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Steelhead Game Planning: A Strategic Plan is Critical for Fishing Success

How flow, temperature, and seasons affect Great Lakes steelhead behavior.

Steelhead Game Planning: A Strategic Plan is Critical for Fishing Success

The Great Lakes steelhead fishery provides outstanding opportunities for large, migratory fish, but to find the most success you need a strategy to find the best fishing conditions. (Rick Kustich photo)

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This feature is an excerpt from the book Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead (Headwater Books, Stackpole Books, 2013). THE EDITOR.

During the prime steelhead season, I am always steelhead fishing. I analyze run densities and water conditions to determine when and where the next outing will occur, using notes and memories from past outings as a guide. Sometimes decisions are made based much on instinct as on science, instincts become honed with experience, and over the years the decision-making process becomes easier. Many aspects of strategy involve making a plan before ever heading out to the river.

While presentation and perseverance are the most important aspects of success in just about any type of fly fishing, having a plan is nearly as critical. An understanding of the quarry and the water that it swims in are the building blocks for forming a strategy that leads to encountering steelhead, and to an overall quality experience.

The basis for developing a successful strategy includes observations and conclusions from previous times on the water, research of current river conditions and opportunities, and personal preferences as to which waters will provide a desired experience. Understanding what makes a steelhead act the way it does will help you anticipate the activity on a river on any given day. But understanding behavior really means understanding steelhead tendencies because no rules are written in stone. In fact, a run comprises many individual steelhead that demonstrate a wide range of behavioral traits. Let's look at some of the key factors that impact the manner in which steelhead act or react to stimuli.

A fly angler kneeling in the shallows, holding a large Great Lakes steelhead.
Cold water decreases steelhead activity, and moves the fish into the deeper, slower runs. (Nick Pionessa photo)

Run Timing

A steelhead is a migratory rainbow trout. A migratory fish begins its life in one body of water such as a river or creek, escapes to a larger body of water, and then returns to its point of origin to spawn and propagate the species. Hatchery steelhead that have been planted in a river as smolts have this same migratory urge. However, the instinctive ability of a fish to return to the river of its origin is much greater in wild fish than in hatchery steelhead. For anglers, understanding the migratory process is critical.

Steelhead migrations in the Great Lakes region are mainly composed of winter-run fish. Winter-runs begin to migrate in the fall and spawn in the late winter and the spring of the following year. As a general rule for the Great Lakes, the peak months for steelhead runs are October and November. Almost all rivers in the region receive some degree of a run in this period, and for most rivers this is the height of the season. But each river has its nuances-some regularly receive good numbers of fish in September, and others may not see a consistent number of fish until December. Steelhead are most aggressive in this time frame, and since they have just spent the summer feeding in one of the forage-rich Great Lakes, fish at this time of year are normally in prime shape. It is for this reason that October and November are my favorite months for steelhead fishing.

Fish enter rivers that remain open all winter even during the coldest months. Steelhead ascending the rivers and streams in winter combine with fish that have already moved up in the fall to provide great fishing opportunities throughout the region's nastiest weather. Fish usually trickle in during winter migrations, but I have experienced great waves of steelhead, particularly in late winter as active spawning nears.

Winter fish generally lack the aggressive nature of an autumn steelhead, but fish fresh from the lake are usually quite active even in cold water.

March through May marks the height of the steelhead spawning activity. The actual occurrence varies widely among rivers, mainly because of differences in water temperature and annual variations in water conditions.

As active spawning nears, the remaining steelhead that have not moved out of the lake or those that ascended earlier and backed out are now drawn into the rivers and streams. The steelhead that wintered over become more active too. Spring fish move toward the gravel areas of the streams and are often distracted by the spawning process. Spring steelhead often migrate with a sense of urgency as the instinctive urge to procreate drives them and results in wide fluctuations in the number of fish present from day to day. The ability to find steelhead, especially those willing to take a fly, becomes a little more hit-and-miss in the spring.

Spring steelhead often linger in the rivers for a time after the spawn is complete. If water temperatures remain under 60 degrees F. and there is a viable food source, post-spawn fish may not be in a hurry to go back to the cooler waters of the lake. Instead postspawn steelhead may use the opportunity to begin the process of building up their bodies after the rigors of the spawning run. Postspawn or drop-back steelhead can be very aggressive and provide explosive takes on a swung fly.


Throughout the Great Lakes region, a few rivers host summer-run steelhead. These fish are genetically programmed to begin their ascent in the summer months. Since not many of the region's streams and rivers maintain cool enough temperatures during the summer months for steelhead to survive, summer-run fish are not widely distributed. And even in rivers where they can survive, summer-run conditions are at their best during cool, rainy summers.

Summer-run steelhead can show up as early as June but more often arrive the first part of July, and fish can trickle in throughout the summer. Runs of summer steelhead are typically maintained through hatchery programs. The strain of steelhead that provides most of the summer­run activity in the Great Lakes is the Skamania strain.

A wading angler hooked up in murky green water.
High flows bring in fresh steelhead from the lake, and discolored water can help make the fish more aggressive. (Rick Kustich photo)

Water Temperature

When I first started steelhead fishing in the Great Lakes region, I fished mostly during the winter. Cold water complete with shelf ice and floating slush were the typical conditions that I faced on a weekly basis, forcing me to draw some inaccurate generalizations about Great Lakes steelhead behavior. The thing that struck me most is that fish of this region didn't seem as active as their Pacific counterparts. But as my range of experience increased, it became clear that water temperature had a direct impact on steelhead activity and aggressiveness. I now feel as though water temperature is the most important factor associated with steelhead behavior, and it also figures prominently into the timing of migration and spawning.

A thermometer is an important piece of a steelheader's equipment and will help to unlock some of the mysteries of a river. The optimum water temperature range for steelhead is 42 to 58 degrees F. Within this range, 50 to 55 degrees is ideal.

What this means to fly fishers is that within the optimum range, steelhead tend to be most aggressive and capable of moving a long distance to intercept or chase a fly. This temperature range can be found on most Great Lakes rivers from late September through November. That is why I prefer that time of year for steelhead fishing.

In the fall, steelhead are spread throughout the river in a wide range of water types, and are susceptible to a range of angling techniques.

Normally, fall water temperatures need to fall into the low 60s before steelhead enter the stream or river. But actual water temperature does not always tell the entire story. The direction of the mercury often has a greater significance.

Cold fronts that blow through the Great Lakes region can reduce air temperatures by 20 degrees in a short period, causing water temperatures to drop by 5 to 10 degrees or even more overnight. Streams and rivers with a predominance of bedrock are particularly susceptible to wide temperature changes. Rivers that have more groundwater influence, or that run out of an impoundment or large body of water, may not have such dramatic changes.

A significant decrease in water temperature slows steelhead activity. Therefore, fishing is often more difficult after a cold spell, especially for swinging flies, so I try to avoid fishing the early morning hours after a cold night. A number of times, a cold front has moved through in the late morning or early afternoon while I was on the river, and as the water temperature dropped throughout the afternoon, so did the number of fish interested in taking a fly.

Rising water temperatures have the opposite effect. Even a small to moderate increase in the water temperature can have a positive impact on steelhead activity. Based on the notes in my fishing log and my observation, some of the best steelhead fishing coincides with stable or rising water temperatures. I try to time my outings to meet such conditions.

After a very cold night, I prefer to fish the late morning and afternoon, allowing the water temperature to recover. I also do my best to select days to fish when temperatures will be on the rise as opposed to falling.

You can still find quality steelhead fishing even when the water temperature isn't in the optimum range. During the winter, you can seek out solitude on most rivers, and an understanding of water temperature can play an important part in your success. When water temperatures drop into the 30s, a steelhead's metabolism begins to decrease. This generally causes steelhead to hold in slower water or flows that are out of the main current.

The slow presentation of a dead­drifting fly can be very productive in coldwater situations, but I have also had good success swinging flies in 33- to 35-degree water that has held stable for a time. Given the fish's slower metabolism, presenting a swinging fly in a slow, controlled fashion will work best in the winter. Steelhead will generally not chase a fly as far or with the same aggressive manner as they do when temperatures are in the optimum range.

Some rivers will draw fish in all winter, particularly in late winter as the spawning activity nears. The fresh winter fish can often be more aggressive. A very slight increase in water temperature caused by a moderate, sunny winter day can significantly improve steelhead activity. I have had some incredible winter steelhead fishing in the middle of a mild afternoon.

As water temperatures drop into the 30s, a steelhead's energy for upstream migration drops. Cold water can stall or even halt migration on streams or rivers with small falls or towhead dams. However, the pools below these obstructions can hold concentrations of fish during cold-water periods.

Later in winter and in spring, as the water temperatures rise consistently into the high 30s, steelhead activity increases as well. This rise in temperature, more than any other factor, seems to trigger the onset of spawning behavior. It creates a certain urgency, forcing steelhead to migrate, at times quickly, to spawning gravel.

You'll find fewer steelhead in the slower, deeper runs and pools. Rather, they concentrate in shallower riffle water and the runs and pockets below and adjacent to these areas.

Steelhead are often preoccupied with spawning during the spring, especially once the spawn is in full swing. At times, these fish may not be as likely to take a fly as in the fall. You can find late spawners and steelhead dropping back to the lake until the water temperatures are consistently in the mid-60s. Keep an eye on spring water temperatures-70 degrees or greater can prove lethal to a steelhead.

A fall scene on a Midwestern river.
The peak months for Great Lakes steelhead are October and November, but if you pay attention to flows and temperature you can have good fishing all winter. (Nick Pionessa photo)

Water Flow

After the time of year and water temperature, the main factor influencing steelhead migration on a day-to­day basis is water flow. An increase in flow after a rain or runoff brings steelhead from the lakes into the rivers and streams, and also motivates fish that have ascended the rivers to continue their journey.

Increases in water flow make many rivers easier for steelhead to negotiate and also dislodge fish from certain holding lies, forcing them to move. An increase in flow at the right time is capable of drawing waves of steelhead into a river or stream.

On the downside, an increase in flow can make the water too high or too stained to fish. On some rivers, these conditions may last for days, while other rivers clear quickly.

As a river or stream falls back into shape, fishing conditions can be excellent. I put significant effort into meeting these conditions head-on throughout the steelhead season. However, perfect conditions present themselves only some of the time. Adjusting to high and dirty, or low and clear, water is very important.

While high and dirty water can be intimidating, fishing water in this condition is not a guaranteed failure. High water often accompanies dirty conditions, and the extra flow poses more of a problem than the stain. But as long as the river remains in its banks, you can turn these conditions to your favor.

Before you fish in heavily stained water, assess the situation. Your first concern is safety. Whether you can wade the river and fish safely is always the key question. I can determine this more readily on a river that I regularly fish, and for those rivers that have monitoring gauges I keep notes on my experiences at various water levels. Dirty water has its limits.

Sometimes the water can be so opaque that visibility is near zero. I like to be able to see the fly at least 3 to 4 inches down in the water before I start fishing.

One of the advantages of dirty water is that it keeps most other anglers at home or on smaller creeks. Fishing a river that isn't in top shape is one of my tricks for finding space and solitude on heavily pressured water. I have had my best success in dirty conditions on familiar stretches of water.

Another advantage is that the rise in level associated with dirty water draws in fresh steelhead from the lake that can be very aggressive and put up an incredible fight when hooked.

On the other hand, low and clear water presents its own set of challenges. These conditions tend to make steelhead dour. They move less, and migration slows. Steelhead often concentrate in certain pools but also tend to be much less aggressive.

Low and clear water conditions can still provide great fishing opportunity, though. Fishing can be best during the low-light periods of the morning and evening. Dark, overcast days are also good when the water is low.

A slight increase in water temperature can also activate steelhead sulking in a pool. Since the low water tends to concentrate the fish into condensed areas, if steelhead do become active during these conditions, you could see multiple hookups.

Rick Kustich is author of River Journal: Salmon River, Reflections on the Water, Fly Fishing the Great Lakes Tributaries, and Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead, which he co-authored with his brother Jerry. This feature article is an excerpt from his most recent book Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead (Headwater Books, Stackpole Books, 2013). Kustich is also a fly tier and seminar speaker, and produced the DVD Tube Flies for Steelhead.

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