Steelhead 101

By Eric Haataja - March 1, 2004
If you're tired of cabin fever, and enjoy the thrill of big acrobatic line peeling fish, consider a day of steel heading on a Southern Wisconsin Tributary, such as the Milwaukee, Root, or Menomonee rivers. Starting as early (now) late February when the rivers can start to open up and lasting threw late April is when you'll catch me fishing for steelhead.

Each spring and fall steelhead or rainbow trout migrate up tributaries. In the spring the fish are gearing up for spawning, and in fall they will return to the rivers and follow the Chinook, Coho, and Brown Trout to feed on there eggs. These fish can be fairly easy to catch in both spring and fall, and the fish generally will weigh from 4-15 lbs with fish weighing over 20 lbs.

Gear
As for gear, I'd recommend that you always carry the following items if possible:

  • A pair of needle nose pliers
  • A pair of neoprene waders
  • A pair of polarized sunglasses
  • Extra hooks, floats, sinkers, and line
  • Extra bait
  • A camera in a zip lock bag
  • A net
  • Scissors or line clipper

Drift Rods & Mending Line
For steel heading, the rod you may want to consider is a noodle rod or drift rod. The majority of my guiding is done using drift rods. They are easy to use, and they will help you increase your hook up ratio. A drift rod or noodle rod is basically a longer spinning rod, generally 9-12 feet in length. These longer rods give you several advantages. You can battle a bigger fish on light line. As for line, I prefer 6-10 lb test and almost always use 8 lb test, if the water is "Gin" clear I may go to 6 lb test. You can also try fluorocarbon lines as well, or a fluorocarbon leader.

The longer rods also allow you to make a longer cast with lighter tackle. Drift rods allow you to perform a technique called "mending" this is when you cast your float or bobber some what up river or across river. Then as your float makes its way down river your line will start to make a bow or half circle. When possible you always want to have a direct line to your float (meaning no slack or bow in the line), a bow in the line when drifting, allows slack and your hook up ratios will decrease dramatically. To take out the excessive slack or bow, simply lift your rod from right to left, you want to try and place your line up river of your float, and at times you may need to reel in excessive slack. Remember try to always keep your rod at up, which helps take some excess line off the water. It's also very important that you set the hook immediately when your float goes down. You should not have to reel in line to set your hook, and never let a fish take it. Too maximize your drift down river you can also open your bail let out 8-10 feet of line (Approx the length of the rod your using) and let your float drift down river.

What to Look For
When fishing a river for the first time, here are a few hints to help you catch more fish. First stop in or call the local bait shops and guides in the area. Ask them how the fishing is and what types of tackle to bring. Get a river map if possible and look for area's that fish will "hold" in. I'm referring to deeper slower water or tail outs. A tail out is basically the last 100 yards of a pool before it meets a rapids or shallower water. Also consider fishing the bends of rivers, generally where a river turns 90 degree's you'll have a deeper hole, fish will congregate in these holes before spawning. Pay attention for log jams or trees in the water or big boulders, these are fish magnets. They also create structure, a hide out, and a current break. If and when possible always try to avoid the heavily fished area's. I fish a pool thoroughly and when the fish stop biting I will either change baits/presentations or move. If you take the time to explore the less pressured areas, you can reap the rewards. Especially on larger rivers like the Milwaukee River, where I enjoy fishing far to the north away from the crowds of people at Eastabrook Park and Kletzch Park, fish do migrate up above these areas for many miles. The same can be said on the highly pressured root river, get away from the crowds (which can be difficult on the root river) and you can at times catch more fish.

As the water warms the fish will be gear up for spawning. This generally takes place near shallower portions of the river, look for gravel and boulders. In spring the rivers will warm up several degrees, especially on sunny days. Some of my best spring days have been from 10.00 AM -4 PM.

Lastly, always try to find out the water levels of the river you will be fishing. Many USG web sites have flow charts and data of water levels on the majority of rivers here in S.E. Wisconsin. These sites can save you time, by knowing what levels you prefer to fish the river at.

Baits
Steelhead or Rainbows have an incredible sense of smell; a spawn sac is probably the best all around bait used to catch steelhead in spring, summer and fall. As the water warms up I like to throw spinners or smaller crank baits. When throwing a spinner it's important to try and allow the spinner to reach a foot or so of the bottom. The retrieve should be fairly slow; all I want is for my blade to be thumping on my rod tip. Spinners and cranks are great for covering water and catching a multi-species of fish. You can also "swing" your spinner threw holes. Simply cast across the river get your blade started, and slowly retrieve. As your reeling the current will drag your spinner down river, if there is a decent amount of flow simply just hold your rod up and let your spinner swing threw the hole. I like to tie a 2 way swivel about 18-24 inches above my spinner because spinners... spin and this can create line twists.

A tube jig, hair jig, tinsel jig, or twister tail also work well, you can tip these jigs with waxies, spawn sacs or power bait. In higher water conditions I will add a bead or Snell yarn above my spawn sac for additional attraction. When fishing a float / bobber usually try to fish with in a foot of the bottom where ever you're fishing.

Fishing
I usually spend many of my days guiding on the Milwaukee River, I love this river because it has 26 miles of fishing opportunities, and usually each year there will be steelhead that will migrate as far as Grafton. The Menomonee River also has a decent run of steelhead. However, I prefer the Milwaukee River because you have a chance of also catching some very impressive game fish such as walleyes, pike, and smallmouth. But, that we'll save for another article!

Author Eric Haataja
Eric Haataja
Eric Haataja is the owner and operator of Big Fish Guide Service. He is an accomplished tournament pro, world record line class holder, articulate seminar speaker, father of 2 and married.