The Great Lakes offer fantastic steelhead and very large brown trout opportunities on the fly. This region may be unknown to you, particularly if you’re in the Western U.S. or in another country. As a native of the Western United States, I never had a desire to steelhead fly fish. I would watch my fishing buddies fish for a full week and catch two fish. It wasn’t until I moved to the Great Lakes that I had any desire to pursue steelhead on the fly. My experience was profoundly different from a numbers-of-fish standpoint. Hooking twenty to thirty steelhead was a very real possibility on any prime day of fishing, and still is.
A similar experience happened with the Great Lakes browns. I had never landed a brown trout over ten pounds, legitimately weighed on a scale. However, over the years, I caught dozens and dozens of browns over ten pounds. My daughter’s first two brown trout ever were 8 and 11 pounds. In other words, the Great Lakes offer fly anglers an incredible opportunity from simply a numbers and size perspective of both steelhead and brown trout. The following is meant to help you cut the learning curve on any of the locations of the Great Lakes and to provide a foundation for your fly fishing skills.
GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT VENUES
The Great Lakes cover an expansive area starting from New York running to Minnesota. In total, the Great Lakes cover eight states and a huge chunk of Ontario, Canada. In other words, nearly one in six states has Great Lakes steelhead and/or brown trout. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province by far, with nearly 40% of Canada’s total population, touches four of the five Great Lakes. Within this huge expanse of land, there are literally hundreds of venues that hold steelhead and/or brown trout. These venues offer the fly angler a large diversity of unique and amazingly beautiful rivers, and at times, lakes/estuaries.
A way of thinking of these fisheries is by lakes/regions. Lake Superior (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Upper Peninsula Michigan, Ontario), Lake Michigan and Huron (Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ontario), Lake Erie (Steelhead Alley: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Western New York; Ontario), and Lake Ontario (New York, Ontario).
If you’d like someone to give you in person instruction and advice on these venues, I highly recommend Jeff Liskay at Great Lakes Fly Fishing.
WHAT THE GREAT LAKES OFFER WITH STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT
The Great Lakes offer the fly angler a large population of mainly stocked fish. Most of the populations of steelhead and brown trout do not originate from an egg left in a stream; there is an extensive stocking program throughout the Great Lakes that keeps the runs strong each season.
There are some substantial populations of wild fish throughout the Great Lakes in places like Michigan and Ontario. Many of the more northerly venues have a fair number of wild fish mixed in with the stocked fish.
A top day of catching steelhead in some of these waters would be probably around 20 to 30 fish in a day, and the largest fish you might hope to realistically catch is around 20 pounds. This of course is best case scenario. You might catch 0 or 1. A solid steelhead and brown trout in most places is around 10 to 12 pounds.
Because of the variety of venues, you have a ton of options. Most of the venues you might fish are near urban areas and airports. This is a plus and a minus since you can get to the destinations rather easily, but so can everyone else. New York and Pennsylvania have some of the most crowded of any waters in the Great Lakes.
Productive steelhead fisheries are found in all of the states that border the Great Lakes. Great brown trout fisheries are found in a few states, New York and Wisconsin. Michigan, particularly in the Upper Peninsula, has some decent populations as well, and Pennsylvania has begun to pursue a program with brown trout in recent years.
VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT
Great Lakes steelhead have been around since around 1876. They were transported to the Great Lakes from the Pacific fisheries found in California, Oregon, and Washington. Native steelhead normally go to the ocean, so these steelhead had to undergo some sort of adaptation because they were now spending all of their time in fresh water.
Michigan was the epicenter of Great Lakes steelhead but all of the Great Lakes had fairly early introductions of steelhead into their waters, and all Great Lakes steelhead fisheries are over 100 years old.
Not all rivers that have steelhead in them today had them 100 years ago, but each Great Lake had steelhead populations over a century ago.
The Great Lakes region is also possibly the first place brown trout were introduced to the United States in general. The Pere Marquette was probably the first successful introduction of brown trout in U.S. history. Browns have been a part of Great Lakes fishing for over 100 years as well.
There are a few different strains of brown trout in the Great Lakes, and there is a particularly large strain called a “seeforellen” subspecies that attains huge growth and sizes. These subspecies are found in the fisheries of New York, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Of course, subspecies can interbreed, so determining exact subspecies can be difficult.
At the end of the day, you have huge anadromous fish throughout the Great Lakes. Again, steelhead are everywhere, and big browns show up mainly in New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, and a little bit around Pennsylvania.
GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD STRAINS
There are 6 main strains of steelhead in the Great Lakes: the Little Manistee/Michigan, Ganaraska, Ganaraska/Normandale, Chambers Creek, Skamania, and “Pennsylvania.” Each one of these strains spawns at a unique time and has specific biological traits. Chambers Creek steelhead are normally the largest strain, while “Pennsylvania” steelhead are the smallest on average.
GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT SEASONS
Great Lakes steelhead and browns have seasons. You can fish for them in the lake, but most fly anglers target them in rivers. The “season” traditionally starts in the fall when the fish come into the rivers for the first time of the new season. Brown trout will enter in late October and peak in November. Some fish will stay in the river through the entire winter and will give anglers an opportunity to catch them in the spring.
Steelhead will enter rivers in the fall as well, but depending on the strain, they will enter the river in greater or smaller numbers. All species will begin in the fall, but the “Pennsylvania” strain seems to have the strongest fall numbers of all the strains. Skamania steelhead are primarily in the rivers during the summer months.
In general, you will have some steelhead in some river year-round in the Great Lakes (only Skamania in June and July). Some early migrators might enter the system in August and September. The prime time for fall migrators is late October to December. The Prime time for most rivers will be February through April. Further north in Ontario, Wisconsin, and Michigan will also have steelhead possibly into later May. Water temperature, water height, and other factors will dictate this. Outside of the Skamania strain and some very northern fisheries like the St. Mary’s River in Ontario, June through September would be the hardest time frame to catch steelhead in rivers in the Great Lakes.
GREAT LAKES RIVER TYPES
Before you fish any river, you need to understand its basic nature. There are two main types of steelhead rivers in the Great Lakes: 1) Run-off rivers and 2) spring-fed rivers.
Spring-fed style rivers remain relatively clear for most of the time. These rivers can and do become higher and more stained, but they are by and large very consistent. Michigan has many examples of this type of river. These rivers are not necessarily clear since there are rivers in Michigan that have a tannin color to them. Despite this, these rivers still have the features of a spring-fed style river. All of these rivers offer the fly angler consistent fishing conditions. Rivers like these are hit sometimes every day by many different guides, so the fish are constantly being hounded by anglers.
Run-off rivers become unfishable after rainstorms, and it is amazing what a small storm can do to these rivers. Steelhead Alley is the best example of these types of rivers. Run-off rivers offer some advantages and challenges. On some rivers, the fish aren’t hit as hard because there are periods of time when the river is unfishable. Therefore, the fish are rested for periods of time. A stain in the water allows you to approach steelhead more easily without them detecting your presence.
However, there are also some downsides to this type of water. Often, your favorite river will be blown-out for long periods of time, particularly in the spring. In other words, you can’t fish the river. For this reason, understanding your river and watching the water flow gauges like a hawk are critical to being successful.
GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT PRESENTATIONS
GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT NYMPHING
Nymphing for Great Lakes steelhead and browns is by far and away the most effective and popular. The nymphing tactics are the exact same that you would use for any trout for the most part. If you’ve been successful nymphing in other parts of the country, you’ll be successful here. There are, of course, regional tendencies, but as long as you can put the fly in the zone for these fish, then that is your main focus. Because of this, you need to choose the right nymphing technique to present the fly at mouth level to as many fish as possible.
There are 5 main nymphing techniques for Great Lakes steelhead: bottom bouncing, bead sweeping, euro nymphing, Michigan style bobber fishing, and deep nymphing/chuck and duck.
Deep Nymphing/Chuck and Duck
I start with this technique because I feel that it is not fly fishing. You do not need a fly line to do this technique and a large weight is responsible for carrying the weight and flies to where you’re casting.
With this technique you have a large slinky weight that you attach to a leader. This leader is connected to a very small-diameter running line that you cast like a spinning rod more or less. Then you rely on feel to determine when a steelhead or brown has taken the fly. This is a deadly method for deep water. I do not use this method currently, but I experimented with it decades ago for trout. You can fish this way with a spinning rod even better than a fly rod.
This is the more “traditional” nymphing technique of using an indicator, weight, and a standard fly line. There are variations in this like high-sticking, drop-shotting, etc. This is a versatile nymphing method for Great Lakes steelhead and brown trout.
This isn’t really that different from bottom bouncing, but you may or may not use an indicator when fishing pegged beads. This particular technique is to fish from the side to let your bead and weight almost sweep into the mouth of a steelhead or brown trout. We’re not talking about flossing fish here. The bead simply slips into a fish’s mouth better from a side presentation. Beads can be attached to your line above a nymph fly in places like New York, where you can use only one fly.
Many Great Lakes steelhead and brown trout anglers love euro nymphing. This is simply a preference thing. There are many books written on euro nymphing, and you can apply these same techniques to river-run steelhead and browns. Just make sure to beef up your rod for these much larger fish.
Michigan-Style Bobber Fishing
This technique uses a bobber/indicator to float your flies into the mouth of steelhead and brown trout. This is used on king salmon in Michigan as well. You use a very large indicator/bobber with a line of split shot down the leader. This allows you to stay absolutely connected to your flies and any bites they might receive. As you move to different depths, you can adjust this large bobber. This is towing the line between spin fishing and fly fishing, but at least with this method you use a standard fly line. This is an extremely effective technique, particularly along the sandy bottoms of Michigan streams.
GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT SWINGING AND STRIPPING
Swinging for steelhead in particular is extremely popular in the Great Lakes. Brown trout are targeted much less frequently with swinging techniques, although the spring does provide some opportunities, particularly in New York. You may also simply use stripping techniques for browns and steelhead in smaller rivers as well.
All of the swinging tactics you employ in other fisheries can be used on the waters of the Great Lakes. You can normally get away with Scandi techniques on smaller rivers, but on larger rivers or with big flies, you may use Skagit lines more often.
Here are a few tips to think about before swinging on the Great Lakes.
First, many of the Great Lakes waters are narrow and shallow. You can get away with using single-hand rods on many venues. On larger waters and with bigger flies, you will bump up to a switch rod in the 5 to 7 range. This will cover almost every scenario you will encounter. On the biggest waters, like the Niagara River, you may need to bump up your rod in some scenarios.
Second, on the Great Lakes, you have many buckets rather than long slick flats/runs. These buckets will have many different depths throughout and will have fish on the top and backend. You may have to fish a little bit shallower and then deeper in the guts of the run in these scenarios.
Finally, you can get away with very small flies at times, specifically when you know where the fish are and/or if there are a lot of them. You can go up in size for searching larger buckets, flats, and runs.
GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT FLIES
GREAT LAKES DEAD DRIFT FLIES
Sub-surface flies come in 3 main types: eggs, minnows, and nymphs. All of these types are primarily meant for dead drifting.
Eggs come in every size and shape imaginable, and they are very effective patterns. On a given day of fishing, I normally start with eggs and experiment from there. The best colors are pink, orange, yellow, chartreuse, and clown.
There are three main types: spawn, single eggs, and beads.
Beads are simple enough to understand; this is a bead pegged to your line with a bare hook. Beads are best in shallow and clear water, when you have a side presentation, and can be used in conjunction with another fly in states like New York that only permit one fly.
Spawn is a larger egg pattern. It can look like a bunch of different eggs together or just be a big clump of material. We have no idea what steelhead and browns are thinking when they eat this, but they eat egg patterns that are much larger than what a non-migratory trout normally eats.
Finally, we have single egg patterns. I personally only use single egg patterns when I need to finesse fish. This means highly pressured fish, super clear water, and/or sight fishing in general. You can also use single eggs when you know there are lots of steelhead or browns stacked in a specific area.
Minnow patterns for steelhead and browns are extremely effective in the Great Lakes venues at all times of year. In general, white is the most popular color, normally with a bright accent like orange. If eggs are not working as much as I like, I will add a minnow pattern. It’s very rare when these don’t work if you know fish are in the area.
Finally, nymphs are always an option. There are always traditions in the Great Lakes fishing scene, and I would say nymphs are really popular in Michigan. This may be because of their large populations of hexegenia nymphs in their rivers. The most popular insect nymphs are stoneflies, caddis larvae, hex nymphs, and worms (not an insect, I know). Many tyers have fly patterns that are imitative rather than exact matches of these insects, and tyers will often add accents of orange, chartreuse, and pink to their nymph patterns. A good example is the Chicken Little.
GREAT LAKES SWINGING AND STRIPPING FLIES
There are as many swinging steelhead flies as there are sands in the sea. There is not enough room here to discuss all of these, but three types of flies are popular and effective: flies that are white/silver that imitate a baitfish; smallish bugger style patterns, often with egg-sucking attributes, in black, white, brown, and olive; and larger patterns in black, purple, greens, and oranges are popular.
GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT GEAR
GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT RODS
For nymphing, you want a 7 or 8 weight single-handed rod or a 5 to 6 weight switch rod. Each of these rods should ideally be 10’ plus. Will a shorter rod work? Of course. I have regularly fished a 9-foot 8 weight, particularly on smaller rivers. The advantage of the longer rod length is to allow you to get longer drag-free drifts with your nymphing rigs. My normal nymphing rod is an 11-foot 6 weight switch rod. You also don’t want the rod to be too stiff because you’ll more than likely pull out more nymphs than you would with a softer tip.
For swinging, you can start with a single-handed rod in the 7 to 8 weight range—I prefer a bit shorter rod in this case, 9 foot is great. These rods are meant for smaller rivers and often tight cover. Up from here, an 11-foot 6 weight is a great all-around swinging rod for most rivers in the Great Lakes with small to medium flies. Finally, a powerful 7 weight switch or spey rod will handle most anything else the Great Lakes has to offer.
Armed with these 3 to 4 rods, you can handle almost any venue for steelhead and brown trout in the Great Lakes. If I had to choose one rod to do it all, I would choose an 11 to 11 ½ foot 6 wt. switch rod. You could use this rod for nymphing, and it would handle most waters around the Great Lakes for swinging with most flies. I use Redington and Sage rods for my swinging and nymphing in the Great Lakes.
GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT REELS
I highly recommend using a good quality reel for steelhead on the Great Lakes, particularly when they have some room to run. Brown trout are normally not as hot as steelhead but can use current if the water is large like Oak Orchard and specifically the Niagara River.
Weather can also tax your reel because you’ll have mild and warm temps in May through early October, but most of the time you’re in colder temperatures. If you dip that reel in ice-cold water, you could be in trouble. A sealed drag will help avoid any issues you might have in cold weather and with dirt and grime.
Get a large arbor reel for less line memory and faster cranks. Many different reels will work. I currently use Hatch and Tibor reels.
GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT LINES, LEADERS, AND TIPPET
Nymphing lines are fairly straight forward. Get a line that has a little more power in the front end for indicator fishing, and this will handle most everything except chuck and duck nymphing, which requires a very thin running line. I like Rio’s Elite Switch Chucker and Switch Indicator.
I use a drop-shot nymphing rig with an indicator. I use a 15-pound leader (0x) with 15 pound fluorocarbon tippet. From this, I use 2x (12 lb.) fluorocarbon tippet to the flies and occasionally 10-pound tippet. The total rig is around 9 – 10 feet.
Swinging lines get way more complicated, and there is just not enough room here to go in-depth. You can actually use a floating line and a long leader on small rivers. With two-handed rods, I normally use Skagit lines for all of my swinging in the Great Lakes, but many two-hand addicts are fine using Scandi systems. Use the system you prefer.
I like Rio’s metered shooting line, Intouch Skagit Max Launch and Gamechanger (float/hover/intermediate) lines, and Skagit MOW tips, which are mainly 10’ of straight sinking line in different sinking rates (intermediate through t-14).
I normally use simply 15-pound fluorocarbon for most applications. In small, clear waters, I will rarely go to 12-pound fluoro. Vary the leader length from 3 to 8 feet depending on the sink rate, smaller for faster-sinking tips.
CHALLENGE OF FINDING GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT
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 systematic approach to fly fishing rivers, you can cut down on useless fishing time and dial in on those anadromous trout much more quickly.
GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT DENSITY
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.
OBSTRUCTIONS CONGREGATE STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT
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.
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.
FLY FISHING STRATEGY FOR GREAT LAKES STEELHEAD AND BROWNS
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.
STEELHEAD AND BROWN TROUT DENSITY SCENARIOS
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 Pere 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.
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 that 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” (fish that have spawned and that are moving back to the lake) 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.
OXYGEN IS HUGELY IMPORTANT IN WARMER WATER TEMPERATURES
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.
If you’ve reached the end of this article, you will be much more able to catch Great Lakes steelhead and brown trout. You’ll still have to experiment on your rivers. There are very few people on earth who have fished all rivers of the Great Lakes for steelhead and browns. Each river will challenge you in a different way. If you have the good fortune of fishing in the Great Lakes, get out there and fly fishing for some of these awesome steelhead and brown trout. You’ll learn to love it like I have.
Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead: Rick Kustich
Steelhead Guide: Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie: John Nagy
Fusion Fly Tying: Greg Senyo
Steelhead Dreams: Matt Supinski
Great Lakes Steelhead, Salmon, and Trout: Karl Weixlmann
You guys catch some bang’n fish. I have a five hour ride to Lake Ontario and have fished only a few times but really enjoyed it. This was a excellent article, thanks.
It’s definitely a unique and special fishery. Pressured at times, but can’t expect much less. Thanks again, Jack!