I've fished for steelhead with everything from egg sacs to wobbling spoons, but there's no question taking these large migratory trout on flies is the most fulfilling method of all. I've caught them on flies in New York and the West Coast, but some of my most exciting long-rod steelhead action has taken place in the Midwest. One day on the Pere Marquette in Michigan was particularly rewarding.
Fishing with guides Walt Grau and John Kleusing, I worked the waters near Baldwin on a cold April day when the steelhead run was actually starting to slow down. In spite of that, by days end I had hooked 14 fish up to 10 pounds in the clear, cedar-lined Pere Marquette River. OK, only about half of those were actually landed. But even the ones that were only hooked briefly, tore off on line-stripping runs and then spit the hook were a thrill to experience.
Fly fishing can be used on any steelhead river, but chances of success are best on clear streams that are shallow to moderate in depth, like the Pere Marquette. A basic fly outfit for steelhead would consist of a 9- to 10-foot long rod taking a 5-8 weight forward line with a 5-10 foot tapered leader and 4-10 pound tippet. The reel should have a smooth drag and hold a floating or sink-tip line and 150 yards or more of backing.
At times, dry flies, such as the Irresistible, Wulff, Steelhead Bee, Bomber or Skater can score when fished on a floating line, either dead-drift or waked across the surface. This is especially effective in warm weather.
For most steelheading, though, a high-density sinking tip, lead core shooting taper or specialty steelhead line is best. With these you can fish a variety of wet fly patterns such as the Babine Special, Kaufmann Dredger, Green Butt Skunk, Skykomish Sunrise or Max Canyon. Cast across stream and mend line as the fly makes its drift, then pulls around in the current.
These fast-sinking lines will keep your pattern right near the bottom where steelhead often hold. They are also great for dead drifting egg or yarn flies and nymphs such as the Hare's Ear, Stonefly or Spring Wiggler.
For fishing small, brush-choked streams with fast currents, guides in the Midwest have developed a highly specialized setup-the one that worked so well for me on the Pere Marquette. Long fly rods work best, such as a 10-10 1/2 footer. The length lets you shoot line easily and keep it off the water to reduce drag. Since most fish in these streams prefer a dead drift presentation, the less drag the better.
A shooting line is employed, followed by a leader butt of 14 pound fluorescent yellow or orange monofilament that also serves as a strike indicator. A 4- to 5-foot section of 12-pound clear mono comes next, then a two- or three-way black swivel. Tie a leader of 20-30 inches of 6-10 pound test to that, plus a 3-4 inch dropper from the swivel with a split shot or two crimped on it.
Vary the number and size of shot according to the current speed and depth. You want to feel the lead nicking along the rocks occasionally, but you don't want it to hang up or make the fly drift much slower than the current. A sort of "lob" cast is used where shoreline foliage is thick. This allows you to launch the fly and split shot upstream and that draws the shooting line out.
It's a unique setup, but deadly on the small, brush-bordered streams of the Midwest, as my 14 steelhead hookups in one day demonstrated.