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Fly Rod Steelhead

SE WI Great Lakes Steelhead - Silver Bullets of Fury, they're the biggest Rainbow Trout you laid eyes on!

They're what most tributary anglers (including myself) wait all year for....STEELHEAD, the migratory form of the Rainbow Trout! Steelhead are known for acrobatics, runs and general fighting ability second to none; pound-for-pound they are the hardest and cheatingest freshwater gamefish. Its' been said that Steelhead will literally fight to the death if given the opportunity. We're privileged to have them in our streams!

If you've never tangled with a steelie, this is something you NEED to experience at least once in your lifetime. Nothing I've ever fished for has ever matched the thrill of holding on for dear life as a dime-bright chrome steelhead goes nuts, regardless of size! Speaking of size, the average steelhead is around 5lb. However, fish approaching 20lbs are caught every season. That's a huge hunk of rainbow trout!

As with so much of tributary fishing, I tend to think of the "year" starting midyear. As fall approaches, our first opportunity to land steelhead is typically the August push of summer run Skamania steelhead. This strain is known as the cream of the crop...the largest potential size and the best fighters of the year. Generally, the SE WI Tribs receive a run of Skamania strain steelhead anytime there's a rain event, but the one you can count on is August. The downsides? First, river temps are often close to if not at the mortal limit...most fish landed will be tough to revive. The second hurdle is timing the run right - admittedly I've pretty much missed it in both 2003 and 2004. A strong run of fish on the Root River is usually completely trapped in the weir, the fish then being transferred to the Kettle Moraine Fish Hatchery. So goes the August run, should've been there yesterday. It's best skipped - if Skamania are your true prize I highly suggest the strong summer runs in Indiana which start earlier, often in May, and last throughout the summer, fall and winter.

After August, I tend not to think much about tributary Steelhead again until the King Salmon start running. More Skaminia strain steelhead, as well as Arlee strain "rainbow trout" start making their way upriver following the salmon. As the fall salmon runs progress, steelhead are often a secondary or "luck" fish as I like to think of it...most often they can be targeted by fishing downstream of spawning salmon, where steelhead (and brown trout) are sometimes found feeding on the feast flowing down to them. Steelhead are often the toughest part to get in a "Root River Slam"...the Brown, Coho and King are usually landed first! While I've never done it myself, a few anglers have. Late September and early October are the BEST opportunities to achieve a Root River Slam.

As fall progresses, steelhead continue to trickle in, including the start of the Chamber's Creek strain. Both Chamber's Creek and Skaminia strain steelhead are present in the rivers straight through ice up and on into spring. In my opinion, fall is not the ideal time to target steelhead...I've continued to encounter them only on a sporadic basis. It can be done, but as mentioned prior, King & Coho Salmon as well as Brown Trout are the predominant fish through the fall season.

The winter/spring Ice out is when things really turn on. As the streams melt, flows rise. Holes that have congregated fish through the winter are now free to fish. Generally, one week after ice out (which can occur anytime in February or March) we see our first push of fresh fish following the increased flows due to melting ice and snow. While water temperatures remain in the low 30s', this is prime time to target fish in the deep slow pools with the centerpin and spawn. The best bite tends to occur in early afternoon, around 1-2 PM, when water temperatures are at their "peak" for the day. Fish are rarely caught on flies during the early season...I've done it, others have too, but the most effective method to target early fish is with the Centerpin. For the die-hard fly guru, picking up the Centerpin and drifting flies is a viable option.

As the water warms up, Steelhead start to become more active and spawning commences as if without warning. Ice out and early rain events bring in the main waves of Chamber's Creek Steelhead. When the water hits 38F, all hell can break loose and right about that time you need to pick up the fly rod! First to spawn are the Skamania strain steelhead (sometimes spawning below 38F in February). Right behind them are the Chamber's Creek. Pretty much every rain event in the spring is followed by a wave of fresh fish entering the tributaries. Once the water warms, the best times for fly fishing are first light and right at dusk...mid-day is the slowest time.

Generally by April 1st the SE WI tribs are a steelhead free-for-all. Late March and Early April are also the prime times to experience "combat fishing", sometimes literally HUNDREDS of anglers in a given stretch of river. Being on the water, ready to go, at your spot, WAITING for legal fishing time to commence is the BEST way to get into fish. Thankfully I know some waters that get less pressure and can keep you away from the crowds if that's your desire. Another good option to avoid the crowds is to schedule a weekday trip....thankfully many steelheaders have day jobs ;)

With ongoing rain events, Ganaraska strain steelhead start to show up in large numbers and persist through April. Skamania strain steelhead may still be present in April, but the bulk of the has tapered from Chamber's Creek to Ganaraska steelies.

Generally, by May, fish are still present, what remains are for the most part post-spawn, drop back fish, mostly the smaller Ganaraska strain. These are actually some of the easier fish to entice into biting as they are actively feeding, regaining strength as they return to the lake. Fresh fish may continue to show up with rain events, although their numbers are small by comparison to the earlier spring runs. It is possible to find Steelhead in the SE WI tributaries as late as June 1, but usually by then river temperatures have risen to the point where steelhead have been driven back to the lake.

Throughout the runs conditions are constantly changing...we may be sightfishing one day and fishing blind the next. During the early and later parts of the runs, a one hookup day wouldn't be atypical. Always a challenge, it is my experience that on average, a day consisting of a couple hookups is a GOOD DAY in SE WI. A fish landed should be considered an accomplishment by the layman, I myself can count the days I've gone 0/5, 0/8, 0/12 etc... Sure, you can have banner days during the peak of the runs where you land several fish, but SE WI is typically more challenging than that.

Spring returns on the world-famous Root River are often under 1000 counted fish. It would not surprise me to find that a steelhead has been landed multiple times during it's migration - with limited numbers of fish I STRONGLY encourage catch and release of all steelhead, especially as steelhead can make multiple spawning runs throughout their lifetime. If landing several smaller steelhead is your desire, look to other states along the Great Lakes for that (I've been some of these places, they're mind blowing). Come to SE WI if you're looking for larger steelhead with a total of 5 strains now in the mix (Skamania, Chamber's Creek, Ganaraska, Arlee and Kamloops).

SE WI Steelhead Clients - what do clients need to provide?

Transportation - You gotta get there. When tributary fishing, we may opt to fish more than one stream per day. You should be prepared to make a 15 or 20 minute drive from one location to the next.

Equipment - Rods, Reels, lines, leaders, tippets and flies are all provided at no additional cost.

Apparel and Wading Gear - Dress appropriately for conditions - layers work great for 'heat control' throughout an outing. Gloves and a warm hat are essential. Be prepared for rain - rainy days can be some of the best on the river. Check out the weather forecasts before your trip - you don't want to be miserable and have to cut an outing short. Do not forget WARM SOCKS!

I do not provide wading gear, which is only required for Tributary Fishing. Hip boots will work in most situations, although chest waders are preferable. Polarized Sunglasses are essential; you'll need to bring some. The $10 kind work just's not uncommon to lose them.

Food - Meals are not included; we have a variety of options. By no way am I the shore lunch guru, I'm the guru of keeping things SIMPLE. I am however happy to discuss all of our meal options.

Lodging - If you are coming up from out of town and could use some help with lodging, just ask. There's a variety of good places to stay in SE WI.

Waivers & Agreements - Prior to your trip, you will be required to sign a liability waiver, as well as photo release form and equipment rental agreement (if necessary).

Deposits - A nonrefundable deposit of 50% of your trip cost is required to hold your dates.

SE WI Great Lakes Steelhead Rates

  • 4 Hour Tributary Pro Guide Trips - $300 for 1 or 2 anglers, up to 4 hours.

  • 8 Hour Tributary Pro Guide Trips - $450 for 1 or 2 anglers, up to 8 hours.

  • Tributary Trips for 3 or more Anglers? - inquire for special rates - multiple guides are available to handle your larger fishing parties.

  • Team Fish Rates - subtract 30% from the above rates.

  • Tributary Bamboo Experience - add $50 per rod rental per day. Limit 2 maximum anglers.

  • Centerpin Outings - add $25 per rod rental per outing. Currently limit 1 maximum angler.

  • Gratuities are solely at the discretion of the client.

Rambling Reports Great Lakes Steelhead Guiding Season

I'm willing to discuss a trip for ANY season and date I have available, but these are the general times of year we should focus on Steelhead:

  • Fall Run Steelhead - November and December, primarily Skamania, Chamber's Creek and Arlee strains.
  • Spring Run Steelhead- February through May, peaking in March/April. Primarily Chamber's Creek, Ganaraska and Kamloops strains.

Book your Steelhead Trip Today! - email or call my 24/7 cell at 847-732-7333.


Centerpin Steelhead    


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