Streamer fishing for Michigan steelhead -planning the trip

We’ve covered gear, fly patterns, reading water, conditions and patterns, and presentation styles. In the latest installment of Kevin’s Streamer fishing for Michigan steelhead series, he provides a discussion of some basic pre-trip planning tips.

We’re going to start this section off the water because that’s where every fishing trip starts. When I’m deciding where to fish I look at four items in this order: time of year, current and reliable fishing reports, past weather and water conditions, and upcoming weather.

Time of Year

Simply knowing where fish are likely to be during a given part of the year is a huge key to success. Many Michigan rivers have a good run of fall steelhead. Because they spawn in the spring, these fish are in no hurry to get upstream and will often linger in the lower river in order to feed. However, they will hustle upstream if there is a recognized feeding opportunity present such as spawning salmon or water conditions are poor in the lower river, e.g. warm water temps or high sediment loads.

There will be a trickle of steelhead through the winter, increasing in February and early March, and then a mad rush in late March and April. As we head towards spring the steelhead will often orient toward the gravel on which they will spawn. I’ve found that once the first wave of significant spawning starts, the lower, non-graveled sections of the rivers will not fish well. New steelhead will rocket toward the scent of the spawn and spend little if any time feeding in the lower river.

A quick note on drop-back (post-spawn) hen steelhead: they are aggressive, take a streamer well and can be found throughout the river as they feed their way back to the big lake. There can be hot drop-back action in the days following a major spawn, but drop-backs are almost never a main focus, simply a bonus. A very nice bonus is catching a post spawn hen during the Hex hatch in late June and early July. What about the post-spawn male steelhead? The males party until they drop. Then, almost unconsciously, they tumble their way back to the big lake. They are often so out-of-it that you can reach down and touch them. They have no interest in feeding.

Current and Reliable Fishing Reports

The key here is current and reliable. I would much rather hit the river blind than be pointed in the wrong direction with bad information. On the other hand, a quality fishing report is pure gold. Steelhead, and salmon for that matter, often hit the river in waves. These waves disperse as they move upstream but in many cases the fish are still localized. Having knowledge of a hot bite in the last day or two could be of great benefit.

On a cold winter day, Matt, Steve and I floated a three mile section on the Pere Marquette. Because of the cold and the snow few people were fishing. In fact, Steve snowplowed the launch so we could get in. We were hitting this section blind, the first people to fish it for probably a week or more. We spent a couple hours hitting some of our favorite spots in the first half of this section. The water was gin clear and we spotted zero steelhead in the holes. I had to pick my daughter up at school so we stopped fishing about two thirds of the way through and rowed to the landing.

We saw at least five steelhead in the last couple runs before the landing. Twenty holes and runs with no steelhead, and then three or four in a row holding fish. I should also note that these were not better holes and these were not a fresh group of fish at the river mouth. We were in the middle river and they were all good spots. This was a cluster, group, school or whatever of steelhead that have probably been loosely moving together since they left Lake Michigan. Because steelhead will often hold in the same area for days at a time during the winter, it sure would have been nice to have that information before we spent our fishing time in the no-steelhead areas.

Past Weather and Water Conditions

If a big rain hit, I’m going to bet that a big slug of fresh steelhead have entered the river. We also want frontal changes that have the potential of causing rising water levels. I have seen good numbers of fresh steelhead hitting the river mouth when heavy rains were forecast but we didn’t actually receive any appreciable rainfall .

If this rise in water occurs in the fall or winter during a warm spell you can bet I’m heading downstream to the lower river to intercept the wave of fresh chrome. This can even occur in late winter and early spring, but once we get into late March and the spawn has begun in earnest, the fish will be heading quickly toward the party. Even during the spawn, however, on longer rivers where spawning gravel is distributed over 30 or 40 miles, there is still a usable pattern. This new wave of steelhead are going to move through the system and thus can be anticipated and tracked.

Upcoming Weather

I am confident that steelhead (and salmon) anticipate changing weather that could have an effect on their behavior. Much like fish running while a weak weather front moves through without much rain, they will often enter the river days before there is a significant change in weather forecasted. Prolonged dry weather with no change in sight or a severe cold snap will significantly slow or temporarily stop new fish from entering the river.

Many steelheaders go blindly to their same two or three favorite spots. Hopping in the truck and heading yet again to Tippy Dam will most often not end in a hot day of fishing. Adding knowledge and common sense to your pre-trip planning will likely put more steelhead in the net and set you up for the opportunity of a great day on the water.

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