Streamer fishing for Michigan steelhead – fishing basics

After covering gear, fly patterns, reading water, conditions and patterns, and presentation styles, Kevin’s moving on to the penultimate section of this series that covers any ground he may have missed and reiterates some of the key points to his streamer fishing techniques.

So far in this series we’ve went into great detail on very exact aspects of streamer fishing for Michigan steelhead. This installment is going to cover everything we haven’t already covered and emphasize some of the things I take to be most important in streamer fishing for steelhead.

1. “The Look of the Day”

Just after we launch the boat or finish our hike to the river’s edge, we need to determine how the day’s basic conditions might affect fishing. Here we are looking primarily at whether or not to begin with aggressive tactics or with more subtle ones. Though as you’ll see, I always think it’s best to begin aggressively. However, by ascertaining the prevailing conditions of the day, you can decide how much time to devote to aggressive tactics and thus be as economical as possible on the water.

Water temp

  • Cold – frozen to 36 = smaller streamers moved slowly and hung near bottom.
  • Cool – 37 to 46 = medium and larger streamers moved from slow to moderately quick. In these water temps fish are more likely to move some distance to take a fly.
  • Warm – 47 and up = medium to large streamers moved from slow to very fast. In these temps fish are often quite likely to move long distances to take a fly and a fast moving fly is often more likely to trigger a response in warm water. Though in very warm water, 68 and up, if there are any steelhead around, their behavior is tougher to predict. Oftentimes they can be quite lethargic in very warm temps.

Water temperature and water level dynamics

  • Stable = you can encounter poor to great days with stable conditions but expect the steelhead to be middle of the road in terms of aggression. They will probably be more aggressive during low light periods and less aggressive with bright sun.
  • Rising = this is the best opportunity for a good to great day. Rising temps are always good and rising water levels often switch steelhead into feeding mode. Afternoon and dusk are often a peak period in winter as the sun warms the water a few degrees throughout the day.
  • Falling = falling temps will often cause severe lock jaw. Falling water levels also usually mean slower activity as the fish already ate through the high water period.

Light intensity and water clarity

  • Bright and/or clear = less active and spooky steelhead.
  • Dark and/or stained = active.

Obvious feeding opportunities

  • Spawning fish and insect hatches would be the most common opportunities that might create an increase in activity. Spawning fish put eggs in the water and stir up insects which not only provide opportunities for steelhead themselves, but also draw in smaller fish which are also targets for steelhead.

Conditions beyond these four things such as complex atmospheric and weather conditions go beyond my knowledge and confidence to predict their effects. Though by answering these four questions we can move past guesswork and chance. We can make solid decisions on fly selection, rigging and the best water to concentrate on.

An aggressive “look to the day” will mean starting with a fly that is bigger and brighter and fishing good feeding lanes, often the edges to deeper water or behind spawning fish. An inactive “look to the day” will mean starting with a smaller, less flashy and brightly colored fly with a plan to fish deeper water near the bottom. Though again, never start any day with your smallest, dullest streamer dredged through the deepest waters. If, for whatever reason, the steelhead are red hot, you have closed the door to hot action by starting with a slow and subtle method that limits your ability to quickly cover water and attract fish from a distance.

2. Positioning

When it comes to positioning, my opinions and practices are different from the standards in streamer fishing, but it may well be the most important key to my success.

All of my guided trips are from a boat. Swinging streamers from a boat has one key advantage over wading: I can position the boat anywhere. Instead of continually repeating “mend, mend, please mend” and having it mainly ignored or poorly executed, I now simply park the boat upstream of the best water. By doing so, everything is working to put and keep our streamers in the best water. Our streamers are continually working directly below the boat in the good water. When positioned to the side of the best holding waters we fight to keep the streamer, through mending, in the good water.

But this approach to positioning has added even more sugar to the mix. Now that keeping the streamer in the zone has become effortless and natural, we can concentrate on things like stripping, twitching, pausing or dropping back.

I know that mending is fun and part of the tradition of streamer fishing, you still get to mend plenty using my positioning technique. It isn’t like you can cover the entire river from one position. But the positioning method certainly reduces mending.

To balance this need for tradition we use only real Christmas trees at my house.

Positioning has an advantage to casting as well. In runs where the best water is tight to the bank and is often guarded by low overhanging trees, we can position on the overhanging tree edge and cast to the wide open shallow side. Then we simply let the streamer swing into the sweet spot. With no tree fighting involved.

Think of the other benefit here. Our fly is now shallowest in the shallowest water and at its greatest depth in the deepest part of the run. For me the traditional approach to positioning shallow and casting deep, then gaining depth as the streamer enters shallower waters, has always been in conflict with common sense.

3. A Bit More on Mending

Mending is necessary and useful for gaining depth and slowing and holding the fly in key spots. This allows the streamer to look very natural as it dances its way through the water versus a steady swing across the run.

The disadvantage to a mend is that it causes a looser connection between the streamer and the hand. I have watched good anglers mend every ten seconds or more as a matter of routine. In many cases, especially when throwing in big mends, a “blind” spot is created where the angler will not feel even the most vicious strike.

As we have discussed earlier in this series, steelhead often strike when there is a transition in the streamers movement. Mending is a tool to create this transition but unfortunately it often leaves us blind to the take at this important moment.

Mending is necessary but it has a cost. Mend if you must but mend as little as possible.

4. Takes, Bites, Hits, Strikes and Slams

Many steelheaders enjoy the confidence that comes with streamer fishing: “if a fish hits, I will know it”. Well, I don’t think it’s that easy.

“Grand Slammed” — Those arm jarring hits that we live for happen when the steelhead strikes with their momentum heading away from your line’s position.

“There We Go” — When we get those smooth takes, when the rod just starts bouncing. This is when the steelhead has came forward, ate the fly and is drifting back in the current while head shaking.

The rest of the hits are much harder or impossible to detect. Many fish are caught after we missed the strike entirely. We detect the steelhead because it didn’t or couldn’t let go of the streamer, or the connection tightened and we eventually noticed something was there.

A twenty pound steelhead, crushing a streamer at full speed feels like almost nothing if his momentum is toward your main line’s position. At best a forward hit will feel like a leaf on your streamer if the steelhead moves forward and/or to the side enough so that the line creates an increase in drag.

Legendary Pere Marquette guide Steve Martinez recently had a very clear look at how certain types of takes are tough to detect.

“While fishing on February 18th, 2011 I noticed two steelhead resting in slack water. I swung a streamer in front of them. Immediately, one of the steelhead reacted, rushed my fly and the very visible streamer disappeared. But I never felt the take, no feeling whatsoever. This steelhead repeatedly grabbed the streamer. It would disappear but I could feel nothing.

Ok, so now I’m thinking. I positioned the line, fly and rod tip in a perfectly straight line to the fish, removing all slack from the system. I swung it back in front of the fish and the fish moved forward and the fly disappeared and I finally felt a very slight pressure in my line hand.
I eventually landed what was a six pound male. But he showed me how many steelhead I miss. I’ve always known that there were missed steelhead, but this was surprising. Anything except absolutely straight and tight between the steelhead and my hand was enough to repeatedly miss his take.”

The first swing through a run should be high and fast, forcing any aggressive fish to come up and after your streamer and reducing slack in your line creating a better chance of detection. This will also reduce your chance of snagging-up and losing the streamer right off the bat. Follow up with additional drifts that are slower and deeper.

We often pop, twitch and strip upstream. Beyond the possible advantages of increased action, this allows us to reduce slack and tighten our connection to the streamer and possibly a steelhead.

5. “Wake Up Call”

Sometimes, especially on slow days when the steelhead are just not into it, we fish great water twice or even three times in order to provide the fish with a “wake up call.” I’ve learned how effective this can be while working double trips, where many times the second boat gets a couple fish where the first got skunked.

Always quietly approach and give the steelhead every opportunity to take before being disturbed. But if you’re confident in a spot, if you think the problem is attitude and not lack of fish, then rework the water. I like to thoroughly cover an area and then start back at the top, hopefully activating the fish and then resting them before another attempt. This is in contrast to camping on a spot and running through everything in the fly box for an hour then moving on.
Hopefully this part in the series has helped to fill in some of the gaps that we’ve missed. The next and last part in this series will cover the idea of “making sure that you are getting the job done”.

pere marquette fishing
pere marquette fishing