Steelhead autumn is many things. Like flushing grouse. The faint smell of wood smoke mingled with the overwhelming aroma of evergreen. Deer crossing the river. The distant sound of shotguns. Which makes us smile, because those guys are hunting.
We like to hunt steelhead in South Shore rivers in autumn. For Michigan and Wisconsin anglers, these places represent the far north—but we’re fishing tributaries on the South Shore of Lake Superior. Unlike North Shore rivers in Minnesota and Ontario, The Firesteel, Black, Huron, Souix, Amnicon, Brule, Cranberry, and many other South Shore streams have enough ground flow to keep parr alive all summer and fall. Natural reproduction is so high, many of these streams require no stocking.
Not native, perhaps, but wild, these steelhead have been replenishing their own populations for over 120 years—time enough for genetics to begin favoring certain traits, creating a strain adapted to an environment somewhat colder than steelhead experience at the far northern extreme of their native range in Alaska.
The significance of having strains of steelhead adapted to climates surrounding the Great Lakes is not lost on Ohio steelheaders. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR) successfully introduced stocks of steelhead from the West Coast into the tributaries of southwestern Lake Erie for many years. As in most regions of the Great Lakes, rivers are too warm in Ohio to support natural reproduction, so stocking is required annually. For many years, these West Coast strains produced runs nothing truly empirical, to report.
several thousand fish pre river averaging 5 pounds or less.
Within the past decade, Ohio began stocking fish from Michigan’s Little Manistee River, where steelhead are 100% wild. Like those South Shore streams I mentioned, the Little Manistee received its first steelhead stocks way back in the 1880s, and that strain has maintained itself ever since—a fact proven by the doctoral thesis of Dr. Paul Seelbach, who put microscopic nose tags in every stocked fish. He then stationed himself at the weir (they called him the “hermit of the Little Manistee”) 3 years afterward for a 3 year period. When he found no nose tags in any of the returning steelhead, he safely concluded every returning fish was wild—much to the chagrin of Michigan’s DNR, which stocked the river for decades prior to that. At great taxpayer expense. (Despite anglers like myself and many others, I might add, telling various biologists we’d seen parr and smolts in those Michigan rivers for many years. They dismissed our testimony because anglers have nothing truly empirical to report—only unsophisticated observations. Which is true. But when unsophisticated observations could save the taxpayers millions over time, perhaps we should insist they be slightly less arrogant about empiricism.)
Back to Ohio: When the first stocks of Little Manistee steelhead began returning to the Rocky, Vermillion, Grand, and other Lake Erie tributaries, anglers were in for a very pleasant surprise. Average size jumped to 7 pounds and above, and runs doubled in number. “If you spend 3 days fishing these rivers in the winter, and if you know anything about steelheading at all, it’s practically a guarantee that you’ll catch at least one steelhead over 13 pounds,” according to Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters near Cleveland. “The Little Manistee strain massively enhanced the steelhead fishing in these rivers.”
Back to the South Shore: We went up there last week, but rivers are very low and clear. With no appreciable amount of rain for almost 2 months, we were able to cross rivers at ankle depths where it’s usually over our knees. But South Shore rivers have ground flow. Where North Shore rivers tend to dry up almost completely without rain, we were able to fish floats and jigs in the deeper pools and we found 5 mint-bright steelhead holding in them. We used 5.6-pound Raven Fluorocarbon leaders (procured through Anglers International), and 1/80- to 1/64-ounce TC Tackle Jigs to present king salmon eggs tied in small clusters with Red Wing Tackle Spider Thread and nylon netting. Red Wing has the softest netting available, and offers it in a better selection of colors than anybody else. And Tim McFadden of TC Tackle creates jigs with the perfect shaft length, wire diameter, and overall hook strength. I’ve never had a steelhead straighten one of Tim’s jigs, and the shaft length is perfect for keeping the bait tight to the head. I paint the jigs with nail polish in various colors, from taupe to orange with tiny metal flake. We suspended our baited jigs with the smallest Thill River Master floats, which required 5 1/16-size Thill Double-Cut Soft Shot to stand and drift properly. I like a float to ride a little high in the water. Steelhead generally make the float just jet under the surface on the take anyway, and having a float ride a little high gives you a better view of it and the fish less of a view. And it stays on top in rough water if you weight the float by about a BB less than what most “experts” call “perfect.”
In low, clear water, nothing beats a float rig. It allows you to fish water hundreds of feet away, meaning you don’t have to disturb the entire pool to fish its entire length. I use a custom-built rod with a G. Loomis 12- foot 1365 blank, but you’ll certainly find some beautiful factory-built G. Loomis float rods on their site. They offer 5 float rods up to 13.5 feet long, and 4 center-pin rods up to 15 feet long. Long rods are a joy for fishing floats in current, providing optimum control over line, speed, and direction of drift. They also protect light line. We often drop down to 4-pound leaders in these low-clear conditions, but 5.6 pound Raven worked just fine last week. Far and away, Raven offers the best compromise of diameter, shock resistance, and brute strength I’ve found in a fluorocarbon line for steelhead. They have dynamic visual accuity, and 40-plus years of fishing for them taught me that the diameter and visibility of leader materials are crucial issues. In low, clear conditions, drop down in leader size by one pound in test and you’ll hook more fish no matter who you are or how good you think you are. You may not land any of them, but you’ll hook more. We have to make compromises in this game. When I can’t hook any fish at all on really clear, quiet days, I’ll drop down to 3-pound test. I may not land any, but so what? Going for a quick ride is a lot better than being completely skunked. And you learn more—about the fish, the river, and the baits you’re using—by hooking and losing a few fish. Stretch out the distance between float and bait, too—and make it work by “checking” the float—holding it back to let the bait and hook (I use Owner Mosquito Hooks when not using jigs) sweep downstream way ahead of the float. By putting all the shot a foot or so below the float, I’m able to fish 8-foot leaders in water only 3 feet deep sometimes—the ultimate Low Water Rider.
A clear, brisk, autumn day, with yellow and red leaves drifting by on a South Shore stream is one of life’s quietest and best days. No houses, highways, or dams. Sighting a fox, a huge otter, or some other inspiring wild creature is a given. The fish are wild, too. And crazy. When the water’s low and clear, hours sometimes pass before that quietly drifting float jets under. When it does, and a twisting, tail-walking silver bullet forged in Lake Superior goes dancing by, nothing else could possibly matter more than steelhead autumn.