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Catching Lake Michigan's Summer Steel! at Cabela's

Catching Lake Michigan's Summer Steel!

Author: Mike Gnatkowski

Summer-run steelheads are nomadic creatures. Once you plant them you never know if, where or exactly when they'll show up. They spend much of their time roaming the wide-open expanses of Lake Michigan siphoning bugs and baitfish off the surface over hundreds of feet of water in the middle of nowhere. And then suddenly an urge takes over. What triggers it is up for debate, but the steelhead suddenly make a beeline for the shallows in the middle of the summer long before typical winter-run fish are even considering it.

The one thing that's for sure is that when the recalcitrant rainbows do show up off natal pier heads and river mouths it doesn't take long for to word to get out and for "Skamania Mania" to set in.

The roots of the Great Lakes summer-run steelhead program can be traced back to plants made by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources back in 1975. Initial plants were the Skamania strain of summer-run steelhead, which migrated into streams during the summer and early fall months. Today, Indiana plants upwards of 275,000 Skamania steelhead with the St. Joe River getting the bulk of the plant. Michigan initially experimented with four strains of summer-run steelheads during the early stages of its summer-run steelhead-stocking program. Originally, the MDNR planted Rogue, Siletz, and Umpqua strains, in addition to the Skamania, but the plants resulted in poor returns and success. Currently, Michigan's entire Skamania plant, some 33,000 fish in total, goes into the Big Manistee River. While Wisconsin plants several strains of steelhead, the Skamania is the only true summer-run strain that is planted. Wisconsin dumps between 150,000 and 160,000 Skamanias into their streams annually and targets their larger class one rivers for the plants, which offer consistent water conditions. Illinois lacks any suitable rivers to attract or receive Skamania plants, but the state's Great Lakes anglers benefit form the plants of other states. Today, the summer steelhead of choice is the Skamania. The rainbows grow up to 25 pounds, brood stock for the fish is readily available and they provide more bang for the hatchery's and the angler's buck.

"The Skamanias usually show up off the river mouth right about the 4th of July, give or take a week," stated charter skipper Bill Doak of Four Seasons Charters. "A lot depends on water temperature." The shallows of southern Lake Michigan can get fairly tepid during the summer. If the lake is too warm the steelheads may just shoot up the river to find cool water or retreat back into the lake. Ideal conditions occur when strong offshore winds push warm surface water offshore, which allows cool water near the bottom to well up near the surface. A big rain event that cools the water and increases the river flow can jumpstart steelies too. Rainbows usually respond accordingly then and make a mad rush to the pier heads where anglers have a ball trying to corral the rambunctious rainbows.

Pier anglers are usually the first to discover that the steelheads are in. Many a perch angler has watched as his reel exploded after a sleek Skamania steelhead grabbed his perch rig or his rod suddenly got yanked off the break wall by a cruising silver bullet. Anglers armed for battle with the big rainbows do well with a jumbo shrimp suspended below a slip bobber when the Skamanias are active and feeding. Fisherman who have mastered the art of cast netting catch live alewives and fish them under a bobber or anchor them with a pyramid sinker for the steelies. The alewives can be caught using plain gold hooks too.

Another option is hardware. Spoons and spinners draw the wrath of ornery steelheads. Lures that feature hot red or orange seem to work the best during daylight hours. Glow-in-the-dark versions excel during low light hours in the morning and evening. Heavy 2/3-ounce models of Cleos, Kastmasters and K.O. Wobblers are proven producers. Hardware tossers need to experiment with their retrieves until they hit on the right combination. Some days you'll want to burn the lure just under the surface; other days you might want to let it flutter enticingly towards bottom. Let the steelheads tell you which action they prefer. Go spooled with a high quality line in the 10- to 15-pound category and a reel that has a good, smooth drag.

"In-line boards are the number one tool for targeting the Skamanias when they're schooled near the pier heads," offered Captain Bill Doak. "Divers would be a close second." Getting lures out and away from the boat is important when targeting the summer steelheads in shallow water. The average depth where the steelies can be found is 15 to 30 feet. If the lake is exceedingly warm the rainbows may retreat to water from 40 to 60 feet deep and position near bottom in the cooler band of water that's usually found there. When that happens, downriggers are another option.

The theory is that summer steelheads move into the shallows and then cruise the shoreline searching out the river where they were planted. The color line, created where the river spills into the big lake, contains the chemical signature of the river and the trout home in on. The rainbows usually take up residence in the tainted water and it's important to stitch the color line to stay into the fish. Doak said that's not always possible when the weekend warriors descend on the port and are trolling in every direction. When anglers cooperate and set up a pattern, everyone usually gets into the fish. Most of the Skamanias are between 9 and 12 pounds and are age 4 or 5 fish. Unlike Michigan strain steelhead that mature at 2, 3, or 4 years old, Skamania steelheads mature at age 4 or 5. If a mature fish survives to age 6 or 7 you might get a steelhead that tops 20 pounds!

Skamanias seem to have an affinity for crankbaits and body baits. The hands-down favorite for summer steelheads is a Rattlin' Thin Fin in hot orange or hot red with black squiggles on it. Originally manufactured by Storm Lures, the Thin Fin is now tough to find and anglers are using an alternative called a Thin Fish. Other crankbaits like Wiggle Warts, Hot-N-Tots, and body baits like Long A Bombers, Rapalas and Rattlin' Rouges, again in hot colors, draw the ire of summer steelies. Be sure to beef up the treble hooks and split rings on the lures. Many an angler has endured the disappointment of loosing a big steelies only to find the fish ripped the hooks off the lure. Thin flutter spoons, like Fishlanders, Dreamweavers and Silver Streaks, fished off divers produce too. You can use any color you want- as long as it's orange!

In small streams and river spinners are a viable option. Using hardware with heavier line gives you some advantages when battling a rampaging steelhead in close quarters. You can muscle them as much as they want to be muscled with heavier line and stand a fighting chance of steering them away from snags. You can also cover lots of water with spinners.

Once in the river summer steelheads are sometimes starved for oxygen and the can be found schooled where cooler streams and creeks enter the main river or where springs or seeps add to the flow. The fish are often packed by the dozens into a small area and are often indifferent to anything that passes in front of them if the water temperatures are high. Frustrated anglers often resort to lining and snagging the fish, which is a shame, illegal and a lack of respect for such a magnificent fish. The fish can be caught. It just requires a little patience and finesse.

In some northern streams and rivers that host Skamania runs, fish often move into the rivers as early as late May when the waters are still fairly cool. The steelheads can be found scattered throughout the river then and are very aggressive. Chucking in-line spinners and covering water can produce vicious strikes. As summer wears on and water temperatures rise the steelheads become more and more concentrated near creek mouths and springs. The key then is to try different baits and presentations. The fish know where they're comfortable and aren't going anywhere. Try rolling spawn bags or drifting skein spawn under a bobber through the school. Fish that are hooked go berserk and usually scatter the school for a short period of time. Give the fish a little time to regroup, calm down and then change tactics if they ignore your standard offerings. Instead of spawn offer the rainbows a juicy crawler or run an in-line spinner by them. Quite often you can convince another fish or two to bite. Plugs have their day too. With the reduced flows of summer or early fall lures like Kwikfish or Flatfish, that wiggle in the slightest current, often trip the trigger of summer runs.

We were hot-shotting with plugs on an early season salmon trip several years ago when a silvery steelhead came shooting out from under a cedar sweeper to nail a wiggling Flatfish. The fish did a half dozen end over end somersaults and broke the line before we could say, "What was that?" While lamenting loosing the fish and shaking our heads in bewilderment at the fish's crazy acrobatics the fish surfaced again some 75 yards downstream and seemed to be wallowing on the surface. I told my customers to quickly reel in the other lines, handed them the net and pushed the oars as hard as I could to catch up to the floundering fish. Just before the fish rounded the bend we were able to slip the net under the steelhead, blood pouring out of its gills and the orange Flatfish barely visible in its mouth.

Sometimes you have to take summer-run steelheads any way you can get 'em!