Autumn Steelhead In Low Water

Autumn Steelhead In Low Water

Even the sun was bundled up in layers of down as we descended into the South Shore river valley. Up high the trees swayed in a cold wind. Filtering down through a winding canyon of trees and high banks, the wind becomes a breeze that ruffles the water down below.

As has been the norm for more than a decade now, rivers in the Great Lakes region tend to be low and clear in fall these days. Wasn't always the case. During my first 20 years of fishing Michigan's Pere Marquette, the river was always slightly above average in fall. Almost never flooding, but certainly never at the lowest levels normally reserved for winter or dry summer periods. Water levels seemed perfect, and stable, year-after-year, encouraging the optimum number of steelhead to enter the river and run way upstream. In low water, steelhead never run as far in any numbers. Only the most intrepid of rainbows will ascend deep into the forests surrounding the Great Lakes during low-water conditions.

Exploring the steelhead rivers of Superior's South Shore in Michigan and Wisconsin during fall, the story unfolds from any bridge crossing. We can see what we need to know from high above. Rivers with a high percentage of ground flow are running, and the pools are deep enough to hold fish, even at the lowest levels. Rivers that depend on runoff, at the lowest levels, actually seem to stop flowing. Wandering right down to them, you can see flow occurring between pebbles on a bottom largely exposed to the air. Not a healthy scenario for aquatic invertebrates and steelhead parr.

Autumn steelhead in low water. Sounds like a recipe (but we'll reserve that terminology for the bait). Steelhead are scattered. We find a pod here and a pod there. As the water cools below 40°F, we no longer find them in the water fly fishermen love — heads of pools, pockets, tails of rapids, and runs with broken water coursing relatively rapidly over shallow rocks. Steelhead seek those spots in warmer water, but as temperatures descend toward winter levels, steelhead descend, in turn, into deeper, slower water.

These spots can be a mile apart. You have to be physically ready for it up here. You could take a canoe or kayak, and carry it over your head a mile to reach the river or to take out from it. But you need to be good. There are never any drift boats on these rivers, because rocks, rapids, and shallows eat them for breakfast. No cabins much, either. Running waters aren't very watercraft friendly around Superior.

"Scattered" is a relative term. Steelhead we found over the past three days were in relatively large groups spread out over about five miles of river. Other stretches of river had very few fish. Over a week ago, the rivers up here experienced a rain event, bringing those big pods of fish in. As soon as rivers stop rising from such events, steelhead stop entering in appreciable numbers, and that body of fish that enters in rising water will stay relatively close together. In rivers where runs can continue for 30 miles or more, a five-mile stretch suffices to define "relatively close."

With the right approach, these stretches of river that hold steelhead in low water can be ascertained rather quickly. The data required includes a history of flow levels and a journal depicting when and where fish were caught, and at what water levels, on what dates, and in what water temperatures. You have to keep track of those things yourself. There's no app for it, and nobody (in their right mind) will do it for you.

Of course, you could come to the river with an army of 12 guys armed with cell phones. The downside is, you have to trust all 12 to actually be able to catch the fish in front of them. And once they find the body of fish, you have to share it with 12 other guys. Other shortcuts may exist, and probably suck just as bad. The right way is hard.

Besides, when I hear a cell phone ringing in steelhead country, I want to grab it and pitch it into the river. No matter how smart that phone gets, it can't match the complexity of a steelhead. The real miracles are swimming free in wild rivers and finding their own way back to the exact spot where they were born 4 or 5 years ago with no need for a GPS unit, recharging, or a program written by a geek in a dark room then sold by a series of capitalists trained to survey your desires and pinpoint knee-jerk reactions to things that seem really, really cool yet make no real difference in your life and actually pale in comparison to that bird flying over your head that goes completely unnoticed.

Rule number one: Toss that life interrupting, cancer causing, brain-wave altering, dummy box of a cell phone into the glove box. Pay attention to life and the journey begins. No matter how small or insignificant it may seem, it can lead to a pattern. The marching of ants along a tree limb. Pelicans resting on shore. A gathering of birds. A school of minnows. The flight of a single mayfly.

A set of rings in an otherwise placid pool.

All of which, in the mind of an actual angler,  just beat the hell out of the most sophisticated toys, games, and phones geeks can build in dark, sterile rooms.

More coming on fall steelhead...

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

Recommended for You


Dock Shooting Crappies

Matt Straw - July 03, 2018

Catch those weary crappie with this technique!


Sensational New Softbaits for Bass

Steve Quinn - April 22, 2019

Steve Quinn talks new softbaits for bass from Berkley.

Fish Recipes

Blackened Fish Recipe

Tommy Thompson

Blackened fish ready to serve with a side of okra and cucumber-red onion salad. This recipe is...

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Mustad's Saltwater Jig Lineup

Russ Whisler shows OSG's Lynn Burkhead the innovative features and great color schemes in Mustad's voluminous lineup of saltwater jigs introduced at ICAST 2019.

Berkley's New Terminal Tackle

OSG's Lynn Burkhead and Chad LaChance, host of World Fishing Network's Fishful Thinker television show, talk about Berkley's new innovative terminal tackle being introduced at ICAST 2019.

Simms' Challenger Raingear

John Frazier of Simms Fishing Products details the warm and dry features found in the new Challenger raingear being brought to market by the Bozeman, Mont. company.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Other Fish

Must-Have Striped Bass Tackle

Rick Bach - May 04, 2017

It was an August evening and I was wading the flats in Brewster, MA with my cousin. Here you...


Catfish Pole Rigs

Richard Peterson with In-Fisherman - April 28, 2016

Pole lines illustrate the paradox of catfishing. At a time when excellent rods, reels, and...

Pike & Muskie

How To Catch Pike In Spring

Dan Johnson - April 26, 2016

Spring is prime time for pike. The Prespawn and Postspawn periods offer excellent odds at...

See More Stories

More Trout & Salmon

Trout & Salmon

Quest for a 40 Revisited: Lake Trout Fishing

Matt Straw - January 14, 2014

Placid water stretched across the seventh largest lake in the world, extending into that...

Trout & Salmon

Walking A Tight Llne For Steelhead

Matt Straw - June 09, 2013

Notice how red the tag alder is? Mornings have been cold, but the afternoon sun is activating

Trout & Salmon

Soft Beads for Steelhead

Matt Straw - October 30, 2017

Streamlined silver powerpacks line up at feeding stations. In fall, their food, conveyed by

See More Trout & Salmon

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.