There aren’t many brands of fishing available in winter, but seeking steelhead ranks high.
They’re big, 8 to 12 pounds usually and extremely hard fighting. If you decide to take one home, they are not bad eating, especially smoked. Veteran steelhead hunters from the Ohio River to Lake Erie and from the Indiana border to the Pennsylvania border know just how to catch them, and amateurs and part-timers usually know enough to bag one.
If there’s a real secret, it’s knowing when to go.
Lake Erie’s steelhead rivers are sometimes just perfect, green and slow flowing or clear with good visibility. But they might be bank full and muddy, or the fishing slow for other reasons and a sometimes long drive is wasted.
One good place to call for information is the Mad River Outfitters at 614-451-0363. They’re usually on top of river conditions and also offer guide service, a good idea for anglers who’ve never fished for steelhead. Other places to check on the major rivers which are mostly east of Cleveland are the Harbor Bait & Tackle at 440-354-8473, or the Snug Harbor Sports at 440-593-3755. Those planning to fish the Vermillion River west of Cleveland might try the Central Basin Bait & Tackle at 440-967-6466.
Then plan your trip. Anglers who know nothing at all about steelhead fishing might be wise to first Google the Ohio Division of Wildlife, then hit Fishing, then Steelhead Trout Fishing for a quick rundown of the sport with maps of the rivers.
If the water is good, you either make or buy some spawn sacs at an Erie bait shop, purchase some maggots or waxworms for jig fishing, or pick up some live bait such as minnows or nightcrawlers to drift through the pools. They’ll all produce fish. But if you’d like to try something different or have no easy access to spawn sacs and live bait, you might try your luck with hardware. Not many steelhead folk do this, but it works, it’s lots of fun.
The first time I sought these big trout with plugs was in Michigan’s AuSable River, and it was a memory maker. The weather was bitter cold and the stream so near freezing it oozed like oil rather than flowed. I had a guide with a drift boat and his tactic was simple: to drift slowly downstream with four rods rigged with plugs running below the boat. He worked every pool, rowing quietly back and forth, letting the current provide action for the frantically wiggling baits.
“They’re cold and sluggish now,” he said, “but those lures working back and forth right in their face seems to make them mad. Sooner or later, some will strike and try to kill it.”
He was right, to the tune of five hard fighting steelies. You can do the same in some of Lake Erie’s larger tributaries, using maybe a 14-footer and either anchoring at the head of each pool as you let the plugs wobble and gyrate, or trading off with a buddy, letting one row as the other tends the rods. If you don’t have a boat, try wading in some of the smaller streams, hopefully in water clear enough to spot fish downstream or just fishing blind. I’ve done it more than once in rivers from the Chagrin to Conneaut Creek and had good success.
But there are some things to keep in mind, boating or wading, and one is to do it slow and easy. To aggravate a cold blooded fish swimming in cold water, you’ll need to keep it in his face as long as possible. In fact, when fishing for visible fish or in likely pools, a half-hour might not be long to wait for a strike.
You’ll want to pick your spots, too. Steelies aren’t going to be sitting out there in the main current where they have to swim constantly to maintain position, unless it’s slow indeed. Instead, look for a good riffle where the water flows fast into a pool, then curves back in small swirling eddies. They’ll usually be close enough to the fast water to watch it for passing food, but hold in the slower current. Long, smooth runs are good, too, as is slack water below rocks and other obstructions.
You’ll want to use smaller offerings, like ¼-ounce Hot-n-Tots, Wee Warts, Rattle Warts, Hot Shots and such madly wiggling offerings as small Flatfish. The point is to make them mad, not scare them to death. It doesn’t hurt to add some tasty spray scent to a lure occasionally, since trout have an excellent sense of smell. Finally, remember that getting out there at dawn isn’t as good as hitting the stream around 11 a.m. after the water has warmed up a degree or two. A couple of degrees might not sound like much, but they can make a difference.