Steelhead anglers must be willing to adjust
Written by The Columbus Dispatch   
Thursday, 09 March 2006 10:49

The worst thing about fishing for steelhead in Ohio is that conditions can change dramatically from day to day. That also can be the best thing about fishing for steelhead in Ohio.

Variability being what it is, any favored technique is almost guaranteed to work occasionally. However, anyone looking for something beyond occasional success needs to be able to make adjustments.

"The key to being successful is versatility and being prepared for conditions," said Craig T. Lewis, a fishing guide and owner of Erie Outfitters, a bait, tackle and fly shop located west of Cleveland.

In fishing, in other words, it’s almost always better to be good than lucky.

Becoming proficient starts with being fully prepared, something that understandably can’t be said about every angler from central Ohio who decides to give northern Ohio steelhead a try. At least some have the good sense to inquire.

"What kind of equipment do I bring is probably the biggest question I get asked," Lewis said. "I then find out whether they are interested in fly fishing or spinning."

The good news is that both methods work. The bad news is that neither works best all the time. That’s why many local anglers take both fly rods and spinning tackle.

Learning to use both effectively takes some doing, but starting with the right equipment represents the first step.

"Many times, I get people from central Ohio and their expectation is to catch stream trout, like you might find in the Mad River," Lewis said. "They come up here with a 4- or 5-weight rod and get brutalized."

Steelhead grow big and powerful in Lake Erie, and such fish coming up the rivers to spawn can weigh 20 pounds. Light rods can catch large fish, Lewis said, but light equipment over the long haul generally translates into lost fish and broken gear.

Any fly angler who hopes to tangle regularly with brutes will do better employing an 8- or 9-weight rod with a limber tip and a lot of backbone.

"You have to be ready for a battle," Lewis said.

The same holds true for spinning outfits. A relatively short, medium-action rod might do well for bass or saugeye and can hook and land a steelhead, but 28-, 29- and 30-inch lake-run rainbows are best handled with 9- or 10-foot noodle rods.

The length of a noodle rod makes it easier to precisely place a bait beneath a float in a way that allows it to work naturally in a current. Once a fish is hooked, a long, lithe rod with backbone near the base acts like a shock absorber, decreasing the chance that a running and jumping steelhead will break off.

"If I were new and thought I might want to fish for steelhead regularly, the first thing I would do is get an acceptable spinning rod and an acceptable fly rod," Lewis said.

One additional reason for mastering both is that fish can be found in the morning in holes where noodle- or float-rod techniques reach deep. Later in the day, as the sun warms the water, steelhead can be reached in stream areas accessible to fly equipment.

Most fishing trips should start with a visit to an outfitter or bait shop; the more specialized the needs, the more expertise is required. The use of baits, lines and rigging techniques is changeable, teachable and important. If approached with an open mind and a willingness to learn, most shop owners are glad to share lore. They want their customers to be successful, if only so they’ll return on their next trip.

With customer comfort in mind, Lewis made a point to caution central Ohio anglers about Lake Erie weather.

"Many of the people don’t dress warm enough," he said. "They’ll be wading in icy water deeper than knee deep, so they need to bulk up with fleece pants and underliners."

Along with warm clothes, a raincoat is also a must. The best steelhead fishing arrives in April, Lewis said, and there are no April showers in Ohio like Lake Erie showers, which can come down in drops or as flakes.

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