July 23 • 01:04 PM

Slammin' Winter Steelhead

They go berserk under the ice

The major advantage of using Slammer tip-ups for steelies, besides improved hookups, is the fact that you have a rod and a reel with a drag to fight the fish. Mike Gnatkowski photo
December 01, 2007
Great Lakes anglers know how much fun battling feisty steelhead in open water is. But imagine how tough it would be to land one of those lively devils through the ice. Granted, they wouldn't jump as much (ha!), but you can be sure that you'd have one heck of a tussle getting them to the hole. Well, there's a cadre of Michigan anglers who specialize in doing just that.

Michigan's drowned river mouth lakes offer the perfect venue for ice fishing for steelhead. Rivers that dump into Lake Michigan on Michigan's West Coast form lakes or drowned river mouths before they enter the big lake. Steelheads take up residence in these lakes during the fall and winter cruising around, feeding and staging before heading upstream in late winter and early spring. In between, ice anglers have the perfect opportunity to try their hand at icing these spirited battlers.

Steelheads can be caught through the ice using conventional rods and reels, tip-ups or ice-fishing jigging rods. You can hunt elk with a .22 too. It's just not the best way to do it. Baits presented via conventional tip-ups or rod and reels offer too much resistance to light-biting steelheads for them to hold on long enough for anglers to run to a rod and set the hook. Steelies are also very spooky under clear ice too and it usually pays to get away from your setup.

With an abundance of steelies milling around under the hard surface curious anglers reasoned there had to be a better way of hooking, and landing, steelheads through the ice. After a lot of head scratching and experimentation an inventive group of anglers found a way to build a better mouse trap.

A device called a "whip-up" has been used by anglers in the Great Lakes region since the early 1970's to catch trout through the ice on bays and estuaries. The whip-up served as a prototype for the new, improved version called a Slammer tip-up. The Slammer differs from the original whip up in that it is adjustable for different rod lengths and has a simple trip mechanism.

"We probably came up with the original Slammer prototype back in the early 1990s," said Slammer manufacturer Matt Schalk. "My buddy Rich Maciag came up with the idea for the ring mechanism, which makes the Slammer adjustable to fit different rod lengths and actions and produces the positive hookups we were looking for."

Slammer tip-ups are available in kit form or assembled from Slamco at (248) 399-4341 or online at

The new-improved Slammer features an L-shaped piece of 1 x 4-inch lumber and a cross member that helps stabilize the tip-up. On the top of the upright is a ringed release mechanism, which is basically an eye screw with a large split ring attached to it. To set the rod, the second eye on the rod is bent back slightly to fit under the ring when the rod is in the set position. Kind of like a downrigger on ice. A fish moving through takes the bait and pulls the rod tip downward, releasing the tension and the guide from under the split ring. The rod snaps skyward to set the hook. Fish on!

The major advantage of using Slammer tip-ups for steelies, besides improved hookups, is the fact that you have a rod and a reel with a drag to fight the fish. That's a big advantage when a chromer is doing his best to bash a hole through the ice.

Steelheads go berserk under the ice. You need to think fast and be prepared to plunge your rod tip under the ice or risk getting sawed off. Obviously the rainbows can't jump, but they can smoke 100 yards of line off a reel in a heartbeat and come screaming back toward you just as fast. Besides a Slammer, one of the most important pieces of equipment for icing steelies is a reel that is ultra-smooth and not prone to freezing up. Spool it up with a premium, clear 6- to 8-pound monofilament. The water can be super-clear in the dead of winter.

"You don't need a real fancy rod for Slammers," said Schalk. In fact, reasonably priced to downright cheap rods work best. "The ideal rod is a 5-foot, medium/light two-piece made from fiberglass, composite or graphite. It needs to have that parabolic bend; otherwise it will compress or break." Fact is that slow-action composite rods can withstand the abuse a steelie can hand out and being contorted in a Slammer set better than a graphite rod.

Bait for steelheads under the ice follows the rule, "the fresher the better." "The fish seem to prefer fresh spawn," says Slammer originator Doug Gruno.

Gruno said that salmon spawn will work, but fresh steelheads eggs will out fish old salmon spawn 10 to one. Spawn from immature steelhead is often dynamite. Usually, the spawn is tied up into nickel- to quarter-sized bags with various colors of floaters in them. Netting color is a matter of personal preference. The spawn bag is then anchored with a split shot about a foot above it so the spawn bags floats just off bottom. A number 8 to 4 single hook works best with spawn.

Wigglers are another option. "Wigglers are better during midwinter," said Gruno. "I think they're available to the fish then because they molt during the winter and migrate from deeper water to the flats where the steelheads are." The best tactic for wigglers is to gob three or four on a number 12 treble hook. Steelies suck them in like spaghetti. Wigglers can be especially productive in slack water situations. Spawn seems to work better in the current.

Generally, winter steelheads frequent flats leading from drop-offs in 4 to 10 feet of water. The location is even better if there is some current nearby. A hot spot is on the edge of the current and the slack water. Steelies will patrol this edge. Look for places where creeks or streams enter the lake. As always, when you're ice fishing and there's current you need to use extra caution. Ice conditions can be unpredictable. Current also funnels debris so check you baits periodically.

Hot times for ice action for steelheads is first and last ice. Although the fish are available all winter, the rainbows are most active when the ice first forms. When melting ice and increased run-off coincides with schools of silver bullets hitting the river mouths in late winter, action can be smokin'. Look for steelies under the ice to most active at first and last light. The bite can last longer or throughout the day on dark overcast days.

Michigan's drowned river mouth lakes offer ideal winter steelhead haunts. Potential Slammin' hotspots include west side venues like Betsie Lake, Portage Lake, Manistee Lake, Pere Marquette Lake, Pentwater Lake, White Lake, and Muskegon Lake and anywhere else steelheads like to congregate during the winter. Ice-anglers are just discovering the great Slammer bite on Grand Traverse Bay off the mouth of the Boardman River and Mitchell Creek. Thunder Bay near Alpena is another location that has great potential. Michigan also boasts numerous large inland lakes that are home to landlocked stocks of rainbows that grow to steelhead proportions. Can you say, "Grab the Slammers!"

Michigan doesn't have a lock on ice-fishing for steelheads either. "Here in Wisconsin targeting fishing for steelhead through the ice does not have a large following," claimed Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Paul Peeters. "We do have a small but dedicated group of ice anglers that will fish some of our harbors and lower rivers during safe ice cover." Peeters said that anglers can be found chasing steelheads and browns through the ice at Algoma on the Ahnapee River, at Kewaunee on the Kewaunee River, the East and West Twin River at Two Rivers, the Manitowoc River at Manitowoc, and the Root River at Racine. "However," said Peeters, "any of the harbors, lower rivers can be fished as ice conditions permit."

No doubt states like Ohio and New York have similar settings where winter steelheads are available. Others locations are waiting to be discovered in neighboring Great Lakes states.

Visions of silvery steelhead dancing in your head? Why wait 'til spring?

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