"Mostly small males." That was the order of the day. At least according to the only other angler we encountered this past weekend. "Fresh steelhead spawn is the ticket."
So we proceeded to catch small male steelhead as they nosed anxiously closer to the river mouth. Larger, older, presumably wiser steelhead seemed content to continue schooling up a bit farther out in Lake Superior, a dynamic I'll explain in illustrative detail in an upcoming article of In-Fisherman, during the winter of 2013-14.
Rivers, streams, rivulets, creeks. In this part of the world (Lake Superior's South Shore), we cross one every few minutes. Steelheading is popular here, and the popularity of ice fishing for them is through the roof. On a Saturday morning, we see the telltale portables set up just off shore around all the major river mouths.
We set up shop on the first unoccupied spot we came across. The "river" mouth was barely open. When we drilled holes and dropped lines down we discovered we wouldn't need split shot. The lines went straight down, meaning the current was slight.
"Ice fishing the river mouths is best when temperatures stay above 32°F for the preceding 24-hour period," says Chris Beeksma, owner of Get Bit Guide Service. That's Chris holding a (what else?) small male. When the area thaws all night, snow melt increases the flow and sometimes dirties the water a little. Rains and big thaws dirty the water a lot. When that happens, current increases and you need split shot or a jig to hold your presentation somewhere near vertical. We can also see the mud lines under the ice after the snow cover leaves. That acts as a visual guide, showing you where the edges of the current are.
Without winds or steady lake currents to direct them, mudlines can wander or drift back-and-forth. Sometimes the water in the hole you're fishing reverses itself from completely opaque to crystal clear in a matter of seconds.
Steelhead migrations are plugged into a book full of variables. They wander many miles off shore, staying primarily in the top 25 feet of the water column over deep water all summer. Some run rivers during fall and early winter. Some stage near river mouths all winter. And some stay out over the deeps all winter. A few experts who attempt to describe the variables involved (believe me, nobody knows them all) insist that steelhead runs are precipitated by changes in mid-lake temperatures in the Great Lakes region (which can be monitored, believe it or not, on websites that deliver satellite information).
Factors to consider add up to a book. Yet we managed, as Mary Savage demonstrates, to catch a few even though "The Run" was definitely not yet happening. And even "small" male steelhead like these are able to take more line and inspire more excitement than anything else we've pulled through the ice all winter. More on these wacky far-north rainbows in tomorrow's post.