The Upper Midwest has been blessed with unusually mild fall weather. Fishing has remained exceptional–like having a few bonus weeks added on to the finest fishing of the year.
Yet like all good things, nothing lasts forever. As air and water temperatures finally begin dipping to more typical fall lows, folks are belatedly taking out docks and winterizing boats in earnest. In a few short weeks, we’ll be entering the dreaded “in between” phase spanning the end of open-water angling and first ice. Just about the time your boat goes into hibernation, it’s prime time to don your waders in pursuit of fall-run steelhead and brown trout.
All around the Great Lakes, steelhead and browns are penetrating rivers in earnest. Steelhead, in fact, have likely been there for some time, following spawning salmon upriver in late summer to feed upon stray salmon eggs, flushed out of spawning redds by current. Brown trout, having a colder-water temperature preference, are just now beginning to enter streams in numbers; although there are some rivers that have a summer run of browns.
Both species may inhabit key river stretches below dams not just this fall, but likely throughout the winter months, beneath the ice.
Until then, you can access them on foot, using insulated waders to walk out into the river below riffles and along outside river bends where slightly deeper water concentrates fish.
Stealth and patience are essential, because the fish are easily spooked. In fact, it’s always best to stand on shore for a few minutes, observing the surface to the telltale signs that fish are present. Swirls from fish rising to snatch insects off the surface, or fins briefly slicing above the surface as fish reposition or swim upcurrent, reveal their location.
Steelhead enthusiasts typically fish with finesse bobber rigs, baited with spawn sacks filled with a dollup of salmon eggs, retrieved from salmon during their spawning cycle. Pre-tied sacks can be refrigerated in advance, and placed in small Tupperware containers for easy access with cold fingers. Or, mesh spawn sacks can be tied on site, customizing the mesh color and amount of eggs to suit the bite. If eggs are not available, try substituting waxworms or small soft plastics for egg sacs, threading them onto the hook.
Use slender balsa or plastic floats to suspend a tiny 1/32-ounce jighead baited with a spawn sack, allowing it to drift downcurrent just above bottom. Jigs should have premium, strong wire hooks to stand up to battling big fish.
A 5- or 6-pound test fluorocarbon leader, attached to a main line of 6- to 8-pound-test tough mono via a small barrel swivel, enhances the jig’s natural appearance.
A series of small split shot place on the line and leader beneath the float, tailored to depth and current, delivers a stealthy, natural drift to waiting fish. Experiment with powder-coated jig colors ranging from bright fluorescent colors to glow, black or even plain, dull lead. Establishing a productive combo can make all the difference between no response and success.
Ten- to 13-foot spinning rods help deliver long casts, steer drifts along current seams and cover, set the hook with authority when the bobber twitches or sinks, and effectively fights large, fast, powerful fish on light line.