Early Spring Great Lakes Steelhead Tips

Presented by: Visit Oswego NY

Presented by Visit Oswego NY

Late winter into early spring can be one of the best times of year to get on your big steelhead of the season. Most of the year’s run of fish out of Lake Ontario have pushed into their traditional spawning tributaries, meaning that your odds of coming tight are at the highest they will be until drop-back season kicks in later in spring. We’ve spent a decent amount of time chasing these beautiful fish on the Salmon River in Oswego County, New York. So, we thought we would share some of the best tips we’ve picked up from local guides and hardcore steelhead anglers!

Your Rig

Coming tight to a Salmon River Steelhead

Typically, when we head north to the shores and tributaries of the Great Lakes, we carry 8-9 weight rods, these balance the need to cast heavy rigs and the sensitivity needed to feel the subtle takes steelhead are capable of. We couple our rods with matching reels who have strong, smooth drags, like the Abel Super SeriesSDS, or Ross Reels LTX. Smooth drag is important to protect the lighter tippets sometimes needed during low water days. Lastly comes the line, long bellied lines are the way to go if you are chasing steel with a single-handed rod. The taper of these lines helps you turn over heavier indicator rigs and make roll casting a breeze, our favorite of these being Scientific Anglers’ Anadro/Nymph Series of lines.

Depth is Everything

Hooking a fish on the Salmon River is one thing. Landing it is a completely different and fun challenge!

Depending on flows, weather, and water temperatures, steelhead will sit in different places in the river and at different depths. During the colder days and nights of the late winter into early spring, steelhead are focused on conserving energy for the coming spawn. This means they are less likely to move around in the water column and tend to hold at a certain depth. Fish flies above or below that depth, and you will find yourself wondering if steelhead even exist, but once you find that magic combination of weight and presentation depth, your efforts will be handsomely rewarded.

Novelty Pays Dividends

Salmon River Steelhead Snacks

Especially when it comes to fly choice. By February, most steelhead have been in the river for a month or two and seen their fair share of anglers’ attempts to fool them. They’ve had egg sack after egg sack drift past, and by this time of year are relatively educated in the ways of anglers. This means that you have to step up your game. Throw flies that are variations on classic, productive steelhead patterns. Perhaps they’re tied with brighter thread, or have UV materials in them. For instance, one of my most productive steelhead flies is a simple, old Squirmy Worm. I tie mine in about every color available in my local fly shop. Having colors other than your standard pink has paid off big time when the fish have already seen every pink worm in the book.

For all my fly tying readers, this is the time to get creative and tweak your favorite nymph and streamer patterns until you find the variation that gets fish’s attention.

If At First, You Don’t Succeed…

Wading to get into prime position on the Douglaston Salmon Run

…Try and try again. This time of year, steelhead will likely not be moving around in the system, preferring instead to save energy and hold in one hole or run in the river. If you think there are steelhead in the water in front of you, odds are they’re there, but they’re not interested in the fly tied to the end of your fluorocarbon. Before you give up on a hole or run, give it the good old college try. Adjust your weight. Change your float depth. Change flies. Try just about everything in the book until you walk away, because hey, the old adage almost always rings true, “Don’t leave fish to find fish.”

Don’t Give Up Early in the Day

Single hand and double hand rods work well during Steelhead season on the Salmon River

Even if you have a slow morning on the water patience and perseverance, when chasing steelhead, nearly always pays off. During the weather swings of spring, the steelhead bite can turn off and on with seemingly no warning. Seasoned Great Lakes steelheaders will point out that as the warm warms up as the day goes on, it will greatly affect the bite, and they are right. As water temps continue to warm in the spring, more and more nymphs and other favorite steelhead snacks will begin to stir and hatch in the water column, getting steelhead fired up and on the feed. This time of year it pays to plan ahead and block off full days on the water to be productive steelheading, bring along a JetBoil stove, maybe one or 2 of your favorite beverages and plenty of snacks. Once that bite turns on, you’re going to be glad you stayed put and hooked some white-hot steel!

Adjust Tippet to Water Clarity and Speed

Releasing another beautiful Salmon River buck

Often times on the banks of steelhead rivers in the Northeast you hear anglers going back and forth about what flies or baits have been having success, as well as, what tippet size they’re using. This takes us back to the issue of fishing pressure, as the steelhead are in the river, they get smart and become wary of too thick of tippet. Just like their trout cousins, steelhead have great eyesight and depending on the flows, water clarity, and depth will refuse flies if they can see the tippet. So before you head to the water make sure you have a few different size tippet spools with you so you’re ready, no matter the water conditions.

Drop Back Tactics

Swinging flies in one of the iconic holes on the Douglaston Salmon Run

“Drop-Back” is a term for steelhead who have finished spawning and are beginning their migration back to the lake or sea where they’ll spend the summer waiting to return again in the late fall. Once steelhead finish spawning, they end their winter long fast and begin to gorge themselves on anything they can eat on their way downstream back to the lake. They turn into an entirely different fish than what they were pre-spawn. According to Tailwater Lodge guide, Matt Ertzinger, spring is the best time to get steelhead on the swing. This is the time of year when stripping big streamers can create some really exciting fishing.

Staying Warm in Variable Weather

Heavy gloves make for a happy angler on the Douglaston Salmon Run

Spring along the shores of the Great Lakes can be volatile, one day your fishing in 55 degree, sunny weather, the next, you’re looking at 6 inches of fresh snow. Being prepared for long days out in the elements will be key to putting in the time and effort needed to connect with one of these fish. Pack plenty of layers, throw a pair of gloves in your pocket and maybe toss in a handwarmer or 2 for good measure, these will quickly pay off and help you stay out on the water longer. One really handy trick, I picked up from a grizzled old steelheader was to keep a hand towel in my waders. If you’re anything like me, the first thing to get annoyingly cold is my hands, and wet hands are cold hands. Keeping a towel tucked in your waders will help you dry those mitts off after every release!

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