Tuesday Tip: Gearing Up for Great Lakes Steelhead

Written by: Jim Lampros, Fishing Manager of Orvis Cleveland

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The author shows off a big Great Lakes steelhead, as his fishing buddy looks on.

photo courtesy Jim Lampros

The rise in popularity of the Lake Erie steelhead fishery over the last decade has been well deserved. Erie and her tributaries unequivocally offer the best chance, be it East or West, for an angler to get his or her steelhead fix. The availability of public access, the proximity of the fishery to urban centers, and the fact that all of the important tributaries can be fished without the aid of watercraft make these steelhead some of the most accessible in the world. And though this accessibility can make for crowded rivers, solitude can be found with just a little leg-work. Add to the mix the diversity of water and fisheries offered by neighboring Lakes Michigan and Ontario, and you’ll find that Midwestern steelhead anglers face a remarkably unique and diverse array of angling opportunities. Such diversity calls for gear and tactics to match, and after years of tinkering and exploring on these waters, I’ve settled on some favorites which I’ve outlined for you below, along with my rationale for each recommendation.


RODS

10-foot 7-weight 
11-foot 6-weight switch

To choose the right rod/s for Midwest steelheading, you must take into account two critical components: the size and character of the average river, and the tactics you plan to employ. As size and character go, the average Midwest steelhead stream is relatively small and shallow. They are therefore fished most effectively with single-hand rods and subsurface nymphing or dead-drift presentations. In other words, all things being equal, if I have to put a fish in the net, I’m going with a 10-foot 7-weight rod and a two-fly indicator nymph rig, which I’ll explain in detail later.

The 10-foot rod offers advantages over traditional 9-footers in the form of better mending/line control, easier roll/single-hand-Spey casting and more substantial butt sections for fighting powerful fish. I find that rods longer than 10-feet to be a little clumsy when fished single handed, which is why I prefer the 107 for this technique. That said, a 10-foot 8-weight might be a better choice for Michigan or Ontario tributaries where average fish size tends to be a bit bigger.

I find that the most enjoyable way to take these fish is with short Spey or switch rods and swung-fly presentations. When paired with short, heavy Skagit or Scandinavian lines and sinking tips, these rods load quickly and efficiently with minimal line out and allow anglers to utilize a wide spectrum of casting styles, including both traditional and modern Spey casts. For my home water, I prefer the 116 for two primary reasons: it loads and casts well at distances as close as 35 feet, but has the power to cast much farther when needed. Second, it makes fighting the average 5- to 6-pound steelhead more challenging and more enjoyable than heavier 7- and 8-weight models (though those rods have their place on bigger water such as New York’s Salmon River or Michigans Muskegon). Switch rods are outstanding fish-fighting tools and offer the added functionality of single-hand fishing when warranted.


REELS

Large Arbor disc drag, sizes IV or V

Large arbor reels are the hands-down choice for anadromous or potadromous fish. They balance long rods well, offer fast line pick-up (critical when dealing with unpredictable runs and jumps from big fish), and provide substantial stopping-power from an increased drag-surface area. Better yet, sealed drag models such as the Mirage prevent freeze-up in cold-weather conditions. When reels without sealed drag systems get wet and freeze up, their functionality is nil, causing unnecessary break-offs and headaches for the angler. In other words, spending the extra money for a sealed system is a worthwhile investment for anyone planning on fishing through the winter months.


FLY LINE

Single hand: Hydros Salmon/Steelhead taper
Switch/Spey: Skagit short or Compact Skagit

For single-hand nymphing techniques, mending and roll casting are the two primary considerations. Floating weight-forward lines with long rear tapers, such as our salmon/steelhead taper, are ideal choices. The longer bellies on these lines dramatically improve “mendability” at distances of 40 feet or more, and greatly improve roll casting with cumbersome indicator rigs. For novice anglers or those new to this technique, the easy-mend Switch line may be a better choice as its even heavier belly makes for easier turn-over.

When utilizing a swung-fly presentation, short Skagit heads are my go-to lines. These super short (20- to 25-foot), super heavy heads allow anglers to shoot great distances of running line with minimal backcast or D-Loop. They also turn over the dense sinking tips and heavily-weighted flies needed to fish fast, deep current effectively. For low-water scenarios where lighter tips and unweighted flies are better employed, Scandinavian-style heads with front and rear tapers improve accuracy and line control.

For sinking tips, I carry lengths of T-11 and T-14 sinking material from 5 to 10 feet long. I loop both ends, using the triple nail knot technique, with one end looping to the fly line head and the other looping to a 2- to 4-foot section of straight 0X fluorocarbon. The fly is attached to the terminal end of the tippet using a non-slip mono loop, which allows for better underwater movement than a standard clinch knot.

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Nymphing under an indicator works great in shallow, smaller streams.

photo courtesy Jim Lampros


TERMINAL TACKLE AND INDICATOR TECHNIQUE

About five years ago, I began using an alternative rig for indicator nymphing that I picked up from a friend. This modified leader set-up is remarkably effective and makes re-rigging a breeze. This is important because to fish our hard-bottomed rivers effectively, anglers must accept losing flies as a necessary evil. The set-up looks something like this:

  • 7 1/2 foot 0X fluorocarbon leader, clinch knotted to a barrel swivel 
  • 16-24 inches of 1X-3X fluorocarbon tippet, clinch knotted to the bottom of the barrel swivel and to the lead fly. (I prefer an egg pattern, size color and density to be dictated by water conditions.) 
  • 16-24 inches of 2X – 4X fluorocarbon tippet, clinch knotted to the eye of the top fly, and to the eye of the bottom fly at the terminal end. (I prefer to trail with a small white or olive streamer, or beadhead nymph.) 
  • Thingamabobber strike indicator looped to the butt section of the leader, distance from top fly to be dictated by water depth and current speed 
  • 1 to 3 BB split shot fixed to a two-inch tag of tippet, which is clinch knotted to the barrel swivel. An overhand knot at the end of the tippet tag prevents shot from sliding off, but can be broken if shot gets wedged.

When rigged properly, breakoffs will happen at the tippet-to-barrel swivel connection. Leaders last much longer this way, and there is no guesswork involved when it comes to how much tippet must be added to repair the rig. The whole rig utilizes only the clinch knot, arguably the easiest to tie of all those used in fly fishing.

I fish this rig drag-free, prospecting potential steelhead holding lines beginning closest to the rod tip and working out across the river, covering water in a grid like pattern. The indicator is used both as a suspension device and a hinge, allowing the angler to manage fly line on the water without interrupting the drift. I have found this to be the hands-down most productive method for catching steelhead in Midwestern rivers.


SWUNG-FLY TECHNIQUE

I often refer to the swung-fly techniques employed on our rivers as “micro-swinging.” It is not about covering vast amounts of water, as it can be on large western rivers, as much as it is about achieving a very precise presentation to a very particular spot. Accurate casting is more important than distance casting, and line management is everything. The shape of the line on the water in relation to current speed and direction will dictate the depth of the fly and the speed at which it “swims” across the river. A heavy downstream belly will cause the fly to swim faster and higher in the water column, and a shallow or upstream belly will sink the fly and slow it down.

What swing anglers must have in mind when casting is a mental picture of where they expect fish to be holding. It could be behind or in front of a large boulder, on a far seam, an inside seam, a tailout or in the heart of the run. Whatever the case, the fly and line should be managed accordingly with the goal of presenting the fly broadside at eye level of the fish or just above. Holding back on the fly to raise it in the water column, or giving it slack to drop it can be effective ways to achieve the right depth and presentation. On any given day, playing with different angles and swim speeds can make the difference between getting a handful of grabs or getting skunked. Fish responding to this technique will often attack the fly at a downstream angle, causing the jolt in the rod and line that all swing anglers dream of.


FLIES

For a list of go-to flies for both techniques described above, check out my article “Top 10 flies for Lake Erie Steelhead.”

Fortunately for me and my friends, Cleveland offers the perfect steelhead base camp. Say what you will about our fair city and our hatchery fish, but if your goal is to feel the pull of an 8-pound chrome steelhead, there’s no better place to start your trip. To the west, the north woods of Michigan offer the opportunity for wild fish and increased solitude. To the east, New York offers rivers big and small stuffed with a mixed bag of salmonids occasionally reaching the 20-pound mark due to the prolific forage base provided by Lake Ontario. Whatever your steelhead destination, I and my colleagues at the Orvis Cleveland store are always a resource for gear and information. You can also refer to the Ohio fishing reports on the Orvis fishing reports network. I manage these reports weekly during the fall winter and spring, and am always a call away for up to the minute information. I hope to see you in C-Town this fall!”

Jim Lampros is the fishing manager at Orvis Cleveland. You can reach him with more questions at (216) 591-1681.

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Lake Erie steelhead generally don’t grow as large as those in the Northwest, or even in
Michigan, but their numbers make up for it.

photo courtesy Jim Lampros

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4 thoughts on “Tuesday Tip: Gearing Up for Great Lakes Steelhead

  1. Bo K

    This short, pithy article outlines a GREAT approach to catching Lake Erie tributary steelhead. The leader rig described is versatile, useful, tough and effective as well as economical. Thanks to Mr. Lampros for a concise and useful lesson.

    Reply
  2. Chris Fox

    I caught my first steelhead last week, 4/29/15. I had 5 hookups, chromes and the one landed which was a 7.5# rainbow. They were hitting black wooly bugger and other. My fish landed was on a custom spoon, 1/16 oz. I was focused on stripping streamers, but the fish depleted my arsenal which was small anyway. Thanks for this article. I’ll try some of these flies. I was fishing the Chagrin River in northeast Ohio.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Pro Tips: Nymphing vs Swinging for Steelhead | Orvis News

  4. Pingback: Pro Tips: Nymphing vs Swinging for Steelhead - Orvis News

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