The Fishing 411 TV crew fishes the Ontario side of Lake Erie often for steelhead. This overlooked summer fishery may well be the best fishing for “bows” anywhere in the Great Lakes. Friend of the show and professional walleye angler Eric Olson caught this exceptional steelhead near Wheatley Ontario.
Any seasoned fisherman will tell you that the key to catching fish is being in the right place at the right time. Lure and presentation hype aside, being “on fish” trumps just about everything when it comes to being a successful angler.
For those Great Lakes anglers who covet open water steelhead fishing, the time to be on the water is August and the place to be is the north shore of Lake Erie. It’s during the dog days of August that surface waters on Lake Erie skyrocket, the lake starts to stratify, defined thermoclines set up and every rainbow smelt in the lake packs into the deep cool waters of the north shore.
Ironically, the rainbow smelt of Lake Erie are the preferred food of another rainbow, the rainbow trout. Americans call these popular game fish steelhead. Canadians on the other hand simply call these amazing fish “bows” short for rainbows.
No matter what an angler calls them, everyone on both sides of the border agree that these fish are super charged. Steelhead fight like a salmon, jump like a smallmouth and taste as good on the table as any fresh run coho.
With a resume like that it’s somewhat strange that very few Americans make the short journey to the Ontario side of Lake Erie to sample what amounts to world class steelhead trolling action. From southeastern Michigan it’s less than an hour drive to some of the best steelhead fishing found anywhere, but it’s rare to see more than a handful of boats on the water at ports like Wheatley and Erieau.
In the Ontario waters of Lake Erie anglers can fish with two lines per person and the annual non-resident fishing license is $83.27 for the annual license and $51.65 for the annual Conservation License that allows just two fish in possession.
Non-resident Ontario fishing licenses can be purchased on-line but only from a desk top computer. To validate the license the angler must print out a hard copy to have on hand. The on-line licensing software does not work on a phone or personal device.
When ordering a license on-line the information remains on the server for only about 20 minutes, so print out a copy immediately upon purchasing the license.
Depth and temperature probes like the popular Fish Hawk X4+Depth are useful tools for locating thermal layers or thermoclines in the water column. Steelhead tend to be found at or very close to the thermocline. This goes double for Lake Erie steelhead which spend most of their time in the summer avoiding the warmer surface waters.
THE WINDOW IS SHORT
It’s often true that some of the best fishing adventures are noted for being short lived. The north shore of Lake Erie sets up to attract steelhead in August when the thermocline forms and by the middle of September the lake is flipping and the bite is over for another year.
Cool water at and below the thermocline attracts rainbow smelt and in turn steelhead that feed on them. When conditions are right, countless steelhead show up almost overnight. Limit catches are the norm and the bite is rock solid so long as the thermocline hangs in there.
The moment we start getting cool nights and the surface waters of Erie start to drop, the thermocline breaks up and the steelhead of Lake Erie scatter. Many of these fish end up spending the fall months in Ohio and Pennsylvania waters staging near river mouths they will spawn in come spring.
GENEROUS LIMIT, BUT....
The limit on rainbow trout in the Ontario waters of Lake Erie is generous at five fish per person. It’s important to understand however that Ontario does not offer a possession limit so when an angler reaches his five fish limit, he or she is done fishing until some or all of those fish are consumed.
Making day trips or traveling with a BBQ grill, some lemon pepper, fresh lemon and butter solves the possession problem. Steelhead are absolutely a delight when grilled and eaten outside around the tailgate of a pick-up truck!
Catching steelhead like this in open water never gets old. All five of the Great Lakes harbor steelhead, but some of the best and most overlooked fishing takes place along the north shore of Lake Erie.
THE BIG THREE
Catching north shore steelhead is as simple as counting one, two, three. Three popular presentations routinely take these fish including spoons fished on Downriggers, spoons fished on diving planers and spoons fished on lead core line and in-line planer boards.
For rigger fishing, spoons are best when set 20-50 feet behind the downrigger ball. Using Add-a-Lines is legal in Ontario waters and a big advantage when fishing riggers. An Add-a-Line is a six foot length of leader material with a ball bearing swivel and spoon on one end and an Off Shore Tackle OR14 line release and snap on the other.
After the spoon attached to the main line is set back, attached to the downrigger release and lowered about 10-15 feet, the Add-A-Line is clipped to the line, the OR14 release also attached to the main line and the spoon tossed into the water. Now when the downrigger is lowered to fishing depth, two spoons are fishing on one line.
Most anglers who use Add-a-Line feel that pinning the second spoon to the main line increases the hook up ratio by creating resistance when a fish strikes. Free sliders simply slide up and down on the line and when a fish strikes it’s a mad rush to reel in line fast enough to catch up to that fish and set the hook.
When running an Add-a-Line it’s also a good idea to run a standard sized spoon on the main line and a smaller spoon model on the Add-a-Line. This simple set up gives the fish a couple different options for lure size and also color options.
DIVING PLANER KNOW HOW
Iconic divers like the famous Luhr Jensen Dipsy are useful for targeting steelhead in Lake Erie. A growing number of anglers who fish these trolling aids are using exceptionally long leaders ranging from 20 to 50 feet.
Unfortunately when the diver reaches the rod tip, the angler must hand over hand pull in the fish on the leader before it an be netted. Considered a super secret tournament technique, I’ve found that simply investing in Slide Divers and running my spoons back 25 to 50 feet solves the problem.
The Slide Diver can be rigged with monofilament or super braids and is designed to allow the angler to fish any lead length desired. When a fish is hooked the Slide Diver trips and slides down the line to a stop tied into the leader a few feet in front of the fish.
The Slide Diver costs a little more than conventional divers, but they are hands down the best tool in the tackle box when trolling open water for steelhead.
LEAD CORE LINE RIGS
Various lengths of lead core line are another very popular way to present spoons at depth and also to spread out a trolling rig by fishing lead core on in-line planer boards. During August and September the steelhead of the north shore can be found anywhere from 25 to 60 feet below the surface.
Most anglers carry with them pairs of lead core set ups including a five color (150 feet of lead core), 7 color (210 feet of lead core) and 10 color (300 feet of lead core) rigs. Stacking these various lengths of lead core on in-line boards anglers can target different depths, effectively saturating the water column with lures.
Lead core is fished as a segment sandwiched between a backing line and leader material. The most common set up consists of 200 yards of 20 pound test as backing, knotted to the 27 pound test lead core line which is in turn knotted to a 50 foot leader of 20 pound test fluorocarbon leader material. The Double Uni Knot is commonly used to attach lead core to leaders and backing material.
The various lengths of lead core are fished on in-line boards positioning the shorter lengths of lead core (shallower running) on the outside board lines and deeper diving gear on the middle and inside board lines. This configuration allows an angler to hook a fish on an outside board, fight and land that fish without having to clear the middle and inside board lines.
The Off Shore Tackle OR12 Side-Planer is the board all others are compared to. This iconic product handles up to 10 colors of lead core line nicely.
Lead core can also be rigged with super braid line as the backing material. The thinner nature of super braids allows anglers to spoon on more backing line and allows smaller reels to be used for lead core trolling. The other advantage of using super braids for backing line is the toughness of these products and the fact they last much longer than traditional monofilament lines.
When using super braids special line clips designed to function with braids must be used on the in-line boards. The Off Shore Tackle OR18 Snapper Release is the most common line clip used among anglers who fish super braid backing line. Another good option is the Silver Horde Sam’s Release.
I set up my boards for fishing braid by mounting the OR18 Snapper to the back of the board and the Sam’s Release to the tow arm of the board. This way the Snapper can be set to hold the line firmly and the Sam’s Release set to trip when a fish is hooked.
This configuration allows the board to trip and spin around in the water, but remain fixed to the line when a fish is hooked. Because the board is pinned to the line, there is no worry of the board sliding down the line, diving or potentially knocking the fish off.
Some boards are designed to slide down the line when a fish is hooked. This creates a problem because the fish can easily pull the board under water making it very difficult to control the fish during the fight.
KILLER SPOON COLORS
Steelhead are aggressive and will slam a wide variety of spoon brands and sizes. Standard and Mini sized spoons are routinely the most effective on steelhead. Some of the most effective colors however are baits that feature a lot of orange color. Historically my best spoon colors for steelhead include Orange Crush, Jerry Lee Silver, Jerry Lee Copper, Halloween and Orange Chilly Willy. Other colors also work, but these are the day in and day out colors I find success with on Lake Erie.
OTHER BAIT OPTIONS
Clearly spoons are the “go to” baits for targeting off shore Great Lakes steelhead. Some other baits to consider include wobbling plugs such as the Yakima Mag Lip 3.5, Storm Wiggle Wart 3/8, Cotton Cordell Wiggle-O and the Brad’s Wiggler. All of these lures can be trolled at faster speeds (2.0 to 3.0 MPH) and fish well in combination with spoons.
When fishing plugs these lures must however be paired up with downriggers or Slide Diver rigs and also on in-side board lines. Fishing plugs on outside and middle board lines creates a problem because the diving plug will catch on the line next to it when trying to clear lines to switch out baits or when fighting fish.
The outstanding steelhead fishing found on the north shore of Lake Erie are actually fish planted by the Ohio and Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources. In the summer months these fish migrate north to take advantage of the cooler waters on the north shore. During the fall months these fish are routinely taken along the US side of Lake Erie at ports including Cleveland, Ashtabula and Conneaut in Ohio and Erie in Pennsylvania waters.
In the fall these fish are routinely found in much shallower water than during the summer. Many steelhead are taken in the fall by trolling diving plugs in combination with in-line boards.
Fall fishing for steelhead on Erie is a hit or miss deal, but for a brief window in August and September anglers can count on amazing fishing along the north shore of Erie in Ontario waters. Now that is fishing an angler can take to the bank, eh?