Published in December 2004

Unless you’re into ice fishing or below the dams saugeye, steelhead fishing is the only game in town from December through March.  Luckily, it’s a very good game indeed.  The Ohio Division of Wildlife stocks many thousands of steelhead each year into Lake Erie tributaries, and these fish grow large feeding on gizzard shad, shiners, and other body building provender.  Those that aren’t caught or are caught and released live on to grow heavier each year, so it’s not unusual to sink a hook into 10 or 12 pound trout that produce an awesome and sometimes tackle destroying fight that will leave you shaken.

There are actually two ways to go for steelhead in Lake Erie tributaries from the Chagrin and Conneaut Creek to the Rocky River, Grand, Vermillion, Huron, and smaller streams like Arcola, Mills, and Paint.  One is to hit the larger rivers and patiently fish one section after another.  A favorite tactic for early fish is to check water depth by adding a sinker to your float rig and adjusting until you know the water is four feet deep or six or eight.  Then drift through pools and deep riffles with a float and small jig baited with maggots.

Steelhead will hit this rig just like bluegills sometimes, bouncing the float until you tighten line and strike.  Another popular rig is a spawn sac below a float or fished with a splitshot or two, just enough to keep it bouncing bottom occasionally.  I’ve caught more steelhead on spawn sacs than any other rig.  You can do the same with live minnows or nightcrawlers, or cast various kinds of hardware from spinners to crankbaits.

The second way is my personal favorite, and that’s to go after visible fish.  It’s not only great fun to cast to a steelie finning our there in a riffle, but productive in that you waste no time in barren territory.  You’ll need smaller streams for this, and my personal favorite has always been Conneaut Creek.  It takes fairly clear water and Polaroid glasses for this, so it’s wise to call first to such places as the Grand River Tackle Shop (440-352-7222) and check on water conditions before you go.

Last week, thanks to rains and snow runoff the Grand was high and nearly unfishable, but the smaller streams like Conneaut, the Chagrin, and Arcola were producing excellent results on spawn sacs with some heavy catches reported.  If you can see the fish, it’s easy to drift a spawn sac, jig and maggot rig, flies like purple Woolie Boogers, Egg Sucking Leeches, and Glo-bugs right past their nose.

They’re going to be hungry, since there’s not much food in a winter stream, and hits should be frequent.  I still remember one trip to Conneaut Creek when we found at least two dozen nice steelhead in a three foot deep pool, and another dozen or so just below a riffle there.  I destroyed a good fly reel that day, but didn’t mind a bit.

Another fun tactic in fairly clear water is to wade out upstream of visible fish and drift a really lively little lure like a blue and silver or orange Flatfish down to them.  The wildly wobbling little bait moving back and forth in front of their noses can drive them crazy.  It’s important to know fishable stretches of stream, so maps are worth having.  You can find some on the web by hitting Lake Erie steelhead maps, or by stopping at the Grand River Tackle Company, which lies near the Fairport Harbor Exit, north of Route 2 on Richmond Streetfor maps of the Grand River.

The GRTC also has guides, useful for an initial trip.  Up-to-date information is available too, by calling the Division of Wildlife’s toll-free number at 1-888-HOOKFISH and (800) WILDLIFE.  Find the right water and the right place, use the right gear and fish it right, and your reward could be a LOT of huge, glistening, high leaping fish.  Maybe winter isn’t all bad.

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