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Fall has come and here in the Midwest feels like it has already left us for the icy grip of winter. Most anglers have traded in their rods for bows or settled into an offseason routine. But right now is primetime for one of freshwaters hardest fighting fish.


The Steelhead is a rainbow trout that has the opportunity to exit the usual small streams that rainbows live for the vast waters of the Pacific Ocean or in my regions case, the Great Lakes. The Steelhead spends it summers cruising the deeper waters of these lakes and oceans. In the case of the Great Lakes it becomes a top predator. Steelhead will then return to its river of origin in the spring or fall to spawn. These fish in Lake Erie are considered “put and take”. They are stocked yearly as the spawning success rate is extremely low due to low survival rate of smolt (or young fish) in the summer heat in area rivers and creeks.

Targeting Steelhead

The fall run as it is called usually starts about mid-September in my corner of Northeast Ohio or 
“Steelhead Alley” as it has become known. The fish will begin staging at the mouths of rivers and near shore areas. This time of year I have good success trolling or casting these river mouths or the harbors they empty in to. With the drop in temperature’s and fall rains fish began their long journey up river. At this point targeting long runs or pools with swift water nearby is a good bet. The more active fish will usually start at the front of the pool facing the swift water. They will continue heading as far up river as long as rain and dams allow. The same process repeats itself in spring after ice out or the spring rains.


I let the fish dictate the techniques I use to target them, but generally early season with warmer weather moving baits like spoons, spinners and minnow style crankbaits work very well with these fish still being fresh out of the lake and aggressive.Once temperatures begin to plummet and fish begin to expend more energy in the rivers they are less likely to chase fast moving baits. Float fishing becomes the staple once these fish settle into life on the river. Drifting baits under a float like small marabou and synthetic hair jigs work well. As well as various plastics like the 412 Bait Co. 3.5 inch free minnow. For the fly guys wooly buggers and sucker spawn patterns work extremely well. Part of the fun of this time of year is the puzzle that is float fishing. Steelhead have very good eye sight and one of the only fish I truly believe color matters. Some good starting colors are black, oranges, greens, browns and pinks in a 1/32 ounce head. But I’ve found especially when I’m catching fish and the bite dies showing them a different color or bait profile can usually get them fired up again. Tipping jigs with maggots or floating egg sacks is another great way to entice strikes when the fishing is tough.


I already when over a variety of lures and presentations but part of the fun of Steelhead is experimenting with baits. I know people who fish lipless cranks and do well, there is no set in stone way to catch them and getting creative can often time yield great results. As far as rods go for casting spoons, spinners and small cranks I stick with a 7 foot medium action rod I use for bass fishing with 10 lbs P-line copolymer line. For float fishing I highly recommend an actual “float rod” these are long limber rods anywhere from 8-15 feet long in medium to medium light action. The length and action keep extra line off the water while drifting and help as a shock absorber with those brutal runs and high jumps on light line. I prefer an 8’6” rod for fishing out of the yak and don’t have to worry about it snagging on overhead trees heading down river. It also makes getting fish in the yak much easier not having to stretch over a 12 foot rod to net the fish. For mainline I really like the high visibility of Sunline Siglon F in 8 lbs test it’s a floating line which makes keeping it off the water much easier giving a more natural drift. I also use a about a 3-4 foot fluorocarbon leader in either 6-8 lbstest. There are a million steelhead style floats and most will get the job done, I really like the 5.5g float made by Raven it’s anall-around float that works in swift and slow moving water. You will also want to stock up on split shot and “load the bobber” putting 3 or 4 smaller shot under the float to keep the it upright and floating true. 1 or 2 other small shot spaced down the line will also help to keep your back down. This is something you may have to play with based on current.


This can be one of the best times of year to catch trophy fish (and sure beats sitting on the couch)! But the most important thing you can take away from this is cold water safety. Temperatures during steelhead season are deadly cold and dressing appropriately and wearing your PFD can mean the difference between a great day on the water or a life ending one. Every year there are stories about fisherman who lose their lives to cold water. It’s an easy problem to solve by being aware of these dangers and preparing for them. In my next article I’ll highlight my favorite set up for cold water safety so be on the lookout! I hope these techniques and tips help you put some steel in the yak.  And I hope to see you on the water!