Fall Run: A Great Lakes Steelhead Primer

Presented by Oswego County Tourism

For many of us in the Great Lakes region, autumn is prime time to start targeting the migratory species of the big lakes. There are various options of salmonids to target, like the Coho and Chinook Salmon in my previous article. In some areas, Atlantic salmon are making a great comeback and is an amazing species to target on the fly, and there are also large runs of lake run brown trout that get to epic proportions. In this unique area of the world, it is the steelhead that reigns supreme. This species has a reputation for being the ultimate fish to pursue on the fly. Just about every fly shop in the area has built their clientele based on the runs of steelhead from October through to May, and if you fortunate enough to have a summer run of steel, you may be able to target them 7 months out of the year.

The author with a chrome fall run Great Lakes Steelhead

Just about every creek, ditch, or river that flows into the Great Lakes has some sort of run of Steelhead. Getting there when it’s “on” or in the peak is the key to get them in their prime. The fall run of fish is definitely a completely different animal than the spring run fish. They are bigger, meaner, and faster than their spring running cousins, which calls for different tactics and gear to get them in as fast as possible so they can continue their migration to their spawning grounds. Fall run chromers enter the tributaries the fall and spend the winters waiting to spawn in the early spring when the water is in the right conditions. This is why they are so big, they are eating machines and aim to put on extra weight, knowing they are in for some hard times ahead in the creeks they were born in.

The best time to target them is after a rain, however, each river has different traits that make them unique, each has different flows and clarity at various times. The key is to know a few rivers well and get the timing right to intercept the migration.

Finding the Right River Conditions

While some creeks clear right after rain, some take days to able to get more than 3 inches of visibility. Having multiple creeks in your back pocket is key so you can fish them all at various stages of the runoff. When the creek is muddy, we refer to it as “blown out” or “brown cow.” It looks like coffee with four creamers in it. When creeks are in this at this time it is not impossible to catch them, it just harder, and for the most part fish are on the move. When the water starts to drop it makes fishing more favorable and more consistent as the fish hold in the pools, runs, and pocket water. The fish are in a holding pattern waiting for more rain to keep pushing upstream close to their spawning grounds or where they know it safe. My favorite time to fish is when the visibility is approx. 1-2 ft, with the water appearing greenish in color, lovingly referred to as “steely green.” Typically when the water looks like this, the fish can’t see you, but can see your fly.

Fall Run Steelhead Flies

In the fall, steelhead can be a smidge more difficult to catch and certain flies excel at a certain time during the run. When they first enter the river, usually a week or so, the key is to have eggs, eggs, and more eggs flies. It is really hard for them to resist an egg fly when spawning salmon are in the system. The colors and size of the egg fly are determined usually by water clarity and flow, anywhere from a 14 mm chartreuse to a 6 mm cream or opaque in color. If the two-handed rod is your game, flies that match the watercolor is a good place to start. The discussion of a dark fly on a dark day or a bright fly on a bright day comes up every time on the water. Depending on who you ask, or how many people you ask, you will almost always get a different answer. Although it is hard to beat a purple bodied, chartreuse egg-sucking leech on the swing.

Fly selection varies from system to system and how you want to fish, which might be the best aspect of Steelhead, you can catch them any way you want to. Swinging, drifitng indicators, bottom bouncing, tightlining, two hands or one, it doesn’t matter, all will work with the right tactics and each offers its own unique alure.

Fall Run Steelhead Tactics

The most popular tactic is more than likely the indicator rig and it makes sense as it’s less complicated and makes fishing easier on crowded waters – an unfortunate reality of steelhead on the Great Lakes. In some areas, most people on the water are all center pining and it would be rare to find another fly person all day. So, when setting up your rig it makes sense to do the same. It is float fishing but with a fly rod and without the hassle of reeling in your line after every cast, just mend here and there while you enjoy your coffee. It is the most productive way to fish, suspending your egg flies under a float just off the bottom waiting for the take. The key is to get your weighting system just right.

After the main run of fish is in the system for a while they tend to take on more trout-like characteristics and you can change your approach. It is difficult to see the center pinners hammering fish all day beside you while you are swing flies, it’s hard to compete with the fresh roe they are using. The closes match is a well-tied yarn fly or the controversial bead, both of which are weightless and are a great match in these conditions.

Steelhead eat egg patterns all season long, so it pays to have various colors and sizes in your bag. A dirty water box and a clear water box helps to keep it organized. Different areas or rivers have more of one type of insect over another, however, if you are just starting, there are some tried and true patterns that you need to have in your box:

  • Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear Nymphs in Olive
  • Zonker Streamers in Natural and Black. Sizes 8 through 14.
  • Stoneflies in Black, Brown and Tan. Sizes 6 to 16.
  • Copper Johns
  • Pheasant Tails
  • Prince Nymphs. Sizes 10 to 16.

There are so many more patterns, however this is a good starting point, tie up in natural colors and a few in bright colors, like chartreuse and purple. To get the best of both worlds tie on two flies where legal and fish an egg-nymph combo and let the fish decide what they want, if all the fish eat your egg, then switch to two eggs and vice versa.

Swinging Tactics

In higher flows a change of tactics is required, this is where a swung fly, either single hand or the Spey/Switch rod comes in handy, especially in bad weather conditions. It gives you the ability to cover more water while hoping to intersept a fish or two. The choice to swing a fly is a way of life so to speak, it can be very productive on large rivers or when you need to cover water fast but effectively. Some days it can be a struggle, however “the tug is the drug” as they say, and it could not be truer. It is an amazing feeling when you get hit on the swing, it’s like being electrocuted by your wall socket as the fish takes off downstream.

Early season steelhead is a great time to get on the water, the fishing’s great, the people are still warm and friendly, and the scenery is gorgeous as leaves begin to turn. If the fish aren’t plentiful at least you are outside, and the camaraderie and colors make up for it. The more time you spend on the creeks, the more chance you will be there when it happens, instead of the usual “should have been here yesterday”. When it happens, you will know, fish will be everywhere and you have the time of your life and it will seem like whatever you through at them they will eat it, nothing can stop you, that is the reason people keep coming back.

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