The best kokanee rods are able to stand up to season after season of hard trolling combined with a soft enough action so as to not tear a kokanee's fragile mouth.
If you have ever done much trolling for salmon or large lake trout then you can be sure that the gear is suited to these large predatory fish.
Kokanee on the other hand need a somewhat softer touch when it comes to rod choices
Kokanee have pretty soft mouths...
This presents a slight problem if you intend on using the kind of traditional trolling gear that is seen in the great lakes or for offshore salmon trolling.
Heavier gear does not provide enough shock absorption right when the kokanee strike.
Modern kokanee anglers have cast aside the larger more powerful trolling rods in favor of light to ultralight ones.
Light weight trout rods don't really cut it when used as trolling rods, the solution?
Specialized ultralight trolling rod.
These rods are specifically designed with kokanee trolling in mind.
The brands to look out for are Okuma, Lamiglas, Tica and G-Loomis.
The Okuma SST Kokanee is probably the best kokanee rod for the money.
If you are just getting started out at kokanee fishing and do not want to go for a higher end rod like a G-Loomis or St Croix then the Okuma is a solid choice.
They are not just for beginners though many fisherman buy them as a first rod and then end up buying more to fit out their boats with.
Pair one of these with an Okuma Magda Pro level wind reel, some 8 lb monofilament fishing line and you have yourself a great value kokanee combo for very little money down.
Okuma have really carved out a niche for themselves in recent years when it comes to freshwater trolling gear and for many anglers they are the go to brand of choice.
They are available in both a casting/trolling version and a spinning version also.
So if you are looking to do some bank fishing in smaller tributaries for kokanee an SST paired with a small 2500 sized spinning reel is a good option.
The range comes in different length from 6 foot up to 8 foot. A longer rod is favored for kokanee as it acts as an additional shock absorber.
The sweet spot is either a 7' foot or 7'6" rod with a light power rating.
The rod blanks are made from graphite and are perfect for long lining. However, graphite does not hold up as well as a glass fiber rod particularly if you are always using them with downriggers.
If you want a really good downrigger rod then the Tica and Lamiglas rods below are a more robust choice.
The Tica Kokanee Glas series is a classic fiberglass trolling rod that has the right kind of slow action you need for kokanee trolling.
It is available in 7'6" or 8 feet rod lengths and in light or ultralight power ratings.
These rods have a whopping 12 line guides spaced evenly along the blank. More line guides means a better distribution of force through the rod blank which helps it's slow action absorb even more of the strike impact.
You'll want to go for the 8 foot model for trolling as it really has the better, softer action for use with a downrigger.
These are a step up in quality from the Okuma but they also give a very different feel.
There was a time when if you were going to be using a downrigger exclusively then always opting for the glass fiber rod was the only option. Modern graphite rods have almost bridged the gap in terms of durability but not quite in terms of feel.
A fiberglass rod cannot compete when it comes to casting and this rod is no exception, strictly for trolling!
The E6X series of rods from G.Loomis are a high end rod series at a mid-range price point.
If you've ever used one of G Loomis's steelhead/salmon rods you'll understand just how perfectly light and balanced the rod blanks are combined with superior rod action and great casting performance.
The Kokanee trolling rods are no different. Most rods that G Loomis build can run to twice the price of the E6X series and to be honest the majority of anglers would struggle to tell the difference.
If you happen to troll with a downrigger in waters that contain lots of smaller kokanee or trout then the E6X has all of the tip sensitivity required to detect even the lightest of bites.
You are getting near fiber glass softness with the added sensitivity of graphite. These are also fairly decent casting rods but it is on a troll that they truly shine.
Built with the highest quality reel seat, line guides and inserts and a preium cork handle.
The Lamiglas Kokanee Jared Johnson series strikes a great balance between casting and trolling rods giving that little extra bit of versatility.
Although they are made from fiberglass they still cast quite well. Not as good as a high end graphite rod but still pretty good.
It is on a downrigger however where they really start to shine. These are an 8 foot 2 piece design. They will run best with 4 to 8 pound monofilament on a small sized baitcaster or conventional trolling reel.
Don't let the name put you off although they are branded as a casting rod they fit the bill for kokanee fishing just right.
The rating is a light as opposed to ultralight but they are more than soft enough for kokanee trolling.
The Celilio is strong enough to handle continuous use on a downrigger or long line troll with lead core lines and yet has the softness and sensitivity required for soft mouth kokanee.
They are actually very similar in the specifications to to the Okuma SST rod listed above.
As discussed above kokanee rods have a light to ultralight power with a fast action, they are usually between 7 and 8 foot in length.
Let's take a little look at some of those specifications as if you are new to buying rods then you may not understand some of the terminology.
All rods will come with some form of power rating, below you'll see the most commonly listed fishing rod power ratings, from the lightest to the most powerful:
As their name suggest the "power" rating will tell you how powerful the rod blank is. The heavier rods will have more power whereas an ultralight rod will be the least powerful.
For the soft mouthed kokanee we really need to be using ultralight or light powered rods. These rods are designed to take lighter lines.
Although trolling rods would generally not have an ultralight power rating, for kokanee they are they exception to the rule.
Rod action and power are often confused with one and other. Whereas rod power is how much power you can expect to exert back against the fish, rod action is a measure of how much of the rod bends and where that bend begins.
For example a fast action rod will bend most at the upper end of the rod towards the tip. A slow action rod will start to bend much lower down through the rod blank towards the reel seat.
A fast action rod is good for casting light lures and setting the hook really quickly. It is also good for jigging as it gives you a lot of sensitivity in the rod tip which gives you a much better picture of what is going on with your jig.
A slower action rod however, will set the hook much slower as a lot of the force that you put into the rod when you strike will be absorbed by the full length of the rod blank.
For kokanee a slow action rod is better as it means a lighter hook set which is easier on the their mouth.
The majority of rods are constructed from either graphite or fiberglass. You will see some more modern rods begin to incorporate carbon fiber blends into the blanks but they are usually on very expensive specialist rods.
Some rods will in fact contain a blend of both graphite and fiberglass. A lot of anglers prefer the feel of a fiberglass rod for certain fishing techniques.
However fiberglass is heavier and one way to combine the feel of fiberglass with the lighter weight of graphite is to blend them.
Traditionally trolling rods would always be fiberglass espeially if you are using a downrigger.
These days however graphite construction has become a lot stronger so you just as likely to see either used as kokanee trolling rods.
There are two types of line guides those with inserts and those without. A high quality insert will create a lot less friction on your line than a cheaper one.
Most trolling rods will come with inserts for their line guides. It's usually very high end flyfishing rods that have line guides built without an insert and they tend to use very expensive and lightweight metals to help keep the weight lower.
The reel seat is an often over looked piece on a rod. All of the big brands will use high quality reel seats. Fuji are probably the best known manufacturer or reel seats.
As long as you are pairing the reel with your rod you really should not have much of an issue with the seat.
The choice between foam or cork handles will largely come down to personal preference.
However a cheap cork one will end up splitting and breaking off so always make sure it is made from high quality cork.
To recap the best fishing rods for kokanee will have the following specifications:
The best kokanee lures are also some of the most odd looking things you'll ever see in a freshwater fisherman's tackle box.
Glow Tubes, hoochies and blades are somewhat unique to kokanee fishing.
Kokanee salmon are prone to hitting lures that lake trout, steelhead and sockeye wouldn't dare. The reason for this is that they are in fact plankton feeders.
Their main natural food source is a mix of mainly zooplankton, small sub-aquatic insects ad fresh water shrimp.
They have even evolved specialist combs on the back of the gills called "gill rakers" that they use to filter out the tiny plankton from the water.
Most kokanne lures will in fact not imitate their normal food sources instead they wil force them into a strike, essentially taking advantage of their naturally aggressive behavior.
The newer version of an all time classic the Kokanee Killer contains an EChip electronic attractor that sends out a small electronic pulse which kokanee seem to find irresistible.
They have added 3D eyes for an extra life like appearance and are available in a range of about 14 different colors.
They can be rigged two ways one of which is for ultra-slow trolling. Dual tandem red hooks ensure a higher hook up rate than a standard single.
The Mack's Double Whammy features a small spinning smile blade at the front with half the body split between contrasting beads that are separated by a gold wedding ring.
They come with two extremely sharp tandem single hooks. There is added action through the lure due to a flexible leader that runs full length from hook to tie on point.
A classic combination of soft hoochie tail and spinner head, the Luhr Jensen Hydro Vibe Hoochie is particularly suited to slow trolling.
The blade on this kokanee lure has a vented blade which as water passes through the small section of the blade creates even more vibration over a standard blade.
This is the single hooked variation of the Kokanee Killer. A more basic spinner with long beaded body. Each half of the body is separated by the classic wedding ring that Mack's Lures have become famous for.
A combination of hoochie skirt and smile spinner. These have a tandem hook formation of single hooks that are arranged in opposing directions which is said to improve hook ups.
Kokanee lures are all about attraction whether that's an added wobble to your lure or a extra bit of flash using a dodger or flasher.
When fishing with hoochies for example they absolutely need to be used with a dodger. Without the use of a dodger the hoochie will be all but lifeless as it move through the water.
That added bit of movement is what attracts the kokanee in from a distance but it is also what forces them to strike once they are in closer range.
Although some of the more modern hoochies have started to incorporate action into the lure.
Spinners and spoons of course are all action
You will generally be trolling in one of two different configurations, although a lot of fishermen will actually use both:
When running both downriggers and longlines then you can run the speed somewhere in the middle.
The preferred setup for trolling is an ultralight rod and a baitcast or conventional/trolling reel.
The best kokanee rods will have an ultralight power rating with a moderate action.
These are not your regular kind of trolling rods that you are used to seeing. Kokanee have unusually soft mouths and because of this fishermen made a change to ultralight tackle in an effort to reduce the amount of lost fish because of hooks tearing through the Kokanee's soft jaw.
Reel wise you will need to look for a small trolling or baitcast reel that can take a decent amount of line.
Line counters are very popular especially if you are long lining.
If you are using a heavy trolling reel you need to be very careful to make sure that the drag is not set too high.
A heavy drag rating will result in lost fish.
The Kokanee tackle setups of days past were once big heavy gang trolls on beefy trolling rods.
Things have changed and these days modern kokanee anglers are switching out the heavier gear for much lighter trolling gear.
Although at first you may think that your regular salmon fishing gear may be just fine for as kokanee tackle the problem is that their mouths are just too soft.
Those softer mouths mean you need a much lighter trolling setup for kokanee. The big heavier rods and line weights have been replaced with near ultralight versions that have a fast action.
As we mentioned above the preferred options these days are light powered kokanee fishing rods that can stand up to the extra strain that trolling with a downrigger can place on the rod blanks.
A faster action rod will start to bend much higher up towards the top, this gives you better sensitivity and will allow for a big bend right when the kokanne strike.
With a medium/slow action rod the bend will start much lower down in the rod blank towards the reel seat.
The faster action on these trolling rod will also help to act as an extra level of shock absorption for the soft mouths of the kokanee salmon.
You have the choice of spinning rods or casting/tolling rods for kokanee but personally I will always choose a tolling/casting setup over spinning gear.
Kokanee rod specifications:
Undoubtedly if you are running a trolling setup then you'll want either a traditional level wind reel or you can use a baitcaster.
Personally I've always run level-wind reels when trolling and nearly always ones with a built in line counter.
The best kokanee reels will need to have a lighter drag setting than most traditional trolling reels.
Generally when trolling for you'll need a trolling/baitcasting reel as discussed above spinning gear is rarely used.
During early season kokanee fishing I like to run the lures way back so as not to scatter the fish as the boat moves over them.
A longer line like this really does require the use of a line counter.
My two all time favorite trolling reels for kokanee are the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500 LC and the Okuma Magda Pro line counter.
Both reels have drags that are light enough for kokanee.
When it comes to smaller capacity level wind reels Abu Garcia are the reels to get. For larger capacity trolling reels with much higher drag settings brands like Penn and Shimano have a host of offerings.
But this kokanee fishing and we needs much lighter smoother drags. These reels are very compact and will not feel like they are affecting the balance of your lighter kokanee style rod.
If you are on a budget then the Okuma Magda Pro is a great little reel at a very affordable price.
It can hold 290 yards of 12 lb monofilament so perfect for kokanee long lining.
You'll often see an entire boat full of these reels on the great lakes and a lot of guides I know swear by them.
Given the nature of their softer mouths monofilament is the best fishing line for kokanee.
Monofilament has a natural inbuilt elasticity to it, which means it will stretch a little when put under load.
That extra little stretch is another layer of shock absorption for their soft mouths.
Braided fishing line on the other hand has very little if any stretch and that is why it should not be used for kokanee.
Don't get me wrong braid has lots of applications where it is superior to mono just not in the case of kokanee.
The only time you should use braid is when you are jigging for kokanee. When jigging you are looking for a lot more feedback through the line and the stretch in mono will ted to dull how it feels.
Fish finders are almost a necessity these days.
Given that they are a schooling fish having the ability to locate a large group of them on your lake is clearly a massive advantage.
You can mark and record where you find them when using a sonar with gps. This allows you to build a history of where and when they school in a lake.
Over several years if you log this information correctly you can build up a pattern of their behavior and may be able to predict where they are for certain times of the year and weather situations.
There are not that many kokanee boats that don't run a downrigger. It is an almost essential piece of kokanee tackle.
What does a downrigger give you that a lead weight or lead core line does not?
When used in conjunction with a fish finder a down rigger gives you the ability to target the precise depth that the fish are currently holding at.
It also allows you to get down really deep. Trolling with lead core lines has a limit as to how deep you can actually go.
There are no such restrictions when using a downrigger.
Dodgers and flashers have two purposes one to attract via a flash hand the second to add some extra life or action into your lures.
Hoochies for example have very little if any real natural action to then. Stick a dodger in front of them and now they have a more life like sideways action.
Kokanee lures haven't really changed much in the past few years.
The old reliables like:
All run behind a dodger or flasher will work reliably well.
Kokanee have a great sense of smell so always try not to handle anything of a strong chemical nature.
This includes your gas tank on the boat so try to fill up the day before if possible. Petrol has a very strong smell and can ruin a lure for kokanee if you handle the lure and line after touching gas.
Insect repellent is another one which is incredibly strong so really try to go easy on it. I rarely if ever use any on a boat. If you do need it try to use a spray on only and then make sure to wash your hands thoroughly after.
Just be aware that touching your face and neck after you have applied the bug spray is also to be avoided as much as possible.
If you have ever trolled for salmon or lake trout then you've probably used a downrigger setup. Both flashers and dodgers are used extensively when trolling with a downrigger.
They are used to attract salmon and trout to your lure or bait. However, they are not designed nor do they perform in the exact same way and knowing the difference between the two is crucial if you want to get the best performance from them.
The difference between flashers and dodgers is that the flasher is designed to spin as it is pulled through the water whilst the dodger will swing back and forth from side to side.
A flashers main purpose is to attract feeding trout or salmon from a distance by emitting a sharp flash as it spins and wobbles through the water.
A dodger is also used to attract fish but it has the added advantage of adding a sideways action to the lure on the end of your leader.
A flasher is usually used when you want to troll at a speed of more than 2 mph. A flasher will usually have a mush longer length from the downrigger release than a dodger. These lengths for a flasher can vary from 15 all the way up to 30 feet in length.
The bait or lure will generally be about 3 or 4 feet behind the flasher.
A Flasher is usable over a larger range of speeds than a dodger and it's action is less susceptible to speed changes.
Usually in warmer temperatures you will be trolling deep and at a slightly higher speed than in the cooler months.
A dodger is best trolled at less than 2 mph, so any time you are planning on trolling low and slow then the dodger is the best option.
A dodger will typically be used with a very short length from your release of roughly 27 inches.
Lake trout and Kokanee salmon are normally trolled at a slower speed. Dodgers will generally only work within a very small speed range. Once you go above a certain speed the dodger will start to spin or roll over on itself. When this happens you will loose it's intended action and can quite often upset the nature of how the bait or lure is being presented.
Depending on the speed and time of year that you are trolling you can vary the distance between the dodger and the lure.
In colder months when fish are in shallower water and less aggressive you can use a smaller dodger and a slightly longer distance between the lure and the dodger. The longer distance will mean less of an action.
In warmer months when fish are more aggressive you can shorten the length so that the dodger imparts more of an action onto the lure. This added action can help to force more strikes from fish.
The beauty of steelhead is that they have a habit of biting a wide variety of natural and artificial baits. The best steelhead bait is what imitates their natural food choices.
From flies that imitate the natural bugs found in the river environment to the sweet smell of a fresh spawn bag, steelhead will often see a variety of presentations throughout the season.
A lot of steelheaders tend to have a very narrow selection of favorite baits that they use. However, there is actually quite a large range of bait that you can use if you take into account both natural and artificial baits.
The maddening part is deciding what baits or steelhead lures to throw at any given time. Since steelhead have been programmed to eat natural food sources, such as salmon eggs and worms since they were a smolt, it pays to keep imitations of these preferred food items handy when plying the waters of your favorite steelhead stream.
Let’s take a look at both natural and artificial baits that have been proven to attract and catch steelhead across the vast amount of Lake Ontario watersheds.
Eggs are by far the classic steelhead bait. During spawning season when eggs are a plenty steelhead will gorge themselves on trout and salmon eggs.
If you can present that bait in a natural manner like drifing it with nothing else but a hook you really have to try hard not to get at least a bite.
You can buy your eggs in either natural or cured. The cured eggs will last a lot longer in the fridge. However, it's pretty hard to beat the natural smell of an un-cured egg.
Lot's of anglers will add all manner of additives to their eggs in order to get them to smell strongly.
What could be more basic than fishing with a nightcrawler or worm? Steelhead love them! Just like eggs they can be drifted on very little gear.
Spring is the ideal time to use a nightcrawler as the higher water levels may well wash worms out from the soil in the river banks.
A simple rig is to run them on a bait hook threaded all the way up the leader. You can also put on an artificial egg just above the eye of the hook.
Or if you happen to have some corn handy instead of an artificial egg you can slip that on instead.
The corn gives you a atural scent combined with a bright yellow color that the fish can lock onto especially in fast moving waters.
The use of shrimp or prawns is certainly on the rise. They give off a very different smell than other baits. If you can get live ones then the natural action they give out can drive steelhead wild.
I've seen guys use a small elastic band fix the shrimp to their hook. This means the shrimp stays alive on your rig un-injured and is free to swim naturally through the water.
Their hard back shell means that you can use a fairly strong elastic band. Throw one of these into a deep hole that fish are waiting in and you are onto a sure fire winner.
Steelhead love free flowing eggs in a river environment, there is no secret about their fondness for the protein filled little orbs of orange goodness.
Anglers in pursuit of steelhead have used all sorts of materials from yarn to pom-poms to imitate a salmon or trout egg pattern. But few compare to the visual esthetics that a Trout Bead provides when it comes to imitating the real deal.
From the varied sizes, to the myriad of colors that imitate the stages a natural eggs goes through while rolling around in the gravel strewn river bottom, the bead is so simple yet so deadly effective.
Beads became a popular steelhead egg imitation thanks to some crafty Alaskan fishing guides who grew tired of tying hundreds, if not thousands, of yam flies like glo bugs throughout the course of a season.
Someone had the bright idea to slip an orange bead on a leader and the rest is history. Companies like Trout Beads, have taken the plain round bead to the next level with colors and finishes that fool even the wariest of steelhead.
Rigging the bead is quite simple. Slip the bead on your leader and then tie on an egg hook. Jam a toothpick in one side of the bead and break it off; this will keep the bead in place while drifting down the river.
Keep the bead 1 to 2 inches above the hook to avoid hooking the fish deep; set the hook hard and you’ll have the fish hooked in the corner of the mouth every time.
Relative newcomers to the egg imitation scene, Otter Eggs are a unique spin on the rubber egg imitation.
Formulated from a plastic that gives the egg a soft feel, Otter Eggs are meant to look and feel like a real egg. This can be a real advantage when facing pressured fish that have seen a lot of different presentations, as the longer the fish hold onto the bait the better.
Another key to the success of the Otter Eggs is their ability to hold scent, since they are soft and have an absorbent material wrapped around the outer portion of the egg.
If you really want to maximize the scent effectiveness of the Otter, try soaking them in your favorite oil or scent overnight in order to allow the scent to really permeate the bait.
I have even seen some crafty anglers smash a few real salmon eggs in a small jar and then let the Otter Eggs soak in the natural juice of the egg. It’s the best of both worlds as the Otter Egg with have the natural scent of a real egg while being much more durable that the real thing.
Available in varying sizes of single eggs, clusters and sucker spawn, these eggs can be used to match the correct size and shape no matter the water conditions. Try using the glow colors during low light conditions and the sparkle patterns when fishing off color water.
Worms are a natural food source that steelhead see quite often after a fresh rain. While carrying and using real worms can be a hassle, small plastic worms, such as the Berkley Trout Worm, make for an effective replica.
Even though these worms are available in a variety of colors, the pink version has become a staple item in the vests of steelhead anglers.
Whether it’s a carry over from the “pink worm” craze that started out west, or just a coincidence that steelhead just seem to have an affinity for the pink plastic, these worms catch fish and do it well, in pressured situations.
Trout worms can be rigged in a couple different fashions. First is called the “Wacky” style, taken from the popular bass fishing method. Put the hook through the worm at the mid part of the body, allowing for the worm to hang over the hook in a uniform manner.
When the worm drifts down the river, it gives off a unique action that drives steelhead crazy. I know one veteran steelheader that does exceedingly well on winter steelhead bottom bouncing the worms and the strikes are so violent, they nearly tear the rod out of his hand.
Another method to rig the worm is to thread the worm on the leader using a bobbin threader. Begin at the top of the worm and bring the end of the leader out 2/3 of the way down the body of the worm.
Place a small bead on the leader before tying on the hook as this will keep the hook from tearing into the worm on repeated hook sets. When float fishing with worms in this rigging manner, be sure to hold back on the float periodically and give the rod tip a shake to give the worm some added action.
Hang on tight when the worm settles back in the drift as steelhead tend to hit the worm hard as it falls back to them.
Artificial baits have their time and place for steelhead anglers. They last longer than real baits during the repeated casting and drifting during the course of a day on the water and the more you are putting baits past a steelhead, the more fish you will catch.
Give these baits a try on your next steelhead trip and you to will become a believer that artificial baits can catch fish as well as the real stuff.
Egg fly patterns for steelhead are likely the most popular fly pattern for fishing the Great lakes tributaries.
For many of us, these are first flies we used when we first started fishing the tributaries. This is not without warrant. There are times when egg flies are the most productive fly patterns on the rivers. Even when the fishing gets tough, we can often depend on egg flies to save the day.
Why are egg patterns so effective? When it comes to a food sources for steelhead, eggs seem to have one of the strongest food attractions as anything you can find in the wild.
Just like steelhead, trout and salmon will readily respond to eggs that are freely drifting. It does not matter if these fish are actively spawning or not. When it comes to trout, they will key in on eggs faster than any other food source.
Even when spawning activity has wound down and eggs are no longer readily available, trout will still respond to a well-presented egg fly, the memory remains.
As you can imagine, with all the attention and fisherman using egg patterns, there is a large variety of patterns, ranging from very complex to the very simple and basic. Even though egg patterns are relatively simple patterns to tie, there is wide range of flavors and styles of patterns.
Egg patterns are often tied with various colors of yarn and Estaz, glow chenille, and other basic fly tying materials. Fly tiers will often try to imitate the nucleus of the egg and even incorporate minute blood dots.
Egg patterns can also be very simple and basic, tied with basic egg yarn. Obviously how flashy you would like a fly or subtle an egg pattern is, will depend on fishing conditions.
Since egg patterns are easy to tie and we use in expensive materials, it is always a good idea to carry a large selection and supply of flies.
Fishing conditions on the tributaries can and do change very quickly. Water conditions will play more of a role in what type of egg patterns to fish. When the water is running high with some color in it, the more colorful, flashy and slightly larger flies will be more effective.
These egg flies are tied with flashing material such as Estevez and glow chenille. Just the opposite is true when fishing in low clear water or fishing pressure is heavy. The more natural looking smaller egg patterns will be far more effective in these conditions. These flies will be tied with egg yarn in natural looking colors.
This type of tying material does not have a lot of flash in it. In these conditions you do not want to visually overload the fly. We are trying to imitate a very basic food source. I prefer to keep egg fly patterns simple, because, fished correctly, right along the bottom, we have a tendency to go through quite a few flies.
When tying and designing new egg flies, I always incorporate a light veil over the pattern with some sort of egg yarn. The reason for this, when a trout takes an object into its mouth and instantly decide this is not what it want and reject that object instantly.
The idea of the veil around the egg pattern is to cause the fishes’ teeth to temporarily hang up in it. Giving us a chance to realize the fish has taken the fly and it’s time to set the hook.
All of this fly design does not mean much unless the fly is properly presented. Nature has designed eggs to be denser than water. This way the eggs will stay for the most part, where the fish deposit them in the river bottom.
We think of eggs drifting through the water column similar to the way aquatic insects, nymph do. This is not the case; an egg drift is more like an egg roll. That is, the egg does more rolling or bouncing along the bottom than drifting just off the bottom. Obviously, the trick here is to imitate this egg drift – rolling along the bottom. We need to slow down the speed of the drift; an egg drift is considerably slower.
When fishing egg patterns keep in mind the type of water you are fishing in. This will play a big role in your success. Feeding trout will be located where the food is most concentrated. This way they can feed more efficiently. Simple sounding concept, but, the trick is to find these prime feeding spots. These feeding spots can be anywhere.
However, during active spawning, any locations where there are cuts in the river bottom and the current is concentrated this will also concentrate stray eggs. Very simply, locate actively spawning fish, down river where the current is being compressed forming a cut in the river bottom. You will find feeding trout.
When spawning is over and winter settles, the eggs are not as accessible to the fish. We can still easily predict when we will see a good egg bite. Every time the river has a water flow increase, these waterfalls will dislodge stray eggs and send them adrift, creating a feeding opportunity, an egg bite. This egg bite will last for a few days to a week after water flows stabilize. So keep this in mind when you are trying to decide what to fish.
Fishing with eggs for steelhead is a no-brainer once the eggs are moving through the current large steelhead will gorge themselves on what is one of their most important food sources.
Steelhead can be absolute gluttons during the fall run when salmon and brown trout are broadcasting eggs all over the stream bottom during their spawning cycle.
With an easy food supply that doesn’t flee in their presence like the baitfish do on the high seas, steelhead are more than happy to set up in a current break and let the food come to them.
As much fun as throwing a steelhead lure is, fishing with either real eggs, steelhead beads or an egg fly pattern is so much more productive as you can be almost 100% positive that the steelers are definietly feeds on what you have put in front of them
While these chrome brutes will hit anything that remotely resembles an egg early in the run, they do get wise as time goes on.
With a wide variety of eggs to feed on, steelhead will often get locked into a certain size, shape and smell that is preferred over all the rest. The trick is putting the pieces of the puzzle together and determining what the magic combination the steelhead prefer on that particular day.
Serious egg fisherman, tend to carry a variety of eggs in order to offer the fish a number of scent dynamics. Steelhead have a great sense of smell which we anglers can take advantage of.
Every egg, be it from a salmon or trout, has a different scent characteristic; and fall steelhead that have seen every size and shape of egg coming at them for months know the exact one they want to feed on. It’s our job to give them an assortment of eggs to choose from, and they’ve made the obvious choice when the float slams down!
The first clue in unlocking the egg puzzle is to determine what fish could still be spawning on the watershed you plan to fish.
For instance, in the majority of the Lake Ontario streams, Chinooks are usually the first to arrive in September and can begin dropping eggs from the middle of the month right into early October.
Coho’s are the wild card in the mix; while not found in all our Lake Ontario tributaries, they tend to come into the river in one big wave and take over the river for a couple weeks.
Steelhead always seem to have a fondness for Coho eggs. It’s amazing to me how steelhead will quit feeding on anything else and strictly focus on Coho eggs when the run is on. Browns are usually the last to arrive in October and can linger till the end of November.
Brown trout eggs have been “secret” steelhead bait of tight lipped fanatics for years; but thanks to the internet, word has leaked out about the effectiveness of this great bait over the last few years.
Since brown trout eggs are smaller than those from a salmon, they tend to be more delicate and will last longer when drifted in slower pools rather than being smashed to bits in fast, rocky runs.
Another key element to getting the magic formula is the egg cure, or in some cases, the lack thereof.
When it comes to cures, there are plenty of commercial cures available these days; but few can compare to the Borx-O- Fire cure from Pautzke Bait. This cure is basically a mixture of salt, sugar, borax and krill powder that enhances the scent of the egg while toughening the egg enough to withstand multiple drifts through prime holding water.
The natural color works well with most eggs, but a mixture of the pink and orange versions produces an egg with a deep, vibrant color that fish devour in stained or off color water. But as good as this cure has proven to be in our watersheds, there are times when it pays to go natural and fish with fresh skein eggs.
I don’t know what it is about these eggs, but there is something about fresh skein eggs that really get stale steelhead in a friendly mood. These eggs are far more fragile than a cured egg, but the scent and soft texture are often the right combination that consistently take fish on the tough days.
Pre-cutting the skein into chunks and letting them air dry for a few hours will help keep them on the hook longer. It also helps to fish these eggs in slower pools down in the lower reaches of a river system where wary steelhead lie in wait for the next rain event to trigger their migration upstream.
Be sure to keep your eggs in separate containers; mixing eggs and cures can muddy the scent trail and will ruin all the effort you put into tying dozens of beautiful spawn sacs. Mark each container with the type of egg and cure used to avoid confusion when the bite is on.
Another tip to keep in mind is tie larger sized egg sacs earlier in the run and gradually reduce the size of the sacs as the season wears on and the water cools.
This correlates with the holding position of the steelhead throughout the run; early season fish tend hang around fast, oxygenated water and need something to catch their eye as it whizzes downstream. Conversely, steelhead will begin to hold in slower current breaks as the water cools down prior to winter and have a much longer window to see the bait coming at them.
It’s time to open the egg buffet this fall and see what the hungry customers are in the mood for each day. Don’t get fooled into using one style of egg, sac color or size all season long; short term success on one particular combo can lead to long term failure.
Do your homework and have a variety of eggs ready for each outing. You’ll be glad you did when a trophy sized steelhead is on the end of your line trying to drag you back to Lake Ontario!
When winter trout are feeding on nymphs there is not much difference between a small trout and a steelhead. They are going to both react and take advantage the same food store source the same way.
This past winter, the more the steelhead fead on the Stone fly nymphs, the more precise our presentation had to be. Just like the steelhead we had to adapt to all variables and conditions of this winter.
When we tried to fish the same way, with the same normal presentations, we were greatly disappointed. Many of the normal presentations produced nothing more than a lot of casting and a few poor hookups.
By late winter it is almost like fishing a winter Midge hatch in a Spring Creek. The same went for the style of presentation. We need to be as precise with the drift as we need to be with midges in spring.
What I mean by this is that we have to make certain the flies are drifted in the correct structure of the pool, current seam and depth. If we were slightly off, nothing would happen but the fore mentioned poor hookups and casting practice.
Some of the best stonefly patterns to have in your fly box are:
Although there are lots of stone fly nymph patterns you only need concern yourself with the list above. The more natural looking the better, however sometimes you do need a little bit of flash in the body.
Keep in mind that Stone fly nymphs live and grow in fast moving water. Their normal feeding activities cause him to become dislodged from the river bottom and set adrift.
Trout will take feeding positions in the throats of the pools. Or more precisely, along the current seams in the throats of the pools, that is, along the edge of the fast and slow moving current.
The trick here is to find the ideal seams that the fish are sitting in. To do this you need to systematically cover the inside edge of the faster moving water into the slow moving water.
Depth of the drift is also important; the flies need to drift just off the river bottom. You want the fly to drift clean but within a few inches of touching the river bottom. This is best achieved by using strike indicators.
This is where my favorite term for these things comes from, Drift management devices. By using a strike indicator you can control the depth of the fly and also maintain the drift in the correct current seam.
As I mentioned below the Salmon River has a massive population of stoneflies. This population is made up of several varieties of Stoneflies. The exact number would be interesting to know. But for us, we need to know that during the winter months fishing stonefly nymphs in sizes ranging from 8 to 12 will get the job done.
These fly patterns do not have to be complicated patterns. Often the simpler basic nymph pattern works the best. We have also had good results with adding a little flash to the fly, either in the wing case or mixed into the body itself. What is most important is fishing the right locations in the river, getting the fly in the correct water column and depth.
We need to keep in mind; just because it is winter and the river is quiet does not mean the fishing will be easy. Just like the steelhead we need to adapt to what is happening in the rivers.
We all know about how winter steelhead fishing can be both productive and an excellent opportunity to enjoy the river without intense fishing pressure. There are lots of challenges when winter steelhead fishing. These includes dealing with the equipment icing up and the Cold. In past winters, however, there have been some historically chilly winter with cold temperatures with many of our rivers totally iced over well into spring,
Some are unique with even the Salmon River itself having heavy ice mid river on down. And with the historic cold winter temperatures, the Salmon River had heavy anchor ice in the bottom portion of the river for the first time in several years.
We also had an additional Element, the lack of salmon eggs. Due to the unusually stable water flows the steelhead were not exposed to the normal volume of stray eggs.
Typically eggs are set adrift during water flow increases. In fact there was not a water flow increase until spring snowmelt run off. Add to all of this, we also had an issue with sick steelhead, a thiamine deficiency. Last winter definitely had its challenges.
We were faced with few choices - adapt or enjoy another winter of cabin fever. Given these choices and never dealing well with cabin fever, we decided to get on the water and adapt. As a result this past winter was a unique learning experience for winter steelhead fishing. The cold was not that big a deal with the new modern cold weather clothing. As for the steelhead we did have a very good fall run, and there was good numbers of fish in the upper river.
We need to remember that the Salmon River and the Great Lakes steelhead do have some unique characteristics. First Great Lakes steelhead will continue to feed while they’re in their home rivers on a spawning run, - our steelhead like to eat.
The longer they are in the river, especially over the winter, the more trout-like these fish become. The next thing we need to keep in mind is that Chinook salmon can dominate a river in many ways.
In this case the decomposing carcasses of the salmon in the river create a strong nutrient base. What this means for us is a lot of bug life in the rivers - in this particular case, stonefly nymphs.
This last fall we had a light run of salmon. This meant there were fewer eggs in the river over the winter. When we add all of this up, we had wintering steelhead hyper - keyed in on stonefly nymphs. Obviously the trick here is to capitalize on this opportunity.
There are a number of techniques that work well for catching steelhead on fly tackle. Swinging streamers and soft hackles in the spring when they are spawning is a favorite. Drifting egg patterns is a good bet all through the season.
Another, often overlooked, technique is also one that should be in every steelheader’s arsenal; nymphing.
Fishing nymphs for steelhead can be a very productive fishing method and works throughout the season. If you are proficient at nymphing for trout, the same techniques and concepts work for steelhead.
Steelhead nymphs are second only to egg patterns in terms of popularity. Once eggs are no longer available steelhead will shift their attention to nymphs.
Steelhead runs are a lot different than salmon runs. Steelhead enter the tributaries in the fall and remain there all winter, and there is also another run again in the spring during the spawning season. Unless they are actually spawning, steelhead feed while they are in the streams.
Most of the Lake Ontario tributaries have a variety of food items for steelies to prey on, including the nymphal forms of aquatic insects. The lake tributaries have a variety of macroinvertebrates including some mayfly and stonefly species, usually plenty of caddis, plus the technically non-insect oddities like tubifex worms that feed on rotting salmon carcasses.
It seems odd that a 10 pound steelhead is going to grab and eat a tiny stonefly nymph or a small aquatic worm, but they do so regularly. I can remember a couple of trips where nymphs were the only thing we could get them to hit.
At first, the eggs will be at the top of the menu for the steelhead. But as water flows come down and the surplus of eggs go away, nymphs become more important. The water levels do not always need to come down. A constant flow of water will do the same; that is, allow the stray eggs to settle out and not be available for the fish to feed on.
Predicting when to fish with nymphs is easier than one might think. Simply give the water flow about a week to stabilize or drop. The egg bite will wind down and the nymph bite will start up.
As the winter season progresses, each pulse of high water will stir up fewer eggs and more nymphs. Keep in mind that the nymph population will continue to grow throughout the winter. By late winter, nymphs can make up the bulk of the food that is available to the steelhead.
You may not think about winter as a prime time for fishing nymphs. The winter months are prime growing time for aquatic insects. Every bug that will be hatching in the spring and through the summer is growing in the rivers through the winter.
Some of these aquatic insects are more active than others, and as a result, they are available for the fish to feed on.
A classic example of this is stone flies. These insects are predators, and so they are actively crawling around the stream bottom hunting for food. This activity makes some liable to becoming dislodged and sent adrift.
This is one reason why stonefly nymphs are so effective in rivers such as the Salmon River. Other insects such as Caddis larva will connect themselves to the edges of rocks and allow the currents to bring food to them.
Obviously, being tied to a rock goes a long way toward keeping you in one place -- not as prone to becoming a meal. These are two examples of the extremes; most nymphs fall somewhere in between.
Fortunately for us, we do not have to precisely imitate every single type of nymph that swims in our steelhead rivers. Good general purpose nymph patterns will work just fine. In fact, it is hard to beat a black stone fly nymph. What is important is to match the general size and color of the average size of the nymph. This is easier than it sounds.
For most rivers, fly size ranging from a 12 to a size 8 will work just fine. There are lots of nymphs in the rivers this time of the year that are smaller than a size 12.
Over the years, I have found that when it comes to steelhead fishing, one needs to show these fish a fly big enough to consistently get their attention. This is not to say that at times smaller flys will not work, it’s just that the larger flies have a tendency to work more consistently.
When it comes to color, think earth tones, such as dark olive, black, and hare’s ear. Brown will match most of the colors of the nymphs living within the typical rivers and streams.
Steelhead are not that selective when it comes to feeding on nymphs. A good general attractor pattern is often all it takes - remember that black stone fly nymph. I have had great success by taking black stone flies and adding a flash back and rubber legs to the fly.
Some of the most productive steelhead nymphs are traditional trout patterns jazzed up. This can be done by adding a little flash to the bodies or incorporating some of the steelhead's favorite colors to various parts of the fly.
Another consideration with fly selection is that we are also talking about catching a large fish. Using somewhat larger flies and larger hooks also increases our landing percentage. This is why often the smallest nymphs I use are size 12. I also tie my nymph patterns onto heavy wire hooks, often referred to as “2X heavy”. Standard trout hooks are often made from lighter wire and will bend easily with a big fish.
We always like to talk about what flies we are using. However, when comes to catching fish, it is more about the presentation. On any given day we can catch fish with six different patterns, as long as they are presented properly. Obviously, this is no different when it comes to fishing nymphs for steelhead. Drifting nymphs is similar to drifting egg flies.
However, there are some subtle differences between the two presentations. The first is that you do not need to keep your flies as tight to the river bottom as you do with egg flies.
Nymphs have a tendency to get knocked loose and drift slightly above the river bottom. As result, the flies do not need to be drifted as close to the bottom with constant contact. I refer to this as a soft drift– your fly is close to the bottom, but does not need to constantly hit the bottom.
This will take a little practice to achieve and some constant adjusting. But remember, you need to keep your fly within the nymph’s zone, which is the bottom six inches of the river. Another consideration to keep in mind is that nymphs are living, crawling, swimming creatures. Letting your fly swing a little on the end of the drift can often trigger a take.
One of my favorite methods of presenting nymphs during the winter is to use strike indicators and long fine leaders. The long fine leaders give me the chance to get my flys down fast, allowing me to cover more water efficiently.
The strike indicators are used more as a tool to control and extend the drift, rather than to detect takes. With a little experimenting and some practice, you can learn to swing a fly both vertically and horizontally through the water. This often imitates the natural movement of the nymphs during the winter– a little presentation trick that steelhead find hard to resist.
Some anglers like strike indicators, and others do not. I’m in the camp of really liking them for one simple reason; they produce visual fishing. Its fun when you are a kid and see that bobber dip under, and it’s even more fun when you are an adult and see the strike indicator dive under when a steelhead is on the other end of the line. They are great in lower water with mild current speed. If things are ripping, then another technique is called for.
There are a couple of other advantages to the indicator. With it, you can adjust the drift and get a lightly weighted fly to bounce just up off the bottom where it will be at eye level for a steelhead.
The other advantage is that with the tricky currents you are often dealing with on a steelhead stream, the indicator gives a visual presentation to see if the fly is moving at the speed of the current or being dragged downstream.
If the fly is dragging along the bottom faster than the current, the fish are not going to hit it. Nymphs have to move at the same speed as the current for the fish to hit them.
My favorite indicator is the Thingamabobber, and I carry them in a couple of sizes and colors. They hold in position on the leader and are easy to adjust. They also float very well and are very durable.
I’ve never been a big fan of the “chuck and duck” style of fishing that evolved on the Lake Ontario streams, but if you can’t beat them, join them. Fishing a nymph or any other fly on a tight line using a split shot to get the fly down is often the most effective way to fish, especially when the current at the surface is moving much faster than the current on the bottom where the fish are holding.
This is especially true for cold weather fishing. The whole idea is to cast out, and make a quick mend upstream so the fly is actually moving downstream slightly ahead of the fly line.
If a fish grabs, you feel the fly stop and then set the hook. The trick to this presentation technique is using only enough split shot to get the shot to tick on the bottom but not get hung up all the time. It also helps to have a long leader (check the fishing regulations).
Fly line is important. I use a dark olive colored Wulff Triangle Taper line, so the front end is basically the front of a double-taper line. When fishing nymphs on a tight line, typically there isn’t a lot of fly line out and you manipulate the line to keep as much of it off the water as possible and also use mends to keep it from dragging the fly faster than the current.
Often you are fishing about a rod’s length of fly line plus the leader, and you plunk it in upstream, it is in the zone in front of you and you follow it downstream till the fly is dragged toward the shore. It takes awhile to get the hang of this, but approaching it with the idea that the fly needs to match the current speed is the goal.
The basic leader rig that I use for steelhead is 10 feet or so of 10 pound test fluorocarbon leader material tied to the fly line with a loop connection and a small, black barrel swivel on the other end (tied so there is about 4 inches of tag hanging off the swivel for attaching split shot).
From there I tie about three feet of tippet between the swivel and the fly. The straight 10 pound test leader does not turn over on the cast quite as well as a tapered leader, but the heavy butt section and taper sections on a tapered leader will often spook fish in crowded conditions.
Fly patterns for steelhead nymphing are fairly simple. I like the Rusher’s Nymph and Jim’s Wing Dinger, both of which look like a small, black stonefly. I also carry some Hare’s Ears Nymphs in a couple of colors, Pheasant Tails, and simple caddis larvae patterns.
I also carry Jim’s Not Much, which is a tiny red worm pattern and it often works when nothing else does during the harsh winter months. If you cover the basic colors like black, gray, tan, white, and olive, you are all set. The nymphs do not need the level of detail that you are going to need for a finicky trout; they just have to be in the general shape and color of the real bugs.
There are a lot of anglers who fish the Lake Ontario Tributaries for steelhead, and we all enjoy those spring days when swinging soft hackles or streamers brings jarring bites from steelhead.
Yet, those days are typically few compared to the times when they are finicky and not hitting well. Fishing nymphs for steelhead often is the difference between landing one, and getting skunked for the day. These same techniques also work well for drifting egg patterns too.
Fishing for steelhead does not need to be a complicated as some anglers make it. Having a few basic steelhead lures in your arsenal is all your really need.
A selection of sizes and colors of the following different types of lures should be enough for practically any light or water conditions you may fish in:
Although a lot of people will stick to using natural steelhead bait such as salmon roe, this kind of approach can and does limit your ability to hook a steelhead especially if it a stretch of water you have not fished before.
If spinning from the bank is your game then you can't go wrong with an old reliable like the Blue Fox Vibrax.
Kastmaster lure work great when fishing larger rivers as they are pretty heavy for their size. The classic colors such as gold, silver or the blue and chrome will work best.
The nightmare jig is easily the best known jig for steelhead fishing. Although it does look rather odd it can be an absolute killer when worked under a float.
Plastic worms fished under a float or drifted along the bottom are another popular option. There are a lot of different colors available however I have always found pink to be one of the most successful.
If you are trolling the the Lure Jensen Kwikfish or Flatfish lures can force a large steelhead into striking. They have a very distinctive wobble and give out a lot of vibration when trolled.
The best lures for steelhead will have some sort of wobble action or give off a vibration, that combined with some kind of flash like a gold or silver blade is what will force a steelhead to strike especially if you can get it right in front of their nose.
Steelhead lure selection need not be that complicated. Before you tie on a lure it is important to think about what kind of water you are fishing and just where exactly will the steelhead be lying.
There are a number of important factors to consider before you select a lure:
Fishing steelhead lures can fall into two main approaches. Fishing more active lures on the retrieve like spinners/spoons and bait imitators like jigs/worms.
Both types of lures rely on you working them across the river and being able to judge how deep the lure is fishing. Ideally you will want to have the lure bounce the bottom a few times.
Casting is generally done in a large fan like pattern, across and upstream from you. Using a large fan like pattern allows you to cover as much of the river as possible.
Always be on the look out for signs of small pockets or holes in the river bed as this is where steelhead have a particular liking for. They will happily move through main runs and tailouts so be sure to work these extensively, in fact these should be your first focus on your initial casts.
Fishing any lure for steelhead that requires a retrieve to activate it's action or wobble is probably the most effective way to force a strike from a large steelhead.
The name of the game here is to work the lure slowly. Cast across the water and slightly upstream in front of you, allow the lure to sink so that it may hit the bottom. Then start a slow retrieve.
The retrieval rate should be just enough to keep the lure from hitting or snagging on the bottom. Steelhead will very rarely if ever take a lure that is several feet higher than them in the water column.
You will need to practice this and get a feel for the weight of the lure you are fishing , how deep the water is and how strong the current is running. All of these things will effect your ability to work the lure slowly in front of the fish.
Jigs and worms will generally require the use of added weight or a bobber to get the best distance possible.
You can bottom bounce or drift fish your way down the river when using nymphs and worms. Again just like retrieving a lure you'll need to work the nymph/worm through the runs and tailouts.
One of the best skills you can develop is learning to distinguish between a strike and you weight bouncing or snagging in the bottom. This unfortunately takes time and experience.
The more natural the presentation the better. You are trying to imitate a nymph or sub-aquatic insect moving down river at the mercy of the current. Letting them drift naturally without any interference from your rod tip or line is key.