Tips for Targeting Summer Steelhead
By: Mark Romanack
If a big buck steelhead like this doesn’t put a smile on your face, you might to visit your doctor. Arguably the most exciting fish in the Great Lakes, steelhead are acrobatic and routinely jump when hooked.
Thankfully, steelhead are found in all five Great Lakes. Depending on the Great Lake involved, steelhead can be found right on the surface or deep below the surface during the summer months. The magic to finding steelhead often boils down to finding suitable water temperatures.
The best way to monitor surface and sub-surface water temperatures is with a Fish Hawk sub-surface speed and temperature probe. The Fish Hawk functions by means of a probe that is attached to a downrigger weight and lowered into the water. A transducer mounted to the boat in turn communicates with the probe, which in turn displays critical trolling data onto a monitor that can be mounted pretty much anywhere in the boat.
This critical data includes surface speed, surface water temperature, water temperature at depth, trolling speed at depth and the depth of the probe. Armed with this information, it’s a simple task of raising and lowering the probe to search for bands of water that feature the preferred water temperature for salmonids such as steelhead. In this case, steelhead are most likely to be found in water ranging from 50 to 62 degrees. Find water in this temperature range and chances are you’ve also found fish.
Depending on the body of water involved the ideal water temperature range for steelhead can be found literally at the surface or as deep as 100 feet down! For example, in Lake Superior steelhead are routinely taken in the top 10 feet of the water column all summer long. This is primarily because Lake Superior remains colder on average than the other four Great Lakes.
On Lake Michigan and Lake Huron where off shore waters are routinely cold even in the middle of summer, it’s also common to find steelhead at or near the surface. Closer to shore those steelhead are more likely to be found 50 or more feet below the surface.
The crew of Fishing 411 TV targets summer steelhead often. In fact, we feature steelhead shows in all five Great Lakes regularly.
If you’re visiting Lake Ontario or Lake Erie in the summer time, chances are you’ll find the best steelhead action 40 to 60 feet down over much deeper water.
So steelhead can be almost anywhere from near the surface to depths approaching 100 feet depending on the body of water and the water temperatures. This is precisely why a sub-surface probe like a Fish Hawk is such an essential piece of equipment for the Great Lakes trout and salmon angler.
When steelhead are at or near the surface, trolling spoons on very short lengths of lead core line (1 or 2 colors) can be deadly effective when combined with in-line planer boards like the Off Shore Tackle OR12 Side-Planer.
Snap Weights are also a very effective way of targeting steelhead found near the surface. Typically a spoon is let out 25-50 feet behind the boat, the Snap Weight placed on the line and another 25 to 50 foot of line played out before the board is attached.
Trolling spoons like this Mini Streak from Wolverine Tackle do the heavy lifting when it comes to catching steelhead in the Great Lakes.
REACHING THE MODERATE DEPTHS
When steelhead are found in moderate depths (20 to 40 feet) they can be targeted with longer lengths of lead core line (5 or 7 colors) very effectively. Diving planers are also ideally suited to targeting steelhead in the top 40 feet of the water column. As a starting point, a standard sized Dipsy Diver on the No. 2 setting is running 30 feet down when set back 85 feet and trolled 2.5 MPH.
Downriggers can also be very effective when steelhead are found in the moderate depths. The beauty of catching steelhead on downriggers is once the fish is hooked and freed from the downrigger release, the angler is fighting a fish that has nothing on the line to deaden the fight.
When steelhead start showing up in deeper depths, it takes heavier gear to reach them. Lead core (10 colors) and stranded copper line (200 to 300 feet) and weighted stainless steel wire (200 to 300 feet) rank as some of the best producing steelhead set ups. Lead core even up to 10 colors fishes nicely on a standard sized in-line board. For fishing weighted stainless steel and stranded copper wire, a larger board like the Off Shore Tackle SST Pro Mag is a better option.
Magnum diving planers start coming into play when steelhead set up more than 50 feet below the surface. This is also the ideal time to use downriggers armed with “stackers” to fish two different spoons at two different depths using just one rod.
The author recommends using a host of gear to saturate the water column with spoons including lead core line, diving planers and downriggers.
To set up a downrigger with a stacker, let the spoon back 25-30 feet and clip the line into the downrigger release. Now lower the downrigger ball about 10 feet. Using a six foot leader of fluorocarbon, tie a ball bearing swivel on one end and attach a spoon. On the other end thread on an OR19 (orange) planer board release and finish the rig with a No. 3 round snap.
Open the snap and place it over the main line. Next clip the OR19 onto the main line near the snap. Toss the spoon into the water and lower the downrigger ball to the desired depth. This set up fishes two spoons, one at the downrigger ball and the second 10 feet higher in the water column. Running downriggers with stackers is one of the most effective ways of targeting steelhead when they are found 40 or more feet below the surface.
WRAPPING IT UP
Steelhead are arguably the most exciting fish in the Great Lakes. Once hooked it’s not uncommon for them to launch themselves six feet into the air in an effort to shake the spoon. Nothing is more exciting that a raging steelhead at the back of the boat! Even better, no matter where you live in the Great Lakes region, there is a noteworthy steelhead fishery near by.