April 05, 2012
By Matt Straw
Unlike the bluegills, crappies, pike, and walleyes we've chased the past couple weeks, steelhead seem to have it together. This week's trip to different rivers on Lake Superior's South Shore was extremely productive, despite air and water temperatures 10°F to 15°F warmer than usual for this time of year.
Rick Hammer and I managed to land five of the ten we hooked, and if we had somehow avoided wasting 3 hours in the middle of the day trying to meet up with a friend, we certainly might have done better.
With mayflies and stones hatching everywhere, we were surprised that more bites couldn't be enticed with feathers and fur, or at least with wax worms. A realistic imitation of a rising nymph can be the only thing going when the little naturals begin taking flight (we imitate rising insects by keeping weight off the leader and stopping our float, letting the current lift the fly toward the surface, a tactic I detailed in the pages of In-Fisherman last year).
But, as might be expected in 50°F water that appears a month early, the spawn was the thing. We could see the big, gray ghosts wavering in and out of view on spawning redds wherever they could find gravel at the right depth. We left those fish alone to do their thing, since natural reproduction is the only thing that allows steelhead runs to occur at all in many Superior tribs.
We found fresh silver fish with eggs still tightly packed, we found spawned-out fish, and we observed spawners — all stages of the spring run remained intact, meaning the run will last another week or two at least. Everything proceeding in orderly fashion. And, when steelhead are spawning, steelhead eggs tend to be the most productive bait. Which they were. Hammer was using salmon eggs. While he did capture the biggest specimen of the day (shown), I managed to hook 7 of our 10 fish. And I lost one about 3/10s of an inch longer than his when it ran right at me and went airborne at my rod tip, sending the float rig into a nearby tree top. Ok — who knows how big it was. Point is, steelhead know the difference between a salmon egg, a brown-trout egg, and a steelhead egg. Don't ask me to prove it because I can't, but I'd bet the farm.
Since the day-length window remains open for weeks (peak spawning up here generally takes place in late April, and many years ago it was in May), the fish are less urgent than I suspected they would be.
So I was wrong. That's hardly news. But I've rarely been so happy to be wrong. Ask some hockey fans what it's like to miss game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals when their team is involved. That's what it's like to miss the spring run altogether because of flooding or an early spring. Not cool.