If you have heard me talk about smallmouth over the past couple years, then you know all about the crabbing technique we use to catch smallmouth bass when they become “neutral” in their feeding behavior. Well during the early spring we will often see similar trends with our steelhead and trout regarding their foraging behavior. Egg patterns are a staple for catching steelhead in the Great Lakes region. Every spring we experience a short window where steelhead tend to go off the egg bite and there are some commonalities associated with this phenomena.
Typically our steelhead population at this time of the year is skewed heavily towards fall and winter holdover fish that are getting ready to spawn and a few new or chrome fish entering our systems. Some of these holdover fish are in pre-spawn mode and/or actively beginning to spawn during the early warm-ups associated with late winter and early spring. As with most fish species, spawning activities will result in changing fish feeding behavior and consequently will induce periods of tougher fishing. Most of the chrome fish will still readily take and egg, but sometimes the holdover fish disappear in our catch rates even though they make up the bulk of the in-stream population. Over the years we have noticed some common themes associated with this trend and this article is only to offer some insight into how you can improve your success during this timeframe, keep in mind this is not meant to be “the answer”.
Black Stones & Salmon Fry
During the early spring the winter stonefly hatches and the annual spring salmon fly hatches occur with some overlap. As I type this our salmon fry have started to hatch on most of our western streams and we are starting to see some stonefly activity on the snowbanks and fluttering adults on the water during our more recent warmups. The result is our steelhead and trout are starting to take notice! When feeding fish are “hot”, using louder presentations like big flashy flies and brightly colored eggs are a great way to take advantage of the days when fish are feeding aggressively. However, when fish are “neutral” and not feeding aggressively, how do you make something out of nothing?
Sometimes it’s just as simple as fishing something totally different from what the majority of other anglers are using from day to day, but also understanding that there are a couple of things happening below the water’s surface at this time of year that fish may be keying in on. The stonefly hatches are the most obvious to me as you commonly see the insects above the water’s surface and on the snowbanks along the shoreline. The salmon fry hatch is a little less obvious, but equally as important! Most of the faster riffle sections of our western streams that have salmon runs are saturated with developing salmon eggs that begin hatching in early spring. The Pere Marquette being a great example. Have you ever wondered why the guys fishing jigs and waxworms do so good during late winter and early spring?
Jigs and Waxworms
I can’t honestly say what a jig and waxworm combination represents to the fish, but it does have some resemblance to a young salmon fry or alevin to me. As fly anglers we are programmed to “Match the Hatch” and I would argue the early stone and salmon fry hatches are critical to our success during this period. Eggs will always make up a large part of your success fishing for steelhead in the Great Lakes, but they aren’t always the answer and on some days it becomes obvious. By using a similar technique that I have successfully used fishing for smallmouth, (outlined in chapter 3 of the Big Appetite Smallmouth DVD), replace the crayfish or hellgrammite pattern with a 1-2″ minnow pattern. Fishing weighted minnow patterns under a similar float (bobber) rig can bring you a couple of extra fish per outing. The key is to get your offering tight to the bottom, so heavily weighted patterns are more important than elaborate flies with lots of movement in the materials.
Jigs and tungsten beads offer the tier options for heavily weighting their patterns to achieve the proper fishing depths. One of the best sized steelhead jigs that I have found is made by Wapsi. I like the preformed jig head/hook combinations in the 1/32 ounce size 6 hook or the 1/16 ounce size 4hook. If you like to get creative, you can buy your own preformed jigs and paint to come up with your own color combinations, here is a link to FishUSA. I powder paint mine to match the colors that I like. White, pink, light blue, and black are all good combinations for the waters that I am fishing on a regular basis.
Switching it up
During a recent outing we experienced the “Egg Blah” as I like to call it, so we switched our presentation to the minnow jigs and small heavily weighted stones which ultimately saved our day. Being observant and willing to change when things are slow are important aspects to any type of fishing. Having some prior experience fishing a body of water always helps too, but understanding what your options are can greatly improve your success. Fishing a small baitfish pattern near the bottom, dead drifting under a float, may not be the most logical solution in the spring, but the rewards can be worth the little extra effort.
Found a new material from Spirit River at The Northern Angler in Traverse City to play with on these cold Northern MI days and nights. It’s called Swamp Rat Zonker strips(SRZ). This material comes in Natural, Hot Pink, King Fisher Blue, Orange and Purple. I have been experimenting with the blue and orange for steelhead tubes. There is a sexy translucency to the fur that makes it shimmer in and out of the water.
When the weather breaks I will put in some more on the water R&D, but I fished these flies on the Big River with Jon Ray and Erik Rambo back when the weather co-operated in January and had 2 grabs on the swing, so the fish seem to like them too!
These flies are kind of a hybrid of old school streamer and “scandi style” tubes with few little twists. The first twist is that the SRZ has a hole punched into it and then is slid onto the tube so that it stands up nicely against the hackles as opposed to being lashed down flat on the tube. The other technique is that the front collar(s) are the SRZ spun in a dubbing loop with the skin cut away. It is then picked out with a needle. Speaking of the skin, it’s very thin and holds very little water making these flies very easy to cast. The wing also undulates, shimmies and shakes very freely.
This material is perfect for substituting in any fly that uses rabbit strips- Zuddlers, strip leaches etc.
Happy to release the latest trailer from Snap T Pictures and Mangled Fly Media. Worked with Ed McCoy this past summer. First time running the night vision gear, finished full length video we are hoping this spring to release. Enjoy the trailer. Thank you again to Erik Rambo, Ed McCoy and Jon “Chewy” Stefanciw.
In the soon to be released video Ed McCoy breaks down one of his singnature fly patterns called the Midnight Creeper. The full lenght version of this video will share some of the sercerts of fishing after dark, along with a 25 minute step by step fly tying experience with Ed McCoy. Ed breaks down each step and how he balances materials in his night flies. Underwater shots and night vision cameras bring the auidience into Ed McCoy’s world. Full lenght video coming Spring 2014.
Music – Thriller Dark Island by The Sound Room (Audiosocket Track #66145)
Getting closer to releasing something new that Erik and I are really excited about. First trailer is coming in the next 10-14 days. Also have new logo for this series, just a quick teaser below. Getting hard to not share more details. But the last couple weeks editing, email with musicians and fancy logo designers has gotten to the boiling point and had to post something. Check back here shortly for the first trailer.
Ed McCoy and I (Jon Ray) will be tying some signature trout and steelhead patterns on Jan 28th at Schmohz Brewery , contact Brian at Nomad Anglers . To sign up for the seminar call the Grand Rapids location (616) 805-4393. This is a first come first serve and space is limited. Looking forward to the good night of tying and some new beer.
First let me thank Ed McCoy for his help! Ed and I needed to get together to shoot this little steelhead egg fly for the Hawkins Outfitters Newsletter. The Nuke egg has been around for a long, long, time. Ever since I’ve been steelhead fishing in the late 80’s back in High School. This great pattern is perfect for the winter conditions we are starting to face, as winter water clears and fish become picky. Check it out and hope it helps you tie this simple egg pattern better.
With everything about perfect right now to swing flies. Perfect river temperature, plenty of steelhead around, and the desire of anglers and guide. The fly tying bench has been getting some serious use the past couple days. Shot this photo with the use of a UV light to bright up the egg sucking head of this leech pattern. More photo’s of patterns and successful steelhead trips coming soon.