and solitude.
Keep an eye on a thermometer when fishing during these periods. When water temperatures reach 70 degrees (F.) and above, steelhead activity slows and the chances of killing a fish while releasing it are increased. Water temperatures that linger between 50 and 60 during these shoulder periods produce aggressive, hot steelhead. The quality of the take and fight compensate for the lack of numbers generally found at this time. You may find fish dropping back to the lake in late April and early May, but on rivers like the Salmon River in New York and the Pere Marquette in Michigan where temperatures remain cool, I have caught fresh fish well into late May.
The cold weather and less active fish found during the winter months (January through March) creates another period of light angling pressure. Flexibility during the winter is more important than any other time of the year. I don't enjoy fishing in sub-freezing temperatures when ice instantly forms on the line and guides. Instead I look for breaks in the weather that produce temperatures in the mid to high 30s.
In winter, check weather reports often. Predicting Great Lakes weather is always difficult, but in the winter it is especially frustrating. Breaks in the weather are often short and come without much notice, so it becomes critical to seize opportunities when they exist.
Not all rivers and streams fish well during the winter. Many tributaries ice over unless the winter weather is extremely mild. The best winter rivers for steelhead are large ones with a high gradient or are fed from a reservoir like the Salmon River in New York. Unless there is a prolonged period of severe temperatures, these tend to flow.
You may need to adjust some of your techniques to be successful in the winter months. In early winter, water temperatures in the mid to high 30s keep fish fairly active. But as the season reaches a midpoint, water temperatures hover just above freezing. Since a steelhead's metabolism slows dramatically to conserve energy in the cold water, they are less aggressive and won't waste energy chasing a fly. Dead-drift techniques work best under these conditions because it allows your fly to drift naturally with the current.
Great Lakes steelhead take a swinging fly even in the winter, but when the water is cold they don't move too far. Fishing the fly slow and near the bottom is the best bet. Most fish take at the start of the swing as the fly drifts with the current on a tight line or at the end of the swing.
During the heavy runs I look for weather and water conditions that discourage other anglers from fishing. Except for a few drainages in the Great Lakes, moderate to heavy rains bring tributary water levels up and stain the water, sometimes rendering the rivers and streams unfishable for days. When the water begins receding and visibility reaches a foot or two, some of the best fishing of the year can occur, and I am constantly in search for these conditions during the fall and spring. When they exist, I drop everything and get to the river.
I try to time my outings for the leading edge of clearing water conditions. Not only does this result in some exciting fishing, but it usually keeps me one step ahead of the fishing pressure.
In addition to flexibility, an intimate knowledge of your favorite piece of water is critical. Learn to gauge at what height your favorite rivers are fishable and how long they take to clear a given amount of rain or snow melt. Understanding the water you fish gives you an advantage. I am discovering the learning process is never ending.
Steelhead follow the path of least resistance, and if you have the opportunity to observe the route steelhead take in your favorite stream, take advantage of it. When the water is high and stained they often travel within a few feet of their low-water route because the currents and soft spots remain the same along the stream bottom. If you know these routes, you can avoid wasting time blind casting. It's also not a bad idea to do a little pre-season scouting on your favorite stream. River structure changes drastically through the year and a good pool one year may be filled with gravel the next.
The ground's saturation level also impacts how quickly water recedes. The drier the ground, the more rain and melting snow it absorbs. This leaves less runoff running into the tributaries allowing them to recede quickly. The exception is during the fall when leaves blanket the ground and hinder it from absorbing water.
Also consider fishing when the water is still high and somewhat dirty. Steelhead take flies in water that has only a few inches of visibility. The key is finding a piece of water in a swollen river where fish are resting. Look for any soft current on the inside of a seam or up along a bank. Steelhead sometimes feel comfortable in shallow water under such conditions, so don't be surprised if you find fish in some unusual spots.
In dirty water I use big, dark flies that cast a solid silhouette. Most anglers are intimidated by dirty water, but these conditions are often a good match for searching with a wet-fly swing, and finding plenty of water for yourself takes little effort.
I avoid pleasant, sunny weather when possible because that typically brings out the most anglers, even during off-peak times. Inclement days always reduce the amount of fishing pressure. My most satisfying trips are when I battle a handful of fish while withstanding all that Mother Nature throws my way. Sometimes this approach backfires. If the water becomes muddy and rises quickly from heavy rains, steelhead activity shuts down. Steelhead are also less aggressive on a falling barometer, and fishing is usually better when it is stable or rising.
Time of Day
For those of us fortunate enough to live close to steelhead water, one approach almost always results in solitude during the prime months. Fishing pressure seems to be at its highest on Great Lakes rivers and streams in the morning. Catch-and-keep fishermen usually fill their limits early and are the first to return home. As the sun rises higher over the water, steelhead activity tapers off and most fishermen return home before noon. On days when I have only a few hours to fish, I time my outing for the afternoon and usually find open water with little effort. The bonus to this approach is that steelhead become active again in the low light of a waning afternoon. Few things are more peaceful than standing in a favorite piece of water as the day fades.
I try to put as many factors in my favor when I am deciding when to fish. Simple things like fishing the opening week of hunting season or the full week before or after a holiday means less-crowded conditions. I avoid weekends if possible.
Where to Fish
While I prefer large rivers, many small or lesser-known tributaries throughout the region provide solitude. Enlightened management has created runs of fish on rivers that until recently saw few fish. Practices such as restoring spawning areas or expanding hatchery programs where natural reproduction is impossible have led directly to fishable runs of steelhead on more rivers. Even though some of the runs are marginal by Great Lakes standards, they provide an opportunity for privacy. I find a challenge in hooking fish in rivers that have comparatively lower return numbers or that are difficult to fish because of their size or access.
One way to find these small creeks and branches of larger tributaries is to use a DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer. The detail of these maps is good enough to find some smaller water that many fishermen overlook. Before you access any water, check the state's regulations and stream access laws. Some waters have closed seasons or are protected by stream access laws.
Long rivers provide greater opportunity for privacy because more access points spread out anglers. The farther you move from an access point, the better your chances of finding empty water. Long rivers with miles between access points like the Grand River in Ohio or the Saugeen in Michigan are perfect for hiking in or floating the river if it is large enough. I enjoy hiking into areas that require long, challenging walks because I gain a sense of accomplishment in completing the walk itself. If nothing else it's a good way to keep in shape. Some of the most foreboding hikes are those that entail a descent into one of the many gorges carved throughout the Great Lakes region, even though they allow you to fish without another angler in sight. Wherever you hike and fish, remember to respect landowner rights and to be safe.
One of the best strategies to find solitude on popular rivers is to concentrate on water in between pools and tailouts. These areas become popular because access is easy and they hold numerous fish throughout the steelhead season. A good holding pool contains a balance of depth, broken surface current, structure, and a softness to the flow that makes it easy for steelhead to rest. Though they may not be as large, most of these elements exist in the pools between the popular areas. With careful observation and exploration you'll discover subtle holding areas in water that other anglers pass by.
Don't neglect water with only a few key elements that define prime holding water such as pocket water, deep slots, and shallow riffles. Heavy fishing pressure in popular pools can push steelhead to alternative holding areas. On rivers and streams with significant runs, there are plenty of fish to fill not only the holding water in the prime pools but these lesser spots as well.
Another option is to fish the parts of a pool that are ignored by other anglers. I often observe anglers concentrating on the head of a pool or run where the current is greatest and steelhead feel secure. However, the bottom half, or tailout of a pool, may go unfished since this type of water doesn't always fish well with a dead-drift technique. A slow tailout regularly holds steelhead, especially if it contains structure such as large boulders.
The type of water below a tailout often dictates how well it attracts steelhead. When the water below is fast and heavy, steelhead often rest in the tail, especially if it is the first slow flow they have encountered in some time. A tailout is my favorite type of water because it is perfectly suited for a wet-fly swing.
While my search for solitude is ongoing, the reality is that we all have to share water on the popular rivers from time to time. My approach involves rotating through a productive stretch.
I begin at the head of a stretch, make a presentation, take one or two steps downstream, and make another presentation. Once I reach a certain point, another angler can begin fishing through the pool from my starting point. I continue casting and stepping downstream until I reach the end of the area I want to fish. I then get out of the water, walk upstream past the other fisherman, and make another run through the pool.
Rotating through a pool provides me with a method for finding aggressive fish and other anglers the fair opportunity to fish the water as well. When another angler comes to a pool that I am fishing by myself, I often encourage the angler to join in a rotation of the pool. Many anglers oblige, while others don't know what I'm talking about and stare at me like I'm speaking a foreign language.
From a fish-catching standpoint, many of these strategies for finding solitude mean catching fewer fish. It's a trade off you must come to grips with. But the total number of fish hooked doesn't have to define your entire experience. I am content catching a few quality fish when there is plenty of room to work the water at my own pace.
*Rick Kustich is the author of several books including Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead, co-authored with his brother Jerry. He lives in Grand Island, New York.