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Targeting Great Lakes 'Steelhead' on the Fly from Near Shore

Fishing from shore- A Great Lakes Staple

At the early season our migratory rainbow trout begin to move from their summer residence in Lake Erie to the rivers and tributaries. During this time the fish look for desired conditions to trigger movement, including balancing lake to river temperatures and significant rain events that push river flows. While this wait is on some fish will move in, while others can be found staging at river mouths and nearby shores. An angler inclined to focusing on shore and river mouth opportunities early on can find themselves with significant target opportunities and maybe even a bit more elbow room than in the rivers and tribs.

There are 2 basic methods of attack: First, from a water craft. When we think water craft the first thing that comes to mind is a boat usually. You don't need the mega boat we all dream of to target the river mouth and shores. A modest size around 14 ft in either aluminum or fiberglass with a 30 HP motor will do the job nicely. The key is to have space for at least 2 people and a casting deck if you plan to fly-fish. Other must things to consider, especially if you are going to venture away from the shore are things like a deep-V hull and trolling motor.

Kayaks are also becoming effective angling tools around the Great Lakes as well. Fishing kayaks are not the same as the usual touring kayak you see folks enjoying throughout the summer. Fishing kayaks come in many types but the most common overall is the sit-on-top due to it's increased stability. Other features to consider are ability to stand, pedal or motor, rudders and storage.

In both cases it is important to remember that although fun, boating is serious business and our conditions in the Great Lakes can get harsh. Make sure you have all the appropriate safety equipment, are both knowledgeable and comfortable in water craft navigation and understand safety guidelines. Need a brush up? Many organizations, including the US and State Coast Guards, offer information and courses.

Don’t have a boat or kayak? Not to worry; the second line of attack is shore or pier fishing and has been a long-time staple of Great Lakes gear anglers. If you drive around piers in your local area you are sure to find anglers targeting their favorite species all year long. Fishing from a pier can be loads of fun and a great way to meet others. Piers often have their own "community", but again practice safety. We recommend first venturing to locations you are familiar with and that you take a friend or two along. Shore fly fishing is having a resurgence in the Great Lakes. To fly fish from the shore you will need clothing appropriate for the conditions. Waders can do the trick, just be very aware of how deep you wade and be cautious of taking on water from waves. Just like river fishing, in fishing from the shore you also need to be mindful of property rights so best to focus on areas with public beach access.

Fly-fishing from either of these venues will require some adaptations to our usual river set-up. An intermediate or sinking line is needed to get the fly down and maintain it in the water column during the swing or strip. Therefore, you will need some knowledge of sinking and intermediate lines to be able to make the appropriate selections based on the venue and conditions. It’s also advised to have a strong casting foundation, since one is likely to encounter strong fall shore winds and close proximity to other anglers. Ready to give it a go? Captain Jeff has some helpful tips and fly advice for you.

Jeff's Tips For Success

  • Having three different lines to cover all the different conditions that you might encounter is best, but if you can only have one: a 250 grain shooting head would be my first choice.

  • The three rods I have rigged and ready to roll are:

    • Scott 7 wt. Centric with SA 250 grain Sonar 25 cold

    • Scott 8 wt. Sector with SA 300 grain Sonar 25 Cold

    • Scott 9 wt. Meridian with 360 grain Sonar Titan Full Intermediate

  • Stripping baskets are a must when fishing on rocky piers or the surf. They keep your line out of the rock cervices and off the water when stripping and shooting line. Check out the SA Ecoastal basket; its super light-weight and versatile. Or just make your own out of a dish washing pan, weed whipper line and a wader belt.

  • Watch for surface activity from birds and trout chasing bait fish jumping out of the water.

  • Key in on sections of the break wall that are degrading from ice and waves and where pieces of the large armor stone have fallen into the water creating areas for bait fish to congregate.

  • Look for stained water and mud-lines from creeks, rivers or wind driven waves.

  • Concentrate on moving water around pier corners, ends, openings and bends.

  • Use the countdown method to dial in depth presentation. Migratory trout are generally high in the water column, so start with splash and strip to 3, 5, 8 and 10 second counts. On some of the piers that have access to deeper water or on super sunny clear water days you might try an 12 count or more.

  • Make your casts more parallel to the pier then straight out. Target five to fifteen feet off.

  • Vary your strip pace and length with pauses until you find the magic key for the day.

  • Example: Count to five, strip strip, pause, strip strip strip, pause, strip, repeat.

  • Use heavy-weighted dumbbell eyed flies for lots of vertical fly movement, especially when targeting Steelhead or Coho salmon.

  • Try using full intermediate fly lines and 8,9 and 10 weight outfits when fishing the surf to combat deep wading and to add distance to your cast comfortably. Most beach areas are two to six feet deep so it’s not necessary to use sinking lines most of the time.

  • Under clear and warmer water temps (50-66) sometime speed is the ticket so try 300-350 grain lines with fast strips or the two handed salt water burn strip.

Jeff's Top Flies to Try for Targeting Great Lakes Migratory Trout from Shore

There are many fly patterns that work in the Great Lakes when fishing from the piers or shore, but as a guide the three bullet points I look for in a fly are: simple, effective and easy to cast. You can always add articulation, rattles or make it unweighted or with weight. All that said; when tying streamers we sometimes tend to over-dress them when it’s not necessary; I’m guilty of that myself. Ultimately, the best streamers that have good action and hook to land ratio are ones that are all hook with very little material guarding the gap. Here's 4 proven patterns to get the ball rolling.

4” Two stage olive gray craft fur bait fish

This pattern has been without a doubt one of my top producers for warm or cold water species. It works best fished on sinking lines or intermediate depending on water clarity, and it really shines when there is three foot visibility or more. Olive gray is my go-to but play around with size and colors. Match the bait that are in the area; in lake Michigan, Huron and Ontario try tying it two tone. Add a white belly with black or dark gray top section to emulate the large alewife populations. Also tie larger versions to create a bigger profile to target walleye after the sun sets, relying on slow steady strips.

3 ½ “ Flash Attack

When the lake gets gritty and off-color, or along mud-lines, this fly will get the job done. Have a few different versions tied up, utilizing clear Flymen Fish Masks and silver bead chain eyes. It can be tied in natural bait fish colors for clearer waters, but stick with fluorescent orange, pink and chartreuse to overcome the stained water conditions.

3” Rabbit Strip Deep Minnow

What can I say other than this old stand by pattern still needs to be in your fly box. I use it when downsizing is necessary under clear water conditions or when there are abundant emerald shiners in the area. Blue/White color combinations with rainbow or gold flash are staples and experiment with different sized dumbbell eyes.

3 ¾” Flash Fly (Bearded Clouser)

This is the pattern that started things off for me along the shores and piers. I have tweaked it some from the original, but the base Clouser pattern is there. The accent color of the beard and saddle hackles seem to really make this pattern shine. Tie with light dumbbell eyes or bead chain for beach fishing and large heavy eyes for the piers for more vertical movement.


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