This is perhaps the hottest fishing of the entire season and unlike spring, spawning fish fall varieties are super charged, firm fleshed and chrome as a newly minted silver dollar.
While steelies are famous for frequently leaping out of the water when they feel the sting of the hook, late fall fish are unbelievably acrobatic, tail walking maniacs that will get your heart pounding and bring you back to the river again and again.
As a rule, steelheads are not really feeding once they enter area rivers and the majority have an empty stomach. But late fall steelies are an exception to this rule and they have baitfish, salmon spawn, and a variety of bugs in their stomachs. These chromers slam your offering with reckless abandon as if they are hungry, feeding, and anxious to take a well-presented lure, spinner, fly or bait. Fall fish bite like gangbusters and often the first presentation gets slammed. One trick is to hit waterways at dawn, beat other fishermen to prime steelie locations and pick off the active fish before the crowds arrive. Savvy anglers learn to use a run-n-gun strategy and have several prime fishing spots in mind, when one gets crowded they bounce to another.
Success often hinges on predicting the run. As a rule of thumb best fishing coincides with rain and the more rain the better. If Great Lakes water temperatures stay warm you can expect a late run. A northwest wind that rolls the lake over can push ideal water along the beach and surf fishing can be fantastic. Steelies don’t always run rivers in massive numbers during fall. Sometimes the surf is the place to be armed with floating spawn bags and flashy spoons. Rain runoff sets up great fishing and if we have a warm fall with heavy rain in late October and throughout November you can expect excellent fishing into late December. By early December, water temperatures have cooled and steelies rush the rivers all along the Lake Michigan coast. These are chromers, silver bullets with silvery firm sides and blueish/greenish backs and few dots. They have spent the summer and early fall roaming the cold water depths in search of food. Now, they run up rivers and streams to feed and spend winter in slow moving deep holes in preparation for spring spawning chores.
I’ve followed fall runs of steelies up the super clear Platte River and when conditions are ideal they will pass lower river deep holes and blast several miles inland. If conditions are not ideal you can expect fish to congregate in the deep slow moving holes of the lower river and slowly filter upstream. If the river water is raging, discolored and flowing fast you can bet steelies will swarm runs and holes far from Lake Michigan. The rise and fall of river water levels can draw fish. Michigan’s AuSable River with hydroelectric operations can trigger fall runs and provide the brand of steelhead feeding activity that make December fishing fun. Daily flow fluctuations can get them biting or cause them to go negative. Try fishing the AuSable when river water is rising. No flow or slow flow can be a dead fishing period.
If your goal is to intercept fresh run silver bullets, it is a good idea to schedule trips shortly after heavy rain. Steelies also like to run upriver when skies are dark and low hanging gray clouds filter bright sunlight and weather is downright dark, almost gloomy. This period began in November and lasts through December, depending on temperature. If December is warm and balmy the steelie fishing will be fantastic, while freezing temperatures and deep snow can cause steelie runs to slow.
I gauge the size of the run and size of fish by what I catch while salmon trolling from July through early September. This year steelies consisted about 30 percent of the Great Lakes catch and following northwest blows the steelie action was top notch. Hey, my last trip to Lake Michigan on October 3 yielded 12 kings, one Coho and six steelies. King salmon runs this fall were not impressive on most Lake Michigan streams and many showed up late in September because of the warm weather. Trollers using orange spoons had a heyday catching steelies this past summer and I expect good numbers to show in traditional steelie rivers. However, the size of steelies I caught and saw at the summer filet table leaves plenty to be desired. My average fish was about 6 pounds. Unlike year’s past when steelies were fat as footballs, today’s fish are rather thin. I saw some fish that simply looked sick, thin as a bean stalk, baseball bat-shaped with large head. I probably laid eyes on about 100 steelies this past summer and fall with the largest being about 9 pounds. I saw no 10-15 pounders, period. Those days are gone, but that is another story.
I feel fortunate to have lived during Michigan’s heyday of trout/salmon fishing. To have actually boated 30 pound kings, 18-pound coho and put three Master Angler 18 pound steelies on the bank of the Little Manistee in less than an hour. I’ll never forget 100-fish steelhead days and fishin’ fun with many talented anglers like Dick Swan, John Westley, George Richey and many, many more. Over the years the fisheries have changed but so have fishing tactics. Here’s why.
Michigan has gone through a float fishing revolution like no other place on planet Earth. With clearing waters, fewer fish and smaller steelies, anglers were quick to adopt float fishing tactics to increase strikes. Sure, there will always be Dick Swan acolytes that use light line and long leaders to temp smart fish in crystal clear water. But most have switched to spinning gear with bobbers or center pin-style reels with custom floats. This brand of finesse fishing is the most deadly steelie tactic going.
Now, don’t get me wrong, drift boats will take plenty of fish using plugs, cranks or diving lures and Jim Bedford followers will catch fish using fancy spinners but the hottest tactic going is float fishing. Here’s why.
Center pin reels allow anglers to cast long distances and maintain line control when fishing floats. The reel is so smooth it eliminates line drag on the water surface and helps to keep the float straight up. This means the offering below is moving the exact speed as the river current. This perfect natural drift is appealing to steelies.
Floats and bobbers are set to drift offerings above fish, rather than bouncing bottom and constantly snagging debris or spooking fish with line or weight in their face. When late December arrives and steelies move to slow moving deep holes and runs, floats or bobbers are used to keep offerings at the ideal depth and maintain drift speed that matches the current. Find a swirling pool, drift the float on the inside of the curl where the water is slower than the main river and you can count on plenty of action.
Years ago my best winter bait was a large wiggler on a size #8 model 181 Eagle Claw hook. Steelies could not resist gulping a huge wiggler dangled four-feet below a bobber. Sometimes I’d hook them in the tail and the twitching wiggler would send out vibrations that attracted savage strikes from steelies. Gotta love those monster wigglers from Pappy’s Bait and Tackle found on M-55 near Wellston.
The number one stream steelie bait when water temperatures are ideal is a spawn bag. Best spawn to use is ripe brown trout eggs, with steelie eggs in second and king spawn third. If water is discolored, make large bags but in gin clear water try bags the size of your pointer finger nail. Use a variety of netting colors until you hit on the color they prefer. One tactic is to switch colors and give steelies a peek at something new, brightly colored orange, red, pink, white and more.
During early fall I like to float chunks of fresh king eggs in the cluster. I cut up the skein with scissors and roll the skein on newspaper while sprinkling the skein with 20 Mule Team Boraxo hand soap. The Boraxo firms the eggs so you can fish them on a size #4 Gamakatsu Octopus single hook or Mustad #92181. When flow decreases and streams become clear plan on switching to single eggs colored orange, red or pink.
However, when water temperatures drop you need to make the switch to jigs tipped with wax worms. There is something powerfully attractive about a brightly colored jig horizontally drifting in current with a tantalizing white grub wiggling for a tail. Waxies have taken steelie fishing by storm and fast become the bait of choice for those seeking limit catches of stream steelhead. No one seems to know why. Some think it is the smell given off by the oily body fluid, others claim it is the rippling action of a critter complete with segmented body and attractive white color.
I absolutely love fishin’ waxies off jigs made by Danny Hale, Ionia Custom Jigs. I use one waxie to catch a fish or two, then switch to two waxies for added action and visibility to fire up steelies and get’em chomping.’ I cast to the head of the slow moving deep hole where resting steelies wait. Reel up slack line, keep rod tip at 12-noon high in the air to reduce line drag and let the float drift the exact speed as the current, don’t pull it, don’t let the wind push it. The idea is to float the offering slightly above or at eye level to fish and have the current move the bait into the strike zone. Steelies are the eye ‘balliningest’ critters alive and strikes usually come after they have seen the natural drift several times. Oh sure, the first float through a fresh hole will get slam dunked the very first drift but after that plan on making hundreds of casts for every strike. Use just enough shot to keep the offering vertical in the water, too much and the fish see the weights, too little shot and the offering will be angled downstream.
When I’m fishing in a crowd I’ll switch jigs often, move the float up or down to get the perfect drift height and constantly change bait. Overused waxies get soft, flat and lose their color. I don’t refrigerate my waxies, I store them at room temperature and feed them oatmeal to make them plump, juicy, lively and the fish smell them a mile away. Another trick is to take off the jig and try a small pink spawn bag just to give fish a new offering.
Never overlook the power of a yarn fly trimmed with sharp scissors to mimic a large single egg. Yarn puffs up in water and actually has action. It looks like big king salmon eggs drifting the exact speed as the current and is deadly on fish holding in current. One trick is to place a small spawn bag or wax worm on the hook below the yarn which gives the presentation a whole new look and smell that can fool wary steelies.
When fresh runs hit Michigan steams seeing all those magnificent silver bullets can get your heart pounding. This is the time to put away the deer gear and get out your fishing rod and reel. You will quickly understand the addictive draw that steelies have when your bobber goes down, you set the hook and all hell breaks loose. Better have your reel drag set to peel out line to the impressive surge of Michigan’s most powerful freshwater trout.