With advance planning and some specific tactics steelies can be a target every time out
If salmon are the king of the Great Lakes, silvery steelhead trout rank a close second. Anyone who hasn’t marveled at a chrome bullet rocketing out of the water hasn’t caught one. With the possible exception of the smallmouth bass, steelhead are the most acrobatic fish an angler is likely to catch in fresh water. Match those spectacular leaps up with stubborn line stripping runs and the steelhead is a fish everyone can appreciate.
The Great Lakes, without question, offers the finest steelhead fishing in the world. All five Great Lakes deliver steelhead action, including Lake Erie which is better known for warm water species like walleye and smallmouth. No matter where an angler lives in the region, exceptional fishing for silver bullets is close at hand.
Like salmon, steelhead are anadromous fish that are hatched in rivers, then live out the majority of their adult life in the Great Lakes before returning to spawn in parent rivers. Most steelhead do not return to their native streams until they are sexually mature adults. Some steelhead survive to spawn two or even three times, but a significant percentage of steelhead spawn and then die not unlike salmon.
The average steelhead in the Great Lakes region weighs six to eight pounds, but fish in the 10-12 pound range are common and a few specimens grow to 15 pounds or more. Most steelhead live five to seven years and a few fish have been reported to have survived 11 years.
Spawning success for steelhead in the Great Lakes region varies widely by location. In some northern streams natural reproduction is very productive and in others natural reproduction is scant at best. On average, steelhead in the Great Lakes region enjoy about a 20% natural recruitment rate. This might sound impressive, but compared to king salmon that enjoy a 50 to 60% natural recruitment rate, steelhead struggle to perpetuate themselves.
In part, the reason steelhead natural reproduction is modest is because after the eggs hatch, the young fish remain in the river for a year or more before smolting. Smolting is the process of migrating downstream and taking up residence in the Great Lakes. Compared to king salmon that smolt at only a few months of age, young steelhead are much more prone to predation in the form of gulls, herons, otters and other fish.
Once in the Great Lakes steelhead typically live for three or four years before returning to spawn. Because steelhead are in great demand by anglers and spawning success varies, annual stocking efforts are an important part of a Great Lakes steelhead management plan.
The open water of the Great Lakes represents a daunting amount of water in which anglers must hunt for fish. Fortunately, steelhead tend to favor the surface waters of the Great Lakes. Compared to salmon, steelhead are more often found closer to the surface. However, faced with the same task of finding food as salmon, steelhead can and do venture into the depths when necessary.
In part, a host of bugs and other insects help keep steelhead near the surface. Like their river bound cousins the rainbow trout, steelhead have a taste for insects. When these fish can slurp bugs off the surface, they do so without hesitation.
The majority of the steelhead’s diet is made up of forage fish including alewives, shiners, smelt and shad. These are the very same forage species that salmon target. Not surprisingly, steelhead and salmon are often found in the same places and a mixed bag is common.
Surface Trolling Tactics
Steelhead specific fishing techniques are only applied by a minority of anglers. Mostly, steelhead are caught by anglers who are targeting salmon.
When the surface water is cooler than 60 degrees, steelhead are commonly found in the top 10 feet. One of my favorite steelhead specific rigs is a trolling spoon with an egg sinker rigged six feet in front of the bait. I rig up by threading a 1 or 1.5 ounce egg sinker onto my main line of 17 pound test monofilament. Next I add a plastic bead and then tie on a barrel style ball bearing swivel. To the swivel I attach six feet of 15 lb test fluorocarbon line with a ball bearing snap swivel at the terminal end.
I fish with medium sized spoons when targeting steelhead. My all time favorites include the Wolverine Tackle Mini Streak and Original Streak. To gain better lure coverage and to make contact with spooky fish, I fish this spoon 100 feet behind the boat and use the Off Shore Tackle SST in-line planer board.
An alternative to this spoon rig is to fish a stickbait or diving crankbait in place of the spoon. The egg sinker can either be used or removed if desired.
Both the spoon and crankbait options are largely targeting steelhead in the top 20 feet of the water column. To fish a little deeper requires a different approach.
Mid Depth Trolling
For trolling the mid depths down to around 40 feet, I prefer to use lead core line sandwiched between a monofilament backing and leader. A full core or 300 meters of lead core will run approximately 40 feet deep. Rig up the lead core with a 50 foot leader of 15 lb test fluorocarbon line. The backing should be 15-17 pound test monofilament and the reel should be capable of holding at least 300 feet of backing.
My favorite lead core reels are the Okuma Clarion 453L models. These reels easily handle a full core of 27 lb test lead core, plus adequate backing and leader.
At the terminal end of this lead core rig, I use a ball bearing swivel and again a small to medium sized spoon. All my lead core lines are also fished in combination with in-line planer boards to gain invaluable outward lure coverage. To rig a lead core line simply let out the lure, leader and all the lead core line. Attach the in-line board to the backing and then let the in-line board out 50-75 feet out to the side of the boat.
Trolling Mid Depths And Below
When it’s necessary to target steelhead below 40 feet, I prefer to use a diving planer like the Walker Deeper Diver, Dipsy Diver or Slide Diver. These divers come in different sizes designed to achieve different depths. My standard choice for trolling is the Walker 107 mm diver fished on 30 lb test braided line and set to fish on the No. 2 or 3 outboard option. This combination allows me to target steelhead down to around 50 feet and achieve a little outward lure cover as a bonus.
My main line is 30 lb test braid attached to a heavy duty snap. The snap is attached to the trip arm on the diver. At the back of the diver I attach a six foot leader of 20 lb test fluorocarbon line and an in-line snubber to prevent line failures. At the terminal end I add a ball bearing swivel and again the same spoons used with previous presentations.
I prefer to run one diver off each side of the boat to keep lines separated and avoid tangles with hooked fish.
Wrapping up my steelhead trolling pattern, I also run two additional downrigger lines to cover the deeper depths. On these downrigger lines I rig a spoon on the main line and a fixed six foot long add-a-line 10 feet above the downrigger ball.
The add-a-line is little more than a six foot length of leader material with an Off Shore Tackle OR-14 planer board clip slid onto the line. At each end a ball bearing snap swivel is attached. One end of this leader accepts a spoon and the other end simply clips over the fishing line. The OR-14 is also clipped to the line to hold the add-a-line and trailing lure at a specific depth.
I prefer to set my add-a-line to hold this bonus lure in place precisely 10 feet above the main lure. When a fish is hooked on the add-a-line the line release provides enough resistance to insure a good hook set. As the fish is fought, the line release slowly slides down to the ball bearing swivel at the end of the main line.
Wrapping It Up
With this complement of trolling options, I can easily fish steelhead from the surface down to 100 feet if necessary. On most days the board lines catch the majority of the fish, but there are exceptions.
When I fish Lake Erie for steelhead, warm surface water forces those fish to seek greater depths. I catch lots of steelhead on Erie with diving planers and downriggers at depths from 50-70 feet below the surface. This goes double on those hot days in August when the air temperature is in the upper 80s and the surface water is in the high 70s.
Nothing beats the rush of catching Great Lakes steelhead. Often these wonderful fish are considered to be a bonus catch. With a little advance planning and some steelhead specific tactics, silver bullets can be on the menu every time out.