Our Man In Canada
January 19th, 2004

Great Lakes Spring Steelhead
Tactics for Small Streams
By Chris Marshall

I shall never forget my first Great Lakes steelhead. I was fishing the Wolf River near Nipigon in the fall of 1968 after moving to Fort William (now Thunder Bay) that summer. Although I cannot now remember whether the month was October or November, the years have not dimmed the image of that fish as it came to my hand in the late afternoon-burning bright silver among granite boulders in the dark water under a grey sky.

I remained at the north end of Lake Superior for just three years. I fished often-anywhere and for anything, but it was the steelhead which fascinated me most. Although I fished for them at every opportunity, they remained elusive. My success was sporadic, despite the local knowledge and mentoring of my usual fishing partner, Tom Mikulinsky, a Grade 12 student at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School where I taught. While we caught fish, all too frequently we seemed to miss the main run, arriving at the water either too early or too late. Perhaps the problem was me, for often when Tom went without me, he managed to get the timing right.

Consequently, although I welcomed the kinder climate and superb warm water fishing when I returned to the Quinte region in 1971, the elusive, enigmatic steelhead far to the northwest continued to haunt me.

Then, I discovered the steelhead of Lake Ontario. Again, it was one of my students who opened the door, when he took me to Lakeport one April in the mid-seventies. Since then, I've pursued the dream in the smaller, gentler streams of central Lake Ontario, and although these lack the enthralling wildness of their counterparts in the north, they suffice.

Fall or Spring?

The Lake Ontario tributaries east of Toronto are small, and although steelhead start gathering at the mouths of these in the fall, few penetrate far upstream until the spring. This is unfortunate, as steelhead are brighter, firmer and more energetic in the fall than they are in the spring. However, as rain and snowmelt begin to swell the flow in March, the streams fill with fish, and the fly fishing opportunities are overwhelmingly greater.

These fish have hung around the mouths of the tributaries throughout the winter, making occasional forays a short way upstream when the occasional mild spell increased the flow, but dropping back to the lake as the flow diminished with the return of sub-zero temperatures. In milder years, there will be enough fish in the lower reaches to provide good fishing as early as February, but usually this does not happen until March. The run, however, tends to peak in the first part of April. In normal years, most steelhead will have spawned by the end of April, although there are always a number which procrastinate until early May.

Once they've spawned, some fish will start dropping back to the lake within days, while others will hang around, holding in the deeper pools until as late as June. Rain is the major factor in determining the timing of this return migration: the more rain, the higher the flow and earlier the return.

Tactics: Stream

On mild days in winter, it's possible to target the fish hanging around the stream mouths, provided there's no onshore wind pushing the ice pack against the shore and clouding the water with silt. In such conditions, steelhead tend to stay offshore where the water is clear.

Stream mouths vary. Some are deep, slow-moving channels, little more than inland extensions of the lake, which offer excellent opportunities for bait and hardware fishers, but little for fly fishers. Others, however, are channels through the shoreline gravel, with streamy flows thrusting out into the lake. These are the places to fly fish. The best tactic is to wade into the lake itself adjacent to the flow and fish a streamer on a swing across and down, finishing with an upstream strip, or cast a nymph, Woolly Bugger or egg imitation upstream and dead drift it back until it starts to lift downstream. In both cases, the fly must be fished close to the bottom where the fish inevitably hold.

Sometimes in mild spells in March, the flow will cut a channel through the shoreline ice pack, creating an extension of the stream out into the lake. Encountering this is serendipity, as it can be fished as if it were a regular stream running between terrestrial banks. Fish will frequently hold along the undercut ice edges.

Tactics: The Streams Themselves

Once steelhead have entered the stream in earnest, in late March and early April, they'll stay in the stream even in dry conditions when the water is clear and the levels relatively low. This is the best time to target them, rather than when the water is running high and stained. Many will be holding in the pools and deeper runs, but don't neglect pocket water, for a number will also hold there, even in tiny pockets which most anglers overlook.

While the pools and deeper runs can be fished blind, either with a swung streamer or a with a dead-drifted nymph or egg pattern, the best tactic is to sight fish. Pocket water in riffles is ideal for this. Moreover, the bait fishers, who crowd the popular pools, rarely bother with these places.

Once fish or likely lies have been located, get as close as you can downstream or across, cast the fly upstream, and drift it down. If you can see the fish, drift the fly as close to the fish's nose as possible and watch for the white glint of an opening mouth before setting the hook. If you can't see the fish, set the hook at any check or unnatural movement of the drifting leader-however, insignificant. Make sure you use enough weight on the leader or the fly to ensure the fly trundles along close to the bottom.

Always fish as short a line as possible and leave as short a portion of the line as possible on the water, for this enables optimum line control and detection of takes. This means that there's rarely any need for a strike indicator if you're using a short leader, as the short length of line on the water serves this purpose. Moreover, much of the time, you should be able to see the fish you're targeting and watch it take. This is a far more effective method of detecting a take than watching a strike indicator or the line. While you should make your approach to fish or likely lies as sneakily as possible, you'll find that steelhead are much less easily spooked than resident trout, and that its possible to get quite close to them. Moreover, because the banks of these small streams are often heavily bushed, making conventional casting difficult, a close approach enables short flip casts and roll casts, eliminating the need for a back cast and the inevitable hang-ups in streamside branches.

Locating Fish

Migrating steelhead usually hold in or close to cover. Turbulent pockets and deep holes in pools can provide this, but outside these places, they will tend to lurk by deadfalls, overhanging tree branches, boulders, tree roots and undercut banks. The best tactic is to walk stealthily upstream and scrutinise all likely places. While it doesn't take long to recognise the lies, the fish are not always easy to spot, and it takes some time and practice in order to become adept. Nevertheless, the fly fisher who perseveres will be rewarded with greater success on the water.


Although these Lake Ontario tributaries are small, the steelhead which enter them can be big-as much as twenty pounds or more. At the same time, because they're small, there's no need for gear designed for long casts. Therefore, the rod should have enough backbone to handle big fish in tight spaces, yet also have the facility for making short, delicate casts. A nine foot-weight loaded with a weight-forward number eight floating line is ideal. The long rod facilitates line control, and the heavier line helps in making short casts.

Current Issue

Because handling big fish on these small streams involves following them on foot, rather than letting them run and playing them on the reel, there's usually little need for a big reel with a sophisticated drag or lots of backing. The leader should be short, between four and six feet, with a tippet no lighter than six pounds test. Eight pound test is better, especially where it's necessary to play fish tightly to keep them out of snags.


While there are situations where streamers are effective, most situations are best fished with dead-drifted nymphs and egg patterns.

Streamers: Avoid bulky winged patterns which are hard to get down near the bottom and keep there. Concentrate instead on sparsely-tied hair wings on #6 and #8 hooks. Patterns which suggest smelt and alewives are good at the stream mouths and the lake shore. Traditional hair wings with a touch of flash and bright red or chartreuse work well in the streams themselves.

Flies for Dead-drifting: While most small stream steelheaders have their own personal favourites, most buggy, impressionistic nymph patterns are effective. However, it's hard to beat the ubiquitous Woolly Bugger (sizes #10 to #6) in subdued, natural colours, especially black. Shellbacks (#10 and #8), such as the Spring Wiggler in fluorescent orange, yellow, and chartreuse also work well. Single egg patterns tied on short-shank, wide-gape hooks in fluorescent red, orange, yellow, chartreuse, or combinations of these are also good, especially with a few strands of Krystal Flash tied in at the tail. ~ CM

Credit: Excerpt from the January/March 2004 issue of The Canadian Fly Fisher. We appreciate use permission.

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