The Orvis Steelhead Resource Center

How to Catch Great Lakes Winter Steelhead

By Matt Supinski

|| Great Lakes Winter Steelhead Tips || Hot Winter Great Lakes Steelhead Flies ||

Have you been consumed by the junkie-like craving of a steelhead hook-up? Once stricken by this malady, you will tolerate blistering wind chills, lake effect snow squalls, closed thruways and eating in greasy spoons. And why not? Steelhead are the only freshwater gamefish that will strike a fly savagely in in 33°F water water, leap relentlessly like a tarpon, make blistering bullish runs, and test every fly-fishing skill you possess.

This world-class fly fishing offers rainbow trout bigger than you can catch in Alaska. You can find it within the city limits of cities like Cleveland or Rochester or Grand Rapids. You can find it in rugged northern rivers that drain into Lake Superior. Although there are hundreds of great steelhead streams in the Great Lakes area, the best ones are often crowded in the spring and fall. But winter is left to the diehards who just can’t get enough. If you live in the northeast and have not sampled this fishing, you’re missing out on fishing that draws anglers from around the world. And you can go out and do it today!

Tips for Great Lakes Winter Steelhead Fishing

  • The 10/7 Helios is an elite steelhead and salmon rod that has no match on the market. It embodies power and firmness with ultra-lightness and a sleek design. On the days when the fish are stubborn and become literally a "fish of a thousand casts", the constant casting, drifting, mending and high sticking go effortless and don't leave you with rod fatigue. On those rare days when steelheading is downright silly as hook-ups come insatiable like incoming flights at Newark or LAX, this rod makes you personally involved with with the subtle feel of each and every fighting fish. It's like battling a steelhead with a 4-weight, but with the reserve power of a 9 weight when you need it. From the 20 lb salt steelhead of the Pacific Northwest, to those feisty little chrome acrobats of the Great Lakes steelhead alley, this rod is a "one rod" steelhead system. It also single hand spey casts extremely well in tight stream conditions. I've even landed 30 pound Gaspe Quebec Atlantics with this rod..........but that's another story!
  • Use either Sink-Tip lines, or Generation 3 Spey Running Line with Sink Putty or Split Shot. The absolute best rod for this fishing is the 10-foot 7-weight TLS because it has the strength to handle big fish and the length to drift your fly properly. The Mirage large-arbor reel is the best steelhead reel made.
  • Try to get your fly to drift two-to three-times slower than the current. Even steelhead won’t move to chase a fast-moving fly in 33° water.
  • If you are using running line, nail knot nine to ten feet of OX Mirage PVDF material to the line. Tie either a loop or a two-way swivel at the end of this and attach a two-foot tippet of 2X, 3X, 4X, or 5X Mirage, depending on fly size and water conditions. Place your weight above the swivel or knot. Lob this rig upstream-and-across. Keeping your rod tip high, let the fly and weight tick along the bottom. Watch your rod tip like a hawk. A slow bend of the rod tip is usually a snag. A sharp throb is often a strike.
  • If using a Sink-Tip line, put a loop in three to four feet of tippet material and loop it directly to your fly line. Make a slack line cast upstream of where you think the fish are lying. Make a couple of big mends, then with your rod tip held high, mend constantly as your fly drifts over the lie. Keep the rod tip upstream of the line and follow the line’s swing with the rod.
  • Seek out the slow flats and guts of the pools known as frog water. Fish the creases and slower seam areas. These are often near shore and over-enthusiastic waders trample through them. Start working the water near shore and progress slowly toward the middle runs. Successful winter steelheading does not revolve so much around what fly pattern or tackle you are using, but rather in the persistence, patience and determination with which you present each cast and cover every piece of water.
  • Dress in multiple layers of fleece and a rain-and-wind proof shell.
  • Orvis Endorsed Guide, Greg Senyo, with a freshly caught Steelhead.

    Stay off the river during severe barometric pressure changes, when high and low fronts change rapidly. Wait for a stable high or low-pressure system to take hold for a few days when the bite will be on.
  • Concentrate your angling effort around the warmest and calmest parts of the day - generally from 11:00 AM until dusk. The dusk winter bite is often prolific with fish porpoising in pools.
  • Change patterns often to steelhead that have seen heavy angling pressure, and show them something different as often as possible.
  • Wear wading boots with studs, carry a wading staff, wear an inflatable vest, and carry a cell phone for emergencies when wading winter steelhead rivers. Neoprene waders that are 5mm thick provide both warmth and buoyancy. If possible, try to fish out of a boat (one with propane heaters to warm your hands) so you can cover as much water as possible and fish the deeper, slower parts of the pools inaccessible by wading.
  • Concentrate your efforts on river bend sections where deep seams and tailouts create the ultimate winter steelhead holding lies.
  • In clear, low waters, use small nymphs and egg patterns with the lightest Mirage tippets (4X and 5X) you can get away with. Stonefly, caddis, and Hex nymphs work especially well on sunny afternoons. In high water, Fish Woolly Buggers, leeches, and egg patterns in pink, peach and orange combined with white.
  • In winter steelhead fly fishing, don't expect big numbers of fish - every fish must be earned. Make sure that the river you are about to fish has good numbers of winter steelhead from year to year.
  • Since the fish will be on the hunt for spawning gravel, the tail-outs, guts of pools and pocket water are primary lie targets.
  • Be prepared for failure or phenomenal success. Rejoice and revel in every steelhead hooked. Admire their beauty and cherish each day of health and opportunity we have to pursue these magnificent fish.

Hot Winter Steelhead Flies for the Great Lakes Meg-A-Egg

Matt Supinski is one of the Great Lakes’ premier steelhead and salmon guides, and owner of the Gray Drake Outfitters in Newago, Michigan. He is also a freelance writer and photographer whose work has run in all of the major fly-fishing publications. His book, Steelhead Dreams, is by far the best, most complete, and most interesting book ever written on the Great Lakes steelhead fishery.

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