Steelhead Fishing on the Ice

By: Milton F. Whitmore

Steelhead on the IceThe word “steelheads” conjures up visions of rivers, upstream from their mouths at a dam, such as Tippy on the Big Manistee River in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and downstream from such structures. It might be a secluded stretch of a smaller stream as it winds its way lakeward through low cedars and tag alders and through narrow valleys bordering highlands grace with stately hardwoods and the spires of tall pines. These places would be likely destinations for anglers in search of winter steelhead fishing.

However, let me take you downstream all the way to the river mouths. Many streams flowing into Lake Michigan from the state’s Lower Peninsula don’t empty directly into the big water of the lake. Rather, they first flow into smaller lakes called, “drowned river mouths”. To all intents and purposes these are lakes having a specific geological/hydrological distinction. From the “lake”, the rivers flow through a man made channel before emptying into Lake Michigan. Any steelhead, or other andromonous salmonoid, for that matter, must first swim the length of these lakes before entering the mainstream for their journey of reproduction which will carry them to the gravel areas upstream.

Ice fishing in these lakes is a little utilized sporting opportunity to catch these rainbow warriors. Along the Lake Michigan coastline, beginning at Muskegon, many famous steelhead streams offer such fishing. The Muskegon, White, Pentwater, Pere Marquette, Big and Little Manistee, and Betsie rivers all enter a drowned river mouth lake before ending their journey in Lake Michigan. All of them offer prime fishing on the ice, that, many times, finds the angler alone, or with very little company.


Reels on short rods are a must. Typical panfish gear is a bit too light for the power surges of a silver bullet as it desperately plunges in lightning runs under the ice. When we first discovered this fishing back in the 1960’s short rods that could be fitted with a reel were not to be found. My dad and I made our own rods and used single action fly reels filled with 8 lb.test mono. Today the angler has a cornucopia of rods and reels from which to choose. We’ve found rods of 4-5 feet in length to be about right. Line weights can vary from 4-8 lb. test, with the former getting more strikes. The use of such light line is possible because of the lack of snags and rocks in these lakes. However, the accidental importation of zebra mussels into the Great Lakes has introduced a concern for lines getting frayed and cut as they cross the shells of these tiny mollusks.

Fishing methods call for typical ice fishing lures such as tear drops, Swedish pimples, Russian spoons, and other small jigging spoons tipped with a minnow, wriggler, or wax worm. I fish with two rods, which is the maximum number of lines that I can use. I use the above lures on one rod and on the other I employ spawn, in either bag or skein form. The spawn baited rod is propped up on a pile of snow or ice so the rod is easily seen. Be sure to loosen the drag on the reel so the fish can run freely with the take of the bait. I once lost a rod and reel while fishing on the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay in the shallow water in front of Acme Creek. This was in the early 1960’s when such fishing was in its infancy. Like a baby learning to walk, we made our mistakes, but we learned quickly. I’ve even taken to laying a heavy ice spud over the end of the rod to keep it on the ice in event of a violent strike from a large fish.

Jigging with the hand held rod will entice the slashing strike of a steelie. Keeping the lure/bait 2-5 feet off the bottom and working it effectively will pay dividends.

Be sure to have a gaff handy. Netting a fish on the ice is, of course, impossible, and leading a large headed and weighty fish through a hole by the line is a tricky maneuver.

Where To Fish

Two choices face the fishermen. They can get as close to the river mouth as they dare, always a touchy event because of the river’s current, or they can fish the flats out away from the mouth. This is generally shallow water, with depths less than ten feet. Before entering the stream the fish cruise these areas and gorge on available baitfish and other food. Currents carry much farther out into a lake than it appears to the casual observer, so caution is needed. If you can find the edge of the current in about 10 feet of water, fish it. Depth finders have some value, but are not necessary as the fish cruise freely while you are stationary. Pike spearers in shanties see a lot of steelheads cruising through their holes on these lakes. Many of these shanties are occupied by anglers who, rather than spear pike, are fishing for these migratory rainbows using conventional gear. These shanties can help you locate long term hotspots.

Moving around until you find fish is a workable tactic, but is not as necessary as with panfish. Steelheads are movers and swim back and forth, covering large areas of these lakes. Most of these bodies of water tend to be long and narrow, thus the fish are funneled by the constricting nature of the shoreline. Muskegon Lake is an exception to this.


This is simple. Go fish when there is safe ice. Most steelheaders look for warming temperatures before heading out to the stream, or, in this case, , the lake. These red banded wonders begin to enter the harbor areas in late October and continue to do so all winter, if suitable conditions prevail. Many of them spend the winter months foraging in the lakes before moving upstream to procreate. You need to have faith that the fish are present and fish accordingly. I’ve had some of my best fishing, all alone I might add, in the middle of January when the red line on thermometer has taken a plunge clear out of sight. The trouble with relying on warming temperatures to give these lakes a whirl is that the ice near the river mouth goes out quickly. It only takes a day or so of warmer water surging downstream to make the ice unsafe.

So there you have it, another opportunity for a new adventure. Go forth, have faith, and hang on tight. The self satisfaction of experiencing a heretofore untried fishing method is yours to have.

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