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It's Steelhead Time

By Craig Ritchie - April 21, 2020
With boat ramps closed in many areas as a result of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic, spring fishing options in some parts of the country are more restricted than usual. Thankfully there are still some terrific opportunities for anglers looking to wet a line, and that includes enjoying some of the best steelhead fishing of the year.

With a little bit of legwork it's absolutely possible to enjoy some great fishing for the big migratory rainbow trout, as they complete their annual spawning runs in tributary streams flowing into the Great Lakes. The trick is to forget the traditional hotspots that are sure to attract crowds - making not only fishing, but appropriate social distancing difficult - and instead take the time to explore new waters that command far less attention.

The tails of big pools hold a lot of active Steelhead.

Get Away From The Crowds

Virtually every river, stream, creek and ditch flowing into the Great Lakes attracts some sort of steelhead run each spring. Skipping the better-known streams for quieter waters with more modest runs not only guarantees you'll see fewer other anglers, but in many cases you'll enjoy much better fishing simply because you're not constantly fighting for space or having other people cast over your line. And, you'll be able to stay in compliance with our new social distancing rules.

To really seal the deal, don't just fish where you parked your vehicle, but start your day by walking a bit and putting some distance between you and the road. The reality is that few anglers are willing to travel any farther for fish than they need to. Walking past a half-dozen promising-looking pools without taking a cast takes discipline, but by leaving the easily accessible spots to others you're almost guaranteed to have other excellent pools and runs a little farther from the road all to yourself.

While still spawning Steelhead demand a slower approach with natural baits.

Let Water Temperature Guide Your Approach

Depending on water temperature and where they are in their spawning cycle, spring steelhead can vary widely in their temperament, and this dictates your approach to catching them.

In cooler conditions, and while steelhead are still actively spawning, drifting close to bottom with natural baits like spawn, minnows or nightcrawlers is usually the most dependable technique. Fish in cooler water, and those which are either still spawning or have just finished up, are generally inactive. They tend to hold tight to bottom in deep runs with good current overhead, or in the quicker water at the heads or tails of deep pools. My first choice are the heads of deep pools, where these fish tend to stack up and are most open to a suitable presentation.

As the water warms and the fish finish spawning and begin to recover, they tend to spread out and begin holding in deeper riffle areas and throughout deep pools - but especially toward the tail-out at the downstream end. These more active fish are often eager to chase lures, with smaller inline spinners being the hands-down favorite. Small, deep-diving crankbaits or banana baits are also productive, as are small jigs - either crawled over bottom in the traditional manner, or retrieved through the water column as a swim bait. Drifting natural baits will still work at this time, of course, but you can often catch more fish on lures by simply being able to cover more water.

Jigs fished like swim baits are excellent choices for spring Steelhead.
Fly anglers should also take advantage of the fish's increased activity level and use a more active presentation, such as swinging flashy streamers. It's important to remember that these fish haven't had a square meal in weeks, so by the time they recover from spawning they're looking to replace lost pounds in a big way. As the spring progresses and the waters warm further, they will begin to chase prey from a surprising distance, and the hits will be savage enough to demand a firm grip on the rod.

Spring steelhead are a lot of fun to catch. Just being outside and enjoying a bit of fresh air, sunshine, and the sounds of running water are enough of a reward on their own, but especially now. By getting away from the crowds, trying lesser-known streams and doing a bit of walking, you can have a great time catching beautiful fish while hardly seeing another soul. Now that's social distancing at its finest.

Author Craig Ritchie
Craig Ritchie
Over a near 40-year career as a full-time outdoor writer, Craig Ritchie has fished all over the globe for a variety of freshwater and saltwater species. The author of The Complete Guide To Getting Started In Fishing, he has written thousands of articles for magazines, websites and newspapers worldwide, appeared as a guest on several television fishing programs and won numerous awards for his writing and photography. He lives in the Great Lakes region where great fishing is as close as his own back yard.
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