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Spring Steelhead

by Ray Schmidt

In the Great Lakes region one of the rights of spring includes the pursuit of the world’s top three most renowned sport fish, the steelhead. Anglers burst with “spring fever” as soon as the first spring warm spell arrives, and this event closely coincides with the annual Spring Steelhead Run.

In order to put things in perspective, there are a few things I need to share with you about Great Lakes steelhead. We are approaching the 125-year mark since steelhead was first introduced to the Great Lakes. A private citizen brought them across the country from the Pacific Northwest in a train car. Since that day the steelhead have flourished and have populated every Great Lake.

First, let’s look at the fish. Until recently, it has been debated whether or not the steelhead is a trout or a salmon. For now, scientists are calling this fish a migratory rainbow trout. Some confusion comes in when we say that a steelhead is a “salmonid.” A salmonid is a fish with an adipose fin. This is the small fin (tag) between the dorsal and the tail.

Steelhead are native to the Pacific Ocean from mid-California to Alaska in the United States and Canada. They also roam the waters of Russia. Steelhead are programmed to be multiple spawners, meaning that they have the ability to spawn several times at different ages. Here’s their basic life cycle: From an egg deposited into river gravel by an adult steelhead, a young steelhead emerges around May as a swim-up fry and migrates to the edge of the river in a shallow, slow moving current to begin feeding on very small organisms that live in the shallows. As the young fish grows it begins to feed on insects in that river system including mayflies, caddis, stoneflies, etc. The steelhead takes about two years and several life stages (fingerling and par) before it takes on the migratory trait and turns into a “smolt”. Smolting is the act of returning to a large body of water, which in our case is Lake Michigan.

Smolts migrate from the river to the lake in large masses. Several thousand young steelhead will do this almost at the same time usually around May 15th. As the young steelhead feeds and grows in the lake, it takes on the gray/olive back and a gray/silver head or "steelhead." It takes another two years typically for the fish to mature and start the cycle over again and migrate back to it’s home river and the start of the “Spring Steelhead Run" to begin the spawning process. During this annual migration up the river that anglers get all excited and come to their favorite stream for the chance to hook into one of these beauties. “Spring Steelhead Fever”!

Anglers in pursuit of the Steelhead deploy many techniques. In my case I fly fish. This fever of fly fishing began with me almost 40 years ago, and eventually my passion turned into my career. I now own and operate Schmidt Outfitters. We offer guided services to fly anglers in pursuit of Steelhead and other sport fish of our region.

Many, many techniques are used by fly anglers to catch steelhead. Techniques include floating fly lines, sinking fly lines, and those that do both. What ever your “angle” is, you can spend a lifetime learning and developing your skills for this great fish. Some of Michigan’s great rivers that are hosts to the Spring Steelhead include the Manistee River, Pere Marquette, Betsie, Platte, Bear Creek, Little Manistee and the Muskegon.

To learn more about fly fishing for steelhead and other sport fish, contact our fly shop toll free at 888-221-9056.