Each year, thousands of anglers become addicted to a drug known as steelhead. Once encountered, anglers can't stop chasing these wild, finned beasts. They'll drive hours, brave frostbite, and neglect spouses just to get a tug or a hit. Those sick with the obsession talk about the next trip while driving back from the current one. To pass the time between trips they'll talk about the perfect swing, bead colors, and eventually have a jittery breakdown if someone mentions a fresh wave of "dime bright chrome" has been spotted. The steelhead drug is a very powerful one that will eradicate any semblance of self-control. Like many of the Great Lakes regions, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan has had its share of chrome casualties.
For the uninitiated or those looking to experience fly fishing at it's craziest, this article will tackle a few of the basic questions so you too can get hooked on Great Lakes steelhead fly fishing:
- What are steelhead?
- What is the best time of year to fish for Upper Peninsula steelhead?
- Where are the best Upper Peninsula steelhead rivers?
- How do you fish for steelhead in a river?
- What's the best fly fishing setup for Upper Peninsula steelhead?
- How do you fight and land a steelhead?
What are steelhead?
Steelhead (aka. Oncorhynchus mykiss but better known as "chrome" or "steel") is a name given to the anadromous rainbow trout that behaves like a salmon. It's essentially a giant rainbow trout that born in a river, migrates downstream to a lake (or ocean), and returns from the lake (or ocean) to a tributaries to spawn. Unlike salmon, steelhead do not die after spawning, they go through the migrating and spawning cycle many times. And, unlike your typical rainbow trout, steelhead get very, very large. While adult Great Lakes steelhead can reach 36 inches in length and up to 20 pounds in weight, the average adult size for steelhead is 6 to 7 pounds. Life expectancy for Great Lakes steelhead is four to six years.
What is the best time of year to fish for Upper Peninsula steelhead?
Steelhead can be found from late October to late May in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior tributary streams and rivers. The timing below is for the Upper Peninsula, downstate goes a couple weeks earlier.
- Spring (Apr-Jun) - Steelhead show up to spawn. Late April and early May is prime time in the Upper Peninsula. April sees a lot of runoff and swollen rivers, great for the fish but flooding can sometimes make fishing impossible.
- Fall (Oct-Nov) - Steelhead come back into tributaries to eat when the salmon and lake run browns are spawning, they show up for an easy egg buffet.
- Winter (Dec-Mar) - Steelhead hunker down and "winter out" in the larger rivers which is also their way of calling first dibs on prime, spring spawning territory.
Where are the best Upper Peninsula steelhead rivers?
It's been said that just about every creek, ditch, or river that flows into the Great Lakes has some sort of run of Steelhead in the spring. It's just a matter of being there when the fish are there. In the spring, fish tend to move in and out of the smaller water really quickly which makes timing difficult (you may only have a couple days or a week to hit the run). Best advice is to target the larger rivers, they'll give you the greatest window of opportunity and make timing less a factor. Same for the fall and winter fish, they prefer the larger water.
If you're looking for some rivers to try you might start with this useful article on Michigan steelhead rivers that's been around for a while. It has a lot of useful information on the Upper and Lower Michigan. Be sure to check with the Michigan DNR for regulations and season dates for the water you plan to fish. If you dig around you can find stocking reports which can give you some clues as to which rivers will have a good run of fish.
How do you fish for steelhead in a river?
There are many great articles on this topic (like this one) but basically in the fall and winter, steelhead will congregate in prime holding areas much like resident trout. If you’re new to fly fishing check out this article to learn more about breaking down sections of prime water, there’s also some great videos by Tom Rosenbaum. The prime fall and winter water tends to be the deeper pools, runs, buckets and seams. I look for the darker water, drop offs, heavier seams, areas behind boulders/logs, as well as bubble and foam lines over deeper water. In the spring, steelhead are getting ready to spawn or are spawning. Leave the spawning fish alone (you'll see them on gravel beds) and target the fish that are holding in the deeper holes right by the gravel beds.
What's the best fly fishing setup for Upper Peninsula steelhead?
There's two main tactics when it comes to fly fishing for steelhead: nymphing and swinging.
Nymphing for steelhead
How's it done: Nymphing for steelhead involves using setup with an indicator and a long leader. The indicator suspends the flies while they travel through the water as well as signals a hit when it goes under. The setup uses weighted flies and split shot to get down deep to the fish. Typically the indicator setup is cast a little above the prime spot to give the flies time to sink down and drift deep through the hole.
How to rig: When nymphing for steelhead, it's best to use a 6-8wt fly rod that's 9-10ft (many anglers also use two-handed switch rods). Run a tandem indicator rig with a 9ft 3x leader to the top fly and drop a second fly about 12-16 inches below with 3x. Guestimate the water depth of the deepest part of the bucket your fishing and set the indicator above the first fly using that guestimate plus a foot or two. Be sure to add enough split shot and get down deep enough, you should tick the bottom and snag occasionally. A couple of split shot can make the difference between a crap day and an epic day.
Fly patterns: For the upper fly you can go with: double bead stoneflies (#8-10 black or brown), pat's rubberleg stoneflies (#8-10 black or brown), bead head woolly buggers (#8 black or green), hex nymphs (#8), or an egg patterns (#8-10). In the spring add to your arsenal a white zonker (#8) or white death (#8). For the lower fly try on the tandem use a trout bead (8mm), a bead head pheasant tail (#10), caddis larva nymph (#10) or black stonefly (#10).
More on steelhead nymphing strategies: These are some great videos if you're new to steelhead fly fishing. They cover various tactics and strategies- and most importantly give you some visuals as to how the tactics and recommendations we're making are done.
Swinging for Steelhead
How's it done: Swinging for steelhead usually involves long two-handed fly rods and using a unique set of casting techniques to launch large flies long distances so that they can be "swung" through the current and into prime fish holding areas. It's usually best before the water temperatures drop below 40-degrees. While it may not always be as productive as nymphing, there's nothing that can compare to the thunderbolt jolt of a steelhead hitting a swung fly.
How to rig: When swinging for steelhead, it's best to use a 6-8wt spey or switch fly rod. These are long (11-14ft) and when paired with the right fly line have the ability to cast tremendously far, making this a great tactic for larger bodies of water. Line selection is tricky and it's best to consult the fly rod maker for their recommendations and specs. Tips and leaders are added to the fly line to float or sink the fly as it swings. Sinking tips help get the fly down to deeper holding fish.
Fly patterns: Some of our go to patterns are: Feenstra's Grapefruit Leech (#size 2-4 3 X long streamer hook or 40 mm shank), Halloween Leech (# 2-4 3 X long streamer hook or 25 mm shank), Spey Bugger (#4-8), Hobo Spey (# 25 mm shank
How do you fight and land a steelhead?
The reason steelhead are so fun is because of how hard they fight - even the little ones (called skippers) will flat out go crazy on you. It's not uncommon to have a day where you hook into many fish but land zero. They are difficult foes when hooked and use all their incredible power plus the strong current of the river to give you as much trouble as possible. Here's a few tips to prepare you.
Make sure you have a reel with a decent drag and if you are fishing in the winter make sure it doesn't freeze up on you. You'll want a fly rod with a fighting butt. The fly rod sizes we recommended in this article usually do.
When you hook a steelhead keep three actions in mind: 1) get your tip up, 2) get the fish "on the reel" (meaning reel or give out slack so that when the fish runs he's doing so against the drag of the reel and 3) get the fighting butt into a position against your body so you can easily apply leverage.
Make sure your drag isn't set to tight or too loose, and make sure your guides are clear of ice. Steelhead will make explosive runs and if your drag is too tight game over. I'll tend to start with a lighter drag setting if I'm unsure and then when I hook a fish I'll tighten it up a bit.
If a fish goes air borne, dip your rod a bit and give a little slack. Do not pull. In the air, they typically thrash wildly and is usually the time they spit the hook or break off an overzealous fisherman.
Plan ahead and be ready to let a fish take you downstream. Know where you can wade and maneuver, and where you can't.
Bring a net, a big net. These fish are going to be a handful to fight and land. Do yourself a favor and make the landing part as easy as possible. If you're fishing with a rod longer than 10ft you'll want a long handle net to avoid breaking your rod if you're solo landing the fish.
Thanks for giving us a read. Hope this helps you have some productive steelhead fly fishing days. If your steelhead fishing in the winter months check out our article on winter fly fishing, it offers some great advice to keep you warm and toasty in the bitter cold. Please feel free to drop us a comment or question below. And if you're interested in trying out some amazing Upper Peninsula steelhead fishing give us a shout. When not chasing chrome you can find us "making due" with trophy smallmouth and big, fat brown trout in our home waters near Escanaba, Michigan.