Once we have an understanding of the Great Lakes steelhead and brown-trout density and the factors affecting our general approach, it helps to further refine our fly fishing approach. Every river varies in how fish distribute themselves throughout the system. The river may have a pretty high density, but the distribution patterns will be different from river to river. You may have a few fish in every good piece of water throughout the entire river, or you may have huge numbers of fish holding in specific sections of that river. In fact, the second scenario is more common on a given day throughout the season. Fish respond to the conditions and general character of a river in predictable ways. Whether you have to cover water quickly or not, understanding these predictable habits can help you cover water in an even more efficient way. In general terms, this means patterning fish, in other words, seeing what type of water fish are holding in on a given day. With this mindset, you would find specific types of water until you established a pattern. Some days it works very well and fish are in specific types of water, and on others, fish are in a wide variety of locations within a general pattern.
BASIC NEEDS DETERMINE STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT LOCATION IN THE GREAT LAKES
Understanding the basic needs of steelhead and lake-run brown trout can help us to be more efficient and to refine our daily approach to finding and catching them. There are five main factors that affect the location of steelhead and browns in rivers: overhead cover, depth, current relief, oxygen/water temperature, and spawning grounds. Notice steelhead and brown-trout feeding needs play a smaller role in their location although drop-backs will eat aggressively. Overhead cover can be hugely important for both browns and steelhead. These fish will at times be heavily pressured and/or very sensitive to light. Examples of cover are shade, broken water, heavy cover and log jams, bridges, and even cloud cover. Fish will relate to this cover in different ways, and at times, they will not be receptive to flies at all, particularly when they are in heavy cover. In this situation, fish will hold unbelievably tightly to cover in a holding pattern. This is not the case every time, however, and these locations can also be very productive when the fish have rested. In particular, these fish will “relate” to this cover, i.e., they will be out from it rather than sucked back in. Depth is another extremely important factor to consider. To a certain extent, depth is another form of overhead cover, but deeper water with a steady flow can provide oxygen and cover.
Current relief is hugely important and has a close relationship with oxygen. When it comes right down to it, fish will die without current relief. The death may be a slow one with the fish ultimately unable to maintain health if no obstruction is available to allow a fish to recover from its upstream migration or any other form of fatigue. Understanding current relief is not that difficult. Basically, anything in a river system that diverts flows provides current relief. Steelhead and browns normally do not need to worry about feeding, so you can find steelhead and lake-run browns in consistently different holding lies than normal trout. The bottom and sides of the stream provide natural current relief, so keep this in mind. Some prime examples of current relief are depressions in the streambed, particularly where a lip (shallow but wide hole) has formed. Huge numbers of steelhead may be holding in these isolated depressions. Breaks such as stones, snags, logs, and points will also provide the bulk of current relief.
Oxygen is hugely important for any species of fish. Fish require dissolved oxygen to live. Oxygen is directly related to metabolism and water temperature. Fish require more oxygen the higher the water temperature is because their metabolism increases with this rise in temperature. The more a fish is moving, the more oxygen it needs to survive. The lower the temperature, the higher the concentration of dissolved oxygen. Oxygen comes into the system primarily through water’s interaction with the atmosphere, or in other words, from moving water in a river. This means that a steelhead and brown trout must move into faster flowing waters when the water temperature increases, or they will not receive the proper amount of oxygen and will die. In cold water situations, such as during the winter, steelhead and brown trout can easily survive in slow-moving sections of the river, and they will be naturally drawn to these places because their metabolism will go down with the low water temperatures. Knowing this will help you to target specific types of water on a given day, but also generally, through a given period of consistent water temperatures. In other words, you can target water types that are much more likely to hold fish in a given season or daily fluctuation.
Spawning grounds are a hugely important type of water to consider when targeting steelhead and brown trout. After all, they are normally only in the system to ultimately spawn. Some may enter the river to eat salmon eggs, but they are normally in the system to spawn. Steelhead and browns need a certain type of stream bottom to build redds. If this type of a bottom is not available to these fish, then they will push farther up the river until they find it. In many cases, fish will not necessarily be found on the gravel. They will, however, be found adjacent from or in the vicinity of these prime spawning areas. When you identify these places on a river, you can often cut down on fishing fishless water, and this always informs my strategy.
GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT MIGRATION STAGES
Steelhead and lake-run browns will interact with these factors at different points of their migration through a river. Knowing where they will probably be and in what parts of the river will help you to really streamline your fly fishing strategy on a given day. There are four main phases of the migration of Great Lakes steelhead and brown trout: entering the system and migration, winter holding, spawning, and dropping back. When you couple these predictable behaviors with your knowledge of the fish density, then you will be able to have the best strategy possible to be the most efficient and catch the most fish possible. This can make the difference between zero to a few fish and dozens of fish.
A steelhead or brown trout enters the river when specific elements are met such as the photo phase, water temperature, and amount of water in the river. These fish will, then, actively migrate through the river or even migrate out of the river if the river has too little water for the fish to stay in the system over the winter. Migrating fish will more or less be in resting water or actively moving. The mouth of the river is an important transition location for both steelhead and brown trout. All fish that enter the system will have to go through the mouth, so you can be assured that the freshest fish will be at the first barrier/resting location at the mouth of the river. If the water is low, then this can really hold huge numbers of fish and anglers. If there have been few fresh fish in the system, then I personally always pay close attention to the mouth of the river and the first few hundred yards of the river up to the first few barriers or prime holding lies. Once the fish have migrated sufficiently through the river, you can find fish in likely holding locations throughout the river. Also, keep in mind that browns will travel miles, but they often will stay within a few miles rather than migrate for dozens of miles, particularly on the Lake Erie tributaries, although this does happen. In addition to this tendency, steelhead and browns may drop back into the lake on the bottom half of the river if the river gets really low, so you may target the deeper stretches of the upper river in these cases, since they have farther to travel before they can move back into the lake. If the fish density is only a few fish to some fish, then I really try to pattern fish and cover as much water as possible unless the other factors require more methodical fishing. Remember temperature, clarity, and pressure will help you know how fast you can cover water. Two extreme differences are 1) the mouth of the river and 2) holding water near spawning redds. If neither of these show signs of fish as outlined in article one, then target major obstructions within the system. After this, start patterning fish as fast as possible and move as fast as possible until you have patterned the fish for that day, as article one outlined. All of the factors work together to give you the best chance possible.
Once water temperatures plummet, fish will enter their winter holding phase. Their metabolism is the slowest, there is more dissolved oxygen in the water than at any other time, and they are not actively spawning. Fish will be found in slower moving water because they do not need the oxygen. The water will most likely be deep, but fish can still be found in relatively shallow water, say two feet deep, particularly when there is cloud cover. Fish can get more active if the air and, therefore, water temperature heats up. Let the specific conditions for that day and the overall trends direct your fishing choices. You will have to put the fly right in the face of fish during this time, so find areas that will possibly funnel fish into one spot like in deep, moderately flowing runs and at the tailout of deeper pools and runs, where the current is still moderate to slow.
Once the water temperature heats back up, steelhead will move back into the entering and migration phase with an eye toward spawning, so holding water by spawning grounds become even more important. This is the case in the fall when the browns will spawn heavily in November. Browns that have overwintered will drop back to the lake, using holding water on their way. As the water temperature rises, steelhead will begin their spawn. Now, fish are actively seeking spawning grounds and will begin to spawn. Gravel bars, shallow tailouts, and feeder creeks will draw a huge amount of fish, and holding water around these areas will hold a larger percentage of the fish. Even if there is a high density of fish in the system, these areas should be a priority when targeting fish. This doesn’t mean that you are ripping fish off of redds, but the fish are in the system for a reason, to spawn. You may also intercept active migrators as well. As you move later into the season, fish will be more focused on spawning, but you will still have a mix of fish. If the temperature starts to rise, fish may move into the system, spawn, and drop back in a matter of days. This gives you relatively chrome steelhead or fresh browns with signs of active spawning on the tail and the gut (i.e., the eggs are gone or about to burst out).
Both browns and steelhead drop back to the lake and become feeding predators again. The fish will be skinny, sometimes disturbingly skinny, and will be very hungry. The water temperatures will be very high (with spring-spawning steelhead), so covering water is highly advisable and, therefore, swinging flies can be quite productive relatively speaking, although a perfectly presented egg, nymph, or minnow will still catch more fish. However, if only a few fish are in the system, then swinging will cover more water faster. Prime lies are highly oxygenated areas with sufficient current relief such as log jams and extensive flats near deeper water. Nymphs and dead-drift minnow imitations can be very productive. If fish density is high, then you will be in for some great fishing.
Taken all together, you should be able to gauge how quickly you should cover water or work a particularly good looking piece of water. This is critical to having consistent success on the variety of rivers found throughout the Great Lakes and other similar systems. Two other major factors also help determine fly fishing choices: light levels and water flows. Cloudy days make both browns and steelhead more comfortable and will push fish into much shallower water, although both fish will be found in the shallows even with bright sun at times. At certain times, sun will push the fish into deep cover or other forms of overhead cover, so pay particular attention to these locations during sunny conditions. High water flows will push fish to the edges and to any current relief in the river. These locations can have fish stacked in them. This goes for steelhead, anadromous browns, or resident trout. This strategy is more or less universal. All of these elements come together to guide us on a given day. Conditions change, and so should our approach. Fish move, and so should we. Let’s just move with a specific strategy in mind. This is not the gospel, and I would love to hear how you cover water to consistently find fish. Feel free to clarify or add to anything up here in the comments below. You guys have had thousands of days on the water, let’s see how we can teach each other.