Midnight shift for steelhead

In some parts of Michigan, night fishing for steelhead has almost become standard spring procedure, an escape from the maddening crowds as well as one of the last frontiers in sport fishing. Steelhead, particularly those dropping back from dam sites, congregate, pause and feed more predictably than any other time.

Tippy Dam has long had a history of night fishermen in search of solitude and hefty stringers. There, glow-in-the dark Wobble Glos have fast gained a reputation for easy limit catches. Some anglers are convinced a good night fisherman can hook almost all of the aggressive steelies, leaving only a few biters for the morning shift. Hot action starts in March when massive schools of fish first assault the huge dam, but it can start earlier and will last until the end of April. When steelies first run they charge the dam, but cool nights and falling water temperatures convince active fish to drop-back and take up feeding positions in deep holes, runs and swirling pools.

“If the water is clear and the weather tolerable, I’ll start fishing in February,” says Bill Anderson, an avid angler from Sterling Heights. “If spring rains muddy the water, I’ll wait until it clears and start drifting with 6 ft. leads of 8 lb. line rigged with small Wobble Glo and size #4 red Mustad hooks. Late March and early April is when fresh run chromer movements come often and if you can get them to stop running upstream they bite like crazy. Spring fishing is exciting. You can stand in one spot and work several fish, sometimes catch your 3-fish limit in less than an hour and few fishermen know the game is on.”

One of Michigan’s best steelheaders is Shane Ward of Sparta, who is a night fishin’ connoisseur and he claims “The best strategy is to identify a particular area holding fish and keep casting, working the zone slowly and methodically with glow lures. After dark steelies are moving, searching and they are not spooked by boats and other anglers casting ugly presentations. I like Wobble Glo in glow white with pink dots, glow green or glow orange. Some steelies seek side eddies, swirling pools and calm water with less flow than the main current. That’s when you want to switch to glow jigs and lighted bobbers.”

Moon glow jigs or 3-Z jigs have long been popular with those who ply the darkness with long rods and bobbers that glow. Lately more anglers are using custom jigs painted with super glow colors like pink, orange, red, purple, chartreuse and more. Some paint their own jigs and have a variety of colors and sizes ready to try.

Jigs are most frequently tipped with waxworms and the night shift crew learned fast that bulking up jigs with two or three waxies is a sure fire way to get more strikes. The more bait you string on the hook the easier it is for large trout to smell the offering and gulp the hook.

The second most popular bait is a fresh spawn bag tied with loose eggs from a recently caught hen or cured eggs from a king salmon. Night bags can be larger than those used during daylight, again the idea is to catch the fish’s eye in the low light, have him investigate and once he smells the fresh spawn the bite is on.

Try a variety of spawn bag netting in various colors until you hit on the hot combination. Some nights they want orange spawn bags or the hot bite could be on white, pink or chartreuse.

One common mistake steelie buffs make is they do not check their bait often. If your waxies are white as cotton, limp and lack body texture, replace them. Bags with broken eggs or eggs that have turned white from being in the water for long periods need replacement.

Some anglers use cyalume light sticks attached to their bobbers to see the strike. A better system is a tiny light epoxied to the bobber tip. Blue Fox makes a light that glows extra bright and will help you to detect the faintest strike in any conditions. My choice is the red Thill Nite Brite light. To turn on simply twist the bulb end of the replacement battery and push down, turn off by twisting bulb and pulling up. The Thill light burns super bright, 20 times brighter than other float lights and each replacement light will burn for over 20 hours.

When steelhead take the hook at night the strike is often easy to detect because the bobber or float will pause, then dip under the surface fast. Shark attacks are more common at night than daylight when steelies gulp the hook and violently jerk the float under the surface. Generally when water temperatures are cool in the mid-30s, the take is very gentle. The float will pause, slowly tip downriver like the hook is on a snag not a fish, and then it slowly goes underwater. Savvy river rats know to set the hook anytime it dips down and the result is more hook-ups.

I recall an outing to Hesperia Dam on the White River. Spring rain brought masses of fish to the structure but the cold night air caused steelies to back downstream and hold in deeper holes. I arrived around midnight and began casting in the first big hole found about 80 yards from the dam. I was using a chartreuse super glow jig with black dots tipped with three waxies. On the fourth drift my float slipped inside to a slow-moving pocket of water where it stood straight up, not moving. Then I noticed the bobber twitch like a perch was biting the jig. When I set the hook all hell broke loose as a big male steelhead raced for the main flow. I beached the dark fish after an exciting battle, rebaited and made the exact same presentation. Once again the bobber barely jiggled and I set the hook into a chromer hen that jumped like a runaway tarpon, throwing white water in every direction. After catching four fish from the semi-dead water I realized fish were stacked in the stable dead water, resting, waiting for daylight, sun and warmer water to send them back to assault the white water at the dam.

Midnight shift steelies tend to hold somewhat out of the main flow on current breaks next to deep water. Sometimes they are in the center of the river or along the bank but under the cover of darkness they feel comfortable moving out from under log jams, stumps, fallen trees, brush or other cover. You see steelhead come out to play at night and they will vacate daytime hideouts and move into more open stretches of river.

One thing is certain; the rules for catching night fish are different. For instance, usually you need a shorter leader at night. Distance from float to jig is often 2-4 ft. and you do not want to drag the jig near bottom because it will be below the strike zone. As a rule of thumb I like to set my float arm’s length from the jig.

Another rule is you can use heavier line and heavier leader, which makes fighting and landing fish an easy chore. Some night anglers use 15 lb. main line and 12 lb. leader for the midnight fishing adventures. Larger hooks can also be employed for night steelies and size #8 hooks can be replaced with size #4.

Timing can be critical for splendid catches. Some of the hottest action occurs below dam sites after rain and rising water. Warming trends bring chromers by the thousands. Cold weather will cause fish to retreat to deep pools and back eddies at night. The most important element regarding timing is to fish after 11 pm. Apparently steelies need some time to adjust to the darkness and frequently the hot bite starts at 11 pm and can last into the wee hours of night. Some night shift anglers begin a couple hours before daylight using lighted floats to see strikes. Come first light, I’m talking when the tree line is just visible, about the time you can begin to see to tie a knot, that’s when steelies bite best. Pre-dawn feeding activity will often last about an hour after daylight. Don’t make the common mistake of fishing at sunset, wait at least an hour or two until fish have adjusted to the dark conditions. This point is best made by the following anecdote.

A balmy breeze ushered warm rain to northwest Michigan as I drifted spawn at the deep drop-off where the Platte River merges into Loon Lake. As light faded, large schools of steelies marched past me upstream across the tan sand bottom. They looked like a school of fall run Coho but they were spring steelies by the hundreds. An hour after dark I stopped at the M-22 Bridge and found a large school. Several casts produced no strikes so I headed to Honor for a warm supper and hot coffee. The late George Richey, well known Michigan stream guide and fly tier, joined me and we shared stimulating conversation until the restaurant closed. Cocktails at a local bar rekindled my spirits and soon the image of hundreds of chrome steelies danced in my mind. It was almost midnight when I returned to the M-22 Bridge. In the soft glow of the streetlight I could make out the shadowy figures of torpedo shaped fish, lots of them. My first drift produced a strike and under the glow of a full moon I battled the big fish to the beach. Two drifts later my spawn bag set 3 ft. below a float was shark attacked. In less than an hour I beached at least ten chromers all in the 8-10 lb. range.

Exhausted from the non-stop exciting fish-catching mayhem, I finally sat on the dock at Riverside Canoe livery, dangled my feet in the crystal clear water and relaxed. The sky was filled with stars and the distant sound of migrating swans echoed above the sound of the placid river. Alone, under the spell of the full moon I reflected on the fun fishing. There were no maddening crowds, no race to get a fishing spot, no other humans. Suddenly a steelie splashed on the surface and sent a wave across the peaceful stream. I smiled and grabbed my rod and the stringer of fish and headed for the truck. Catching fish was almost too easy.

What about you? Ever tried the midnight shift for steelies?

This deadly tactic will fast become addictive when your float jerks underwater and a big trout rockets downstream, burning line off your drag. With a little practice and by making the right night moves you too can have fun-filled adventures in the dark.