Spring Steelhead (Part 1)

There is some controversy over what constitutes “spring” steelhead in the Great Lakes. Historically we have broken the migration up into two separate runs, suggesting two distinct strains; fall steelhead, which typically begin in late September and continue until they are prohibited by conditions, and spring steelhead which typically begin after the first major, late winter or spring spate which clears the rivers of ice and provides free passage for staging fish.
The other school of thought is that there is not two distinct runs or strains but only one which can be halted once the cold weather sets in and the rivers become inundated with ice or the water becomes too cold to allow for regular passage. This is evident from past seasons where the weather and conditions were particularly stable and temperatures unseasonably mild, allowing regular passage throughout the winter. Case in point, the first three months of 2012 were the mildest on record in our region with slightly below average precipitation.Precip Temp 2012 This made for perfect conditions during that period and one of the best early season steelhead years that we have ever encountered. Ontario Steelhead Guides that took advantage of the mild spell worked all through January, February and March with unprecedented numbers of fish. Fifteen to twenty fish days were the norm and we did this in “May like” conditions.
On the other hand, those that didn’t react to the conditions and waited until Easter weekend to begin their steelhead fishing missed out as the run had basically ended. By the end of March, fresh fish entering the river gave way to the mass exodus of returning kelts and by the opening day of the 2012 general trout season, the steelhead were all but gone.
I recall that year very well as by the end of February, we were about 50/50 fresh fish to kelts but almost daily after February, we were exponentially taking more and more drop back fish.Spring on the Saugeen  As the conditions improved and the water temperatures rose, both new steelhead entering the rivers and those shedding out took advantage of the conditions and got done what needed to be done.
Regardless though of what you believe in terms of how the annual steelhead migration breaks down, spring steelhead need to be treated differently from those in the fall and in our next article we will discuss those differences.