Steelhead can’t resist a well-placed nymph rig, and that’s why most fly anglers start each trip targeting fish in this manner!

When fly fishing for steelhead in the Great Lakes tributaries, it’s easy to become mesmerized by these giant fish in such small water.  High-sticking nymph rigs are the perfect way to hook them, but it’s not always a simple task!  Steelhead can be very wary, especially as the season goes along and the angling pressure mounts.  There are ways to combat this however, and by following these proven tips it’s possible to have more productive trips by being mindful of minor details and creating more natural presentations. 

Use Lighter Tippet

One of the most common mistakes anglers make is using tippet that is too heavy when targeting steelhead.  It’s easy to understand why, since these fish commonly reach sizes of 30 inches and ten or more pounds.  The part that’s overlooked is water conditions, which are typically low and clear except for the few days after a heavy rain.  When you can see the fish they can also see you, and more importantly they can see flies, weights, and lines drifting by them.  By going down in tippet size, sometimes down to 4X and 5X, anglers can increase their hookups when fish get shy.  Using a lighter tippet undoubtedly results in more break-offs, but it’s an adjustment that will assuredly catch more fish over time. 

Don’t Get Trapped with Eggs

It’s no secret that steelhead love to eat eggs when they’re in the tributaries, but it’s important to remember that they’ll eat plenty of other things during their time in the streams.  Caddis, stoneflies, and dead-drifted streamers complement eggs and produce plenty of fish throughout the year.  Don’t abandon egg patterns altogether, but incorporate more natural bugs into the rotation to keep your nymph rig looking realistic in comparison to what the fish are actually eating on a daily basis. 

Keep Adding Weight

With the exception of periods of fish movement and low-light, steelhead usually spend their time on the bottom.  Seeing them patrol the depths can play tricks on your mind and have you think they’re higher in the water column than they really are, so be mindful of how much weight is on your rig.  Unless the flies are bouncing on the bottom, keep adding a split shot or two until this depth is achieved.  Don’t be deterred by snags because that just comes with the territory.  The closer your flies can get to a holding steelhead the better the chance of a hookup!

Go Small

Angling pressure is without a doubt the number one factor that impacts a day on the Lake Erie tribs.  Once the fish enter the drainages they are fished over essentially every single day until they leave in spring.  As the season wears on, start dropping in nymph size to show them something new.  Even though they’re big, flies in sizes #18 and #20 can still catch fish!  More might shake the fly compared to using a larger offering, but you can’t catch them if you can’t hook them, and using smaller patterns will unquestionably produce more hookups. 

Steelhead provide some of the most dramatic and exciting action of the entire year throughout the Great Lakes.  Most fly anglers choose to target them with nymph rigs, but attention to detail and following these tips will make your time on the water more productive and result in more days to remember!