How to Fish for Steelhead – My First DIY Steelhead Fishing Trip
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Trout fishing the driftless area of Wisconsin is a bucket list trip for a lot of folks. It is gorgeous countryside with fun fighting trout species like browns, brookies, and rainbows. However, it only takes a few pictures and videos to get the itch to catch one of the bigger and more acrobatic fights on a rod in Wisconsin. Steelhead rivers in the spring are a warm welcome after the long winter months. After my first steelhead fishing trip, I was hooked and needed to make at least one trip every year for these magnificent fish.
Around the time I was landing a few carp on the fly in the summer of 2017, I started thinking about a DIY steelhead fishing trip for the following spring. I called up my buddy Joe who worked in Milwaukee at the time and said we should try hitting one of the rivers together. He offered to stop at one of the fly shops after work and grab u
s both some “go-to” patterns. I was a little surprised by the cost of the flies. I think we spent about $50 each and did not end up with more than a handful of patterns. The fly shop recommended some successful local patterns (egg fly, leech, and stonefly) and he also gave us a couple of wild card options for those days when they will strike something that looks like it came off the handlebar of my kid’s bike.
Rivers all along the eastern side of Wisconsin connect to Lake Michigan and will hold fish running up to spawn in the spring. I still haven’t figured out all the different reasons that they show up in the river when they do but suffice it to say some days are good and some are bad. With young kids and limited time off work, I generally do things when I am able instead of the “best” time. Joe and I picked a Saturday and woke up super early to drive out and grab a spot on the river. To our surprise, we only saw two other anglers all morning. I think looking back our timing was off on the run which explained the relative solitude, but we still had tons of fun, saw plenty of fish swimming between our legs, and had a couple of fish stretch our lines.
The plan was pretty simple. We tied on one of the recommended patterns (egg fly and stone fly) to 10 or 12 lbs. fluorocarbon leader attached to our 8 weight fly line and fly rod and reel combo. We waded into the river which was relatively low (only coming up to our thighs in deeper pools). However, the water was clear enough you could clearly see fish swimming from pool to pool and holding in the current behind rocks or on gravel bars. We spread out and started casting, letting the fish swim to us instead of working up and down a stream like we were doing for driftless trout.
After a few casts, I had my first bite come at the end of a cast while holding my stonefly in the current just over a boulder that created an eddy and drop behind it. The fish started to race and peel line immediately. It jumped twice as it darted back and forth across the current. I was smiling and applying smooth constant pressure to the reel and hoping to bring my first steelhead to the net without it getting away. After a couple of agonizing minutes, I was able to get the net behind the fish. I instantly wanted to repeat that incredible smile forging process. After an hour without another bite, I decided to take a few steps upstream and work a hole that I could see but was just out of my reach. I got my fly caught on a log jam and the stonefly broke off. I grabbed the egg fly next, tied it on, and drifted it through that deep hole right on the outside current seam. The water was still super clear, and my fly was only feet from my waders as it drifted parallel to me downstream. All of a sudden a chrome flash darted out from the darkness of the hole and inhaled my egg. I raised the rod and pulled the line tight simultaneously. This one was bigger than the first and took a bit longer to tame into the net. The smile came right back, and despite only having a morning to fish and a long drive ahead of us, it was all worth it. I knew I wanted to come back every year for at least one chance at dancing with one of these silver speed demons.
If you are looking to try it for yourself, here is a quick list of things that will get you ready to hit the water:
Starter Steelhead Fishing Gear Kit
Spinning Rod medium action 7’6” or longer with larger spool size spinning reel
8 weight fly rod and large arbor reel with 8 weight fly line (weight forward or intermediate sinking may work depending on what fly you plan to use)
Hooks (if using spinning gear)
In-line spinners (Mepps or other brands)