Winter Steelhead in the Great Lakes

by Pete Humphreys


Winter steel in the Great Lakes

As the magic of fall approaches – my favorite season, the summer days melt away like the snowfall in spring, it marks the changing from the summer swelter to cool crisp autumn. As the trees change their cloaks of green for the brown and red colors of the fall, Michigan spey guys are gearing up for the fall migrations of Salmon and Steelhead into the many tributaries of the Great Lakes, etching their way across the state like the veins on a drinkers nose. The ultimate fly fishing experience is catching the fall run Steelhead. They are a noble species, out classing their Salmonoid counterpart, and unlike the Chinook salmon, they are not here on the spawning run which is why they are so special and eager to snap at our swung flies. No one really knows why they come in the fall as they spawn in April. It could be food source, water temps, moon phase – the list goes on. The first fish make the run in September, with great fishing up till the end of November and into early December. Prime time for the hottest action would be late October/early November. As the winter chill tightens its grip, the run of fresh fish slows down, but new ones continue to trickle up the rivers to join the hold over steelhead. We have exciting opportunities to peruse these fish all winter on swung flies and it’s a season that is often overlooked.

Michigan winters can be brutal and we are dealing with water temps in the mid to low 30’s. This dictates out tactics when perusing steelhead with swung flies. Most anglers wrongly assume steelhead won’t chase a swung fly in such cold water, but on any given day, no matter how horrible the weather is, the winter bite can be surprisingly good with no shortage of savage grabs and finger cutting runs. You get points for attendance in all steelheading but this is even more the case for the winter season, but there are some tactics we can employee to increase the odds.

Firstly we need to find where the fish are lying. Look for slow soft water with 4-6 foot of depth. The slower the better and should be at a pace of a very gentle walking speed. In such cold water steelhead find the softest seems and slowest currents so they can expend little or no energy. Identify structure such as rocks and boulders, drop offs and submerged logs – these structures create seems and soft spots that will be the preferred hang out for winter fish.


Use a big fly. I find winter steelhead prefer a big meal – if they are going to make the effort to kill something, it needs to be worth the while so we typically fish a 3 to 4 inch fly that has good movement and seductive action such as temple dogs, rabbit strip leeches and sculpins tied with marabou tails. Adding large quantities of flashabo as pioneered by steelheading guru Kevin Feenstra is a good recipe for aggressive strikes. Flash combinations like blue with silver, purple with pink and copper are all good choices and the addition of flashabo adds significant action as it swoons and flutters across the stream.

Get the fly down to the fish by casting a fast sunk line. Winter steelhead are not as aggressive as the early run, so make it easy for them to grab your fly by getting it down to the fish and keeping it down there during the swing. Back in the old days I’d employ full sunk lines such as 200, 300, 400 and even 500 grain, full sinkers. These line systems, over head cast on double handers proved deadly. But, they didn’t spey cast well and only worked with room for a traditional back cast or fishing from the boat. With the development of the RIO SVT system of scandi bodies available in a float, full intermediate and a sink 4 density, combined with fast sinking tips we have the most versatile line system and one that will get the fly down deep and keep it down during the swing. The SVT is very easy to cast and will handle big flies and T type tips with no problems.

I always pay extra attention the hang down when winter fishing. We get a lot of grabs in the warmer months as the fly straightens but this is even more so for the winter. When fishing from the boat, I like to try and set up a little closer to the fish so I can hang the fly for as long as possible in the likely lie. A good rule is to count to ten after the line straightens before stripping in to re cast.

Lastly, get some good winter clothing. With the advancements in modern, high tech gear such as base layers and thermal fleece products, being comfortable will make the difference between a fun day on the water or misery. Invest in good winter gear. When I’m in the boat I always prefer to wear heavy insulated bibs and winter boots – much better than waders to stay cozy and warm. I also use an old fashioned hand warmer – the antiquated style that runs off lighter fluid with a heating element that glows when you blow on it. It’s a brilliant piece of kit. I stuff it in a pocket underneath my over coat and it warms the whole body.


Winter steelheading in the Great Lakes tribs can be challenging, but the rewards for the effort are well worth while. It’s a beautiful time of year to be on the water with snow lined banks and no river traffic. Most days you will have the river to your self, perhaps shared with the company of bald eagles soaring above and white tailed deer staring at you from the woods. This is the only reason I need to get away from the wood stove and off the couch. If you have the chance to experience the winter chase for steelhead in the Great lakes I highly suggest you give it a go – you’ll not be disappointed.

Pete Humphreys,

Muskegon River, Michigan.