Fishing Ontario: Steelhead
Southern Ontario offers some great fly fishing for steelhead both
in rivers and along the edges of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron
and Georgian Bay. One of the finest heart-stopping moments, a nice
heart-stopping moment not one of those heart-stopping moments when
you clutch your heart, your arm goes numb and you see Elvis, is
when you hook a Steelhead and you suddenly realize you may have
neglected to tie the backing onto your fly line. There can be no
doubt at many steelhead fishermen are as passionate and rabid about
"their" fish as much as any hockey, soccer or football
fan is about "their" team. To those folk I say, prescription
drugs can help as will therapy. Lots of therapy.
For those of you who don't exactly know what a steelhead is, you
can call the Steelhead Hot Line and an operator, who is standing
by, will help you out. If you can't find the phone number, in a
nutshell here is the scoop. A steelhead is a rainbow trout which
lives out in the Great Lakes. Then when they feel the urge to spawn
they migrate up the rivers and smaller tributary streams which dump
into the Great Lakes. Once they have spawned - some spawn in the
fall, but most of them prefer to spawn in the spring - they head
back out into the Great Lakes to have a smoke. Just kidding, smoking
is bad for you unless you are smoking a fish over a bed of smoldering
apple chips. Once the steelhead are back out in the Great Lakes,
they seek out deeper water and spend their time scarfing down minnows,
baitfish and sculpins to put on weight so they will be in fighting
fit form for the next spawning run
Thoughts On Catching Steelhead
I like to break steelheading down into two sections: Before freeze
up in the fall, and then after ice-out, which is often referred
to by non anglers as the spring. In the before freeze up section,
I usually go with minnow patterns. The reason being is that all
summer the steelhead have been scarfing down minnows out in the
Great Lakes before they start to run the rivers, so it's easier
to fool them using this style of fly. Your minnow fly looks like
the minnows they have been eating all summer. Once the winter starts
to thaw round about March, I switch to nymphs. Again, this is what
they have a tendency to 'switch to' when they are in the river systems.
This advice is kind of rough, but it's a solid enough guideline
which will help you get into a few fish.
Two glaring errors most fly fishermen make when going after steelhead
are; using a leader which is far too short and not switching flies.
Try to use as long a leader as you can cast but be smart about it.
If there is hardly a puff of wind, you may be able to cast a 20
foot leader, however is the wind is gusting to 70 mph, you may want
to cut the leader back to about the 12 foot mark. Just try to keep
your fly as far away as you can from the tip of the fly line, and
you will be well on your way to hooking a few fish.
Do Not Be Complacent.
Complacency will seriously limit your ability to hook a steelhead.
Actually, now that I think about it, complacency will also seriously
hamper your ability to hook any species of fish. Far too many anglers
will wander into the river and because they are comfortable using
a White Zonker they fish all day without changing the fly and without
hitting a fish. A Blue Zonker could have been the hot ticket, but
as the Blue Zonker never made it out of the box, on one will ever
In other words, always be prepared to switch fly patterns. Again
I stress, always, be prepared to switch patterns. Just because a
size #22 Chartreuse Nuclear Egg worked at 5:30am, there is no reason
for it to work at 8:00am, 10:00am or 11:00am.
A Few Flies For Steelhead
No matter what I say here, someone, somewhere will say, "Hey
how about this fly? I get a ton of fish on it. Wouldn't be without
it." That's the thing. As recently as the mid 1990s there were
very few steelheading books available, and very few fly fishermen
going after steelhead, so the pool of productive flies was rather
small. Now there are hundreds of steelheading books out there and
thousands of steelhead patterns. Just like ice cream or lipstick,
everyone has a favorite, and just like ice cream or lipstick, there
is no way in the world of God, I can list all those flavors here.
I can say that I have never landed a steelhead on an ice cream cone,
and I have never landed a steelhead which was wearing lipstick.
I prefer to use patterns which have a proven track record and I
shy away from patterns which are often described as being the latest
and the greatest. The following list of patterns is by no means
the B-all-and-end-all, but they are productive and I have landed
fish on all of them. I have not listed any sizes to the flies because
in high fast water you may need a size #6, but in low clear water,
you may need to drop down to a size #18. The list is compiled in
no particular order. I just glanced over my steelhead and salmon
fly boxes as I typed this.
Muddlers in Copper and Black, Zonkers in White, Blue and Grey,
Mickey Finn, Blacknosed Dace, Egg and Yarn flies, The Thundercreek
series, Dark Spruce, Hornberg, Matukas in Black and Olive, Sculpins,
pick a colour, but fish them deep, Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear Nymph,
Pheasant Tail Nymph, The White Puke fly, Logie, Jeannie, Blue Charm,
Green Butt Skunk, Muncher Nymph, Caddis Fly Nymphs, Bomber (dry),
Double Elk Hair Caddis (dry), Klinkhammer Special (dry), Stonefly
Nymphs in Black, Yellow and Peach, Blue Thunder, Michigan Wigglers
and last but not least the Sparkler.
In North America, not too many anglers know about the Sparkler,
so here is the dressing for it Tie some of these if you are heading
out for steelhead and salmon. They work.
Hook: 1x Long-shank
Size: To match the conditions
Body: Gold and silver Angle Flash dubbed around the hook shank
Wing: Gold and silver Angle Flash
This UK pattern was developed in the 1980s - at Rutland reservoir,
I think - by Fred Wagstaffe and Julian Hubbard as a tube fly for
fishing on the rudder. Over on this side of the pond I can vouch
for its productivity for salmon and steelhead, as I have been fishing
it since about 1991. You should tie the wing "bushy" for
high-fast water and sparse for low-water. Swing the fly across the
pool and you won't miss the takes. I've dressed the pattern with
a bead head for West coast anglers and I've tied it in larger sizes
for folk fishing strippers on the US East coast. If you can't find
Angle Flash, use a mixture of gold and silver Flashabou. It works
just as well. The fly gets its name from the sparkler fireworks,
which were the inspiration behind the development of the fly.
Tips On Catching Steelhead
1. Learn to cast. Most of the time
you can use a short cast when steelheading, but there are times
when you need to be able to throw a long line, and you need to do
it quickly and without a bunch of false casting and faffing about.
If you can make a long cast, then the shorter casts will be easier.
2. Bounce the flies off the bottom.
Get the flies down deep and you will hook fish, except if you are
using a dry fly.
3. Be prepared to change flies.
4. Practice tying knots before
you head out steelheading. The weather is usually cold and your
fingers can get numb. Plus, if it takes you 20 minutes to tie on
a fly, and you are getting bust-off three times per hour ...
Off The Wall.
One of the greatest untapped frontiers in fly fishing for steelhead
and salmon is fishing from the breakwalls and piers along the edges
of the Great Lakes. The fish pictured above was caught on a size
#14 Alex Midge, fished on a 20 foot level leader of 4-pound Vanish,
in three foot waves on cold and rather windy day. If you look at
the bottom of the picture you will see a large arbor reel with a
floating line, what you can't see is the 150 yards of backing.
Fishing from the breakwalls and piers into the Great Lakes requires
a great deal of backing, nerves of steel, a landing net with a 12
foot handle - use the pole sections from a pool cleaner and tape
them to the handle of the net - and initially a wee bit of luck.
A long handled net is essential because the pier you are standing
on may be 12-feet up from the water surface.
Most of the time you can get away with using a floating line and
a long leader, but there are times when an intermediate clear line
or a sinking line are what you need. To put it in perspective, I
started fishing off the breakwalls in 1981 and I did so with only
a floating line up until 1993 when I picked up a sinking line. The
sinking lines and intermediate lines are handy to have when fishing
minnow patterns, but if you don't have them don't worry as you can
do well with a floating line.
The nice thing about fishing off the breakwalls and piers into
the Great Lakes is that the steelhead season is always open. Another
nice thing is that you can meet some great folk when you are out
there, as many people like to walk their dogs and kids along the
pier. So, make darn sure you take a look behind you before you start
your cast! Hooking a kid or a family pet with a size #2 Mickey Finn,
won't do much to promote the sport of fly fishing. The bad thing
is that if it's windy, you could get blown off the breakwall into
the water, and then that would be that. The other thing you need
to watch out for is ice. A thin sheet of ice is lethal, so don't
even think about walking out onto breakwalls or a pier when there
is ice around. Once you start slipping you won't be able to stop
until you hit the water.
Where to Fish
This is easy. Just find a breakwall or a pier jutting out into one
of the Great Lakes and off you go. There are hundreds of books and
maps out there showing spin fishermen where to fish along the edges
of the Great Lakes, so head to those locations and take a 7-weight
rod with you ... and a long handled net.
Fly Fishing For Salmon
In Ontario, Coho salmon and Chinook salmon are just about the two
most popular species of salmon found in the Great Lakes. We also
have Pink salmon, and recently Atlantic salmon have been re introduced
into Lake Ontario. Atlantic salmon are a native Ontario species
unlike Steelhead, Chinook, Coho, Pinks and Brown Trout which have
been introduced to Ontario through stocking programs.
It's easy to identify a Coho salmon from the other species of salmon
found in Ontario, as Coho have a greenish head. I find them to be
quite spook and they can be quite finicky when they take a fly.
When I guide for salmon, the hit my clients often miss is the one
when the line stops and there is an absence of a headshake. When
this happens there is a good chance that a Coho has gently taken
the fly and it is just sitting there. Coho don't get all that big,
a 10 pounder would be a monster, with the average size being about
Chinook are the largest salmon found in the Great Lakes and these
fish can top 40-pounds. In the 1970s and 1980s salmon were dumped
into many of the Great Lakes to "control" the huge populations
of alewife and they did a heck of a job. The Chinook did such a
good job, that they successful reduced the baitfish populations
to the point where there were not enough baitfish to support the
numbers of larger salmon in the Great Lakes. Consequently the average
size of the salmon has been greatly reduced. Back in the 1980s it
was quite easy to hook several salmon over 30 pounds in one day
casting streamers along the edge of Lake Ontario. Now you would
be hard pressed to hook one salmon over 30-pounds if you fished
there for a week.
What's The Difference?
The difference between steelhead and salmon like Pink, Chinook and
Coho is that these salmon spawn once and then they die. Atlantic
salmon are like steelhead in that they can spawn and then drop back
out to the lake to return another year. The easy way to tell the
difference between a salmon and a steelhead is to look inside its
mouth. Salmon have a black mouth, steelhead have a white mouth.
Having said that, if you were a minnow which was inside the mouth
of a salmon or a steelhead, black would be the colour you would
see so you would have hard time knowing if you were stuck inside
a salmon or a steelhead. Then again, if you were a minnow in that
predicament, you would probably have a few other things on your
A Few Tips On Catching Salmon
There are no hard and fast rules for catching steelhead and salmon.
I find it is best to fish the river 'on the drop,' a day or two
after a rain. I learned this when I was a 'wee laddie' fishing for
sea trout in Scotland and it still holds true today. After a rain,
some watersheds will clean out faster than others, so it is best
to keep checking to see how things are. If you can't do this, then
hooking up with a reputable store or a guide is a bonus. Note the
use of the word reputable. Mind you, if you are only going to call
up once in a while to ask how the river looks ... "Wet,"
might be the answer you get.
If you are heading out to any of the salmon runs in the fall, try
not to head on to the river under gunned. Stick with 'meaty rods'
- an 8-weight or up - with lots of backing on your reel and things
should work out just fine. Sure, you can, with a bit of practice,
keep larger, ticked-off salmon in a pool, but it takes a bit of
time to learn how to do that. When you get the hang of it, lighter
6-weight rods are fine for steelhead, but you might want to think
about sticking with an 8-weight for Chinook salmon. Ho, and make
sure the drag system on your reel is working and that you have at
least 150 yards of backing on your reel.
When you are on the river, keep an eye on the bank for dead salmon.
If there are one or two salmon carcasses around, then you know the
run is just starting. If there are a bunch of carcasses, you know
it might be the middle of the run. Also, if some of the carcasses
still have the eyes in them, you know the fish has just died, as
the eyes are the first 'tasty tidbits' gulls and crows will eat
from the carcasses. Fresh, eyes in, carcasses indicate there will
be fish in the pools. You may not be able to see the fish in the
pools, but there is a good chance that they will be there.
Don't forget to watch for small steelhead hanging out behind and
slightly downstream of the salmon swimming around the pools. These
small steelhead called 'shakers,' which average around 3-lbs, are
often very aggressive, and will whack flies which the larger salmon
have refused. If you target the shakers using an accurate cast,
it can mean the difference between hooking a fish or getting skunked.
Above all, remember that it's easier to hook both salmon and steelhead
in lower light conditions, rather in bright sunlight.
Flies For Catching Salmon
Many fly fishermen tend to shy away from fishing an egg pattern,
you know, thinking it's unethical and not exactly matching the hatch.
I guess it would be kind of tough to get a steelhead or a salmon
to rise to a well greased up egg fly fished upstream. Man, I can
just hear the stream side conversations, "Yes, I rose three
and hooked four. They were only taking the fertilized eggs. Unfortunately
all my patterns were unfertilized. Pity." Followed by, "You
should have been here yesterday. They were going nuts for a poached
egg fished on the swing."
Like them or not, egg patterns get fish.
One of the most productive egg flies you can fish is the Nuclear
The Nuclear Egg
Hook: standard wet fly
Sizes: #8 to #12.
Tag: Two turns of flat silver mylar
Body: Oregon Cheese coloured Glo Bug Yarn
Hackle: a few strands of white marabou enveloping the body.
Now, If you don't fancy throwing out an egg pattern, the flies
listed above for catching steelhead have proven to be very productive
for all the species of salmon found in the Great Lakes.
Speaking of skunks, Green Butted or not, raccoons, foxes and skunks
are nocturnal creatures. If you are fishing during daylight hours
and one of these characters shows up for a mid afternoon snack,
there is a good chance it might be rabid. Stay well clear because
if they are rabid they will have no fear of you. Don't try to pet
them, feed them a sandwich, or poke at them with a stick to see
what happens. Also, any furry animals you come across on the stream,
which are larger than an Irish Wolfhound, are most likely bears.
Again, you might want to "Think, and Think Hard," before
approaching them. Remember, you won't be at the top of the food
chain. Bears - even slow ones - can out run you, out climb you,
and unless you are Alex Baumann, Mark Tewksbury or Mark Spitz, out
Guiding For Steelhead And Salmon
I do a lot of guided trips for both salmon and steelhead. Just remember
that it can be chilly, it can be cold and it can be windy. It's
not very often you can fish for salmon and steelhead wearing flip-flops,
shorts and a Hawaii shirt, so you need to make sure you have the
clothing to do it. If you don't have the right clothing, don't worry
as I can bring some for you.
In the fall the best months for catching salmon and steelhead are
October and November, but the first week of December can produce
some cracking steelhead. In the spring, April and May are the most
productive months for steelhead.
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