Gather up the gumption and your cold-weather gear and head to Traverse City for winter steelhead fishing on river frontage devoid of the elbow-to-elbow crowds of the spring run.

Steelhead can be notoriously finicky, even more so come wintertime. Still, the lack of competition and the potential for a chrome chase right downtown is ample enticement.

As the Boardman succumbs to the cold, seek out the slow, wide pools for potential strikes. Facing falling water and air temperatures, steelhead will slink back into deeper holds. Watch the forecast and target relative warm-ups following a stretch of cold weather to ambush more active steelhead cruising toward traditional river lies. Slow water means small presentation. Stick to miniscule jigs tipped with waxworms such as size 10 Rat Finkees or Jammin Jigs (see gear tips below). Come equipped with a plethora of colors—chartreuse, orange and pink the go-to staples. In addition to jigs, dime-sized spawn bags are a good standby.

Wade into the river with a full 9 to 11 ft. medium-action steelhead rod. A reel spooled with 8 lbs. mono joined by a barrel swivel to a 6 lbs. fluorocarbon leader will offer enough strength without spooking wary steelies. Comb the river with a float set-up. Secure an adjustable balsa float (such as a Sheffield or Blackbird floats) and a 1/8 egg sinker to the mono above the swivel. Tie on a 3–4 ft. section of flouro leader and knot on your jig of choice at the end. The adjustable float will enable you to set the jig depth to get right into the snout of deep-holding steelhead. Hold the rod at a 45° angle to the river surface and follow the drift with the rod tip. Once the float submarines, set the hook and hang on. Steelhead are powerful and will perform impressive aerial displays and line-zinging runs.

Maintain good tension, adjust drag, and reel hand-over-fist when they come back upriver. The objective is to tire them out rather than muscle them to hand. Once you’ve wrestled the steelhead to the net, keep it in the water as much as possible. Unhook with care, let it recover, and watch as it slinks back into a wintery hold.

Gear Tips

Steelhead fishing calls for the ability to adjust and improvise—equip yourself with the Steelhead Super Tube Kit from Jammin Jigs. Consisting of 24 jigs in an array of colors and patterns, this is a good starter kit with enough variety to seduce even the most tight-lipped steelhead.

Andrew VanDrie writes from Traverse City.

Northern Michigan Fishing

Photo(s) by Andrew VanDrie