Fishing For Ontario Steelhead: Tips and Advice From A Guide

Fishing for Ontario steelhead

Fishing for Ontario Steelhead

As a steelhead guide I know steelhead are both a mystery to some anglers and a favorite fish to others but fishing for Ontario steelhead is not that hard if you follow my guide tips and advice here I will help you catch more Steelhead.

Fishing for Ontario Steelhead can actually be easy and a lot of fun and anglers fishing for Ontario steelhead can catch 30 or more steelhead some days. Steelhead fishing in Ontario is best when you use the right gear on the right river with the right methods and that is what I teach.

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, and where to go.

I get emails from anglers saying they haven’t caught steelhead in over 20 fishing trips, while other anglers are telling me they just hooked over 50 in one day. It all comes down to knowledge and timing.

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

Ontario steelhead is a favorite of many anglers because of their fighting ability and their abundance. There aren’t many other fish in Ontario where you can catch 10 to 30 between 3 and 10 pounds in one day.

The only other fish that comes close is Ontario Salmon

Anglers who fish these great fish are often referred to as steelheaders.

Ontario Steelhead

Best Ontario river guide Graham helping out a young angler
Top Ontario river guide Graham helping out a young angler with a huge steelhead. This was 1 of 15 they landed that day

Common Steelhead Names – Many local anglers refer to steelhead as Bows, Rainbows, or just Rainbow trout.

If you spend enough time on a steelhead river you may hear the terms Shakers, Silvers, or Chromers because of the silvery look they get from being in the clear waters of the lake all summer.

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-inch range they tend to fight more like the bigger fish with long runs, jumps, and less twisting.

Steelhead Fishing Regulations

A client of A Perfect Drift Guide Company with a big late fall steelhead
There is Steelhead fishing available to anglers from September to late May. Just make sure you know which rivers are open to fishing and you know the fishing regulations before you go fishing.

 Regulations – So as not to confuse anyone,  the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) lists steelhead in the fishing regulations as rainbow trout.  I may refer to them as rainbow trout or more like just steelhead 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 Lifecycle

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 ocean or in our case, the big lake, they will often return to the same river they were born in to spawn. Because of this type of life cycle they are known as a migratory rainbow trout. Steelhead can spawn 2 to 3 times over a period of about 10 years before they die. Steelhead 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 than 6 years but some can live about 9 or 10 years, and in most Ontario rivers an average steelhead would be 4 to 7 pounds.

Although they do not return to an ocean as their west coast ancestors did, the Ontario steelhead still exhibits 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 is not native to the great lakes region but they started showing up around the late 1800’s after the USA stocked them on their 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 the early 1890s 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 our OMNR over the last 50+ years.

Identifying Ontario Steelhead

Fishing Steelhead in Ontario
A wild Nottawasaga River steelhead caught while fishing Steelhead in Ontario

There are many different strains of steelhead due to multiple stocking using eggs from many different west coast rivers and their 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 enters the river they are usually very bright with silver sides and can easily be identified.  Here you can see the difference between a late fall steelhead that has been in the river for a while compared to an early fall steelhead that just entered the river and then to a spring run fish being held by myself. 

A colored steelhead
A colored steelhead that has been in the river for a couple of weeks and is ready to spawn.
A fresh run steelhead
Fresh run spring and fall steelhead that are just out of the lake are usually very silver.
Spring run steelhead from the Credit River
Spring run steelhead from the Credit River that is ready to spawn.

Steelhead also tend to be much bigger than resident rainbows which rarely get bigger than 20 inches in most Ontario rivers.

The closer the steelhead is 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 that the two dark steelheads in the top pictures are both males and the silver steelhead is a female. The female steelhead tend to have a smaller more rounded head 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 on their body. Some males might have no color at all if they just entered the river so color and markings are not always the best way to determine the difference between males and females.

Normally once the spawning steelhead returns back to the lake they heal their wounds from spawning and they start to turn silvery again.

When Do The Ontario Steelhead Run?

A fall run male steelhead
A late fall run male steelhead. This is a wild fish caught on a guide trip with A Perfect Drift Guide Company

Timing of the steelhead runs can be tricky and I will discuss how to know when to hit the rivers in each season.

We are lucky to have steelhead in many of our rivers from September until the end of May which gives anglers 9 months to target these silver bullets.

With some exceptions, it’s possible to do steelhead fishing in Ontario rivers even in the middle of the summer which gives 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 too low for them to safely move out of the river and back to the lake.

These summer steelhead are rare but they are around some years. The guides at A Perfect Drift Guide Company know where to catch these summer steelhead and are a great option for steelhead fishing all year.

With most trout species in Ontario, catching only 1 or 2 fish over 20 inches is considered a great day, but with steelhead, it’s not uncommon for skilled anglers to catch 5 or more over 20 inches in a day.

If you learn how to predict the runs and you learn how to effectively fish for them, steelhead fishing in Ontario could mean catching 20 or 30 big steelhead in a day.

Fall Steelhead Fishing In Ontario

Guide Graham with a Bronte Creek steelhead
Guide Graham with an early fall Bronte Creek steelhead

Steelhead fishing in Ontario starts in September with a few fish entering the rivers with the big runs of salmon.

On many Ontario rivers, the peak steelhead runs often occur after large rains starting in October and small to large runs can continue with each rain until the river freezes or just gets too cold. Freezing cold water will often slow or halt their migration.

Increased water flows are often the main factor for the steelhead to enter and move up the river since the increased water allows them to move up the river easier and safer.

Although steelhead will start running up rivers as early as even late August on some rivers, about 95% of steelhead won’t actually spawn until late winter or early spring which in Ontario 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 it’s because they follow the salmon up to feed on the highly nutritious salmon eggs.

Others say it’s 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, and therefore they need to leave early to be sure they make it to the prime spawning grounds on time.

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 fall river water temperatures being perfect.

Fall fishing for steelhead is considered the best time to fish steelhead by many anglers.

An Ontario Steelhead river
An Ontario Steelhead river

The guides at A Perfect Drift Guide Company say the best times for fall steelhead are usually mid-October to early December with peak fishing being from the last week of October to the 3rd week of November.

This is when the most double-digit days are common (10+ Steelhead Caught).

However, it’s not uncommon to have high number days throughout December with the added bonus of fewer anglers out fishing at that time.

Fall is a time when the river water levels are more consistent and that makes steelhead fishing easier.

Winter Steelhead Fishing In Ontario

Fishing for Ontario steelhead in the winter can be excellent on rivers that are still open to fishing.

By January many fall fish have moved into the river and have set themselves up in slower deeper pools to wait out the winter. These fish are there and they are hungry on days when they are active.

Anf angler fishing ontario steelhead
The angler in the picture landed around 72 steelhead in 2 days while being guided by A Perfect Drift Guide Company in the winter.

On warmer sunny days the steelhead can become active, especially if the water stays stable or increases by a degree or two.

If the river is ice-free and you are on a section of the river that is open to fishing this could be a great time to catch steelhead with nobody around.

Any runs throughout the winter will be small and sporadic and usually occur during rain or snowmelt. Even if there are no fresh runs of steelhead, often there are still steelhead around that ran up the river in the fall that angler can catch.

Changing your tactics can be a great way to catch more winter steelhead.

The angler in the above picture landed 72 adult steelhead in two days during a winter guide trip with A Perfect Drift Guide Company. He took advantage of a warm spell and it was a great choice and it shows that winter fishing for steelhead can be fantastic.

Fishing for Ontario steelhead in the Winter can be pleasant if you know how to stay warm and dry.

If you think winter fishing is something that you would be interested in you will need to dress appropriately and I have a page to help, check out my page Fishing In The Winter – Stay Warm With These 10 Tips and my page How To Keep Fishing Rod Guides From Freezing – 3 Guide Tips.

Spring Steelhead Fishing In Ontario

Fishing Ontario Steelhead and fighting one of over 50.
An angler fighting one of over 50 steelhead he hooked while on a guide trip with A Perfect Drift Guide Company

Fishing for Ontario steelhead in the spring is a great time to be on the water for fresh run steelhead. Fishing for Ontario steelhead in the spring usually starts around the first week of March or the first warm spell in March.

Spring fishing for steelhead can be difficult because of fluctuating water temperatures and water levels. You can have days where it’s 10 degrees above freezing and then it can drop 10 degrees below freezing overnight.

A successful spring steelhead trip
A successful spring steelhead trip with two of my best clients.

It’s also harder to predict the steelhead runs but normally they will enter the river during high water.

Unfortunately, with the snowmelt and rains, the river can be at its highest levels of the year and in flood conditions for a long time.

The guides at A Perfect Drift Guide Company have good days from early March, April, and the first half of May. If you want to book a trip with them the peak two weeks for spring steelhead is the last week of April until about May 10th.

Ontario Steelhead Rivers

The best steelhead rivers in Ontario
There are many great steelhead and trout rivers in Ontario

Steelhead Rivers – I think about 90% of rivers flowing into the great lakes get some steelhead in them.

Fishing for Ontario steelhead is best if you focus on fishing the best steelhead river. There are 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 my page on the Best Trout And Steelhead Rivers In Ontario.

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 banks 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 they can or can not access certain areas and certain river beds.

For the best tips on river access check out our river access page.

Best Baits For Steelhead

Best baits for Ontario Steelhead
Best baits for Ontario Steelhead

Fishing for Ontario steelhead can be tough for some anglers but if you use the right bait for the conditions of the day you could land multiple steelhead.

In fact, sometimes the right bait could mean the difference between many fish or no fish. Some of the most productive baits for fall steelhead include:

Plastic Worms Are A Great Steelhead Bait

Anglers fishing for Ontario steelhead should always have plastic worms with them because they can be a fantastic bait.

Plastic steelhead worms in the colors pink, natural brown, and red seem to work the best for me but I have also had luck with light purple, white, and Chartreuse plastic worms for steelhead.

For more detailed information in fishing and rigging of worms for trout and steelhead go to my page Fishing With Worms For Trout and Steelhead: 10 Guide Tips.

Fishing With Steelhead Beads

Another good bait that has grown in popularity is the plastic and glass beads, specifically the ones made for steelhead fishing.

The same guidelines I use for the sizes and colors when using roe bags also apply for fishing beads for steelhead. (see below about roe fishing).

For more detailed information and my tips and advice on fishing with beads for steelhead go to my page Fishing With Beads: 5 Guide Tips For More Fish.

Flies Are A Great Bait For Steelhead

The fly fishing anglers catch a lot of steelhead using flies, but you do not have to be a fly angler to use flies.

Flies can be used under a float or used with the bottom bouncing method with a Centerpin or spinning reel. Flies can be the hottest bait under certain conditions and I discuss this on this website and on my blog website.

Check out the 5 Best Flies For Steelhead – An Expert Guides Advice page and the How To Fish Flies With Spinning Gear: 2 Best Methods.

Lures For Steelhead Fishing

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

Certain times of the year lures can be great and lures give you the thrill of a hard-hitting bite. Lure fishing takes skill and knowledge of what to use. check out my page 4 Best Lures For Steelhead – A Pro Guides Recommendations

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 go to my page 4 Best Steelhead Baits.

Fish Eggs As Bait

The best baits for Ontario Steelhead
The best baits for Ontario Steelhead

Most anglers fishing for Ontario steelhead will know about using spawn bags as bait.

Fish eggs are one of the most popular baits for steelhead.  Roe bags are also known simply as “roe”, or as egg sacks, or spawn bags or just spawn.

Roe bags are made of salmon or trout eggs within a mesh sack. The most common eggs used are Chinook salmon eggs, but brown trout eggs, rainbow eggs, or even brook trout eggs can be great.

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 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 above shows some tied-up brown trout eggs and the mesh used to tie them. Tying your own eggs allows you to use the colors and sizes that best suit the river conditions at the time you are going fishing and since conditions change daily you may find that a size or a color that worked one day, may not work a few days later because the river conditions have changed.

The best place I know of to buy good quality roe online at www.fishheadscanada.net. I have been using their roe for a long time and it works great.

Best Roe Bag Sizes And Colors

 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 out my page Spawn Bags – Guide Secrets For More Fish.

Float Fishing For Steelhead

Fishing steelhead with a Centerpin
Fishing steelhead with a Centerpin reel is likely the most productive way to catch Ontario steelhead in most rivers.

Float fishing for Ontario steelhead is very popular. 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 a method 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 but unfortunately, that seems to be how most anglers do it and as a result, most anglers catch few if any steelhead.

In my opinion, a skilled float angler will out-fish and non-skilled angler 10 to 1 because of a few simple skills and the right setup.

Even using the wrong floats for river fishing could mean no fish for you. This is why it’s so important to learn how to do it right and to use the right gear.

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

Also check out these great pages on float fishing and Centerpin fishing:

Spin Fishing For Ontario Steelhead

Spin fishing for Ontario trout is also a popular method on many rivers. Some anglers still use spinning reels and under the right conditions, the spinning reel is very effective.

If you are going to be fishing for Ontario steelhead that you make sure that you get the right size and make of spinning reel that can handle hard fighting steelhead.

Some spinning reels work better than others if you plan on using your spinning reel for both float fishing and for casting lure. For the reels that I use and recommend to my clients, check out my page 4 Best Spinning Reels For Float Fishing.

For casting lures to the steelhead you can’t beat using a spinning reel in Ontario steelhead rivers. Check out my page 4 Best Lures For Steelhead – A Pro Guides Recommendations

Spin fishing for Ontario steelhead can be very effective using what is known as the bottom bouncing methods. Bottom bouncing can be very effective in shallower and faster water.

I use an advanced bottom bouncing method that works much better than the traditional method of bottom bouncing. To see this method and more, check out my page Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish

Baitcasting Reels For Fishing Ontatio Steelhead

When fishing for Ontario steelhead on some of the bigger rivers like the Niagara, Saugeen, or Maitland river, some anglers might even use baitcasting reels for either float fishing or casting lures.

Baitcasting reels tend to be best when you are float fishing if there is a lot of flow. The flow will pull the float enough to help pull the line off the reel smoothly.

Baitcasting reels tend to be more popular on the large rivers of the west coast but are rarely used in Ontario and around the great lakes.

Centerpin Reels For Fishing Ontatio Steelhead

But, if you want to use the best reel for float fishing it’s the Centerpin reel that stands out above the rest.

Centerpin reels have now become the reel of choice for most hardcore Ontario steelheaders to like to float fish. The reason anglers are using Centerpin reels versus the traditional spinning reels is that it’s simply 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 reel 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 both spinning reel and Centerpin reels long before the Centerpin reel became popular.

For many years and possibly to this day, the guides at A Perfect Drift are the only full-time guides in Ontario offering lessons and guided trips specializing in Centerpin fishing.

Use The Right Gear When Fishing For Ontario Steelhead

Fishing for Ontario steelhead requires specialty gear. You could go out with a 7-foot bass rod and reel and catch a steelhead or two but your chances are slim with the wrong rod.

Having the right gear for fishing Ontario steelhead can not only make your day on the river easier, but it can help you catch more fish and even help you avoid problems.

Guides like me 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 to help you increase the amount of steelhead you catch.

It’s sad when I see an angler out on my stretch of river catching nothing for weeks when my clients are bragging about the 10 to 20 steelhead they just caught. Oftentimes, these anglers are using the wrong gear and the wrong setup for fishing for Ontario steelhead.

I can almost always tell which guys are not catching steelhead just by the gear they are using and how they set it up. If you are going to go steelhead fishing in Ontario you might as well do it right.

It really makes a huge difference and it’s not hard to do. I highly recommend that you check out my newest blog which goes into more detail on Steelhead Fishing -Tips and Advice and look at the section on river fishing gear to make sure you have everything you need to be successful.

Also, check out our Gear Page on this website for my best recommended products like:

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

Fishing For Ontario Steelhead Summary

Thank you for reading my post on fishing for steelhead in Ontario. I hope you learned a few tips and know where to go to get advice on steelhead fishing in Ontario.

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