Great Lakes Steelhead history and tactics

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in an edition of Trout Talk. Dick Smith is a long-time board member of SWMTU and avid fisherman.)

Steelhead have been in Michigan since 1876. Rainbow trout have been a spectacular success in the Great Lakes.

A lot of Atlantic salmon were planted in Michigan streams before rainbow trout were tried, but the Atlantics were a consistent failure. Atlantic salmon were native to Lake Ontario, and there were fabulous runs of them there in the middle of the nineteenth century, so it was assumed that they would do well in the Upper Great Lakes. Atlantic salmon were planted in Michigan from 1873 to 1880, but they never did very well. Excessive harvesting and pollution destroyed the Lake Ontario Atlantic salmon runs. By the start of the twentieth century and there were no Atlantics in any of the Great Lakes.

When rainbows were first brought to Michigan, steelhead were considered to be a different species from the rainbow. Steelhead were classified as Salmo gairdneri. Gairdner was the name of the man who provided the original specimens for classification. The rainbow was classified as Salmo irideus (iridescent, from the Greek word Iris for rainbow). Today, the rainbow trout is classified as Oncorhynchus mykiss. It is generally divided into six subspecies, and two of them have the old species names.

The coastal rainbow has the subspecies name irideus. The redband of the Columbia and Fraser Rivers has the subspecies name gairdneri. They are the two subspecies of rainbows that produce steelhead. The coastal rainbows generally produce steelhead that return to their rivers between November and April. The redbands tend to be earlier fish that are back in their rivers by the end of October.

The first known rainbow eggs to leave California went to Seth Green at the Caledonia hatchery in New York in 1874. They were fish from the McCloud River and they were classified as Salmo irideus. Rainbows from the Caledonia hatchery were introduced into the Au Sable in Michigan by Judge Daniel Fitzhugh of Bay City in 1876.

In 1885, the hatchery at Big Rapids received its first shipment of rainbows, and those fish eventually went into the Pere Marquette, the Muskegon, and the Hersey River. Then the Platte, the Manistee, and the Saint Marys River were stocked. The Soo rapids of the Saint Marys became one of the most celebrated rainbow fisheries in the world. Ernest Hemingway called it, “The Best Rainbow Trout Fishing in the World.” Ray Bergman devoted about six pages to it in the chapter on bucktails and
streamers in his book Trout.

In 1904, fish that were classified as Salmo gairdneri and thought to be pure steelhead, were brought to the Northville hatchery. They were planted in some of the larger streams on the assumption that they would migrate to the Great Lakes, and they did, just as many of the fish from the earlier rainbow plants had done.

Lamprey eels entered the Upper Great Lakes through the Welland Ship Canal, which opened in 1932. By 1950, they were a serious problem. Lampreys select the largest available fish when they choose the fish to which they will attach. They killed a lot of lake trout and steelhead in the nineteen fifties. Back then a five-pound steelhead was considered a very big one.

My first steelhead was caught in the spring of 1956, and it was twenty-three inches long. A few years later, when I caught one that was twenty-eight inches long, my father said it was the largest steelhead he had ever seen.

The number of steelhead counted at the weir on the Little Manistee River each year in the 1950s was between 1,000 and 3,000 fish.

The lamprey control efforts of the nineteen sixties worked well enough so in 1970, the count at the weir was over 17,000 fish, and the average steelhead checked at the weir weighed over 11 pounds.

In the mid-1970s, there were incredible numbers of steelhead in some of the streams, and very few people were fishing for them. I was one of the people fishing who was fishing for them, and most of the steelhead I caught in my early years of fly fishing for them were taken on streamers. A simple streamer about three inches long, with a white chenille body, silver tinsel ribbing, gray squirrel wing, and red hackle was the best steelhead fly for me back then. It was tied like an Alaska Mary Ann with a gray squirrel wing instead of polar bear hair. I caught as many as a dozen steelhead year on that streamer. It was not until I started fishing small nymphs for steelhead that I actually caught a dozen fish in a day.

For me, the best of all steelhead flies have been small, dark, sparsely dressed nymphs. The first successful nymph pattern that I ever used for steelhead is called the Early Stonefly. It was designed to imitate the little dark stoneflies that we often see crawling out on the snow along the banks of trout streams on sunny days in February, March, and April. There are several species of small stoneflies that emerge in later winter or very early spring. They vary somewhat in size and color, but they are all fairly small and fairly dark. They are commonly a size ten or twelve and their colors very from slate gray to reddish black. One size ten nymph pattern with a dark gray or black body will imitate all of them.

On many occasions, I have given some of my steelhead nymphs to other anglers so they could use them as patterns for tying their own nymphs. When they show me the flies they have tied, they are always bigger and fatter than mine are. The tendency is always to tie them bigger so it will be easier for the fish to see the fly. I start doing that myself if I’m not careful. It doesn’t hurt to have some bigger stonefly nymphs in your fly box. It does hurt not to have the small ones. Steelhead see everything. They may be big fish when they come back from Lake Michigan, but they still have the same eyes they used to make a living when they were small, and they ate very small things. They will notice a small nymph drifting by.

Steelhead that have been fished to a lot are very hard to catch. Steelhead that have been bothered by snaggers will often move away from a fly the first time it comes through. Sometimes they will flee from very small flies on fairly light tippets. I have had a lot of fishermen who were fishing to steelhead on redds tell me something like, “They chase the fly every time it goes through, but they won’t take it.” What they are really seeing is the fish moving away from the fly every time it comes near them.

I like to fish streamers, but I know it’s more likely I will be successful if I use a small dark nymph. If a steelhead on a redd doesn’t take a streamer on one of the first few casts, it’s not likely to take it at all. Trying to antagonize spawning steelhead into striking usually just makes them leave. It is the fly that doesn’t get them all stirred up that they will eventually take, and typically that is a small nymph.

I tie most of my steelhead stoneflies on salmon hooks. I always tie some of them in the low water style of the flies made famous by A.H.E. Wood, the man who pioneered the greased line method of fishing for Atlantic salmon. They are tied sparsely and only about two-thirds of the length of the hook shank. That way, small nymph patterns can be tied on larger, stronger hooks than they would normally be on. A. H. E. Wood liked his flies tied that way and he often used flies with only a small body and no wing or hackle. He also successfully used flies with nothing but a tinsel body, and others with nothing but red or blue paint on the hook shank.

I have caught steelhead on bright colored traditional steelhead and salmon flies like the Skykomish Sunrise, Fall Favorite, Kalama Special, and chartreuse Cosseboom. There are times when they take them readily. There are also times when they won’t take them at all. It’s possible to fish a good steelhead run with one of those bright flies and catch nothing, and then fish it again with a small dark fly and catch a steelhead. I have not been very successful fishing a bright fly after a dark one. They will take a small dark fly when they won’t take a bright one, but they don’t often take a bright fly after they have refused a dark one.

I try to use the heaviest possible tippet when I use a small nymph. Light tippets in the four-pound range can be used with small flies in very cold water. A steelhead in 33 degree water is not anything like a steelhead in 46 degree water. I have taken a lot of steelhead in the winter that never even got into the backing. I have had big steelhead, fish that weighed 12 pounds or more, circle the pool a few times and then come right in. Once the water gets up around 42 degrees, which is about the bottom edge of spawning temperature for steelhead, they are much harder to control. Sometimes they make very long runs. Then they resist strongly when you try to bring them back upstream. Four-pound test is not up to the job of bringing an angry, active steelhead back upstream. With six-pound test and good knots, you have a chance if the current is not too strong, but typically you have to go after them. If you can get a fish to take a small fly on an eight-pound tippet, odds are you can play it, land it, and then release it without the fish becoming so seriously stressed that it will die.

Using light tackle has long been considered the height of sportsmanship. If you intent to kill a fish and the tackle you use gives it a better chance to get away, that could be considered good sportsmanship. If you intend to release a fish, and you play it so long that the fish cannot recover from the build up of lactic acid and the break down of red blood cells that always occur during heavy exertion, that is not good sportsmanship. If you intend to release a fish and instead it breaks off and gets away with a hook in its mouth, that is not good sportsmanship. An angler has a moral obligation to a fish if he intends to release it. And that obligation is to return the fish to the water so it is not in much worse condition than it was when he hooked it.

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