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Surfzone Steelhead: Simply the Best You Can Hope to Catch

Beat the crowds and hook Great Lakes chromers before they reach the rivers.

Surfzone Steelhead: Simply the Best You Can Hope to Catch

Great Lakes steelhead wander the shoreline until they find a beach with the scent of an incoming tributary. Find these beaches, and you can catch these steelhead in their prime. (Jack Hanrahan photo)

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As dark breaks into dawn, a huge cloud bank moving in from the west obliterates a sodden grey sky. The forecast is grim for my first trip of the year with Brian Hall and Evan Morse from Cleveland, but the wind is from the south, keeping the south shoreline of Lake Erie relatively calm as small breakers wash over the beach and white foam swirls around our feet.

The air is electric as the underbelly of the low cloud bank illuminates with interior lightning flashes that gives us strobe-like glimpses into the darkness. There are steelhead swimming past our feet. They sense the oncoming rain that will raise water levels, and allow them passage up the nearby tributary. It’s going to be one of those days when you’re glad to be with good friends witnessing one of nature’s miracles. Chrome-bright steelhead crushing streamers and cartwheeling across the breakers will only add to the coming sensory overload.

Peak Conditioning

Beach steelhead are simply the best steelhead you can hope to catch. The fish are at their peak physical condition, beauty, and power after living roaming free in an inland ocean. They are not confined to a tributary pool, riffle, or run, where they actually spend little of their adult life.

The expanse of the Great Lakes are their true home, where they spend from two to three years chasing baitfish schools and building the strength, speed, and stamina for which they are known. Hook a steelhead off the beach and you’re hooking into a different beast.

A steelhead fresh into nearshore waters—after living a life feeding offshore—has probably never seen a fly. You don’t often see your backing on the smaller tributaries of the Great Lakes, but on the beach you are going to find out what color it is within seconds of most hookups. Plump, fat, and silver, steelies on the big water can kick your ass in a heartbeat. I’d rather catch one or two steelhead off a lonely beach than a half dozen or more from a tributary pool where the steelhead are exposed and quickly become dour from anglers plopping baits, lures, and flies on their heads

Starting Points

Surfzone steelhead are close to major metropolitan areas surrounding the Great Lakes, and they are accessible to anyone with a pair of waders and a healthy desire to explore. The immensity of the fishery is easy to discern. Lake Michigan alone has 3,126 miles of shoreline. Combine that with the other Great Lakes and you have approximately 10,500 miles of potential water that roughly equals half the distance around the world at the equator.

That’s not to say that steelhead exist in every mile of this expanse, but by spending some time walking the beaches within a mile of one of the many tributary mouths, you can find where they congregate.

The water in the Great Lakes is remarkably clear, and you can often see the fish cruising in schools and smaller pods. You direct your cast well ahead of the fish, letting the fly sink before stripping it back, very often enticing a chase and a strike. It sounds a lot like bonefishing, only bonefish don’t jump three feet in the air after feeling the hook, and you don’t need a plane ticket for these gray ghosts.

A fly angler casting in the evening light, watching his rod tip, wearing a stripping basket.
A stripping basket helps you get more distance off the beach and keep your line under control. It’s easy to make your own from a plastic tub and a bungee cord. (Jack Hanrahan photo)

The best place to start is at a fly shop within striking distance of a Great Lakes steelhead river. Every shop in the region probably has a few guys with a passion for fishing the surfzone and can point you in the right direction.

These are the guys who get up at 3 A.M. and look disheveled and unshaven, but their hands reek of steelhead slime. They might point you to a beach near a well-known tributary, but you don’t have to be right at a river mouth in order to find and catch them. This is merely a starting point.

As soon as lake water temperatures start to drop into the mid-60s in early fall, I start looking for fish on the beaches. They often give themselves away as you look down the beach and see leaping or rolling fish. This usually occurs around the second week of September in my neck of the woods on Lake Erie. In the upper Great Lakes where steelhead follow spawning salmon species, and where Skamania steelhead are genetically inclined to migrate during the summer, steelhead runs can begin much earlier.


The window of opportunity for a hook-up can be very short early in the season when the days are longer, so I try to get on the beach before the sun comes up. You can even catch fish before the sun rises using flies tied with glow-in-the-dark material.

As the season progresses and lake water temperatures drop into the low 60s to mid-50s, more schools of steelhead move in and stay closer to the shoreline for longer periods of time, meaning you can have productive fishing most of the day. Chinook salmon, coho salmon, brown trout, and lake trout also roam Great Lakes beaches from late August all the way up until winter freeze.

Colder, spring-fed tributaries seem to attract fish earlier in the fall season and hold them nearshore longer. Use your thermometer and look for smaller tributaries with a heavy tree canopy shading the stream. Larger tributaries frequently have long, slow-moving sections and are often warmer than the little streams—particularly in the fall. A few degrees separation in tributary temperatures can make a big difference in whether the fish are nearby or not.

From late September until about mid-October, I do a lot of jumping back and forth between the beaches and their proximal tributaries. Because I spend a lot of time on the beach early in the season searching for schools of fish, I know exactly which tributary in my area is going to get the biggest run when the right water conditions occur.

Generally, more flow in a tributary means there will be more steelhead nosing around nearby beaches. Steelhead can detect and are attracted to this tributary water, and “following the water” will often take you to the fish. It’s important to note that many steelhead are not “imprinted” on a particular tributary, and they don’t swim directly from the open lake to a particular tributary. They swim miles of shoreline looking for any tributary that has suitable flows.

Tributary water is often trapped along the shore by wind. An easterly wind pushes the water to the west so concentrate your efforts on the beaches just to the west of your target tributary. In the fall that’s all you need to know—wind and flow—and you’ll find the fish.

The wind is important in other ways as well. Large swells on the beach will churn the water into an unfishable mess. On the south shore of Lake Erie we look for a south wind that will leave the beaches relatively calm and protected. On the east shore of Lake Michigan, an easterly wind does the same.

It also helps to have the wind at your back when casting. If you are right-handed, and a stiff wind is off your right shoulder, put your back to the lake and present the fly backhanded to prevent the fly from whacking you in the head. You’ll be surprised how far the wind can carry the line out into the lake if you use it to your advantage.

While the low-light conditions of early morning and late evening are the best time to hook up on beach steelhead, do not discount fishing through the day, especially later in the season and during dark, overcast days with spitting rain and wind that puts a chop on the water. These are prime conditions for high numbers of migrating fish, and more important, fish that are on the bite.

Presentations that Work

The first thing you do not want to do when fly fishing a Great Lakes beach is wade up to your chest and start casting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hooked steelhead in waist-deep water without getting my feet wet.

At first light, schools of steelhead are often swimming so close to the shore that you can poke them with your rod tip. If you want to catch these shallow-water cruisers stay out of the water as much as possible so the fish remain comfortable in the extreme perimeter of the lake. You can always wade deeper later on when the fish become more cautious.

Fly Strategy

First-light fish that have just hit the beach can seem stupid when you get two or three hook-ups on your first ten casts, but the ballgame can quickly change as the day goes on.

Fishing near the mouth of a Pennsylvania tributary ten years ago, I had steelhead after steelhead chasing big white streamers right to my feet, but I couldn’t get a solid grab. I was pumped up watching them follow the fly but I really wanted to hook one.

I watched an old-timer slide several steelhead onto the shore, and later he showed me the small olive streamers he tied with synthetic material—much like a saltwater Surf Candy without the epoxy. The closest thing I had was a size 10 olive Woolly Bugger, and after just a few casts, a steelhead nearly ripped the rod from my hand. The fish was into my backing in seconds before it shattered the calm surface of Lake Erie in a magnificent leap, smacked back into the water, and kept heading toward Canada.

Lesson learned. The steelhead were excited by the larger white fly, but in the clear, calm water, a smaller, sparser, more naturally colored pattern is what got the bite.

“Matching the hatch” is as important here as anywhere else, and two of the most common prey species here on Lake Erie are gobies and emerald shiners. On lakes like Michigan and Ontario, smelt and alewife imitations become more important. Steelhead in the lake are still feeding heavily before making a spawning run, much like a bear trying to fatten up before hibernation.

After my experience with the old-timer on the beach, I came up with an Emerald Shiner imitation that was named Little Precious by Jeff Brausch. Its simplicity and effectiveness make it my favorite beach fly. A silver bead with a couple of lead wire wraps pushed up into the bead cavity give the fly an enticing up-and-down jigging motion. A wing of olive (top) and white (underwing) fur clipped from Finn Raccoon Zonker strips, with a few strands of flash in the middle make it a good imitation of all types of baitfish, especially emerald shiners.

Steelhead flies in a fly box at dusk, lit up under a UV light.
Tied sparsely using reflective materials, the Little Precious is a good imitation of emerald shiners and other small Great Lakes baitfish. In the early fall, sunrise is the best time for a hook-up. (Jack Hanrahan photo)

Of course, having the right fly doesn’t help much if it doesn’t move in a natural fashion. I often experiment with various stripping techniques to see how the fish respond. Sometimes they like a fast strip, sometimes they want it slow, and sometimes they prefer to see it gently bobbing up and down. They often hit the fly when it’s dropping, so get the extra slack out of the line immediately after your cast.

I most often strip the fly back in short, sharp strips and it’s especially important to keep the fly moving if you see a fish chasing it. Tucking the cork handle under your armpit while using a saltwater two-hand retrieve is one of my favorite methods.

I sometimes use tandem fly rigs consisting of two emerald shiner flies, with the dropper fly tied to the bottom tag end of a double surgeon’s knot. Two streamers can sometimes better attract the attention of cruising fish.

In the early morning a floating line and a 10-foot leader works just fine with a properly weighted fly, but as the sun rises and the fish move into 4- to 6-foot-deep troughs, an intermediate line such as RIO’s InTouch CamoLux or a faster-sinking line like an InTouch Deep 5 or Deep 6 can keep your fly in front of the fish more effectively. I like the powerful, instant hook-sets you get with these modern low-stretch lines.

Sometimes a strike indicator setup works better than streamers due to the looping, schooling behavior of steelhead on the beach. A fly hovering below a strike indicator stays in the steelhead travel corridor longer, and is seen by many more passing fish, than with any other method. A light breeze or chop on the water makes your indicator and the fly bob up and down, and all you have to do on your end is control the slack and be ready to set the hook. Depending on what the wind is doing, you can even get a “drift” down the beach as the waves and wind create a belly in your line and move the indicator laterally down the shoreline.

A couple of small split-shot on the leader between the fly and indicator help get the fly down to the level of the fish, just as you would for tributary fishing, and the flies aren’t much different either. Egg imitations and small, dark nymphs are both good bets. I sometimes dead-drift two Little Precious flies under an indicator as well.

Reading the Beach

Once you locate a stretch of beach that might hold steelhead, you can narrow your search by “reading the beach.” In a river or stillwater, we know trout prefer some spots over others, and it’s the same way with beach steelhead.

The best time to study the water is on a calm day with a bright sun behind you so that you can easily see variances in water color and structure. I look for travel corridors and bottom depressions that are used by steelhead as they move up and down the beach in search of a tributary.

With the invasion of plankton-filtering zebra mussels throughout the Great Lakes, the water along the shorelines can be as crystalline as a Bahama beach. Darker water is deeper, and shallow water is lighter colored. Shoals and sandbars can appear as a lighter-colored yellow. I look for dark green troughs that run parallel to the shoreline. These thoroughfares are as easy to read as a deer trail running through the forest.

The inshore substrates of sand and gravel are constantly shifting and changing due to wave action, current, and wind. What was a nice, deep depression in the lake bottom that concentrated fish last year may not be a good spot this year, so you’ll need to constantly scout for the most productive travel lanes.

Not every trip you make to the shore is going to be successful in terms of a high fish count. Success can also be measured by the knowledge gained when you get skunked. As with everything else, you have to pay your dues and put your time in. Being in the right place at the right time is just as important here as anywhere else. If your timing is right, a double-digit day on the beach will have you talking about it for seasons to come.

A fly box with fluorescent marabout beadhead flies over a fly rod and reel on some rocks.
Two of the most common prey species here on Lake Erie are gobies and emerald shiners. (Jack Hanrahan photo)

Little Precious Recipe

  • HOOK: #8-12 Tiemco 5262 streamer hook.
  • BEAD: Small silver tungsten.
  • THREAD: Chartreuse or fluorescent orange UTC 70-denier Ultra Thread.
  • UNDERBODY: 0.020" lead wire.
  • WING: White-and-olive or white-and-blue fur from Finn Raccoon Zonker Strips.
  • FLASH: Pearl Flashabou.

NOTE: Fly should be tied thin and sparse. Trim the raccoon fur from the hide before building the wing.

Karl Weixlmann is the author of Great Lakes Steelhead, Salmon & Trout (Stackpole Books, 2010) and vice president of the Pennsylvania Steelhead Association. He is a regular contributor to Fly Fisherman.

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