If you've invested any amount of time pursuing lake Ontario Steelhead then by now you are likely aware of the environmental influences that are responsible for triggering the autumn migrations. While steelies begin to trickle into the tributaries come late September, stronger numbers become more prevalent as the weeks progress - especially when influenced by cool temperatures and autumn freshets.
For the most part, the steelhead float fisherman may encounter fair to excellent fishing during this time frame as fresh run steelhead are eager feeders and are easy to locate within tailouts, runs, riffles and the heads of pools. Fast forward the autumn season to late November onto December and the steelhead scenario can change quite significantly. Now water temperatures and fish numbers will have dropped especially if it has been a somewhat normal season. In most situations, the major runs may have already passed far upstream beyond the legal fishing zones. However all is not lost as the void pools these early running fish leave behind soon becomes occupied with what might very well be the largest steelhead of the entire fishing season. For some unknown reason, the largest of the large, those wild steelie hogs in the upper teens to mid twenty pound category seem to favour entering the tributaries closer to freeze up as opposed to their earlier running cohorts.
If we speculate as to why these trophy steelies begin their migration so late in the year we can come up with a couple of theories. First off, if these behemoth sized steelies are repeat spawners, they may simply require additional feeding time out in the lake in order to replace all the weight they lost during their previous spawning run. Although repeat spawners are capable of reaching trophy size status, the more time they dedicate to migration and spawning the less likely they are to grow to such sizes … this is just one reason why trophy size steelhead are so far and few between.
There are also biological studies which indicate that some of these late running trophies are actually on their maiden spawning run having stayed in the Lake feeding and growing for consecutive years, then making a single spawning run in much the same manner as a Salmon. Whatever the reasoning behind their late autumn/early winter migrations, one thing is for certain and that is fish of these mammoth proportions are rare gems that will leave you awestruck, that is if you are lucky or wise enough to hook and land one.
So how does one begin their search for trophy chrome? First off, a good understanding of steelhead behaviour is a prerequisite to success. At this time of year water temperatures play a key role in determining where fish will locate. As water temperatures plummet to between +3 to 0 C, steelies will be found at the bottom of deep slow moving pools mainly in lower river reaches. For the most part, these fish have entered the river to ride out the winter however a warming trend or freshet may re-kindle their upstream movements. Should the weather in late November into December remain relatively constant i.e. cold temperatures with little precipitation then expect to find fish close to bottom in the deepest pools.
Perhaps the greatest mistake I see fellow anglers make at this time of year is that they continue to use the same float style and fish the same depths that they had success with earlier on in the year. Since steelie behaviour and location change during these colder water temperatures, these same anglers often go fishless. For those of you who are serious about pursuing a trophy size steelie then you have absolutely no choice but to adapt to their current behaviours. Since fish are to be found in the deepest of pools, anglers need to replace their conventional fixed floats with those of the slip float variety.
Simply put, slip floats allow us to fish deeper holding water then that of the traditional fixed float variety. They also make casting to holding water far easier as you will not have 10 to 15 feet of line hanging beneath your float prior to casting. Instructions for rigging a slip float are easy however making sense of the instructions on written paper can be quite confusing for the first-timer.
Ask your local tackle shop owner for a hands on demonstration and it will make far greater sense once you see first hand how to rig these productive floats. Since we are targeting trophy chrome in some of the deepest pools on the river, there is simply very little margin for error. The angler needs to know the exact depth of the potential holding water he is fishing otherwise you will be fishing and not catching. Finding the exact depth or the "strike zone" is a relatively simple endeavor. Simply attach a heavy weight AKA "plumb bomb" such as a ½ ounce egg sinker to your hook, then cast out and let the slip float sink to the bottom. You can then adjust your bobber stop up or down the line to get a better idea of where the stream bottom should be. "Plumb Bombs" are available at your local tackle shop. You will want to fish between 6 and 12 inches off of bottom as this is where over wintering steelhead like to situate. Again talk to your local tackle shop supplier and he should be able to demonstrate how this system works. As for bait, all anglers seem to have their preference, some are successful with roe bags, some with worms but personally, my greatest success has been with weighted marabou or rabbit jigs. The added weight of these steelhead jigs also gets down to the strike zone quicker. Steelhead jigs are often lethal whether you're fishing for trophy chrome in late autumn or drop backs in the spring, so be certain to carry a variety.
Targeting trophy chrome can be a solitary experience as one often deals with cold temperatures, wind and sometimes snowy blizzard like conditions (just the way I like it). This is definitely not the time for the fair weather fisherman. If you should be lucky enough to land one of our Lake Ontario giants please consider releasing these rare gems albeit after some pictures of course.
Research indicates that these elusive solitary behemoths only make up for less than 1% of the total steelhead population. While not illegal to take one home, removing such a rare gem and its genetics from the wild gene pool would seem to be an injustice to the fishery. Steelhead of this magnitude have the genetics for large growth and longevity therefore it only makes common sense to release these gems to propagate and pass those genes for large growth and longevity onto the next generation. As with anything in life, education is the key to success. Hopefully I have helped you gain some insight and knowledge about our elusive trophy steelhead.
So bundle up, slide on a slip float and good luck targeting trophy chrome.