Superb Steelhead Fishing on Coastal Streams along Superior’s North Shore

Some of the finest wild steelhead fishing in Canada is found on Lake Superior’s north shore between Thunder Bay and Wawa in Northwest Ontario.

Drew Myers Lake Superior Steelhead
Drew Myers with average sized Lake Superior Steelhead
These coastal streams range from tiny rivulets to the enormous Nipigon River. Lake dwelling rainbow trout start their run in late April, but action peaks in mid-May. However, there are usually a lot of fish to catch right into June, and the action can be fast and furious.

Averaging about 5 pounds, hard-fighting steelhead take gaudy flies of orange, red and chartreuse with relish. In the slower waters, float fisherman using spawn bags catch the lion's share of steelhead.

In Thunder Bay, the Neebing and McIntyre Rivers provide anglers a lot of action. The are two separate systems, but are joined together due to a floodway built several years ago.

The Neebing has a good run of steelhead, most of which are caught below the control weir above Edward Street. The fishing and access is not great on the upper Neebing, above the highway, although some steelhead spawn in the waters off the 15th side road.

The McIntyre River is arguably the finest trout fishery in urban Thunder Bay and is certainly the most popular. The McIntyre is used heavily throughout the spring season by anglers chasing lake run steelhead. Dozens, if not hundreds, of anglers fish the "Mac" at the peak of the run, although most of the traffic is before and after work, and over the lunch hour. No fishing is allowed between the foot bridge to the field house and the large pool below the dam. It's not uncommon to see trout spawning in this section of river in May.

North of Lake Tamblyn there are some good holes above and below Hwy 11/17, and native brook trout are found in some of the deeper pools.

East of Thunder Bay around Nipigon, there are some world class streams and rivers, all of which have steelhead runs. Some of the better choices include the McKenzie, Coldwater, Wolf, Black Sturgeon, Jackpine, Cypress, Gravel, Prairie and Steel. All these rivers are intersected by the Trans Canada Hwy and, for the most part, access is quite easy to them. In fact, some of the better pools are generally accessible on either side of the highway bridges, and that makes it easy to run and gun these rivers as you drive down the shore. When the run is on, it’s not uncommon to see a dozen anglers stretched out along a popular pool or run.

However, to find truly untapped fishing, just hike up or downstream from the community holes. There are almost always trails along the rivers that lead to fishing holes, and so the adventurous angler can have a field day. Look for pools that sit between long rapids as this is where fish will rest as they travel upstream. Hooking a fish that heads downstream in heavy rapids is not for the meek.

Steelhead in hand
Steelhead are named for the bright sheen of their scales - Photo by Gord Ellis

In late May and June, “drop back” post-spawn steelhead provide exceptional sport to anglers using fly or spinning gear. These fish are quite a aggressive and will jump repeatedly when hooked. Casting spoons and crank baits where these rivers and streams empty in to Lake Superior is another great way to catch a steelhead.

You will need a good pair of insulated waders, however, as the water will be like ice, even in June. A limit of one steelhead per day is strictly enforced on the Superior’s north shore, but most anglers release their fish.

Steelhead are too good a fish to catch just once.

big north shore steelhead

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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