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. 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 winter or spring, but the rewards can be worth the little extra effort.