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Steelhead Fishing in Lake Ontario Tributaries

Two distinct strains of migratory rainbow trout called "steelhead" are stocked into Lake Ontario. These are Washington (a winter run strain) and Skamania (a summer run strain); both originally came from the State of Washington. All rainbow trout strains are native to Pacific coast watersheds of North America and Asia.

Washington Steelhead

Photo of Angler with large steelhead

Mature Washington steelhead begin to enter Lake Ontario tributaries in small numbers as early as mid-September. By mid-October the run has intensified as the water temperatures of the streams drop to the optimum range of 45-58 degrees F for migration. The late October thru November period, before water temperatures get cooler than 40 degrees F, is typically one of the best times to fish for Washington steelhead in the tributaries as they are aggressively feeding. As water temperatures drop into the 30's, the run will slow considerably; however brief warming periods will bring new fish into the tributaries throughout the winter months of January and February. Spawning usually begins in Mid-March and continues through late April. After spawning, the fish begin to drop back downstream to the lake. Hungry and no longer distracted by the spawning ritual, these "drop-back" fish begin to feed heavily and can provide excellent fishing on some tributaries into mid-May.

Skamania Steelhead

Skamania are a summer run/spring spawning strain of steelhead which was developed by the State of Washington from wild stocks on the Washougal River. Currently Skamania strain steelhead are only stocked in the Salmon and Little Salmon River's. These fish can enter the river as early as May with the bulk of the run coming in the June - September period. Skamania fishing tends to be "hit or miss" and is very dependent on the river condition. Conditions which can stimulate a run on the Salmon River are special recreational water releases or rising water levels caused by heavy rain showers. Skamania tend to race up the river quickly, so timing is critical. Your best chance of catching one of these powerful fish is during and immediately following one of these periods of increased flow. Even though Skamania enter the river during the summer, they will not be sexually mature and ready to spawn until late February through early April.

The Steelhead Rivers

Yearling steelhead are currently stocked in 22 tributaries of Lake Ontario: Black River, Stony Creek, South Sandy Creek, Salmon River, Grindstone Creek, Oswego River, Sterling Creek, Sterling Valley Creek, Maxwell Creek, Irondequoit Creek, Genesee River, Salmon Creek, Sandy Creek, Oak Orchard Creek, Marsh Creek, Johnson Creek, Keg Creek, Eighteen Mile Creek, E.Br.of Twelve Mile Creek, Four Mile Creek, and Lower Niagara River. They range from small brush lined creeks to large powerful rivers. To become a highly successful steelhead angler, it pays to spend a lot of time getting to know intimately one or two rivers of the size and type you prefer to fish.

Spin Fishing Tackle

A nice steelhead laying on a rocky bank.

Most anglers using spinning tackle on the tributaries for steelhead are using "drift fishing" techniques. For this type of fishing, the spinning rod should be long to keep line off the water and sensitive enough to detect the often soft bite of the steelhead. Spinning rods should be 8 ½ to 10 feet in length, have a light to medium action, and be rated for 6-12 pound test line. Some anglers prefer the ultra long and slow action "noodle rods" which can be up to 14 feet long and rated for 2-4 pound test line. The advantage of these rods is they allow for delicate presentations of small baits on very light leaders which are needed when fishing to spooky fish in clear water. Since they bend all the way to the butt they act like shock absorbers making it more difficult for fish to break the line. The spinning reel should have enough spool capacity to hold at least 150 yards of 8-10 pound test line. It is essential that it have a perfectly smooth drag with no sticking or fish will be lost on the initial run. Leaders used by spin fishermen average 2-3 feet in length and 6 pound test.

Float Fishing Tackle

Float fishing has gained popularity on the tributaries and is a very affective method of catching steelhead. This technique allows an angler to make long snag free drifts with the bait remaining in the strike zone. Rods are generally long, 11 ½ to 14 feet, to keep line off the water, to help cast the float and to allow for a solid hook set with large amounts of line out. A spinning reel or centerpin reel can be used. A centerpin reel is free spinning and should hold 250 -300 yards of 8-10 pound test line. Having a properly weighted float is critical for proper bait presentation. Various size split shot are used from as small as BB to size 6. The shot is positioned on the line with the heaviest on top and smallest on bottom (hook end). Shot can be positioned in many ways from grouping the shot to spacing it 6 inches apart. Make sure you follow the special regulations for using weights on Lake Ontario streams. You want to use enough weight to sink 3/4 of the float and to obtain a drift that presents the bait before the float (J shaped drift). A 1-3 foot leader of 6-8 pound test is used and attached to the main line with a barrel swivel.

Fly Fishing Tackle

It is important to have a rod with enough length to hold line off the water, make quick mends and control the swing of the fly. The ideal steelhead rod for New York's Lake Ontario tributaries would be 10 foot long for 7 weight line; however any rod 9-11 foot for 6-8 weight line could be used effectively. The fly reel is very important in controlling the first lightning fast runs of a steelhead and protecting the light 4-6 pound test tippets commonly used. It should have a smooth disc drag with enough capacity to hold the line and a minimum of 100 yards of 20 pound test backing. The backing should be a bright color which contrasts with the fly line color. This helps you estimate how much line you have out when a steelhead makes a long run and allows other anglers to see where your line is going so hopefully they won't cast over it. In over 90% of fishing situations, your choice of fly line should either be a weight forward floating line or a floating running line. This latter type of line is commonly used when drift fishing with a fly rod. Leaders don't have to be fancy like those used for trout fishing. Usually they are at least as long as the rod (9'- 12') and composed of a butt section with 6- 8 feet of 8 or 10 pound test and a 2- 3 foot tippet section of 4 or 6 pound test.

Effective Flies, Baits and Lures

Unlike pacific salmon which no longer need to feed once they enter streams on their spawning run, steelhead trout will continue to feed to a certain degree when they are in the tributaries. Most of the effective flies, baits and lures represent some type of natural food found in the stream, such as fish eggs, mayfly and stonefly nymphs, caddisfly larvae, leeches, sculpins and small minnows. Some lures are designed to stimulate the curiosity of the fish or trigger its aggressiveness.

Flies

Photo of Steelhead Flies

Artificial flies are one of the most popular and effective baits used to catch steelhead in the tributaries. Because unlimited combinations of hook size, color and type of material can be put together, they can represent just about any of the natural foods present in the stream. They can also be designed to stimulate the fishes natural curiosity or trigger an aggressive response in a fish trying to protect its territory. Steelhead flies can be classified into four main types. These are egg imitating patterns, nymphs, wetfly/streamer types and attractor patterns. Different patterns and sizes are used at various times depending on season, water temperature, water clarity and flow conditions.

Natural Baits

Photo of egg sacks

The most popular natural bait used when fishing for steelhead in the tributaries is trout or salmon eggs. They should be tied up in sacks about the size of a dime. Try using various colors of nylon mesh when making your sacks. Blue is often a very effective color. Worms are a natural bait that is often overlooked by anglers. Garden size seems to work better than large night crawlers. Caution is required when using worms since juvenile trout and salmon may swallow the bait, increasing hooking mortality. This is especially important in May when there are many smolts moving down the rivers. Colored mini marshmallows, cheese balls, small crayfish, leeches, canned corn, and minnows (alive and salted) have all been used successfully to catch steelhead in the tributaries.

Lures

Artificial eggs are the most commonly used lure on the tributaries. They come in a variety of colors from hot florescent to natural tones. Some are in the shape of clusters, others are impregnated with scent and a few have tails that wiggle in the current. They are all fished dead drifted with a single hook just off the bottom. Small plastic worms are becoming a popular lure on many of the tributaries. They come in a variety of sizes and colors. Several styles of floating plugs can be used on steelhead. They are most effective on the larger rivers when fished out of a drift boat using a back-trolling technique. In this method, plugs are let out behind the boat as the operator maneuvers it to work the plugs through the holding water

Steelhead Behavior

Photo of angler with large winter steelhead

Understanding steelhead behavior while they are in the tributaries is important if the angler wants to be successful in pursuing this species. This behavior changes with water conditions, weather conditions, the season and the length of time the fish has been in the stream. Just when you think you have the fish figured out, they will surprise you by doing something new. However, all steelhead seem to have a few traits in common which have been observed and recorded by many dedicated anglers pursuing them. Below are listed some of the most important ones:

  • Steelhead prefer to hold in areas with a moderate to fast flow and of medium depth (3' - 4').
  • Areas where two currents come together to form a "seam" are prime holding lies.
  • Pocket water formed by boulders in fast current is another area which will hold fish.
  • Steelhead often hold above or below structure such as large boulders or logs which buffer the current and provide security.
  • In a large pool, steelhead usually hold in the head and also in the tail out.
  • Unless faced with low water conditions, low water temperatures or heavy angling pressure, steelhead do not prefer the bottoms of deep holes like Chinook salmon do.
  • Optimum stream temperatures for steelhead (when they will be most active) are 45 to 58 F.
  • Steelhead tend to move upstream on rising and falling water and hold steady in low flows or flooding conditions.
  • Steelhead have an aversion to bright light, so on sunny days fishing is best at first light and again during the last hour of daylight.
  • On overcast, rainy days steelhead will remain active and moving all day.
  • Fish that have only been in the river a few days and those lower in the river are usually the most aggressive and easiest to catch.
  • The longer the steelhead has been in the river, the darker in color it will become. A fish with a mint silver color or "chromer" is a fresh run fish that recently left the lake.

Drift Fishing

Drift fishing is a method of presenting your bait or fly in a free floating manner along the stream just off the bottom. Ideally it should be moving at slightly less than the current speed and appear unattached. Position yourself across from or across and slightly upstream from the suspected holding lie. Cast across or across and upstream. Have the least amount of weight added to your line that is necessary to get your bait down to near the bottom without constantly hanging up. As your rig drifts back to a position opposite you, raise your rod tip up towards the vertical to minimize the amount of line on the water. You want to just maintain contact with your bait without causing drag or pulling it towards the surface. You should occasionally feel the weight ticking along the bottom. During the drift watch your line where it enters the water. Hits can be detected by any slight hesitations, upstream movement or slight tug on the line. If you see or feel any thing strange raise the rod quickly about 6 inches in a pre-hook set to determine if a steelhead has taken the bait. If you feel the fish set the hook.

Playing and Landing the Steelhead

Most steelhead are lost within the first 10 seconds after the hookup. The explosive power and speed of these fish when first hooked is amazing! During these first crucial seconds of the battle, any little mistake made by the angler or flaw in his equipment usually results in a lost fish. It is important to get any loose line back on the reel as quickly as possible. Don't try to stop or turn the fish on the first long run: you can't. Just hold the rod tip up and let the reel's drag do the work. It should be set tight enough to put some pressure on the fish and prevent the spool from over running, but not strong enough to break your leader. If the steelhead gets a great distance downstream from you in the fast water, you usually have to follow it and try to get below it. Keep the pressure on the fish and fight it by holding the rod low to the water and switching from one side to the other. This will keep the fish off balance, and you will be able to turn and tire it more quickly. Don't play the fish to exhaustion, especially if you intend to release it. If the fish is to be released try to keep it in the water while you remove the hook. To release the fish, hold it upright facing into the current until it regains its strength and can swim away.

Safety

Photo of winter steelhead angler

Wading rivers can be dangerous, especially during the winter months. To make your trip safer, anglers are advised to take some safety precautions: wear spiked footwear, use polarized glasses, always fish with a buddy, wear a life preserver and always be cautious.

Regulations

For current regulations on the tributary you are fishing please review the Great Lakes and Tributary Regulations section of your fishing guide.