By Andrew Pegman
Opportunities abound for hardcore anglers willing to brave low temperatures to chase various species on the Great Lakes and in Great Lakes tributaries. As temps continue to drop as fall rolls on, fishing heats up for steelhead trout, lake trout, and salmon.
These magnificent fish provide all the size, beauty, and magnificence to make lifetime memories on the water. The key is getting out after them. In Ohio and Michigan, the fisheries are thriving and gathering attention within the state and from other parts of the country.
Fall Ohio Steelhead (and Lake Trout)
According to Curtis Wagner, Ohio DNR fisheries management supervisor in northeast Ohio, the Ohio steelhead-stocking program has paid significant dividends and developed into what is now a top-notch fishery.
Annually, 450,000 spring yearling steelhead are stocked, Wagner says. The steelhead-stocking program has benefited from consistency in stocking numbers over the past four years. Access, of course, is critical. However, Wagner says there is more public river access in Ohio than one may suspect.
One of Ohio’s best and most popular steelhead rivers, and the most accessible, is the Rocky River, or “The Rock,” which is 95% public access. The Vermillion is second with 57%. Other options include the Chagrin River, the Grand River, Conneaut Creek, and the Ashtabula River. On average, Lake Erie tribs contain about 61.8 public access river miles, which amounts to 46% public water. Of course, that doesn’t mean all the public areas are fully accessible and fishable for all anglers.
According to a 2022 stocking report provided by ODNR, the Rocky, Grand, and Chagrin Rivers each received more than 90,000 fish, and the Ashtabula River, Vermillion River, and Conneaut Creek received between roughly 56,000 to 82,000 fish.
However, Wagner is also excited about possibly incorporating the Cuyahoga River into the steelhead program. Now a national success story, the Cuyahoga River flows through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which would add about 32 miles of public access. Discussions are ongoing regarding if and how to distribute future stockings.
With various dedicated Ohio steelhead groups all over social media and heavy angling pressure at your favorite steelhead spot, it may seem like just about every angler in Ohio is chasing steelhead. But survey data show a different story. In fact, Wagner said, only about 14% of all anglers surveyed in 2018 fished for trout, and a 2019 survey showed only 3% of anglers selected trout as their most preferred species. Nevertheless, like muskie anglers, steelhead anglers are a dedicated and passionate group.
For those new to steelhead fishing, it’s not necessary to have access to a boat or use watercraft to catch one. In fact, Ohio fisheries biologist John Deller said many of the Ohio steelhead are being caught from the breakwalls and piers in areas such as Fairport Harbor.
The steelhead fishing has been pretty consistent, Deller said.
“Anglers cast spoons like Little Cleos or KO Wobblers, use spinners, or use jig and maggot combos or spawn drifted underneath a float,” he said.
Fly anglers who fish the rivers use a variety of patterns depending on the weather, water clarity, and personal preference. Everything from Woolly Buggers to bits of yarn can land a feisty steelhead. Indicator fishing and spey fishing are popular methods for chasing steelhead on the fly. Centerpin fishing is also gaining in popularity for those who fish the tributaries.
While almost every angler knows where to chase Ohio steelhead, not everyone knows that the occasional lake trout finds its way to the net. Deller said that if you want to catch a lake trout, the strategy seems to be to fish a bit deeper near the bottom using the same techniques as you would for steelhead.
“Work near the river mouths in the first mile or two,” Deller said. “For shore anglers, lake trout are mostly caught from breakwalls and piers as opposed to farther upstream in the tribs.”
Fall Michigan Salmon and Lake Trout
Fall fishing is a spectacular time of year for Michigan anglers, with species such as Chinook salmon, coho salmon, and lake trout as excellent options. All these species are remarkable fish, and each has its dedicated fans, but Mark Tonello, a fisheries biologist for the Michigan DNR, is excited to discuss Michigan’s salmon fishery.
“The big message is we still have a very vibrant salmon fishery that is flat-out awesome,” Tonello said.
According to a Sept. 12 Michigan DNR press release, there is some great news on the horizon for fans of the king salmon (Chinook). The Michigan DNR recently shared a proposed Chinook stocking increase of 54%, from 650,000 to 1 million fish. There are already an estimated 4.5 million wild Chinooks swimming in Lake Michigan, according to the Michigan DNR.
One of Tonello’s greatest career satisfactions is that the fishery is thriving.
“We’ve worked together with many stakeholders to make the right moves,” he said. “We’ve collaborated with our anglers to save the fishery. Our anglers paid attention and said they trust and support us. It has worked.”
Fall Chinook/King Salmon
What is unique about Chinooks? For one thing, they get big – a new Michigan state record was set last year with a Chinook that weighed over 47 pounds, Tonello said.
Tonello describes these fish as “raw power.” That means they fight.
“Chinooks go on 100-yard runs, and you can’t stop them. They tear you up, and when you hook them in cold water, they will not quit,” Tonello said. “They’re in control, and it takes some skill and luck to get them netted.”
Tonello provides the critical info on how and where to catch fall Chinooks and coho:
• Body of water: Rivers – White, Pere Marquette, Manistee, Betsie, etc.
• Time frame: Labor Day through mid-October.
• Techniques: Casting plugs, body baits, or spinners. Also, drifting skein spawn under bobbers.
• Lures: Plugs such as deep Jr. Thundersticks, Rapala Shad Raps, Berkley Flicker Minnows. Also, in-line spinners such as Oslo, Mepps, Panther Martin, and Arctic. Many anglers fish skein under bobbers using centerpin setups.
A pro tip is when Chinook are actively spawning, they typically don’t bite. Tonello knows this from experience: “You need to fish deep, dark water holes, and it’s best if you can’t see them.”
Fall Coho Salmon
As much as Tonello loves kings, he also respects cohos.
“Cohos are a neat fish that add variety to the fishery,” Tonello said. “They are not easy to land, either. A coho can go into a “death roll” and roll up your 20-pound test and snap it right off.”
According to Tonello, “Many of the techniques listed for Chinooks will also work for incidental coho salmon.”
Tonello shares where and how anglers can target cohos below:
• Body of water: Manistee River, near Tippy Dam, and Platte River. The Manistee River is stocked with 100,000 cohos annually, while the Platte is the Michigan DNR’s broodstock stream and is stocked with 700,000 cohos annually.
• Time frame: Mid-September through mid-October.
• Techniques: Casting with spinners, spoons, body baits, spawn under bobbers, and fly fishing with brightly colored streamers. *Note that there is a single hook regulation for the Platte River.
Fall Lake Trout
It’s always good to get an expert guide’s perspective on a fishery, and Tyler Smith of Pure Angling Charters has had a successful year guiding many clients for lake trout, salmon, and other species.
“The fishery has been great,” Smith said. “No issues trying to get onto lake trout on Grand Traverse Bay.”
The invasive gobies that the trout eat are a mixed blessing for lake trout anglers, as Smith believes the diet change has improved the meat quality and taste of the trout.
Smith likes vertically jigging 1- or 2-ounce jigging spoons over deeper water, but the key is fishing the correct depth, typically around 90 to 120 feet. Because the fish are so deep, Smith uses fish attractant spray but typically doesn’t tip the jigs, although some anglers like to use a bit of cut bait.
Trolling for lakers using lead core and copper lines, Dipsy Divers, and downriggers is another strategy that works well for Smith.
“The key is to bounce the bottom to stir up the sediment to get their attention,” Smith said. He typically keeps his speed between 1.7 and 2.3 mph while trolling.
Don’t expect a lake trout to fight like a Chinook, but they are feistier than walleyes.
“Lake trout put up a pretty good fight,” Smith said. “On the jigging rod is the best because you feel the fight more on the lighter tackle.”