Fishing for Ontario Steelhead

Tips and Advice From a Top River Guide

Fishing for Ontario Steelhead

As a steelhead guide I know steelhead are both a mystery to some anglers and a favorite fish to others. Fishing for Ontario Steelhead doesn’t have to be so hard, you just need to know some effective methods and how to time the runs. I get emails from some anglers saying they haven’t caught a steelhead in over 20 fishing trips, while other anglers are telling me they just hooked over 30 in one day. This page covers my guide tips and my advice so you can better understand and catch more steelhead.

Ontario steelhead are basically migratory rainbow trout and are arguably the hardest fighting fish around with fresh run fish pulling hard and often leaping multiple times with seemingly endless endurance.

These fish are a favorite of many anglers because of their fighting ability and their abundance. There aren’t to many other fish in Ontario where you can catch 10 to 30 between 3 and 10 pounds in one day. Anglers who fish these great fish are often referred to as steelheaders.

A smaller Ontario steelhead know as a shaker
A small feisty steelhead known to the locals as a shaker

Ontario Steelhead

Common Steelhead Names – Many local anglers refer to steelhead as Bows, Rainbows or just Rainbow trout and if you spend enough time on a steelhead river you may hear the terms Shakers, Silvers or Chromers because of their silvery look they get from being in the clear waters of the lake.

If you ever hear the common term “Shaker”, a shaker is a smaller steelhead, usually about 18 inches or less and they get that name for the rolling and twisting style of fight they often give anglers. Shakers are often bright silver immature fish that have come back into the river for the first time.

Once these shakers get to that 20″ range they tend to fight more like the bigger fish with long runs and less twisting.

STEELHEAD FISHING REGULATIONS

 Regulations – So as not to confuse anyone,  the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) lists steelhead in the regulations as rainbow trout.  I may refer to them as rainbow trout or steelhead from here on since they are basically the same thing. Please go to the OMNR website and read through the regulations carefully before going fishing.

For more tips and info on the Ontario Fishing regulations go to our Ontario Fishing Regulations Page here..

Ontario Steelhead

ONTARIO STEELHEAD LIFE CYCLE

Steelhead are born in a river where they spend their first 1 to 3 years before they migrate to one of the great lakes where they will feed on baitfish and quickly grow very big.

After a year or two in the big lake they will often return to the same river they were born in to spawn and because of this life cycle they are know as a migratory rainbow trout. Steelhead can spawn 2 to 3 times over a period of years before they die and they can reach sizes over 29 pounds in Ontario.

The largest wild steelhead recorded in Ontario was a 29 pound steelhead from the Nottawasaga River. Most steelhead don’t live more then 6 years but some can live about 9 years and in most rivers an average steelhead would be 4 to 7 pounds. Although they do not return to an ocean like their west coast ancestors did, Ontario steelhead still exhibit the same behavioral traits as their ocean going cousins.

History of Naturalized Steelhead

Naturalized is a term used by the OMNR for a fish that is not native to the area but is living and surviving naturally in Ontario waters.

Ontario steelhead are not native to the great lakes region but started showing up around the late 1800’s after the USA stocked them on there side of the great lakes.

The first substantial runs of steelhead in Ontario are believed to be from the Nottawasaga river where steelhead escaped in early 1890’s from a trout farm on the Pine River, a tributary of the Nottawasaga River, and then returned to spawn on their own.

Since then most or all rivers and creeks flowing into the great lakes have some steelhead in them, partially due to huge stocking efforts from the USA and the OMNR over the last 50+ years.

Fishing Steelhead in Ontario

IDENTIFYING STEELHEAD

There are many different strains of steelhead due to multiple stocking using eggs from many different west coast rivers and different strains of steelhead. 

At this time most Ontario steelhead reproduce naturally with only minimal supplemented stocking done by the OMNR and the percentage of wild versus stocked fish varies from one river to the next.

Identifying Steelhead – A resident stream rainbow trout and a steelhead can sometimes be hard to tell the difference because after a steelhead enters a river it starts to lose that silver sided look and often takes on more colorful markings which can be very similar to a resident rainbow trout. When the steelhead first enter the river they are usually very bright with silver sides and can easily be identified.  Here you can see the difference from a late fall steelhead that has been in the river for a while compared to a early fall steelhead that just entered the river and a spring run fish being held by myself. 

A colored steelhead
A fresh run steelhead
Spring run steelhead from the Credit River

Steelhead also tend to be much bigger then resident rainbows which rarely get bigger then 20 inches. The closer to the spawn and the longer a steelhead is in the river the more colorful the steelhead can be. The males can often grow larger teeth and a kype or hooked jaw with very dark colors including red cheeks and a red stripe with increased spotting like the steelhead picture above. Also notice the two dark steelhead in the top pictures are males and the silver steelhead is a female. The females tend to have smaller more rounded heads with their eyes closer to the end of their nose and the males tend to have bigger heads with a more elongated nose and the eyes are set further back.

Although many anglers keep the females to use their eggs as bait, releasing females helps maintain good populations and is HIGHLY recommended. Males tend to have more color on the cheeks but some spawning females can also have color in their cheeks and body and some males might have no color at all if they just entered the river so color and markets are not always the best way to determine the difference between male and female. Normally once the spawning steelhead returns back to the lake they heal their wounds from spawning and start to turn silvery again.

A fall run male steelhead

A client with one of 4 spring steelhead caught in a few hours.

TIMING OF THE STEELHEAD RUNS

Steelhead Runs – We are lucky to have steelhead in many of our rivers from September until May giving anglers 9 months to target these silver bullets. With some exceptions it’s possible to even find steelhead in the river even in the middle of the summer giving anglers 12 months of steelhead fishing.  We call these summer fish hold over’s and they are often fish that ran the river in late spring and got trapped in the river when the waters dropped and became to low for them to safely move out of the river and back to the lake.

With most trout species in Ontario, catching only 1 or 2 fish over 20 inches is considered a great day, but with steelhead its not uncommon for skilled anglers to catch 5 or more over 20 inches in a day, and if you learn how to predict the runs and you learn how to effectively fish for them you could catch 20 or 30 big steelhead in a day. 

ONTARIO FALL STEELHEAD

Fall Steelhead – On many rivers the peak steelhead runs often occur after large rains starting in October and can continue with each rain until the river freezes or gets to cold which often slows or halts their migration. Increased water flows are often the main factor for the fish to enter and move up the river since the increased water allows them to move up the river easier.

Although steelhead will start running up rivers as early as even late August on some rivers about 95% wont actually spawn until late winter or early spring which means late March and April. So why do they run in September, October and November if they don’t actually spawn until the spring?

As a guide I get that question a lot. Some call this fall migration a false run and although there are many theories as to why they run the rivers in the fall nobody is really 100% sure why they run in the fall. Some say its because they follow the salmon up to feed on the highly nutritious salmon eggs. Others say its in their nature to head for the spawning grounds very early because on some west coast rivers they need to travel hundreds of miles up rivers traversing multiple obstructions so they leave early to be sure they make it to the prime spawning grounds on time.

Guide Graham with a Bronte Creek steelhead

Head guide of A Perfect Drift Guide Company with a nice early September steelhead

Some say it’s a water temperature thing that triggers the runs and those temps occur in the fall and in the spring. Regardless of their reason many anglers know the fall steelhead can often be the hardest fighting fish due to them being in good health from feeding all summer and from the water temperatures being perfect.

The guides at A Perfect Drift Guide Company say the best times are usually mid October to late November with peak fishing the last week of October and the first 3 weeks of November when double digit days are common for them however it’s not uncommon to have great high number days throughout December with the added bonus of a lot less anglers out fishing at that time.

An Ontario Steelhead river

A fall salmon and steelhead river.

ONTARIO STEELHEAD RIVERS

Steelhead Rivers – I think about 90% of rivers flowing into the great lakes get some steelhead in them. There are however some well known rivers that get substantial runs over 10,000 fish a year and some over 20,000.  For a listing of these rivers check out our River Page.

River Access – This is a difficult topic because in Ontario river anglers have very limited access to many rivers. In some cases almost entire creeks and rivers are private property. We do not have a high water rule which would allow anglers to walk the banks and therefore some bank and even the river bottoms will be private property. Our OMNR is pretty much useless when it comes to helping river anglers with determining what is private property and what isn’t, so anglers are often left in the dark and wondering if the can or can not access certain areas and certain river beds. For the best tips on access check out our river access page.

Productive Baits for Steelhead – If you use the right bait for the conditions of the day you could land multiple steelhead. In fact sometime the right bait could mean the difference between many fish and no fish. Some of the most productive baits for fall steelhead include:

Best Baits FOR STEELHEAD

Productive Baits for Steelhead – If you use the right bait for the conditions of the day you could land multiple steelhead. In fact sometime the right bait could mean the difference between many fish and no fish. Some of the most productive baits for fall steelhead include:

Best baits for Ontario Steelhead

Plastic Steelhead Worms in colors pink, natural brown and red seem to work the best but I have also had luck with light purple, white and Chartreuse.

Another bait that has grown in popularity are plastic and glass beads specifically the ones made for steelhead fishing. The same guidelines I use for size and color with roe bags also apply for beads (see below).

The fly fishing anglers catch lots of steelhead and flies can be used under a float or on the bottom bouncing method with a centerpin or spinning reel.

If you are a spin angler, you can try spinners, kwikfish, spoons, jigs and sometimes minnow style crank bait lures which can all be productive at times.

Some anglers will use small garden worms or even full sized dew worms right up until the river starts to freeze but I find most of the time that the plastic worms stay on the hook better and catch more fish. For more detailed information on baits and gear go to the Float Fishing Page

Best baits for Ontario Steelhead
The best baits for Ontario Steelhead

Brown trout eggs tied by the me for my clients.

FISH EGGS AS BAIT

Fish Eggs – One of the most popular baits for steelhead is the roe bag.  Roe bags are also known simply as “roe”, or as egg sacks, or spawn bags. Roe bags are salmon or trout eggs within a mesh sack. The most common eggs used are chinnok salmon eggs, but brown trout eggs, rainbow eggs or even brook trout eggs can be great and I have even used sucker eggs with good success.

You can buy roe bags pre-tied or buy the eggs and the tying materials and then tie them yourself. I recommend using store bought eggs over wild caught eggs since these eggs often come from fish farms and do not deplete the natural steelhead and salmon numbers. I don’t recommend the the ones in the jars packed in oil like you get at some big box stores and instead recommend ones from the local tackle shops. This is a video on “How To Tie Roe Bags” to see how it’s done. The picture shows some tied up brown trout eggs and the mesh used to tie them. Tying you own eggs allows you to use the colors and sizes that best suite the river conditions at the time you are going fishing and since conditions change daily you may find one size a color that worked one day, may not work a few days later because the river conditions change. The best place I know of for good quality roe and steelhead gear is on-line  at www.fishheadscanada.net

ROE BAG SIZE AND COLOR

 Roe Bag Size and Color- A basic guideline for how big to tie your own bags is 

  • Huge bags – the size of a ping pong ball or Dollar coin in Chartreuse or bright pink colors for when the water is off colored or muddy, red might also be a good color.
  • Nickle and quarter sized bags for stained water that is between dirty and clear. I’d try pink, chartreuse, oranges.
  • Use smaller bags the size of a dime or a pea and in more natural and lighter colors like peach, light pink or white when the water is low and clear
  • Super clear water – white mesh and believe it or not blue might also be a good option in very clear water.

I’ve also been know to use light purple which is hard to get sometimes but if you hit a craft store your might find something there that works.

For more information on fishing with roe check or the Float Fishing Page

A steehead caught on a centerpin reel

A bright silver fall fish caught on a guide trip with A perfect Drift Guide Company

FLOAT FISHING FOR STEELHEAD

Float Fishing For Steelhead – Float fishing for steelhead doesn’t mean floating down a river in a boat for steelhead, however that is one way of targeting steelhead in Ontario. Float fishing is the most popular way to present a roe bag or other bait to steelhead by using a “float” or as some may call it a “bobber”. Anglers often refer to this method as “Float Fishing” or Centerpin Fishing.

Float fishing under the right conditions and with the right skills can be the most productive and most consistent way to catch steelhead in Ontario and in almost all great lakes rivers. There is a lot more to just throwing your bobber and bait out and watching it go, although that seams to be how most anglers do it. A skilled float angler will out-fish and non-skilled angler 10 to 1 in my opinion because of a few simple skills. This is why it’s so important to learn how to do it right.

For more detailed information on Float Fishing and Centerpin Fishing go to our Float Fishing page.

A steehead caught on a centerpin reel

A bright silver fall fish caught on a guided trip with A perfect Drift Guide Company

SPIN FISHING FOR STEELHEAD

Some anglers still use spinning reels for this method which is Ok and it works ok but it’s not the most effective reel for this type of fishing. On some bigger rivers like the Niagara or some of the huge rivers out west some anglers might even use baitcast reels. But if you want to use the best reel it’s the centerpin reel. Centerpin reels have now become the reel of choice for most hardcore Ontario steelheaders. The reason anglers are using centerpin reels versus the traditional spinning reels is because it is a much more effective at presenting the float and the bait to the fish and it’s a lot of fun. Many times I’ve guided two anglers, 1 with a centerpin and 1 with a spinning reel and 9 out of 10 times the centerpin guy will catch the most fish.

The guides at A Perfect Drift Guide Company have been teaching and fishing with Centerpin reels long before centerpin reel became popular. For many years and possibly to this day they are the only full time guide services in Ontario offering lessons and guided trips specializing in centerpin fishing.

Steelhead from Ontario

Head Guide Graham holding a spring steelhead caught on a lure.

FLY FISHING FOR STEELHEAD

Fly Fishing For Steelhead – fly fishing is a great way to catch steelhead but there is a lot to it so for more information I recommend you go to this fly fishing for steelhead page for all the details.

Spin Fishing For Steelhead – Anglers either bottom bounce a weight with a hook and roe bag along the bottom carefully feeling the line for any hesitations or pulls that may indicate the subtle take of a steelhead.

Anglers will also use baits under a float: See more at the centerpin page

Lure fishing for Steelhead – Lure fishing for great lakes steelhead can be very effective under the right conditions. When spin fishing some anglers prefer to throw lures like flatfish, kwikfish, spinners or crank bait lures like Rapalas. The guides at A Perfect Drift Guide Company say their favorite and often most productive spin fishing method is to cast Mepps, Vibrax or Panther Martin spinners across and slightly down river reeling only fast enough to keep the blades spinning while trying to keep the lures two to three feet off the bottom.

If a strike doesn’t happen on the first cast they try a faster retrieve and or a more erratic stop and go type retrieve to entice a strike. If that doesn’t produce they cast 3 to 5 feet down river and repeat until they have success. This method can be used with most lures. Sometimes changing colors and lures can be the key to triggering the steelhead to strike. During colder water months slower more erratic type lures can be best and during prime time spring and fall faster moving spinners, spoons and crank baits can be great. The strikes are usually aggressive so be prepared

Fishing for steelhead in Ontario
4 clients on a drift boat trip with A Perfect Drift Guide Company

BEST TIMES TO FISH FOR STEELHEAD

Best times to fish steelhead – Don’t miss your chance to experience some of Ontario’s best steel heading.

 According to A Perfect Drift Guide Company the best times for fall steelhead is October 10th to November 30th. The steelhead start showing up in the rivers around September 1st or just after the first big rains of September. By the middle of October the rivers are usually full of steelhead with many 10 to 20 fish days from Mid October to late November. Some good numbers of steelhead can be caught in early October too and even as late as the end of December.

Winter and spring fishing for steelhead is often best from around March 1st to May 15th but some great days can be had from December through march under the right conditions. For the most success and the best time in the spring to hire a guide is from the 4th Saturday in April until the 2nd or 3rd weeks in May. Different years have different weather so that can mean we may have late or early runs and fish and it can mean many will be in and out of the river soon or some years the steelhead stay in the rivers later.

Fishing for steelhead in Ontario
4 clients on a drift boat trip with A Perfect Drift Guide Company
A nice fall steelhead

A beautiful fall steelhead caught by a client of A Perfect Drift Guide Company

TIMING THE RUNS FOR MORE SUCCESS

Timing the Runs – We call it a run when a large group of steelhead enter the river at the same time. During the fall, the runs of steelhead usually start in late September or early October on most rivers and will continue until the river freezes up. The early fall is usually when the nights are cooler and the water temps are cooling down and are more suitable for them. Sometimes and on some rivers, very small runs or stray steelhead will enter the rivers with the salmon earlier in September and some lucky anglers may catch one or two.

Knowing how to time these runs can be the difference between catching many fish consistently and going out most days when the fishing is poor and struggling to catch a few. Unfortunately the runs don’t always occur on a Saturdays or Sundays so a run of fish that comes up on Monday or Tuesday may be so far up the river in the closed to fishing sections that you may miss it by Saturday.

I tell anglers that if the river levels are suitable that steelhead will move at about the same speed a person going for a casual stroll would. Under low water conditions steelhead may not move at all and might wait for low light and after dark before they start moving up or down the river again.

RAIN IS THE KEY

The rains are most often what cause the runs both in the fall and in the spring. The cool rains in the fall bring up the water levels and make the river a little dirtier and that extra water at the mouth of the river pushes further out into the lake and will trigger a run of fish. The more rain the further out the river flows into the lake and the bigger the run of fish.

A run can be hundreds to even thousands of fish at a time and it can happen with each significant rain from September until the month of May. The higher water makes it easier and safer for the steelhead to run up the river but if the rain is to big it can make the water muddy in which case the steelhead may not enter the river or if they do, they may not be able to see your bait, so sometimes it’s best to wait a day or two until the river starts to clear up a little and then go and fish.

A jumping steelhead from the Nottawasaga River

SPRING STEELHEAD RUNS

The spring runs can be triggered by snow melt as well. Unfortunately the combination of snow and a spring rain can really flood some rivers and make it unfishable for days or weeks, depending on the amount of water entering the river. Different rivers clear at different rates so a larger river may take 3 or 4 days to clear and a smaller one might clear in 12 hours. During the spring with a little bit of snow melting each day with the still frozen ground not able to absorb the water the rivers might drop and clear at a different rate than they would during the fall.

Steelhead Gear

Best fishing gear fro Ontario River fishing

Having the right gear for steelhead fishing can not only make your day on the river ore comfortable but it can help you catch more fish and even help you avoid problems. Guides are on the river hundreds of days a year and are usually in the know when it comes to what gear is best and what gear is required. Check out our Gear Page for our best recommended products like:

  • Waders
  • Boots
  • Vest and Packs
  • Jackets
  • Nets
  • Terminal Tackle
  • And more

Approved Retailers

Check out these approved retailers for all your river fishing needs.

These approved retailers meet our high standards for great customer service, great selection and competitive prices.

Also, if you’re not sure what you need, check out our Best Products page to see what the guides use and recommend.