Great lakes steelhead are becoming an evermore popular fish to target, especially with the declining returns of west coast fish. They’re accessible just about everywhere throughout the Midwest and Northeastern United States, running into tributaries of all five great lakes. For a long time they’ve been targeted with conventional gear and indicator nymphing, however in recent years swinging flies on two handed rods has become an evermore popular way to target these fish. From Minnesota to New York State and everywhere in between, this is a productive and fun way to target them. Following is the gear that I use to fish the rivers on the western end of Lake Superior, which with few exceptions can be fished throughout the great lakes region.
In terms of rods, a switch or short spey rod anywhere from ten to twelve feet is pretty typical. I myself fish an 11’ 7wt, which is about perfect for the waters I spend a lot of time on. Things to take into consideration for your fishery are mainly what size of rivers you’ll be fishing, which will dictate how long of a rod you should get. For many of the lake superior tributaries, I wouldn’t want a rod any longer than eleven feet. However, for some rivers farther east that are a little larger some extra length wouldn’t hurt. After length, weight is important as well. As I said, I fish a 7wt which is pretty middle ground for a lot of great lakes fisheries. Anything from a 6wt to an 8wt would work well, again taking into consideration factors about your fishery and your own personal preferences to decide what you should be using.
In terms of reels, anything large arbor with a good drag system that balances out your rod comfortably is a good choice. Steelhead are notorious for their hot and heavy runs, so a good reliable drag is important.
Fly line, sink tips and leaders are next, being an important piece to the puzzle as well. As great lakes fish typically travel lower in the water column than western steelhead, a shorter skagit head to throw sink tips is the norm. I use the Rio Switch Chucker line in a seven weight, which matches up with my rod perfectly. Having a shorter head, being about effortless to throw and easy to mend make it a great line. In terms of sink tips, I rarely use anything longer than ten feet. Sticking with the idea of keeping things compact, shorter and more dense are typically the way to go. In my kit I have tips from T-7 to T-14, in lengths of five, eight and ten feet. I won’t fish any tips shorter than five feet, as at this point it starts to become more difficult to set an anchor with when casting. In terms of choosing a sink tip for a given situation, fishing the heaviest tip you can without making much bottom contact is a good rule of thumb. If you’re snagging up and dragging flies along the bottom, lighten up. If you’re not feeling that your flies are getting deep enough, change it out for a heavier tip. More than anything, the most important thing to do is start experimenting with your specific fishery to figure out what works.
For a leader, this is really simple. Higher diameter soft mono (something like Maxima) is standard, anywhere from ten to twenty pound test will work. Generally the heavier the tip you’re using, the shorter the leader you’ll want to fish. Anything from about three to six feet is really common. Generally speaking, if a steelhead is coming to eat a swung fly they aren’t leadershy.
Lastly, flies are very simple as well. Great lakes steelhead will eat just about anything from smaller traditional style flies to big intruders. The most important thing in my book is simply to fish what you have confidence in, and that’ll be what you’ll fish the best. A couple simple rules to remember though, which are consistent for just about any fish in moving water. If flows are low and clear a smaller, more natural colored pattern is a good choice. The opposite is true for high and dark water, something larger and brighter to grab a fish’s attention will likely fish better.
There you have it, a good basis to get started swinging great lakes steelhead! Since I’ve started dedicating my time to fishing this way I’ve found it to be worlds more enjoyable than any other way to target these fish, beyond rewarding, and at times very effective. To some these may not be true steelhead, but any midwesterner will likely tell you otherwise. These fish around here are certainly something special, and there isn’t a better feeling than having a bright chrome fish smash a swung fly.
Grant’s Great Lakes Steelhead Gear:
Reel: Loop Opti Speedrunner
Line: Rio Switch Chucker Skagit Fly Line, in a 7wt (465gr)
Tips: AirFlo Custom Cut Sink Tips, in five, eight and ten foot lengths of T-7, T-10 and T-14
Leader: 10-20lb Maxima Ultragreen Leader Material
A couple fly favorites: Marabou Muddler variant, Tri-Flash Hüsker Dü, Purple Peril, Grapefruit Leech variant.