The biggest challenge when fly fishing for Great Lakes steelhead and lake-run brown trout is finding the fish. This is very different from stream fishing, or even stillwater fishing, for resident trout. Finding fish is, of course, a challenge in all of fly fishing. Figuring out where those resident fish are holding on a given day is a large part of fly fishing success, but these fish are always in the river. They may move to parts of the river that are more suitable for seasonal activities, but they are by definition still in the system. The smaller and shorter the river, the easier it is to find fish. This goes for lakes as well. Smaller lakes with lots of fish are easier to crack because there is less acreage to cover. Really, this goes for all fly fishing. However, if you use a general approach to fly fishing rivers that are small enough to not take on lake features, you can cut down on useless fishing time and dial in on those anadromous trout much more quickly.


It’s a well-known fact that you can’t catch fish that aren’t there. The more fish you find, the better. However, each river has its own features that determine where fish are in the system and how easy it is to find these fish, whether they’re steelhead or brown trout. What it all comes down to is fish density. The hugely productive tailwaters of the Western United States have enormous fish densities. They are in fact like aquariums. You can’t see every fish in the river, but you will see hundreds if not thousands of fish. With any steelhead or brown-trout river, there are only two factors that affect the amount of fish available to you at a given moment: 1) the size of the available water to the fish and 2) the amount of fish in the system. That is it! Now, there are many elements that shape these two factors, but these two are all there is.

Steelhead fly fishing Great Lakes.


The size of the available water to the fish is determined by a few factors.  How long is the river that is available to the steelhead or browns? Are there dams that restrict the migration of the steelhead or browns? Is there only a small bit of water available to the fish in which to migrate? Are there major obstructions that slow down the migration? If there are major obstructions, then fish will be below these in the system in general. If there are dams like on many of the Lake Ontario brown-trout rivers, then you will have a very small area to fish. Also, just a hint; this means more crowded fishing. If you are operating in a relatively restricted area, then it is much easier to find fish. Assuming that the fish are actually in the system.

Anadromous trout are at times unpredictable when it comes to migration. In addition to this unpredictable nature, the quality of the migration can be affected by many different factors. Among these are fishing pressure in the lake, previous spawning success, total stocking numbers, and age when they are stocked. There is absolutely nothing you can do about the amount of fish available to you when it comes to these factors, when you are on a fishing trip that is. These factors have to be changed years in advance. Factors that will determine the relative amount of fish in a system are the following. The first is rain. Rain is crucial to the migration of any migratory fish. The creeks must have enough water in them to promote migration. Any steelhead or brown-trout angler becomes a raving lunatic, constantly watching for any smidgen of rain. The other factors are a temperature drop, wind (which pushes cold water toward shore), and sunlight (the relative decreasing sunlight in the fall or increasing in the spring). When it comes right down to it, there aren’t many of these factors that you can control. However, you can use these elements to sharpen your strategy for a given time and place.

Spotting trophy brown trout fly fishing in the Great Lakes.


Knowing the fish density is hugely important for both your confidence and your fishing strategy for the day. If you are not sure of the fish density when you arrive at a body of water, you can do a lot of things to determine this. The size of the body of water will limit the tactics that you can use to determine relative fish density for the day. If you are fishing in a relatively small river, then you can actually spot fish. You can look for any sign of fish under the water. If the water is clear, then you need to find tall positions to locate fish. Spotting fish is the surest way to guarantee that fish are there. A good guide will know more or less the fish density of the river on a given day. Many of them fish the same river for weeks at a time, so they know what to expect. This doesn’t mean that fresh fish won’t come in on a given night, but you would do well to trust your guide. Another way to tell if fish are in the river is by the smell. If you can smell fish, they are in the system, and in probably good numbers. Just make sure you’re smelling the right species. Finally, other anglers will tell you, either with their actions or words how the fish density is. Seeing anglers catching fish is a certain announcement that fish are there. You can also compare notes by asking a lot of different anglers throughout the day. Couple these techniques with the general reputation of the river with possibly some fishing reports online or over the phone (trust these at your own skunking), and you can be confident about the fish density of the system on a given day.


Cold weather steelhead fly fishing in the Great Lakes.


Once I have an idea about the fish density, I like to use this information to strategize my approach for the day. Three other major factors will also play into this strategy: water temperature, water clarity, and fishing pressure. How do these affect your strategy for the day? Both water temperature and water clarity will determine how fast you can fish. If the water temperature is high and/or stable, you can cover water much faster. Fish are more likely to take flies farther away when the temperature is up, so you don’t need to have a million casts in one spot. Cover water to locate fish. Then concentrate on an area where you’ve found fish. The opposite is true for cold water, particularly water that has just dropped in temperature. The fish’s metabolism is lower, and you might have to drift right into a fish’s face to get it to eat. In this case, you have to spend more time in each spot. Water clarity has the same effect. You can fish clear water much faster than you can murky water. This is even more important for flies since they have no egg smell on them. Remember that these factors hold true with all other conditions being equal, such as a steelhead or brown trout’s general mood.

Fishing pressure can also have a huge effect on how fast you can fish a river. If fish are seeing tons of egg patterns, streamers, and people all day long, they will be more tentative in all of their actions except maybe spawning. You might have to spend a lot more time in a given section of water, trying different patterns and sizes. This article offers some tips for choosing nymphs for all trout fishing situations. If you are swinging or stripping flies, you should still cover water, but you might need to use more subtle colors and downsize everything and/or try to target mostly fresh fish.  The swing might also need to be a very slow creep through the water.


With these three factors in mind, there are four basic scenarios with fish density: no fish, few fish, some fish, and a lot of fish. No fish is the easiest situation to work into your strategy because your strategy switches to another river. Leave that river immediately! A lot of fish in the system is what we all want. In this scenario, you can concentrate strictly on presentation. Keep in mind that you still might not see a lot of fish, depending on the body of water. But, if you have concluded through all the factors above that there are a lot of fish in the system, then have confidence that they are there. The first thing that you need to decide is how much water you will be covering and how fast. When you know that fish are in the system in good numbers, you will be fishing likely places much more thoroughly. At this point, it’s not about finding fish; it’s about getting your flies in the fish’s face, and this goes for either nymphs or streamers. In other words, the more fish that are in the system, the less water you have to cover all other factors being equal. Combine this with the water temperature, water clarity, and fishing pressure, and you can be guaranteed of catching more and possibly larger fish.

We all love having tons of fish to cast to, but in most cases, the river has either few fish or some fish in the system. Rivers in Michigan for example are extremely long, such as the Pierre Marquette. This is also the case for many rivers in Ohio and some in New York. The fish densities can be extremely high at certain times of the year and depending on the steelhead strain, but at others, you may have to cover tons of water before you find fish. In other words, the fewer the amount of fish in a system, the more water you must cover to locate fish. In these conditions, you should float a river, cover a lot of ground on foot, and/or drive to different sections of the river until you locate an area that has fish. The reason for this is that a bunch of fish may have pushed up a week ago. This group of fish may be up the river ten miles with only a few other fish in that ten mile stretch. Being mobile helps you locate fish within a given river.  In part two, I look at the major factors that determine where steelhead and brown trout will be on a given day and seasonal trend and how I pattern fish, using these factors.

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