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Fall Steelheading 101
Drift fishing for the heavyweight champ of the Great Lakes

Fall Steelheading 101 - By Joe Boomgaard

“Fish on!” my friend Steve yelled from just upstream of me.

Being unobservant as usual, he could have looked downriver and known that I was also hooked up to a bright steelhead. Just as he was starting to put some pressure on his fish, mine rocketed out of the water only a few feet from where he was standing.

“Was that yours?” he asked. “I didn't know that you had one on, too.”

The truth is, I didn't know either. I was watching him set the hook on his fish without paying attention to what I was doing when my rod suddenly bowed under the weight of a nice eight-pound hen. By the time I set the hook, the fish was already up by his feet.

There truly is no better time to be a steelheader than in the fall. The fish are in their prime condition for doing battle. The fall steelhead is the well-trained, take-no-prisoners prizefighter of Great Lakes fish.

In most autumns, steelhead will ascend the rivers during and after the salmon have made their way upstream to spawn and die. However, not all rivers, nor are all years, created equal.

The perfect fall for steelhead fishing is cool and wet. As the tributaries begin to cool after the summer, steelhead will start to stage off of the mouths of rivers, at times migrating with the Chinook upstream.

Here's where rain comes into play: whenever a fall rain both cools and raises the river flow, get ready – good steelheading will usually follow. Oftentimes, the steelhead will run the rivers when the water is high, staging in typical fall holding lies.

Perhaps the best, most consistent holding lie for fall steelhead is behind gravel bars with salmon redds. While several biologists have shown that steelhead are not running the rivers to feed in the fall, they surely become opportunistic feeders, at times gorging themselves on salmon eggs. I have caught fish that were coughing up eggs as I landed and released them. Others that I have kept for a meal seemingly had an entire salmon skein-sized quantity of roe in their stomachs. Clearly, steelhead will capitalize on an easy meal.

Moreover, the redd does not have to contain actively spawning salmon, although their presence is a definite bonus. November and December steelhead can and often are caught behind empty salmon redds. Where actively spawning salmon are found, usually fall steelhead, or even a stray summer-run if the river supports them, will be in the area.

To target steelhead that are behind spawning salmon, an angler must be in the right position. It's best to get even or slightly downstream of the redd. That way, the angler will have less likely of a chance to hook or to spook the salmon. Steelhead can be anywhere around the redd, sometimes even amid the salmon, but most often, they can be found just downstream from the redd.

That being said, not all redds are created equal, either. The most productive redds will have deeper water in the immediate vicinity upstream or downstream of the active spawners. Steelhead will usually hold back in the dark water rather than sit on the redd and be chased by the alpha male salmon. Most will sit in the darker water just below the redd and pick off loose eggs that are dislodged from the nest.

As the salmon season wanes, steelhead will still hold behind the redds. However, they will not be there in as great of numbers as they were while actively spawning fish are present. When an angler spots the washed out gravel depressions, he best try the area for at least a few casts.

If nothing hits within the first few tries, steelhead can often be coaxed into action with some strategically placed loose salmon spawn chum. Once the chum has been distributed above the area the angler is intending to fish so that it has time to sink, hang on! Often, steelhead will become very aggressive in pursuing a spawn bag after an area has been chummed.

In one instance on the Muskegon River, my friend Steve and I chummed a hole below a popular spawning area that we had already fished for about a half an hour with only two or three hookups. For the next couple of hours after we chummed the run, we hooked nearly two dozen steelhead before they became less interested in our offerings and allowed the trout to have passes at our spawn bags to the point where they were becoming a nuisance. At times, we were both hooked up with steelhead at the same time, which made for some interesting rod work to clear up a couple of tangles.

However, do not be misguided by that example – on most days, chumming will help, but not quite to that extent.

As one might imagine, spawn is the hands-down favorite for bait. For fall fish, I like to use loose salmon spawn and tie three to five egg bags for most conditions. If I am fishing an area that has a good population of stream trout, I usually will use larger bags to discourage them from hitting. But, in most cases, the three or four egg bag is my standard.

The color of the spawn bags can also play a key role. Mostly, I stick to pink and chartreuse, with pink being my most successful color. However, on some bright and sunny days, chartreuse will outperform anything.

Rigging for fall steelhead requires little change from the spring. Because of the usually clear water in the fall, I like to stick to lighter lines. For mainline, I prefer to use eight- or six-pound Maxima. If I am fishing a larger stream where casting distance is important, often I will spool up with a light braided line – such as 15-pound strength/four-pound diameter Power Pro – and uni-knot a 10 feet section monofilament to the end before tying on a swivel. With this setup, I have all of the casting distance and sensitivity of braided line without worrying about the fish being spooked by the more-visible braid in the gin-clear water.

My usual drift rig consists of a tiny two-way crane swivel with split-shot attached to a short dropper to the top eye. For leader, I like to run anywhere from a 10 to 24 inches of five- or four-pound Maxima. At the end, I like to use a small, short-shanked hook in size 10-14.

Many anglers will unnecessarily over-weight their drift rig. While many still believe in the old adage that says, “If you aren't constantly ticking bottom, then you're not catching fish,” those who chance to go lighter will be rewarded. The properly weighted drift rig will not drag or slide along the bottom, but only tick it occasionally. In some runs, I barely feel anything throughout the entire drift except when a fish hits. Not only does a lightly weighted drift look more natural, but it also is more visible to trout. Trout cannot see down – only to the side and up.

As one might imagine, fishing light requires a very sensitive rod. Because I custom build my own steelhead rods, I can get a light, yet sensitive rod suited for fall steelhead. Currently, my favorite is a ten-foot, six-weight Rainshadow fly rod blank built into a drift rod. A rod of this size handles plus-sized steelhead well in all but the highest of run-off conditions. Not only that, but it can easily handle float fishing – if the conditions warrant – much better than a shorter rod.

Especially in the fall, polarized sunglasses are as important to a fisherman as his fishing rod is, in my opinion. Quality polarized lenses allow anglers to see into the river to read water and to spot both likely holding lies and spawning salmon to fish behind. I would be lost on a river without polarized glasses.

Anglers are not limited to salmon – or hunting – in the fall. Steelhead, while not as plentiful in most rivers, can provide some stunning action. The fish are in peak fighting form, thanks to a combination of water temperature and the proximity to their own spawning.

Have some spawn bags tied and ready – it won't be long before the next push of fall steelhead will arrive in a nearby Michigan river.






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