The Spring season in Michigan should be renamed Steelhead Season. It is a large boost to the fishing economy in an otherwise slow time. With inland lake ice becoming unsafe and pike, bass, and walleye out of season on inland lakes and rivers, anglers flock to the rivers for a chance at catching monster chrome steelies.
Growing up in Mid-Michigan, fishing rivers that are blocked from the Great Lakes by numerous dams, I had no clue Steelhead even existed. But, during my first year living in Kalamazoo for college, I began hearing stories from other fisherman. That spring, my roommate and I loaded the poles, grabbed a map and headed west on roads following the K-zoo river. At about the fourth bridge we came to, we pulled off and took a look. On our way to the river we came across a garbage bag full of huge fish with the fillets removed. After complaining about the laziness and lack of decency in people, we decided this was the best place to catch fish.
We headed down with our 6 ft. rods and tied on a #5 Mepps-Aglia, having no idea if it would work. Every other cast we would snag a rock and lose another lure, but then one of the snags started flying through the air doing gymnastics. It was such a short fight, but the most exciting I had ever felt. We ended up hooking into 10 Steelies that day, but landed none. Disappointment didn’t even exist in my mind. I knew I loved Steelhead fishing and wanted to learn everything I could about it.
Some say smallmouth bass are pound for pound the best fighting fish, and I agree, but a nice chrome Steelhead takes a close second and has 3 times the poundage. Combine that excitement, size and great taste and it’s going to draw quite a crowd of fisherman. It’s not that complicated either. Like other species, combine the correct rig, with the correct presentation in the correct place and FISH ON. Knowing the holes, I believe, is the number one key to Steelhead fishing. If you are in the right place and know the depth of that hole, you have a good chance of catching fish. Alternatively, if you have the right bait/rig and you’re not at the right depth or correct spot on the river, you don’t have a chance.
So, let’s start with the right spot on the river. Steelhead enter the rivers to spawn and then return to the big lake. Some enter all winter and hang out until early spring to spawn, but others come in early spring and spawn right away. The winter run steelies usually hang out in deep holes or log jams until spring and always near the bottom. When they do spawn it is in a gravelly bottom, usually a riffle above a pool.
Steelhead typically eat flies, plankton and minnows. Closer to spawning times they are less likely to eat minnows, but they are an aggressive fish and very territorial. They also eat spawn. It’s kind of a survival of the fittest. This gives their own eggs a better chance at survival.
Knowing all this we can now start to put together some fishing techniques. First are lures. I enjoy this fishing the most, but wouldn’t say it is the most productive for me. Spoons, In-Line Spinners and Plugs are the most common. Cast upstream and reel it in as it comes back to you. I usually reel just fast enough to feel it’s action. Steelies are found near bottom so try to keep your lure near bottom.
Next is floating bait down river. This can be done with a bobber/float set to the correct depth or bottom bounced. A typical setup would be to first put a bobber stop on your main line. I usually use 10 lb. test for my main line. Then put a bead and a slip bobber and tie a swivel on the end. On the other end of the swivel tie about a 4′ leader of 6 lb. test. (length of leader depends on speed and depth of river) Now for some weight. There are many variations of this, but the most common I’ve seen is spit shot. Pinch as many as needed to get 4″-12″ off bottom and spread them out. On the end you can tie on your favorite bait. A hook with spawn bags, jig with wax worms, or a fly are all good baits. Cast this presentation up river and let the current drag it downstream. The most important part of fishing this rig is to keep the slack out of your line and keep a natural float.
These are the simplest ways to catch spring ran Steelhead. My son caught one at 4 years old on a Little Cleo. It does take practice and patience, but once you catch one it will all be worth it.
If you have any other suggestions or methods for catching Steelhead, leave us a comment below and as always jump on www.fishmich.com and check out our forums for fishing reports near you.