This article is intended to provide basic information to anyone wishing to take advantage of the spring Great Lakes Steelhead fishery. Although we are targeting migratory rainbow trout, there are many incidental catches that fill our day with joy and help us learn tactics for catching other species we may encounter.
Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) is a species of salmonid which is native to the cold water tributaries of Pacific Asia and North America. Steelhead is an anadromous(sea-run), or in this case, lake-run form of Coastal Rainbow Trout(Oncorhynchus mykiss Irideus) that have been introduced to Great Lakes tributaries. These fish spend their first 1-2 years in the tributaries, then enter the Great Lakes, to later migrate back to their natal streams when they reach spawning maturity.
Primary spawning runs occur in the Great Lakes tributaries from late March to late May depending on the winter.
Season and Habitat
Most of the time you are fishing less than 20' of water. Fish are shallow as 5' when the sun comes up and usually stay in less than 20' until then light starts to really penetrate then water. Try to find temperature gradients close to a mud line as they are your best indicator of where to start fishing. The transitioning water colour from brown to green is the area you want to focus on the most. This is where the bait are hanging out to avoid being in plain sight. Zig-zag trolling in and out of the mud line will surely get you bit.
This is the season where kayaks have a real advantage over motorboats because of the relatively silent trolling capability. There is no need to run inline planer boards unless you do it to clear other rods when trolling multiple. If you have a leg propelled kayak like a Hobie Mirage series then things are even that much more simplified with hands free fishing.
Locating and Timing
A chrome bright fish in the spring does not mean it is a fresh arrival! Many steelhead finish their spawning ritual before the river season opens, and they are almost fully healed from their wounds, leaving them with their beautiful silver sheen. These kelts are the most sensitive of the lot. They are extremely hungry and feed ravenously on anything they can find. They are also very susceptible to death if hooked and and fought to exhaustion with less oxygen in the warming rivers. They cannot recover since they have no reserve body mass to fall back on. Please do not target these fish!
Anything resembling a shiner or smelt style minnow and fished near a river outlet on the Great Lakes will get bit... by something. It will most likely be a steelhead, coho salmon, or brown trout but could be any number of other species following the bait. Move around in the lake until you mark bait or spot it.
Baits and Combos
Baits and lures are endless when you start looking at different possibilities. Try to keep it simple especially if you are just getting into it.
Body baits like AC Shiners, Bomber Long A's, Live Target Smelts/Shads, Rapala Original Floater/Countdowns/J9/Shad Raps , Smithwick Rogues, and Storm Thundersticks. Use natural colours in clear water and bright Chartruese, Firetiger, and Orange/Gold in stained. All in 3-1/2-4-1/2" sizes. Remember the minnows are still small in the spring.
Smaller light trolling spoons in 3-4" sizes like Michigan Stingers, Silver Streaks, Dreamweaver SS, and any other narrow profile spoons. Colours are fairly basic with orange trumping all, then greens, chartreuse, and blue/greens cover the majority.
Flatfish, Kwikfish, and Hot Shots are all spring time staples for steelhead. The wide slow wobble of a Skunk, Blue or Green Pirate, and make sure to bring some golds too. A slow trolled Gold/Fire Orange in dirty water on an overcast day can be deadly!
Lures like Cleo's, Krocodiles, Storm Wildeye, and the different body baits listed above all make for great casting baits for these fish.
Trolling speed is ideally between 1.5-2 mi/hr, making sure to form lots of "S" turns in hopes of enticing a follower to hit. Should you pinpoint a location where they seem to be congregating, be sure to anchor up and fire away. It may not last long but a half hour in the zone can easily produce several fish!