Updated: Jan 3
“Fly- In for Backwards Steelhead “
Every Spring, die hard steel headers dust off the old fishing vest, hope there’s no mice nesting in the toes of the waders and spool up with fresh line. Sounds routine, doesn’t it? Well, this year I was determined to make it extra special. I’ve always heard the stories from the local fly boys, bragging about the huge steelhead that run the rivers on the coastal islands of Lake Superior.
It just made too much sense ... unpressured for decades, and close to the open lake, these legendary fish tales just might be true. Superior is the worlds largest freshwater lake and remains cold and clear. There are hundreds of unexplored islands and many species of fish such as: lake trout, brook trout, rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleye, whitefish, chinook salmon, Coho salmon and perch. I headed down to the airbase and spoke to the local operator, sure enough there was a handful of privately owned float planes that quietly returned with trophy size trout. An offer to pay the fuel bill assured my ride and the 180 sputtered up to the dock.
The aerial view was amazing and remnants of pack ice still remained locked in the shadows of back bays. I reviewed the topographical map of the islands and picked out several mid- sized rivers that held promise. The pilot had a look of concern, as landing on Lake Superior with its swells and rolling waves was challenging each and every time. We chose a river along a sheltered point that offered a good mooring area.
I could hardly contain my excitement when I saw the river mouth offering a deep pool just up from the battle of tides going on where the river met the surf. Several hundred yards upstream a smooth series of waterfalls made the first barrier for the migrating bows. I used my regular setup of a stiff one-piece Sage graphite rod and Abel reel, spooled with 10 lb Maxima line. I tied on a black ant swivel and left a 6-inch drop line with the excess. Then tied a 14-inch leader to a Gamakatsu # 4 hook and placed a roe bag firmly on it. The current called for two egg sinkers pinched onto the drop line for the perfect bottom drift rig.
Reading the water is important, as every experienced steel header knows; there’s nothing more frustrating than snagging up on your first drift, spooking the pool and having to waste minutes of prime fishing time, retying. The undercut banks held promise and so did a few large boulders, but it was late afternoon and steelhead are more active in low light, so I went to work on staging areas. The base of waterfalls is ideal, and on a television filming trip last year, I used an underwater camera to learn a fascinating thing. All the fish were facing away (downstream) from the waterfall! The current coming down the falls went to the bottom and then circled back towards the falls, it was this effect that created the perfect mix of oxygenated water with little resistance. Without knowing this, any attempt to drift a roe bag through the base of the falls would have slipped past fish that were looking in the opposite direction. I went against all logic and dragged my line upstream into the faces of the trout, until the circling water naturally picked it up. This rarely used method was the downfall of 10 trout that hour. One hook- jawed male trout tipped 14 pounds and made this fly-in adventure exceptional.
A charter can be booked with North Superior Charters or Archies Fishing Charters. These islands are also accessible by large boat through Red Rock or Rossport marinas. It is many miles of navigation so have a GPS and plan an overnight tenting adventure for the ultimate trip.