Shallow Ice Steelhead

Ok, I lied (again). Promised to deliver a little more inside information on ice steelhead yesterday but got caught up with interviews and articles for the July issue of In-Fisherman. (Talk about stripping gears. Going back-and-forth from the ice to shirtsleeve weather and open water can drive a writer crazy. And, for me, it's a short drive.)

When steelhead begin milling around near "wild" creek and river mouths on the Great Lakes, they don't tend to stay long. "Wild" meaning no harbors, sea walls, dredged channels, or other artificial characteristics. The areas outside wild river mouths tend to be shallow. Wave action from spring through early winter creates "rills," or waves in the bottom, where substrates are sandy (as opposed to rocky). Steelhead travel in those deeper grooves. Typically, those grooves are 4 to 7 feet deep on the flats immediately outside the mouth of the stream.

Standing around and jigging 2 to 4 feet over a steelhead is counter productive. It works, but seldom for impatient anglers that walk around, shuffle their feet, or can't make up their mind about sitting or standing, especially when the snow cover leaves. (Sometimes jigging works better than "setting traps," but that's grist for another tale. This one is about setting traps.)

To the right is a "trap." Illegal in Minnesota (what isn't?), the Automatic Fisherman sets the hook for you. When a steelhead, coho, or splake touches the bait, the rod tip slips off a metal peg on that arm extending from the housing on the front of the unit. That heavy housing then falls back onto the base of the unit, providing an audible signal. A quick glance in that direction reveals a thrashing rod and the race is on.

The Automatic Fisherman comes with its own rods designed to work perfectly for this kind of fishing, especially for walleyes, bass, whitefish, and crappies. The rod in the photo is a little addition of my own. It's a 5-foot, Triumph series ultralight from St. Croix. The added length allows me to get the rod tip under the ice, so steelhead can't wedge my line into the bottom of the hole. And though it's too light for steelhead in most cases, it's perfect around wild river mouths where trouble in the form of snags are relatively rare. As you can see, a lot of pent-up energy is ready to be released. The hook is literally whipped into place.

The drag on the reel is critical for this kind of fishing. It has to be set relatively light and it has to be dependably smooth or the entire shebang can be overturned and the rod dragged down the hole, so I use Shimano and Cardinal spinning reels spooled with 4- to 6-pound Seaguar AbrazX Fluorocarbon.

Other products we use to set traps include the Slamco Slammer and the HT Enterprises Ice Rigger. The Ice Rigger isn't really a trap, though. A flag is tripped on the take, but the bail on the reel has to be left open or the drag has to be set very light. It works, but only on relatively calm days. (It's our go-to product in Minnesota, too.)

Next: A discussion on hooks, jigs, baits, and other presentation options.

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