GearJunkie’s Zach Burton and Jake Ferguson have been dialing in their steelhead effort on the North Shore of Lake Superior for a few years running. Check out their top tips and gear for steelhead fishing.
Each spring and fall, a population of wild steelhead runs into the tributaries of Lake Superior to spawn. These powerful fish can be large and difficult to catch, which gives them a mystique that draws anglers from all over to the region year after year.
It started for us at the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo when we heard someone say that hooking into your first steelhead is akin to sticking a fork in an electrical outlet.
After experiencing it ourselves, we’d agree that getting a steelhead on the line and having it rip line off your reel as it runs and fights is unlike anything else. The thrill is addicting and keeps us coming back year after year.
We embarked on a long weekend trip to the Tributaries on Minnesota’s North Shore to chase these elusive, captivating fish. Here’s a recap of our most recent trip with some tips and tricks to help you find success on the river.
Fly Fishing for Lake Superior Steelhead
Before You Hit the River
To maximize your chances of finding fish, you need to know when they’re running. Your best bet is to call fly shops and ask about local conditions. We always call Great Lakes Fly Shop, Fly Box & Company, and Superior Fly Angler before heading out.
In spring, a general rule is that steelhead will start to push into the rivers once the ice starts to clear from the river mouths and the water temp hits 42 degrees Fahrenheit. As the water warms into the 40s and 50s, the fishing can get even better. The run can last from April into June depending on the snowfall and temps that year. In the fall, the run usually starts near the end of October and peaks in November.
Recent rain also causes river water to enter the lake, triggering a fish to start its spawning journey. But if there’s a lot of rain or runoff, the water can be too high and unproductive. Check the DNR sites for CFS levels and try to fish when it’s under approximately 250 CFS; 100 CFS or lower is even better.
If you’re streamside, look for water that’s flowing at a “walking pace.” The final check is to ensure the water isn’t too murky. Having visibility of 12-18 inches or more is ideal.
Set Your Expectations (and Attitude)
Steelheading comes with extreme highs and lows with long days on the water. Sometimes everything comes together and you’re hooked up within a few casts. You look down at a beautiful hen in the net, and all is right in the world.
Other days, you may drift the same river, run, or hole for hours and not see or feel anything. This can be very discouraging, and it’s easy to lose faith that the fish are there.
We’ve all been there. You’re 6 hours into your day on the river, you’ve had no excitement, and you get caught in the tree behind you — again. Manage your expectations and be ready for long days without success. It’s part of the journey. When you do finally net your first steelhead, it’s worth it.
What to Look for Steelhead Fishing
Generally speaking, you want to look for pools, deeper runs, and water that steelhead can hold in. The steelhead are on the move and many will push as far up the river as they can. You’ll find people congregated at pools and at the base of waterfalls for that very reason.
Everyone has a different setup and strategy, but the best advice for dead drifting flies we’ve received over the years is to cast upstream and wait for your fly and weight to sink so it’s a few inches off the bottom. Keep your line tight and watch for any pause or stop in the drift. Once you see that pause, raise your rod tip about a foot and if you feel a fish, set the hook.
Then, it’s game on.
Catch and Release Wild Fish
All wild steelhead on the Minnesota North Shore have an adipose fin and are mandatory catch-and-release. There are still a few Kamloops out there that are available for harvest.
At the time of writing, the DNR has stocked steelhead in the rivers, but they’re young and haven’t migrated to Lake Superior yet. Wisconson allows the harvesting of steelhead in the Bois Brule, but please check the regulations before keeping a steelhead in Wisconsin.
There are other fish in the river, so don’t be surprised if you hook a coaster brook trout or juvenile steelhead in the spring. In the fall, you can get into coho, king, and pink salmon; brown and brook trout; and a myriad of other species depending on the river you’re in.
Fighting and Netting Your Steelhead
We’ve had our heart broken several times when a fish spits the hook or breaks us off. We don’t have the perfect formula to land these fish 100% of the time, but we can encourage you to be prepared.
Have a plan for where you want to stand when fighting the fish. The riverbank or shallower water is often easier than midstream. Expect to move quickly over rough and slippery terrain if it turns downstream. Scope out a safe route to give chase. If you’re using a net, have it on your body or very close to you at all times.
Be prepared for when your fishing partner excitedly yells, “Fish on!” Communicate with your partner on what the fish is doing and the direction they will pull the fish. While it never goes to plan, being ready is half the battle.
Breaking Down Steelheading Gear
Weather on the North Shore is unpredictable, so it’s important to have warm, durable layers. We essentially lived in the Patagonia Tough Puff and the Orvis PRO Insulated Hoodie for a week. Both jackets are built for long days in variable conditions. While it often goes unmentioned, you need proper layers on your legs too.
We also tested the Orvis PRO Underwater Pants on this trip. Their fabric is breathable, four-way-stretch, and fleece-lined. And they’re surprisingly stylish. What else could you ask for?
Waders and Boots
These are essential for steelhead fishing. We recommend using stockingfoot waders and boots with rubber soles. For added grip, add some screw-in carbide studs. The freestone streams are rocky and slippery. For us, the studs are a game-changer.
We used two different boot-and-wader combinations. First, we used the Redington Sonic-Pro HDZ waders paired with the Prowler boots. The Redington kit is durable and functional, with fleece-lined pockets for added warmth and a TIZIP inner pocket to keep your essentials safe. The Prowler boots provided comfort all day and ruggedness for the varied terrain.
And the second setup we fished was a Simms G3 Guide Waders paired with the Freestone boots. The G3 waders utilize a GORE-TEX PRO shell that provides a balance of comfort, breathability, and durability. Three chest pockets and plenty of storage and handwarming zones round out the waders. When combined with the budget-minded Freestone boots, you’re looking at a kit with all-day comfort and performance.
There are opinions on both sides as to whether you need a waterproof pack on the river. We’ve fallen, tripped, and toppled over enough times to know that stuff will get wet. So when we fish in a group, we always bring a fully waterproof bag for a camera and extra layers. When alone or packing light, we use a dry bag inside another pack to keep precious items dry.
For this trip, we tested a few of Fishpond’s Thunderhead Packs. Options range from a chest pack to a lumbar pack to a backpack. Each kept our gear dry and was comfortable all day long.
Flies and Fly Boxes
What are they biting on? Everyone wants to know, and it’s different each day, so we always call the shops and ask other anglers on the river. In the end, though, you have to fish to find out for yourself.
Generally, people fish egg patterns, stonefly nymphs, and streamers. On our last trip, we had great luck with orange, chartreuse, and pale-yellow eggs in sizes 6-10.
You will lose flies. If you don’t, your fly isn’t deep enough. It’s common to hang up on the rocks and logs in the river and the trees on the bank, so make sure you have duplicates and a variety of colors and sizes.
We like steelhead fishing because we can bring a well-stocked fly box or two for the day. We’ve started converting our boxes to Tacky Fly Boxes even though they’re a little more expensive. Because the fly pad is made of silicone, it doesn’t get torn up by hooks. In our experience, these last longer than a fly box with foam.
Fly Fishing Rods and Reels
Seven- and 8-weight rods and reels are best for Superior steelhead. We prefer a fast-action rod and a reel with a very good drag system. Unlike most trout, a steelhead almost always takes line, so you fight it on the reel. We’ve had fish run a couple hundred feet downstream as we’ve chased them, and the drag helps to tire the fish so you can get them to the net quicker.
Our first setup was the Redington Crux 8-weight rod combined with the Redington Grande reel. The Crux is Redington’s top rod for large fish. It has a stiff rod tip and solid connectivity to the bottom as you dredge through pools and runs in search of steelhead.
The Crux offers a denser, pre-compressed cork material that’s built to improve the durability of the rod and cut down on hand fatigue. Redington calls it “the best rod we’ve ever built.”
The Grande comes with an increased backing capacity and is designed with an easy-to-locate handle and drag knob for quick adjustments when you’re finally hooked into a steelhead.
Our second setup was an 8-weight Temple Fork Outfitters Pro II with an Orvis Hydros IV reel. This rod was a recommendation from the folks at the Fly Angler as a rod that “will get you into steelheading.”
Well, it worked, and we’ve been using it for several years now. Its medium-to-fast action is plenty for lobbing weighted flies into pools. Plus, the fighting butt on the end is a nice addition.
Fly Line or Monofilament Line and Rigging Options
The streams on the North Shore don’t require long casts like most steelhead fishing unless you’re fishing the river mouth into the lake. Many people will use a floating fly line with a 0-2X leader and tippet. In the other camp, some people swap a fly line for backing and a few hundred feet of 8- to 20-pound mono. We suggest you try both to see what you like best.
Either way, you’ll need some weight to get to the bottom quickly. The lead-free split shot is better for our waters and our fish. Check out Minnesota Steelheader for some tips and photos on rigging your setup. We use the drop shot and slinker rig, as we lose far fewer flies that way.
A Few Extras to Bring for a Day on the River
There are several other smaller but equally important components to a fun day on the river. We will spare you the nitty-gritty details, but this list will help steer you in the right direction.
- Net: The Orvis Nomad net will work well for steelhead. You may see older anglers tail these puppies like Jedi masters, but it’s probably best to start with a net.
- Polarized sunglasses: Polarized sunglasses, like the Wylie X Omega and Smith Challis, allow you to see through the water and cut down on glare. They both protect your eyes from the sun and increase your ability to see fish moving underneath the surface of the water.
- Red Bull or coffee: Your mileage may vary, but a little hit of energy after hours on the river isn’t a bad idea.
- Toilet paper and trowel: One of the biggest issues in the woods is unburied human waste and toilet paper. Bury your poo 200 feet (or more) from the water and pack out your TP in a ziplock bag. It’s that easy.
- Water purifier: Being thirsty isn’t fun, and neither is getting sick from unclean water. The Katadyn BeFree solves both of those issues with its simple and super-packable design.
- Ibuprofen: Again, your mileage may vary here.
- Packable medical kit: Take the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight/Watertight .5. Better safe than sorry.
- A second set of forceps (in a safe place): Loon Forceps are easy to leave on the river bank, and you don’t want to be without them if the hook is deep. Crimp the barbs on your hooks to help speed up the release process.
Steelheading isn’t easy and will likely take a handful of disappointing days before you finally land that first fish. But we can tell you with certainty that it’s worth it, so don’t give up.