By Jim Bedford
Fall is a busy time on Michigan’s tributaries to the Great Lakes. Four salmon species and three trout species run upstream in the late summer or autumn. All spawn in the fall except for the steelhead.
Almost all of Michigan’s steelhead spawn in the late winter or spring, but each year some of them run rivers in the fall and spend the cold months in the river waiting for procreation time. It is not known why a portion of our “Great Lakes strain” of anadromous rainbows run in the fall since they have no physical or water level barriers or even an extra-long distance to travel like some of the West Coast steelhead strains.
It is easy to believe that they are following the salmon to feed on their eggs. But it is rare to find eggs in the stomachs of adult steelhead on their river migration, and these fish were running in the fall long before salmon were introduced.
River-run steelhead stay very aggressive throughout the fall and are loaded with energy because they are so far away from spawning. It is unusual for them not to fight a great battle when they feel the resistance from your rod. When the water temperature is still in the upper 40s or 50s, they are often very acrobatic and display a never-give-up attitude. These traits put the steelhead on a pedestal for me. I have had many memorable battles with these special fish.
About 10 years ago, I hooked a steelhead above the second coffer in the Grand River in Grand Rapids. It sizzled line through the water and jumped several times. Then it got serious and headed downstream, ignoring rod pressure and barreling over the cofferdam. Since I couldn’t safely wade over the coffer, I headed to the nearest shore where I could safely get past the small dam. The fish kept taking line, and I was well into my backing, so I waded after my quarry as fast as I could. I got my mainline back on the reel just in time for the fish to decide to roar over another cofferdam. This time, I headed to the opposite shore to get around the third coffer and try to stay connected. Somehow, we stayed connected, and I finally had the steelie in my net after about a half-mile chase over a half-hour time span. Whew! I am sure I was more tired than the steelhead.
Last fall, I hooked into a very frisky steelhead that tried a different escape route. I was fishing Prairie Creek, and there were a couple of dead trees leaning over the stream and the creek was full of wood. I made an underhand cast to a deep spot just below a submerged log and let the spinner sink for a second before beginning the retrieve. Almost immediately, a fish tried to take the rod out of my hand and then went skyward on the hook set.
I was standing about waist-deep in the creek and suddenly looking up as the steelhead put about 6 feet of air between itself and the creek surface. It gained the same altitude three more times, and I was afraid it would come down on the other side of a tree branch. On the fourth leap, I had a onetime experience in my many thousands of hours of steelheading. The fish grazed my head and bounced off my shoulder as it came down. I’m glad it was hooked on a spinner and not a multi-trebled lure. Luckily, the fish was now pretty tired, and after a short run and a shorter leap, I had the bright fish in my net. Both steelhead were modest-sized females around 8 pounds. I think I am going to pass on receiving another aerial attack from a steelhead but will continue to crave great aerial battles from these special fish.
In most years, fall-run rainbows linger in the lower reaches of the tributaries since there is no urgency to get to the spawning gravel. Low water levels also tend to deter the fish from moving upstream into the shallower sections. Normally, the best fall runs occur when we have periodic heavy rains in late September through mid-November. These surges may put the rivers out of shape for a day or two, but the high, murky water will usually lure in another batch of silver fighters.
Even when we have lots of rain, autumn steelhead will tend to be more concentrated in the lower portions of the rivers and in the larger tributaries. They have also been known to travel up smaller streams and into headwaters during high water and then retreat back down when the rivers clear and drop.
In addition to large rivers, the best streams for fall steelies are those with good natural reproduction. Most of the best ones are in the northwest part of the Lower Peninsula and are tributaries to Lake Michigan. These include the north branches of the White and Pentwater, Pere Marquette, Little Manistee, Betsie, Jordan and Platte rivers. On the sunrise side, the Rifle and the East Branch of the Au Gres get good fall runs but are probably more dependant on rain than the more stable-flowing streams of the northwest corner.
In the Upper Peninsula, most of the small to medium rivers get really low in the fall if rainfall is light, and this hampers the runs of steelhead. The Two Hearted probably gets the most consistent run of these fish.
Even though eggs for our hatchery program are taken from spring-running fish, those rivers that get big plants also support good fall runs. The St. Joseph, Kalamazoo, Grand, Muskegon, Big Manistee, Huron, Clinton, Thunder Bay and Au Sable rivers all attract good numbers of steelhead in the fall. The St. Joseph River can be especially good because of the large number of summer steelhead smolts planted by Indiana. Many of these Skamania strain fish wait until fall to move upstream because of warm river temperatures in July and August.
Drifting spawn is by far the most popular technique used for steelhead in the fall, just as it is in the spring. Skippers, especially the immature ones, may actively feed when they are in the river, and you can’t beat single eggs or small, dime-sized spawn bags for these diminutive, but high-flying and hard-fighting, steelhead.
Adult steelhead rarely actively feed and usually don’t swallow the bait. However, spawn and other live bait such as wigglers and wax worms still work well because fish pick it out of irritation, memory or curiosity, and then hold onto it until you set the hook because it smells, tastes and feels right to them.
A float or bobber can be your best friend when drifting for fall steelhead. The lower reaches of the rivers are often full of wood and other snags. Additionally, the current may be so slow that it is difficult to get a good drift when bottom-bouncing. Add to the fact that aggressive fall steelhead will come up several feet to grab your offering, and it is easy to see why float fishing is so effective.
Slow action rods in the 9- to 11-foot range are ideal for drift fishing. They should be made out of high modulus graphite because sensitivity is crucial to telegraphing the light hits that often occur when bottom-bouncing. The soft action allows you to lob baits into the holding water gently and then cushion your line against the jumps and dashes of these heavyweight rainbows. An even longer rod is often employed when float fishing so you can keep most of your line off of the water.
Spinning reels will work fine for drift fishing, but many experienced drift anglers opt for center pin or casting reels. The reason is that they allow you to extend your drift by free-spooling. Their main drawback is the difficulty in casting light, terminal rigs with them.
Fall-run steelies can also be readily caught using lures that are cast and retrieved. These fish are assertive and don’t take kindly to a shiny lure invading their space. Weighted spinners and heavy, highly curved spoons are the lures used most often to entice a strike from these silver migrants.
The weighted spinner is especially tough to beat in rivers. The flash and vibrations from the spinning blade really turn on fall-run steelhead. Spinners with broad, domed or French-type blades are best because they spin at slow retrieves. Silver is usually the best all-around choice for a blade finish because it has a bright, white flash and reflects light better than nickel, chrome, brass and copper. Normally, the surroundings and river water are quite dark, so the silver finish will really get the steelhead’s attention.
Fluorescent tape on the back of the blade along with brightly colored beads, body components and hook dressing will also help make your lure more visible. Of course, when the stream is clear and the sun is shining brightly, you will want to tone down and use a less gaudy, smaller lure with a brass or copper blade. Whatever the conditions, remember to fish the spinner as slow as you can yet still keep the blade turning.
Plugs or crankbaits are also great lures for autumn steelhead. The traditional, high-action plugs like Hotshots, Wiggle Worts and Hot-n-Tots are usually held against the current and backed down to the fish.
These lures can also be cast quartering downstream and retrieved sweeping against the current. Minnow plug or stickbaits like the suspending Bomber Long A, Matzuo Snappy Minnow and Rapala Husky Jerk are also effective steelhead-catchers. The steelies just don’t like another fish wiggling or swimming in their territory.
Pick rods that are fairly stiff in the butt to facilitate hook sets when fishing lures. They should have a light tip for casting and detecting light hits, which can happen often even though these fish are known for slamming lures. Spinning reels work best for casting and retrieving lures, and you can use fairly heavy line, 12- to 17-pound test, because the fish will be focused on the lure and won’t be line-shy.
November is the most dependable month for fall steelhead action, but these fish begin to enter the rivers in early October. Cool weather and heavy rains key the beginning of the migration. Offshore winds at the river mouths help by blowing the warm surface water out and upwelling cold water, which makes the lake thermally comfortable for the steelies at the pier heads and river mouths. Pay attention to the weather and try to hit your favorite Great Lakes tributary a few days after a good rain. A call to a local tackle shop or the DNR biologists in the area will yield useful information.
Don’t pass up the chance of catching the king of the river at his autumn peak. If you haven’t caught a steelhead or have only tangled with them in the spring, you are in for a real treat. And, think about releasing all or most of your catch. Fall-running steelhead are likely to beget more fall-running steelhead, and these fish provide great river fishing all winter.