Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing 101

In Part I and II of this series, I introduced the Lake Erie Steelhead, its habitat, needed gear and the chosen bait. With that information you should be properly prepared to head out for some good and exciting Steelhead fishing. If you followed my suggestions, at least you now know where to find the Steelhead and it will appear as if you know what you are doing, but do you?

It is quite common to see fishers walking out of the stream, creek or river with nothing to show or talk about. I mentioned talking about the fish you caught for those of you who are in the “catch and release” of sport fishing.

This is a subject I may talk about in later articles but for now and since the Steelhead is a “stocked” Lake Erie species, keeping and eating your catch is acceptable. Why so many non-productive outings? Why no fish, no strikes? I have spoken to dozens of fishers who have been seeking the monster of the stream and rivers for years, and nothing.

There is a reason why. Allow me to continue and mention some of the main culprits of a no-luck outing.

Spooking Equals "Shutting Down"

Spooked fish? This isn’t a misprint, I didn’t mean smoked fish, I meant spooked fish. Fish do get spooked and the Steelhead trout is one that once spooked will shut down, they won’t strike bait, often referred to as “lock chaw.” So how can a Steelhead get spooked? There are a number of conditions and actions which can spook a Steelhead. Let’s just talk about a few.

Fishing Line

Yes, the line you use to present, hook and land the fish can be the culprit. The rule of thumb goes, the stronger or higher the test strength of the line the easier it can be detected by the fish. I realize that line manufacturers have come a long way and there are some great low visibility, high test lines but the lower the test the less it will be detected.

Also, lighter line presents a bait when stream or creek fishing with a more natural flow. I suggest no higher than 6lb. test when fishing for Steelhead. If you just need that 8 to 12lb. test line for security purposes, add a 4 to 6 ft. lower test leader line that should work just fine.

Bait Size

Bait size must be as natural and close to the match of the food available in the streams, creeks or rivers you are fishing. These Steelhead are entering tributaries which are inhabited by small shiners, creek chubs and lava. Also the fish are coming upstream to spawn, to drop their eggs.

The fish will use the dropped eggs as a food source or even grab them in a protective mode. So, the size of your bait, whether it be a spoon, jig and maggot or natural or artificial spawn must match the size of the natural bait, small to medium.

The “Stealth” Approach

Remember, you’re fishing streams, creeks and rivers where you need to walk along the bank and occasionally enter the water. Your approach to these haunts needs to be as quiet and unannounced as it can be. Consideration has to be given to the way you walk, the way and where you enter the water and the clothing you wear. Let’s break this up into a couple of categories, clothing and approach.

Clothing: You need to consider warmth and comfort. The Steelhead season up here in the northeast section of the country runs from late September to early May. Not to go into a complete run down on our weather pattern, but we do get snow even in May. Now, most of you who are avid outdoorsmen probably have a fairly good gathering of outdoor attire.

Some of that attire may be used for hunting, which means you might have the required “bright orange” coloring hat, jacket or pants. Great for the hunting season, but not so good if you’re going after Steelhead in close quarters. You see any bright color or anything that can reflect the sun can and will be seen by the fish.

This will spook the fish and result in a shut down. Believe me, I have seen two fisherman enter a stream, one with no bright or shiny object on their clothing, the other with and the results were obvious. So, wear the natural color outerwear, camouflage is great. I do want to point out that you may be entering the backwaters during hunting season, so precaution must be taken.

How To Enter A Stream or Creek.

Approach: How and where you enter the water plays a major role. These streams are very shallow in many areas. Entering for crossing purposes or for walking up on a productive area is important. One rule of thumb: Steelhead will always face up-stream. Knowing and remembering that you never want to enter with the water flowing behind you.

When you do that, everything you kick up will flow into the face of the fish and also as you enter and walk down the stream the fish will and can see you coming. Entering with the flow against you ensures you will be as stealth as possible, sneaking up on the potential Steelhead hang out.

Walk slowly, as quietly as possible. Stream, creek and river wading (walking) takes some getting used to, take your time. Try not to kick up any debris at all if possible.

Approaching from the Bank

This is one very important fact I need to share. Realize, especially on a clear sunny day and in clear water conditions, the Steelhead can be spooked by simply seeing you standing above the water. Another interesting “spook” concern must be considered. Water levels in rivers, creeks and streams change all the time.

All are feed by water run-off. If we experience a long rainy week the rivers, creeks and streams will rise, water flow will be swift, fast and pack some power. That flow, that powerful run can change the composition of smaller creeks and streams. Where the stream or creek turns, the power of the water flow will cut into, under the bank.

I have seen bank cuts go inside the bank wall as much at three to four feet. That means you can literally be standing on the banks edge and have water, which is a holding hole for Steelhead directly underneath you. These areas are excellent “holding cells” for Steelhead. Why? Remember fish don’t like to fight the current all the time.

They need to relax, take it easy. The water in these undercuts slows down, is calm. Also this is a great place for the Steelhead to simply wait for the food to flow by, sort of like a “food delivery channel.” It is important to understand this when walking and searching for productive water, locations where fish may be sitting.

Approach the bank slowly, no stamping or thumping. Look ahead of you. If you see that turn in the creek or stream, consider the under-cut. Your goal now is to drop that line and direct it, with the flow of the creek or stream to slowly approach and then enter that under-cut portion. These are one of the most productive areas on the creek or stream.

Another excellent area to consider, which is created by this water flow is the “dam.” Before you get confused, I am not talking about a man-made dam, you know the ones you see at a reservoir or river. I am speaking about a naturally created dam. Remember, these creeks and streams are feeding creeks, running through back woods areas.

As they rise and flow they pick up debris and take it for a ride. This debris can be fallen trees, small branches, whatever. When this flow meets something to stop it, possibly a tree that fell over the creek or stream, the debris begins to back up, the dam is built.

As the water hits the dam it creates a turbulence which directs the water downward. That downward flow begins to cut into the creeks, streams bed, sort of like shoveling out the bottom. Once deep enough the water then can flow through, under the debris.

I have seen undercut dams in streams where the average depth is one to three feet as deep as 12 feet. This is truly one of the best holding holes for Steelhead. Don’t pass these areas up.

Fish On!

You put into play everything you have learned about Northeast Coast Steelhead fishing. The strike comes, fish on. First, let’s talk about the strike. For most of you, especially you bass fishers, a strike is a powerful hit, pull on the end of your line. Although you are fishing for “monster” fish, you may be surprised that these beauties do not often hit or strike with that forcefulness.

Steelhead have been known to mouth a bait. Now again, we are talking spawning periods, while they are in the creeks and streams. If you are fishing for these beauties on open water, the attack and strike may be a little more aggressive, but again this is when they are in the tributaries.

We continue. They will mouth the bait, pick it up and slowly begin to digest or begin to travel. The strike is a little different when fishing flat line (no float) as to fishing with a float. Flat line strikes will be a simple little movement of the line, a steady pull until you feel the tension on the end of your rod.

Float strikes will be a slow pull on the float, not a quick disappearing act but more of a movement. Feeling or seeing either of these strikes is now the time to react. How you react will result in a proceeding battle or simply an empty line.

Setting The Hook

Steelhead have small mouths compared to other sport fish such as the Large Mouth Bass or even the Crappie. Remember I mentioned they mouth the bait rather than the typical inhalation type action of other fish. So, considering the mouth structure, the mouthing action and the size of the hook or bait we must be fairly precise on setting that hook.

The Steelheads’ mouth or lower jaw is a strong bone structure. When and if that hook is properly set, it needs to penetrate that bone so as to ensure the fish doesn’t throw the hook. When you see the line become taunt, you see the float start to move, you want to simply, slowly but continuously pull up the rod, put tension on the line and set the hook.

Not a jerk but more like when you tighten your shoe lace, firm, constant and deliberate. If done properly, the fight is on.

Landing Your Trophy

Landing a fish takes practice. Probably the most important tip I can give you when fighting a Steelhead, considering the gear, the fish and your surroundings is: Don’t be in a hurry. You can’t horse these monsters in. They will fight, do the occasional jump and simply refuse to be landed. Tire them out, keep the rod tip high, and don’t reel against the drag. Enjoy the fight, then when the time is right either net your trophy or simply belly lift it out.

Good luck, Good fishing.

Donald S. Cochran

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