Steelhead trout are the smallmouth bass of the “coolwater” fish, and a day spent in their pursuit on central Lake Erie might make you a believer.
Like the famous smallmouth, steelhead can be top-water acrobats, and they are full of that indefinable tenacity called “heart.”
They'll blow out of the water like Moby Dick, do cartwheels, and twist, roll and flip like finned gymnasts. Though their credentials as stream-fishing screamers are well-established on Lake Erie tributaries, increasing numbers of anglers are enjoying mid- and late-summer offshore trolling for them.
If you have a lake boat set up for trolling, you are all set. Just saddle up and head east toward Cleveland and beyond, where several ports serve as launch-points for a day on the lake. If you do not have access to a boat, collect five buddies and order up a “six pack” charter, which will cost each of you about $75 for a day of offshore steelheading. Details on hooking up are included below.
One of the side benefits of Lake Erie steelheading, by the way, is that you may catch as many central basin walleyes as steelhead in a day, and you could end up with limits of each.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife annually stocks some 400,000 steelhead into Lake Erie tributaries, from the Vermilion River in the west to Conneaut Creek on the Pennsylvania line. Virtually every creek, stream and river in between sees a run of fish in the fall and spring. But steelhead by nature spend their summers in big water, which in these parts means Lake Erie. They follow and feed heavily on schools of smelt, alewives, gizzard shad and emerald shiners.
They also may try to “eat” trolled spoons in a dazzling variety of color combinations, provided that you run the spoons in their cruising lanes. While anglers take about 40,000 steelies from streams annually, they now are taking 29,000 or more from the lake in the summer as the popularity of the fishery grows.
Summer fish are ranging from 22 to 28 inches, four to eight pounds, with occasional 30-inch, 10-pound-plus fish also coming to net, according to Tim Bader, a biologist at the state's Fairport Fisheries Research Station at Fairport Harbor.
Last year, because of unusual weather conditions, steelhead were being taken regularly within sight of the south shore of the lake. “This year has been a little bit different,” said Kevin Kayle, supervisor of the Fairport station, explaining that the fish now may be 8 to 20 miles offshore. “There still are some good pockets of steelhead out there.”
While steelhead occasionally may be caught incidentally anywhere on Lake Erie and connected waters, fairly steady action starts around Avon, east of the Lorain sandbar in 62 to 68 feet of water, Kayle said. But even more consistent fishing comes down east.
Bader added that currently steelhead seem concentrated in three main areas of the central basin:
t Off Cleveland in 74- to 78-foot depths, 18 to 20 miles offshore, using Wildwood Park marina as a port. The marina number is 440-881-8141. The park is on the lakeshore about eight miles east of downtown.
t Northwest of Eastlake, 10 to 12 miles out, 70 to 72 feet of water.
t Off Geneva, four to eight miles out, in 60 to 72 feet of water. A port here is Geneva State Park marina, which can be reached at 440-466-6575.
Another access site to central basin steelheading is River Marine, in Ashtabula harbor, 440-964-3474. The aforementioned sites are accessible off I-90.
Charter guide information is available by visiting the North Coast Charter Boat Association Web site, www.ncweb.com/nccba. Another clearinghouse for central basin steelheading is the Lake County Visitors Bureau, which can be reached at 1-800-368-LAKE.
Updates on fishing action also are available at Grand River Tackle, 440-352-7222, or D&W Bait, 440-354-8473. The Fairport Fisheries Station can be reached at 440-352-4199.
Bader noted that steelhead have been appearing in fishing-boat coolers in good numbers for about two weeks, a circumstance that should continue for several weeks or more. He said the fish will not be making their annual moves to shallower waters off river mouths until water temperatures cool, perhaps in mid October.
Experienced offshore steelheaders use electronics to find a temperature break in the water, called a thermocline, in which colder, heavier water underlies a layer of warmer water above. Trolling tackle is set up to fish the depths of the “break.” Trolling speeds, Kayle said, typically are about three mph.
Dipsy Divers in sizes 0 and 1, fished directly off the transom, are popular, as are Jet Divers trolled off side-planers, Kayle said. Downriggers also are popular with some anglers.
Popular spoons to use with such gear include Michigan Stinger, Pro King and Scorpion. Basic color patterns include watermelon, silver/blue and silver/green, though anglers typically are very imaginative in their use of prism tapes and other flashy-pattern tapes to dress up spoons.
To newcomers in the trolling game it looks like rocket science, or nearly so. But you get the hang of it quickly if you go with experienced hands. And after you handle a few steelies on rod and reel, you'll truly understand their nicknames “silver bullets” or “chromers.”
wA bass fishing clinic is scheduled for 2 to 4 p.m. tomorrow at the Wal-Mart store, 4070 East Harbor Rd., Port Clinton.
The clinic, presented by the Land O' Lakes pro staff, precedes the FLW Outdoors EverStart Series, northern division tournament. That is set for Wednesday through Aug. 23 from Dempsey State Access on Marblehead.
Presenting anglers include Karen Savik, of St. Louis Park, Minn., Jerry Williams, of Conway, Ark., and his son, Keith Williams.
wThe summer quota for bluegill harvest has been reached for Lake La Su An at the state's 13-lake Lake La Su An State Wildlife Area in Williams County. For the remainder of the season Lake La Su An will have a 91/2 -inch minimum length limit for keepers and is restricted to artificial lures only, said Larry Goedde, supervisor of fish management for Ohio Wildlife District 2.
Other lakes at the area remain open to bluegill harvest.
E-mail Steve Pollick at