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Lake Michigan offshore steelhead


Charter captains affectionately refer to it as... "Bird Land"



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July 01, 2010
Charter captains affectionately refer to the north-central portion of Lake Michigan as "bird land." It's here that upwellings, wind, current and temperature breaks form scum lines that attract steelheads. Nomadic rainbows from all over the lake are drawn to the cool, mid-summer temperatures found over the deep recesses in the northern part of the lake and a plethora of terrestrial insects on which to gorge. Charter captains discovered the bonanza somewhat by accident back in the early 1980's when Chinook salmon populations in the lake crashed and captains had to find some fish to keep their customers happy. They reasoned that steelheads that showed up to run the rivers in the spring and fall had to be out there somewhere in the big lake. The question was, "Where?"

Surface temperature maps generated by satellites went a long way towards solving the mystery. The images showed a giant pool of cold water situated smack dab in the center of the lake. Captains reasoned it had to be where the steelheads spent the summer months. After a lot of trail and error and gas, captains started to take advantage of the opportunity. They discovered that even though they were fishing over hundreds of feet of water, the steelheads oriented to the surface and the food source found there. Terrestrial insects would collect in thick windrows along the scum lines formed by clashing currents, upwelling and wind. Seagulls would be lined up like robins on a picket fence taking advantage of the bounty. Minnows, like young-of-the-year bloater chubs, shiners and sticklebacks, would forge under the trash. For steelhead it was like belling up to the buffet table. Most times the rainbows could be caught within a yardstick of the surface.

Downriggers were just about useless for targeting the spooky steelheads in the gin-clear water. Savvy captains found that small, in-line planer boards and stealthy diver set-ups were ideal for getting baits out away from the boat and in front of the recalcitrant rainbows. The first commercially made in-line planer was fashioned by a pair of Sheboygan, Wisconsin anglers and was called a Yellow Bird. The lightweight planers were perfect for presenting small spoons and crankbaits to the cruising rainbows. In addition, they were simple to use and didn't require a mast like traditional planers boards. It wasn't long before a 10- or 20-mile run to the steelhead grounds was termed "heading to bird land."

The fantastic steelhead fishing anglers discovered 30 years ago is still there. In fact, it might be better than ever.

"Our latest studies found fish up to age 8, so there are a tremendous number of steelhead in the lake and a variety of sizes," said Jim Dexter, DNRE Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator. "Our stocking studies show that these fish gravitate towards the middle of the lake during the summer months regardless of the strain or where they are planted."

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Prime time for offshore steelies continues into July. The steelheads are still present in August. The author’s son displays a nice steelie. Author photos
The DNRE plants upwards of 475,000 steelheads in the lake annually. Natural reproduction contributes another 20 to 40%, so there's no shortage of steelheads. Dexter said that while the state's river steelhead fishery is kind of up and down, fishing on the big lake for steelhead is usually very consistent all summer long. "Steelheads are very common catches all summer long. Not many anglers are targeting steelhead though because the Chinook fishery has been so good," claimed Dexter. That may change now that gas prices have declined again and Chinook salmon fishing has kind of leveled off. Dexter pointed out that steelhead are not as dependent on baitfish like salmon so their numbers have been more stable. That's one reason the future of steelhead in Lake Michigan looks bright. Dexter said that the MDNR is exploring ways that they can rear more steelheads to plant in the lake.

Michigan isn't the only one dumping young steelhead into lake. "We are stocking about 350,000 steelhead annually in Lake Michigan," claimed WDNR fisheries biologist Paul Peters. Peters said that the number is below the WDNR's target of 500,000 steelheads. "We've had some major problems in the hatcheries with water problems and reduced flows that have limited production." Peters said that the team of six biologists that manage Wisconsin's steelhead program had a 10-year plan to improve the steelhead fishery in Lake Michigan. The hatchery problems and the lack of available brood stock has resulted in fewer steelhead being planted than desired, but the WDNR is still making substantial contributions to the overall population.

Wisconsin currently plants two strains of steelheads- the Chambers Creek strain and the Ganaraska strain. "Initially we'd hoped to plant three strains of steelhead strains to provide a more diverse fishery over the entire year," said Peters, "but our inability to find a disease-free egg source of Skamania steelhead has put the Skamania program out of business."

Peters echoed Jim Dexter's comments in that regardless where you plant the fish, it has little to do with where the fish are caught. Peters said that the steelheads provide great fishing not only in the northern half of Lake Michigan, but at other Wisconsin ports as well when the wind blows from the right direction. Peters was quick to point out though that offshore steelhead fishing is often a here-to-day-gone-tomorrow proposition.

Captain Bill Warner has been chasing steelheads on Lake Michigan out of Ludington for more years than he'd like to admit. And while Chinook salmon are the most dependable and economical way to fill the box, anytime you get to spend a day catching cartwheeling steelies it's special.

"We haven't had to fish specifically for steelhead in recent years because the salmon fishing has been so good," explained Warner. "The fish are there if you want to go after them. There are times in June and early July when the salmon haven't shown up in big numbers yet and it's nice to have the steelhead to fall back on." Warner said two locations produce out of Ludington for steelhead most of the summer. Head southwest out of the harbor to the 200- to 400-foot depths or head northwest where if you go far enough you'll find some of the deepest water in Lake Michigan. Boats from Ludington to Manistee to Frankfort end up fishing basically the same water when the breaks and scum lines form in the middle of the lake.

Prime time for offshore steelies starts in early June and continues into July. The steelheads are still present in August, but the surface temperature breaks dissipate and the fish are less concentrated then. The steelheads are still there and fishing deeper can produce a mixed bag of salmonids. From about now until the end of the month is prime time.

"Finding the fish is half the battle," said Warner. "The surface temperature maps will put you in the general location and then it's more hunting than it is fishing. Once you find the breaks and the fish it can be spectacular." Warner said limits are common and to catch 15 steelies you're probably going to have three times that many on. "They're spectacular fighters," smirked Warner. "Charter captains refer to them as "jumpers." They're out of the water more than they're in. I don't think there's any prettier sight than seeing one of those silver bullets come blasting out of the water."

To try your hand catching steelheads on the Michigan side of the pond contact Captain Bill Warner at (810) 730-3818 or online at williewonkacharters.com.

Fishing for summer steelies can be equally fantastic on the Wisconsin side of the lake. The last couple summers have been a little different, but in a good way.

"The last few years the rainbows have been in 300 feet of water or less," offered Captain Keith "Tiger" Ihlenfeldt, who fishes out of the port of Kewaunee. "Usually to find the rainbows we head out six to 10 miles to 500 to 600 feet of water, but they've been shallower the last couple of years." Ihlenfeldt said that at times the trout can be widely scattered and the breaks that concentrate them hard to find, but rainbows usually fill the box in June and July. Ihlenfeldt has seaworthy Chris Crafts, Tiger and Tiger II, that he charters out of the port.

Ihlenfeldt said the hottest steelie spoon was one made by Big Lake Tackle locals call neon/pink. "The spoon has a copper back and the regular size seems to be the most productive," he said. Like Lake Michigan steelheads anywhere, the 'bow like hot colors like pink, orange and red. Inlenfeldt said he sticks the hot pink spoon behind Yellow Birds and Dipsey Divers and spots them just below the surface when targeting rainbows.

With gas prices less than half of what they were last year and salmon numbers predicted to be lower this summer it might be time again to head to "bird land" in search of rainbows.

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