Egg Sucking Steelhead – Late Autumn Fishing Advice

Read why Dan Donarski, outdoor blogger, and enthusiast, suggests late autumn as the perfect time for fishing in Michigan. Read his advice from Michigan Connect on ways to reel in Steelhead fish this season! 

Don’t put those rods away just yet, this is prime time to still be fishing!

Sitting crouched along the water’s edge, he tries to see over the vegetation that conceals his presence.  Inching slowly higher he sees them making lazy circles before settling down again. It’s time.

Slowly raising up, he loads his rod and sends the bait... Hey- wait up a minute here. His rod and bait?

You bet- and if you want to get in on some of the fastest fishing action of the season, for some of the strongest fish, then you too will find yourself hunkering down behind some cover along a riverbank trying to spot the resting places of steelhead as they make their way up our rivers from the big lakes.

During fall and into early winter, drawn by cooling waters and an ever increasing urge to spawn, steelhead make their way up our rivers connecting to the Great Lakes to spawn. Whether they are the big daddies or the smaller football variety, they are entering the streams now. Some will winter over in the rivers, a few even carving out redds. Still, others will run up and then fall back to the big water depending on the water flow and temperature.

And just where is this happening?  Rivers like the Pere Marquette, Muskegon and Manistee are excellent bets in the Lower Peninsula. In the Upper Peninsula, it’s hard to beat the Presque Isle, Two Hearted or Whitefish River.

While most sportsmen are out pounding the coverts for grouse, searching the skies for duck and sitting in a tree playing squirrel hoping that rocking chair buck will pass by, anglers in the know are searching out runs and pools along with spawning gravel. They know that a serious fight is what they are looking for, particularly when a fall steelhead, which makes the spring run variety look rather lazy, is attached on the other end of the rod.

Every steelhead river angler knows full well that there is one bait that outshines the others. Day in and day out it can be depended upon to entice even the most finicky of fish. That bait is, of course, spawn.

More importantly, it is fresh spawn, still skeined and coming from the same species that you are trying to target. While it is true that steelhead will eat salmon spawn, when given a preference, these fish choose to eat their own.

Why is it still an unanswered question?  Most folks wouldn’t agree with any of the major reasons but there is one that does seem to hold some water.

Steelhead are in the business to make more trout. More importantly, each individual is trying to make more of them in their own self-image. They want their genes passed on, not some other rogue fish’s. So, by eating, gumming or tearing into any spawn that happens to come by, the fish is doing his part to make sure that their genes have a better competitive advantage. The fewer eggs from other fish mean that theirs will have a better chance of survival.

Fishing spawn is a lot more than taking a hunk of skeined spawn and tossing it into the river. Size does count, no matter what they tell you.

For steelhead, the size of the piece of spawn should be no bigger than your thumbnail. Smaller bags, say in the five to seven egg size range, is even better.

Anchoring spawn to the bottom of a hole will catch a fish or two at times, but there is a more consistent method.

By experimenting with different sizes of split shot, you will do much better when the spawn is able to float downriver at the same speed as the current. It will take some practice, but the real trick is to have the split shot ticking along the bottom at the river’s speed.

If it sounds like you’ll lose some tackle you are absolutely right. But, seeing as the steelhead are hanging around the bottom, so should you. You’ll know that your depth is correct when you lose a hook or two every so often.

For tackle, equip yourself with a spinning reel having a good, as in dependable, drag. Fill it with 150 yards or so of good quality, abrasion resistant line in 10- to 14-pound test.

Couple this with a rod in medium-light action reaching eight or nine feet. While some folks swear by noodle rods, others firmly believe they kill fish by wearing the fish completely out with no chance of revival. The right rod should have a medium to fast action, meaning that the sensitivity is excellent in the tip section with a butt section that has some beef to it so you can turn a hard-charging fish.

Now it’s time to take care of the terminal end. To the mainline attach a good quality ball bearing swivel. Now take a three-foot length of leader material, again one with abrasion resistance and tie it to the other side of the swivel. Generally speaking, it is a good idea to use a slightly lighter test line for this leader. In most applications, an 8-pound test will work fine. In extremely clear water, where the fish are pressured, you may have to go smaller.

Finally, for the hook, choose a strong egg style hook. These have a short shank and a wide gap allowing you to find flesh and power through cartilage when you strike home. For the skeined spawn used for steelhead, go with a No. 6, or No. 8 if the fish seem particularly fussy. Hook the spawn through the skein, allowing the spawn to wave freely and more naturally in the current.

Your plan comes together in the form of a thrashing, leaping freight train at the end of your string. Now what?

Besides sporting a Cheshire cat grin, it’s time to start fighting the fish. And how you do it will certainly impact on the number of times you actually catch, rather than just hook a steelhead.

A mistake many steelhead beginners make is to give the fish its head, allowing the fish to dictate the terms. Do this and you will certainly break off more often than not. By using a good rig you can afford to put the beef into the fish, within reason, and show the fish he’s got a fighter on the other end.

Fish, like all muscled beings, have muscles on each side of their bodies. In order to tire a fish out quickly and bring him to the beach or boat, you need to tire the whole fish. Do this by applying pressure from the right and left as well as from above. If the fish is a leaper apply downward pressure by driving your rod tip into the water.

One word of caution here- the key is a smooth change in pressure. By changing with sharp movements you will often cause the hook in the fish’s jaw to create a nice round hole that will allow the hook to fall out.

If you have a desire to match wits with big fish, on their terms, autumn is a perfect time.

Dan Donarski is an award-winning journalist/photographer and author. He specializes in the outdoors and adventure travel. When he’s not out and about he lays his head in Sault Ste. Marie.