Tips for Small Water Great Lakes Steelhead

On the north shore of Lake Ontario, there are plenty of tributaries but many are quite small. They’re far more like creeks and ditches compared to the other rivers that feed the Great Lakes.

I have fished most of the large rivers in Ontario (The Ganaraska, The Saugeen, Nottawasaga), however, I keep coming back to the small tributaries I call my home waters. Given the current times, now it’s even more paramount to fish locally. Almost every town along the lakeshore has a creek, stream, or a ditch that may have a run of steelhead during the spring runoff. We have run in the fall (Oct to Dec) and again in the spring (Feb to April) and in some rivers, the fish will even stay there until late May or early June. Some of the biggest fish are landed throughout the winter months, (double digits) but most of the fish are between 3 to 8 lbs.

Not all these tributaries hold volumes of resident trout and typically the ones that do are spring-fed and too cold to wet wade, even in summer. The creeks with the best headwaters will generally have a good population, however, some are warmer and are on the edge of browns and rainbow temperature limits.

small trib 2
A small trib, near the headwaters

Fishing the tributaries, or “the tribs,” as they are called, takes some special tactics and techniques to hook and land these powerful fish in small water. The landing ratio on some of these waters is below 50%, due to the snags and debris. The majority of the anglers are center pin fishing and the fly crowd is small but growing. Most of the fly fishers use the same techniques but the gear is different. A float/indicator with split shot to a bead, sucker spawn, or fly. The waters are crystal clear, with visibility being over 3 feet in some tribs, so the need to use light tippet down to low as 3.5 to 4lbs being the norm in these conditions. Here lies the problem of trying to land them and control the power of steelhead on the 4-lbs test. The waters are full of log jams, whole trees, undercut banks, and whatever gets pushed downstream during the runoff, in urban environments, it could be anything from tires to a large shopping cart. You never know what’s on the end of your line until you set the hook.

Rods are also different than traditional, as some tribs are as wide as your rod is long. With 6 to 8 WT rod being the norm on larger rivers, I find a 10 ft 7wt to be most effective. Fishing with a Spey rod is almost impossible, this is where the switch rod reigns supreme. The ability to swing or indicator or euro nymph makes this an excellent stick to use, however, not all are made equal. You need one with a soft tip to protect light tippets, but strong enough to pull a steelhead from cover. Most on days on the water, I carry two rods, one to indicator fish, and the other to swing. All the new short Spey heads (Air Flo Scout, OPST Commando, and the SA Spey light) on the market, make it easier than ever to add a tip and swing flies into areas that an indicator set up can’t reach. It can be a real pain to carry through the woods but, I believe it’s well worth the trouble.

The swing lineup 2
Flies of choice, for all you swingers out there

The terrain around these creeks is usually thick brush-infested forest and more than once a day you will set the hook, dump the fish, and instantly find your rig in the trees, resulting in having to re-tie your whole rig. Sometimes on the set, you will find yourself in the overhead cover, or while fighting the fish you’ll find you can’t fight the fish with your rod tip up, this is where side pressure comes in. Side pressure is the key for two reasons, to put maximum pressure on the fish and to not lose your gear high in the canopy.

The downstream hook set is always best to save your rod tip and make sure it’s hard enough to hold. Once hooked, these fish go crazy, some fish stay in the pools and since they are small they only have one way to go, up. Steelhead that don’t stay in the pool usually head for the log jam immediately or down-stream as fast as possible. Sometimes they’ll do all the above and it’s your job to hold on as best you can and try to keep up. Either by chasing the fish downstream or waiting them out and applying opposite pressure of the fish’s chosen direction.

This is the best time to carry a net and if you don’t, you will wish you had, as you can land the fish faster and not take the chance of him/her breaking you off. After working so hard, hooking multiple fish and re-rigging your gear for the 5th time, the last thing you want is to lose the fish to a log jam, undercut bank, or your line breaking while trying to get the fish on the bank. A good net is a day saver, a long-handled net will help you land your fish solo, especially with a switch rod.

colour male (Jacob Adams)
Jacob Adams with a fall run

The flies of choice are very similar to what you’d throw for resident trout, except these trout are 8 lbs or more. These small waters are the steelhead’s home waters; they grew up here and they are used to eating what is in the creek. Eggs are an important food source for steelhead, especially for dropbacks, who eat them with reckless abandonment. ySucker spawns or trout beads are the best way to replicate eggs. Every creek has various bug life depending on the stream type or flows, we recommend flipping rocks to find what they’re munching on. Some have larger mayflies populations versus caddis. While on others, the winter stonefly is king. For that reason, a  #12-#18 black and brown stonefly imitation is the best to fish and nothing really even comes close.

It pays to know a variety of water bodies and what lives there, as not every trib is created equal. It certainly pays to have a variety of flies (Stoneflies, GRHE, Prince Nymphs, Copper Johns, etc…) and egg patterns size 6 to 14. For swinging, streamers and egg sucking leeches (black, olive & purple) in smaller sizes (#6 to #12) are key as the resident baitfish are not as big and the fish know it.

Bead and nymph collection
Favorite nymphs and beads

Fishing small tributaries is not for everyone, but if you put in the effort it’s a challenge worth taking on. Which why some of us love it and almost exclusively fish them. These smaller waters draw smaller crowds, as no one wants to bushwhack to target steelhead and/or no one wants to fish the urban jungle. While fishing in urban areas you’ll find yourself caught up in all the wild flora and fauna you’re encountering and quickly forget that you’re actually fishing in your own backyard.

Ryan Menchions, Jacob Adams
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