Snow devils whirling across a white expanse that extends to the horizon. Under those twisting tornadoes — and several feet of ice — rainbows come in from the cold, following rituals older than the Great Lakes.
Ice fishing steelhead come in waves. After a quiet hour or two of watching the wintry scene, several "traps" spring at once, causing limber sticks to wave and thrash in holders as we scramble to reach them. Under our feet, big-water rainbows peel line from reels set with light drags. Sometimes trout make for the river, leaping in the open water. Sometimes they head back out to sea.
When steelhead stage outside rivermouths, they become vulnerable to ice-fishing pressure. Great Lakes steelhead run up rivers to spawn, staging in the greatest numbers when conditions in rivers are poor — low and clear, high and muddy, or when the river is completely frozen in places. When conditions are right, many rivers have big fall runs. When that happens, fewer trout are left to mill about and stage outside the rivermouth during winter.
"A good fall run generally means the ice fishing isn't as good through the winter," said Matt Schalk, president of Slamco and designer of the Slamco Slammer, a kind of tip-up that employs a rod holder for use with rod and reel. The Slammer acts like a trap, with the rod bent and loaded above it before the strike. When fish take the bait, they pull the rod tip off a peg, the rod springs up and sets the hook. The Slammer was developed for steelhead, but works great for walleyes, pike, and other species.
When rivers are low and clear, fall-run steelhead stage and refuse to run until it's time to spawn. Staging steelhead mill around in groups, often circling in and out of the rivermouth area. In Western Michigan, where Schalk does most of his fishing, rivers historically formed drowned river-mouth lakes long ago, creating two mouth areas — one on Lake Michigan and the other at the end of an inland lake formed on the river in ancient times when water levels on the big lake closed off flow, causing the river to back up. Apparently, steelhead behave differently in these environments than they do around rivermouths that open directly into the Great Lakes.
Guide Chris Beeksma works rivermouths along the shorelines of Lake Superior, where steelhead often find adverse conditions in the river during winter. "It takes a special kind of river to entertain a fall run of steelhead here," he says. "Most rivers don't have enough groundflow to moderate temperature, so all steelhead that run those rivers stage in spring."
Most days, the key to location is simple: Drill holes as close to open water of the rivermouth as is safely possible. Where rivers enter directly onto a Great Lake, these areas tend to range from 4 to 8 feet deep and substrates consist mostly of sand, but gravel, and even rocky beaches can have wave shoals. Those are rolling rills on bottom formed by wave action during the open-water months. Steelhead tend to travel in the troughs, especially when the tops of these rolling shoals are less than 5 feet deep. Most of the time, it's better to set traps in troughs.
The key area tends to be directly in front of a rivermouth. Steelhead might be anywhere under the ice, but the only spot they are certain to visit on each pass is front row center. When not ready to run the river, they circle back out. Steelhead can take their time about leaving, and a pod of fish might wander up the beach, but they don't tend to sit in front of the river and wait for conditions like visibility or temperature to improve. They seem to know when conditions won't improve for a long time, and those circles may not come within a half mile of the mouth.
Fish location around rivermouths is affected by runoff. Big thaws that muddy the river create mudlines. When snow cover is gone, the muddy currents from the river are visible, changing the color of the ice. Lake currents can send the muddy flow in any direction, up either shoreline or directly out into the lake, and those currents can change direction every hour. It's wise to have a lot of holes spread out over a wide area so traps can be quickly moved to the edges when visibility drops to zero. Steelhead roam the edges of mudlines, sometimes following them for miles.
Other key spots include troughs along harbor walls, patches of rock or gravel on sand, inside turns where deep water bends toward shore, or any trough in the key depth zone for that day (generally 6 to 8 feet deep). These spots can be miles from the rivermouth and dangerous or impossible to access.
"The ice isn't fishable in most years," Schalk notes. "You can surf fish those areas in open water and catch fish, but when the ice piles up, it can be 12 feet thick in places and thin in others. But you can fish anywhere on drowned rivermouth lakes like the White or Manistee. Steelhead roam through those inland lakes, usually outside the main currents. Some are caught out in the middle while fishing for perch and walleyes, jigging with Swedish Pimples. But spawn still catches most fish. Waxworms work, and Gulp! Alive! Minnows and other scented softbaits catch a lot of fish, too. White Lake has a lot of current down the middle and steelhead use the edges of it. Last year, I found them about 200 yards from the main current. I've hooked large steelhead out there, but the consistent spots are directly in front of the rivermouth."
Traps like the Slammer and the Automatic Fisherman can be rigged with a variety of rods. The Automatic Fisherman comes with a rod that works well, but I rig it with a 5-foot, ultralight St. Croix Triumph rod. This whippy stick reserves a lot of kinetic energy when doubled over. That energy is released when a fish touches the bait and the rod tip slips off the steel trigger shaft, setting hooks with authority.
"I use whatever rod I can find that works with the Slammer," Schalk says. "Lots of rods work, but the best one is a 5-foot light-power model. Some use 4-foot 3-inch Shakespeare Ugly Stik ultralights. We made the Slammer for standing up to fight fish, not for sitting on a bucket. Standing offers the option of lifting the rod high when they come at you or sticking it down the hole to keep line from embedding in the ice on a power run. The reel needs a good drag. I use Shimanos."
Steelhead have excellent vision, so a fluorocarbon mainline is a good idea. Seaguar AbrazX and InvizX stand up to being wedged in the bottom of the hole, don't coil off the spool in a big wind like so many fluorocarbons, and stand up to gill rakers when steelhead roll on the line. I use #6 Owner Mosquito Hooks and 1/64- to 1/32-ounce TC Tackle steelhead jigs painted with nail polish in a wide variety of colors when I need to anchor the bait in current. Baits can be suspended from 2 inches off bottom to halfway down the water column.
Schalk slips a single #6 Mustad 9260D hook through the middle of a Gulp! Minnow so it hangs horizontal, or he slips the hook into a spawn bag. "I deploy 2- to 3-inch Gulp! Minnows in the smelt color most of the time," he says. "And I usually have at least two kinds of spawn with me. You never know which will be better — steelhead, brown trout, coho, or king salmon eggs. We tie them into spawn bags about the size of a nickel and try to hide the hook inside."
When fishing outside the rivermouth in shallow troughs, the weight of a hook is all that's needed unless there's current. Split shot and swivels add negative visual cues, so I tie hooks directly to the fluorocarbon mainline.
When fishing deeper or in current, split shot might be required. Kerry Paulson, owner of Automatic Fisherman, uses 6-pound Berkley Trilene XL. "Limp lines don't jump off the spool, and we have to drop to 4-pound when the water is gin clear in January," he says.
He fishes the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan, sometimes drilling holes on the big, slow rivers there. "We generally fish inside the coastal river harbors and on some of the deep, slow rivers like the Keewaunee. We add float beads or foam to the bags and drop the rig to the bottom, letting the spawn bag float up.
"A 1/4-ounce egg sinker sliding on the line holds the rig in place, letting the 15- to 22-inch leader of 6-pound Trilene Fluorocarbon leader below the swivel drift downstream. Pick it up and drop it back down several times to get it downstream of the hole, then throw some snow in the hole to reduce the bright light streaming in from above. It certainly helps with big browns and steelhead."
Beeksma says the best time to hunt steelhead is any time you can get out there, but most fish are caught during warming trends. "I doubt barometric pressure has much to do with it," he says. "Warming trends are accompanied by snowmelt and rising water levels. Even if it doesn't trigger steelhead to run, it gets them excited and they start nosing into the currents."
Schalk says they come in waves. "There's always a chance you hook a loner or two away from the rivermouth, but these fish cruise," he says. "Hit it on a run day when they're moving through and you can't keep more than one Slammer set. During warming weather when the ice starts melting, it can be phenomenal. The usual conditions that make steelhead run in spring are the cues — warming weather accompanied by a thaw. The best days generally are in March, when it's starting to melt before the river becomes a raging flood. That can be a narrow time slot but fine fishing is guaranteed.