Best Steelhead Lures?

A fan recently contacted me on Facebook and wanted to know what the best lures might be for catching browns and rainbows during late autumn in stocked lakes up in Canada. In his case I suggested floating minnowbaits like the classic Original Floating Rapala, the Original Rebel Minnow, or suspending baits like the Lucky Craft Pointer and Smithwick Rogue.

In fall, big holdover trout in stocked lakes are carnivorous. They hunt bigger game for a variety of reasons. Hatches slow down dramatically, so trout have fewer "easy" invertebrates to target. Trout experience peak metabolism in colder water than creatures like bass or pike, but, just like those fish, big rainbows and browns need to build fat reserves to help them survive the winter, build healthy eggs, and survive the rigors of spawning — in whichever order those events may occur (browns, of course, spawn in fall — rainbows in spring).

Minnowbaits on a long line behind a small board will find them. I really like the new Off Shore OR34 Mini Planer for this. So small, it fits in your pocket. So light, you can use it with standard fishing gear — the same tackle you'll be most comfortable with later when casting suspending minnowbaits to those trout you found by trolling. With minnowbaits, I often set lures back 100 feet or more behind the board for trout in clear water, and 6- to 10-pound fluorocarbon leaders are a must. I tie mine to braided 8-pound lines with back-to-back uni knots, and I start out with leaders at least 10 feet long.

When fish are marking deeper than 10 feet (rare in late fall), I pull Reef Runner Deep Little Rippers and tighten them up behind the boards so they can only dive to a point just above the level trout are using. (Precision Trolling Depth Data by Mark Romanack, Tom Irwin, and Dr. Steven Holt is a great resource for making those calculations quickly on the water).

But what about rainbows in big water? Any time of year — January included — my good friend Mark Chmura will take you out onto Lake Michigan to troll. He finds very few takers. This time of year, most clients want to chase steelhead in rivers, like the one in the photo — and Mark obliges them on his jet boat. But Mark found a, taker last week and went trolling with steelhead lures on the big water. He found them way off shore — out over 400 feet of water. "Pretty unusual, this time of year," he said. "Usually they're cruising the beaches within a few miles of the river where they end up spawning." Fun, scenic fishing in shallow water along impressive dunescapes — if brutally cold at times. You can sometimes see them parting around the boat — ghostly silver missiles that bounce skyward as soon as they touch a lure. Visually exciting stuff.

Chmura uses spoons — a lot of the same spoons he uses all summer chasing salmon and browns. Steelhead will take minnowbaits, too. But, traditionally, we used 4- to 5-inch Luhr Jensen Kwikfish and Worden's FlatFish on long flat lines in the drowned river-mouth lakes where steelhead gather to "stage" before running upriver. It was a November activity back then that could easily extend into mid December these days.

The lure types, sizes, and styles that apply to big trout are legion. And we'll be discussing some new ones in the coming weeks as I visit with Chmura, Gabe Hillebrand, Kevin Morlock, and some other highly innovative anglers — both on the subject and on their boats.

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