Ray Schmidt writes about spring steelhead on the Manistee and other Michigan rivers.
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’s 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. Brought across the country from the Pacific Northwest by a private citizen onboard a train car. Since that day the Steelhead have flourished and have populated every Great Lake.
Fist let’s look at the fish.
A Steelhead is a migratory Rainbow Trout. Not so fast, is it a Trout or a Salmon. This was a subject of debate until recently, for now fish scientist are saying “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 egg deposited in river gravel by an adult Steelhead, a young Steelhead emerges about May as a swim-up fry and migrates to the edge of the river in shallow, slow moving current to begin feed on very small organisms that live in the shallows. As the young fish grows they begin to feed on insects in that river system, mayflies, caddis, stoneflies, etc. It takes about two years and several life stages (fingerling and par) before the young Steelhead takes on the migratory trait and turns into a “smolt”. Smolt or smolting is the act of returning to a large body of water; let’s say in this case Lake Michigan.
As a smolt, migrating from the river to the lake is done in large masses. Several thousand young Steelhead will do this almost at the same time (day or days) usually around May 15th.
As the young Steelhead feed and grows in the lake it takes on the gray/olive back and a gray/silver head…”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.
It’s during this annual migrating up the river that anglers get all excited and come to their favorite stream to their chances to hook into one of these beauties. “Spring Steelhead Fever”!
Anglers in pursuit of the Steelhead deploy many techniques. I 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 a Steelhead. Techniques with 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 just to name a few.
Article By Ray Schmidt