Steelheading Around the Great Lakes

Jerry Darkes, Angling Consultants Services, Inc. and professional steelhead guide.

In Ohio, Lake Erie tributaries from Cleveland east are the primary target areas for steelhead. Since these fish are migratory, the key to success is figuring out where these fish are at any time. Steelhead can be caught in the fall right in Lake Erie at river mouths as they stage before entering the rivers. This is effective in small Pennsylvannia streams, but mouths Lake Erie tribs in NE Ohio are highly developed, making this more difficult. These steelhead are bright chrome and the best fighting fish you will find. As the fish move upstream, indicator fishing with nymph and egg patterns using a dead drift presentation will be most effective. Steelhead are adaptable to taking a wide range of flies, so it is important to switch patterns and colors often if fish are not hitting. Many steelheaders now also swing large streamers. Black or white patterns are most effective, and these are often taken aggressively.

In New York, Cattaraugus Creek is the biggest river on the south Lake Erie shore. Fall can be a good time to fish this river, but it is hard to hit it right sometimes, as it can be quite muddy for extended periods. The Niagara River below the power plants at the falls will fish year around for steelhead and large brown and lake trout, but water levels will depend on power usage. There is good shore access in some areas and well-marked trails along the river. In many areas you can fish off large rocks.

Lake Michigan provides extensive fishing for both salmon and steelhead. Key rivers in Michigan are the Betsie River, southwest of Traverse City, then heading south, the Big Manistee, Pere Marquette, Muskegon, and Grand Rivers. These rivers are bigger than the Ohio Lake Erie tribs and can be fished by boat or wading in some places. All have excellent runs of both salmon in the fall and steelhead throughout the winter. Steelhead often follow spawning salmon into the rivers to feast on eggs. Near Traverse City, fishing from boats in the bay just off Mitchell’s Creek, anglers can target king salmon, steelhead, and even Atlantic salmon. In Wisconsin, there is excellent fishing right in Milwaukee harbor where steelhead and giant brown trout can be taken. The Brule River, a Wisconsin tributary of Lake Superior 50mi east of Duluth, provides king and coho salmon, large lake-run brown trout, and steelhead. It is a very beautiful river with good state access and a large pool at the estuary mouth with good fishing.

Near Sault Ste Marie, there is excellent fishing in the rivers that interconnect Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The St. Marys River rapids, just below Sault Ste Marie, is a giant riffle a mile long. There is great shore access on the Canadian side where you can fish for steelhead every day of the year. There are also pink salmon and Atlantic salmon that have been stocked there. Just east of town is the Garden River of Ontario. This is within land controlled by the native peoples there, but several outfitters have arrangements to take anglers there. This is a beautiful, wilderness river that provides a real Alaska-like feel only 6-hrs north of Detroit. King and pink salmon can be caught here, along with steelhead.

Darkus stressed that nymph patterns had to be adjusted with water conditions regarding color and size. With more colored water, larger flies with brighter colors are needed. Adding a hot orange collar behind the bead on dark- colored flies can give them an edge. Some steelheaders are adding a plastic bead in front of their nymph pattern.

Summary prepared by Randy Rowe