Sky, water, and float — all crystal clear. In the glittering diamonds trailing toward the sun, the float became impossible to see. Which didn't matter, this time. The float submerged with an audible ploop, followed by the scream of the drag. It's a recurring theme: When the water and sky are clear, a clear float, invisible leader, and diminutive bait clearly outproduce other presentations for giant lake-run rainbows.
Great Lakes steelheaders could face low water in rivers more often than not for decades to come. Combine that with the ever-increasing pressure on our rivers and you have a perfect script for tough fishing. Autumn rivers have been lower than a snake's belly for the past five or six years in many areas around the Great Lakes.
Most scientists studying global weather patterns now agree that climates are changing. Many regions around the Great Lakes are getting drier, some wetter, but all are getting warmer. My notes are small potatoes when it comes to science, but they, too, indicate a change. For over 35 years, the most predictable water levels in rivers surrounding Lake Michigan occurred in November. It was, without a doubt, the most consistent month for steelhead from the 1960s (probably long before) until about 1996. The rivers were never too low, seldom too high, and drew big numbers of steel bypassed by anglers who turned into hunters every fall. But over the past six years, many rivers have been too low to draw the kinds of runs we experienced in the past.
With little pressure, fall fishing would remain tremendous. But pressure is increasing. Creel studies show that more anglers now target steelhead around the Great Lakes than ever before. In this new environment, the most consistent anglers for fall-run steelhead will fish like ninjas. Their motto: Never let them see you or hear you coming; and deliver natural, subtle presentations from far away.
No good can come from stealth rigging if you fish like a gorilla. The smaller the stream, the more important it becomes to keep your head low, move slowly, wade carefully, and avoid throwing a wake. The smaller the stream, the more important it becomes to wear clothing that blends with the background. Those who wear white hats and throw big wakes don't need advice on stealth rigging. They need bass boats. What good is the right setup if the fish are long gone by the time you make your first cast?
In low-water years, big rivers become more like small streams. Fish become skittish and spook easily, but less so than steel in small streams during low-water years. Those fish become downright paranoid, to the point of schizophrenia. In those commercials warning us, "Don't Be That Guy," the steelhead version would feature a man in a bright orange hunting vest that stomps around like a water buffalo, sending vibrations through ground, water, and the flesh of steelhead as they rapidly flee. The camera pans to two men in camo looking flatly at each other, muttering, "Why us?"
Of course, during hunting season, we have to wear something optic orange or chances of survival generally equal those of the nearest 10-point buck. Wear a reversible orange stocking cap that's forest green on the inside. When you walk, place the hat on your rod tip, orange-side out, and wave it like a flag. Wear it green-side out while wading. (And yell a lot: "Humans coming! Don't shoot!" With any luck, it will spook a buck in somebody's cross hairs. That alone will keep some hunters shouting distance away from one's favorite steelhead rivers.)
Back to low water. The best way to approach it is to stay under a steelhead's radar while putting a bait or fly right on its nose. Walking the banks and moving about sends vibrations into the water, throws shadows over hidden trout, and puts you in their line of sight and on their radar screen. When you have to move, mimic the heron, who is a better fisherman than we'll ever be. Pick your feet up above the surface and place them back in the water carefully. Move slowly. Keep your head down, and cover the largest possible area without moving. The best way to do that is with a float, which can present a small spawn bag, waxworm, tube, fly, plastic worm — anything that steelhead eat that doesn't wobble or stick to magnets — from an appreciable distance.
The key features of stealth rigging are long rods (12 to 14 feet), long fluorocarbon leaders, and clear floats. Fabulous rods are available from several companies, including St. Croix (the 13-foot WST130LM2). Several companies also offer long blanks that can be shuttled over to the nearest custom rod builder. Many 10-foot medium-action steelhead rods are perfect for presenting floats from a drift boat or river jet.
Fluorocarbon (I know, I know — you've read this a million times, so humor me) has a similar reflective coefficient to water, making it the least visible line to fish. Fluorocarbon is the answer, but it's tricky business for steelhead. Knots don't hold as well as with mono, and the abrasion-resistance of the best fluorocarbons simply can't compare with that of Ande, Maxima, Berkley Big Game, and other tough monofilaments. Most either can't stand up to the stress or really aren't fluorocarbons to begin with.
One of the Great Truths of low-water fishing is that, all else being equal, the fellow using the lightest leader hooks the most fish. But fluorocarbon reverses the equation. I've been on both ends of the deal when the angler using 8- or 10-pound-test fluorocarbon outfished the fellow using 6- or even 4-pound-test monofilament leaders. All else being equal, the results are consistent: The angler using fluorocarbon leaders in low clear water hooks more steelhead than the one using mono.
But few fluorocarbons stand up to steelhead with any consistency. These are the ones I've found that do: Silver Thread Fluorocarbon, Raven Invisible, Umpqua Feather Merchants Deceiver, and Cortland Climax. All have good shock-resistance. Silver Thread has one of the toughest fluorocarbons out there. But it also has a thicker diameter than the other brands, and currently the lightest line they make is 6-pound test. Raven Invisible, a Japanese line, is thin and amazingly strong for its diameter, but is available in only three sizes, all under 6-pound test. Cortland Climax holds any kind of knot better than most other fluorocarbons. Seaguar and Umpqua Feather Merchants brands are probably the most versatile lines in this group — meaning the knots hold well enough, stretch is moderate, range of break strengths is comprehensive, diameter is in the middle of the road, and they stand up to abrasion better than the thinner versions.
Clear floats are available through Red Wing Tackle in Ontario and through various outlets that sell European tackle in the United States. Drennans from England are among the best. The advantage is derived by giving steelhead less to see. In low clear water, steelhead often spook at the sight of anything different drifting right over their heads. The less obtrusive the float, the more likely the trout will at least hold its position and allow you another try. Of course, clear floats are harder for us to see, too, which means sometimes having to fish by sense of feel. A bow in the line absorbs vibration. Water absorbs vibration. Keep the line to the float tight, with as much line out of the water as possible.
The optimum presentation in low clear water gets the bait way out in front (downstream) of the float. When the ribs are sticking out of small rivers, rig with a long leader and a bunch of tiny split shot. The leader should be two to three times the depth of the river. If the pool being fished is three to four feet deep, the leader should be six to nine feet long, terminating in a small single hook or fly.
But don't let it just drift along at the mercy of the current. In low water, current is reduced and even a single hook eventually finds bottom if this rig is allowed to free drift. Check the float by first keeping the line fairly tight and off the water as it drifts past. Then stop, pause, or drag the float as it moves downstream of your position. Allow the float to progress, but not at current speed. Holding it up or "checking" it keeps the bait wafting along well above bottom, swinging slightly from side to side. The first tiny split shot (a #6 or smaller) should be 18 inches to two feet above the bait in light current. In stronger current, use a small jig (1/80- to 1/64-ounce). Increasingly large clusters of split shot (like two, then three) should then be spaced every 18 inches or so back to the float. Taper the weight down to the bait. Most of the weight should be closer to the float than to the hook and situated just above bottom — which, in this case (3- to 4-foot depths), means slightly less than three feet below the float.
Every stream, every day, requires little adjustments. If the rig snags a lot, keep moving the sinkers farther up the line, or go to a smaller float that stands with less weight. Best if you can slide your sinkers to adjust to each new drift without damaging your line. Soft shot from Dinsmore, Anchor, or Thill become key tackle items in low clear water. Steelhead seem much less likely to spook from a string of tiny shot than one great big shot. Using five #6 shot works better than using one BB.
Controlling the drift of a float is much easier with a 13-foot rod than with a 10-foot rod, from a wading perspective. But controlling a big river is much easier with a jet boat, where a 13-foot rod makes landing fish difficult. From a jet on big rivers, a 10-foot rod is optimum, and the rigging changes. It remains critical to keep the bait well out in front of the float in low clear water on big rivers. To accomplish this, it's often better to bulk the weight a foot above bottom. In other words, where the run you're fishing is four feet deep, place a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce sinker 3 feet below the float. Then run a 5- to 8-foot fluorocarbon leader from that point to the hook or fly, and don't weight the leader.
In both cases, from boat or shore, the object is to create the illusion of something unattached, drifting freely and naturally at the current speed close to bottom, where the water always runs slower than it does just under the surface. The goal is to keep the float out of a steelhead's range of sight until after the fish makes a decision about your bait. Or fly. Or plastic worm.
When rivers get low and tough, small hooks and baits take center stage. Predators of all species will, in these conditions, trigger on bigger, flashier baits, at times — and those times seem to coincide with periods of lethargy or wariness when most fish simply refuse to bite at all. But, day in, day out, presenting tiny baits to steelhead is the key in low clear rivers.
Spawn bags should be scaled back. Instead of the usual four or five salmon eggs (as a general rule, salmon eggs and brown-trout eggs tend to outproduce steelhead spawn in fall), I tie with two or three eggs. Some anglers actually tie with one egg, but I rarely believe that's necessary or more productive. In fact, a spawn bag with four or five eggs produces better, most of the time, than a bag tied with one egg, simply because it keeps on fishing. A bag with one egg is likely to be rendered worthless at any moment, punctured by a momentary snag or a swing-'n-a-miss hookset. I like to be assured of at least one egg in there.
My new favorite baits in low clear conditions are plastics. Panfish tubes have been producing steel for us for a couple decades now. Suddenly, realistic imitations of mayfly nymphs, tiny worms, crustaceans, and larvae abound, and they trick low-water steelies better than bait in many circumstances. Some of the aspects shared by the best soft plastic baits for low clear conditions are small overall size; tiny, thin, quivering legs or tails; translucence; and a realistic profile.
Berkley Power Baits are known producers for all predatory fish because of their built-in scent and taste. Steelhead are no different, and they fall prey to a lot of the little Micro Power Trout baits. Micro Trout Craws and Trout Worms have a permanent spot in my vest. Another bait I can't do without is the Original Fish Formula Screw Grub, which features a cylindrical worm body followed by a thinner cylindrical tail that undulates with life in current. The 11„2-inch version can be deadly, matched with a #10 or #8 hook. Other baits with permanent homes in my vest include Lunker City Helgies (natural mayfly imitations), Gene Larew Trout Worms, and ISG Plankton Series plastics.
Steelhead can be odd about color. Conventional wisdom calls for subtle, natural colors in low clear streams, but steelhead sometimes want the opposite. Colors like methiolate, chartreuse, white, and hot pink work in clear water — especially during low-light periods or on cloudy, windy days. But in my opinion, translucent versions work best most of the time. When light passes through a tiny piece of plastic underwater, it creates an aura and accentuates the color of the bait. It becomes an almost irresistible curiosity, like holding a red ju-ju up to the screen in a theater. Too pretty. Gotta' eat that.
Generally, in warm water, use hooks. When the water is colder than 45°F, use jigs. In warmer water, steelhead don't mind a bait moving side to side. In cold water, it has to hit them on the nose, and a jig anchors the bait in the flow. For plastics and bait under a float, I like the Sabertooth from Red Wing Tackle and the new Mosquito Hook from Owner. Gamakatsu makes a fine 1/32-ounce jig, and the new 1/64- and 1/32-ounce Heavy Metal Jigs from Matzuo are hard to beat. When conditions call for smaller jigs, try light leaders and 1/80-ounce Custom Jigs-&-Spins Rat Finkee panfish jigs. Leaders of 4-pound test or lighter will stretch and break before the hook straightens on a Rat Finkee. (Tip: When the bite gets really tough in clear water during the middle of the day, switch to a plain, unpainted jig or plain hook. No color, no feathers, no hair — just bare-bones magic.)
When the water's really, really low, steelhead don't have to run at all. Biologists have theorized that, in those years when streams have an extraordinary number of steelhead in the 12- to 20-pound range, it's because they refused to run and spawn the previous year due to adverse stream conditions. If the run is sparse in your favorite stream, seek out a larger river, where more fish might feel secure enough to brave the upstream migration. Don't let low water get you down. The answer is clear. Clear floats, clear line, and clear water go together like a screaming drag and a pounding heart.
"The fall won't kill you. It's the sudden stop at the end." In steelheading circles, clear water is the fall. Low water is the lethal stop. Most steelheaders around the Great Lakes have been able to count the pebbles at the bottom of the deepest pools in their favorite rivers all fall and winter for most of the past decade. That means the water in that pool probably is too low to hold fish. It's a disturbing trend.
Front-page newspaper articles reporting the findings of climatologists worldwide recently indicated that if global warming continues at its present pace, the climate in states like Michigan and Wisconsin will, by the year 2090, be warmer and drier than the climate of Kansas today. If these models prove correct, what will become of Great Lakes steelhead and trout?
Some of the Great Lakes are approaching record low-water levels. "We've only been keeping records on water levels for a little over a century," says Chuck Pistis, West Michigan District Sea Grant agent. "Historical consciousness molds our perception of this current low-water period. Three times in the 20th Century, Great Lakes water levels were lower than they are now. The lowest levels on Lake Michigan were recorded in 1964 and it's now nine inches higher than it was then. We've just come off 30 years of high water levels. High-water records were set in 1986, and we are now 4.3 feet below that. Most of our adult lives, we've lived through this high-water period. Most docks and boat ramps we use were built in this period."
River levels are determined by ground-water levels, also disturbingly low for about six years. Ground water is recharged by rain and snow, and Michigan — the epicenter of the Great Lakes region — has been mired in a drought. Is the climate drying permanently, or is this just another natural cycle? We really don't know, at this point.
"We've been experiencing milder winters recently," Pistis said. "Less ice cover means more evaporation all winter long. Last winter was cold. We had a lot of ice cover and little evaporation, so we didn't lose much. Water levels were lower two years ago, and they went up last year. Hopefully we're on an up cycle right now."
The vast majority of scientists working on the problem of global climate now believe the planet is warming. Which begs the question: When considering treaties on global warming, and the decision could determine the fate of the world's breadbasket and America's most prolific freshwater fisheries, shouldn't we err on the side of caution? If the warming trend continues, stealth tactics comprise an overwhelming trend for steelhead anglers.