Steelhead Fever

The feel of a steelhead roaring down a river is one of the most thrilling experiences in angling

The time and place I captured my very first steelhead -- a lake run form of rainbow trout -- is a little bit fuzzy.  I think it was in McVicar Creek, below the falls at Maudsley Court, in Thunder Bay. Or it may have been on a small trout creek near Dorion, a river east of Nipigon. To be honest, time and age have blurred the memory. One thing is for sure, though: at some point, I fell madly in love with spring steelhead fishing.

It took a while. In fact, as a kid, I only wanted to fish brook trout. It was my father who was the steelhead nut. One childhood memory that's still very sharp is my dad coming home with a bright rainbow he'd caught at the McIntyre River. It was the mid-60s -- a time when steelhead fishing was still pretty much in its infancy in the Lakehead. Gord Sr. had been bitten by the rainbow bug early, though, and was sneaking off to the river before work.

My mom loves to tell the story of how while she was eight months pregnant with my sister, Dad would ask her each morning if it was OK if he went fishing for an hour or two. With my brother and I still asleep, he would rush down to the McIntyre River for a few drifts before the family awoke. Roy and I would awaken to find my dad taking off his fishing gear and putting on his suit. I wonder if he ever smelled like fish at school?

As a young man, steelhead fishing was a true obsession. I'd prepare for it all winter, tying little green yarn flies and leaders and getting my vest organized. My dad, a few buddies and I would often camp along our favourite streams. Sometimes we'd be in a tent or trailer, other times things were a bit rougher. More than a few overnight campouts were made in the back or front seat of a buddy's car. This was not only cold but highly uncomfortable. Morning would take forever to come, and when it did, it was chilly. We'd fish for a few hours, then retreat to our warm beds at home.

Gord Ellis with a pretty lake-run rainbow trout commonly known as steelhead. (Photo credit: Gord Ellis)

These days, I'm a little more relaxed about my steelhead fishing. Where it was once all about how many fish were caught per season, I'm now satisfied to catch a few and am happy to savour the days I can get out.

My dad and I have spent many a wonderful day fishing on the coastal streams on Lake Superior's north shore. Gord Sr. and I have been fishing steelhead together for 40 years, and we enjoy the nostalgia of it as much as the angling. In recent years I've been using a fly rod a lot, and it can work very well. Drifting dual flies with a bead head nymph and a trailing egg imitation is my go-to. It's a great feeling to play a big fish in white water with a fly rod and reel.

Gord Sr. prefers a modified form of fly fishing called bottom bouncing that has proven very effective over the years. It requires a dropper weight with either egg sinkers or what's called a "slinky rig." The whole work is bounced along bottom and the fish grab the fly on the way by. I would not want to wager a guess at how many steelies have fallen to that rig on north-shore streams. The number is in the thousands.

In quieter waters, a float rig works well. The float supports a fly or bag of rainbow eggs that is fished just off the bottom. A few wingless split shots are used to get the bait down. You let the float drift downstream and when it dips under, you set the hook and you're in business. The feel of a steelhead roaring down a river is one of the most thrilling experiences in angling.

Lake Superior steelhead, shiny like a nickel. (Photo credit: Gord Ellis)

The sound of a river is music to the ears. The spring sun feels wonderful after a morning of rain. It just feels good to be alive. It's amazing how your measure of success can change as the years go by.

But I still like catching a steelhead.

Lake Superior steelhead caught on a fly. (Photo credit: Gord Ellis)
About Gord Ellis

Gord Ellis is a lifelong resident of Thunder Bay, Ontario and a full time journalist, broadcaster, professional angler and guide. He is the senior editor of Ontario Out of Doors magazine, Canada's best read fishing and hunting magazine. Gord is a regular on CBC radio's Superior Morning and writes a monthly column on Ontario for the Northern Wilds magazine, in Minnesota. He has written over a thousand feature articles and columns for publications as diverse as Sentier Chasse Peche, in Quebec, the Financial Post and the Globe and Mail. He is a long time member of the Outdoor Writers of Canada and has won better than 25 national awards for his writing and photography. In 2018, Gord was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

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