When To Fish For Steelhead In Ontario – Guides Advice

These are anglers fishing for steelhead in Ontario
This is me and the hosts from the New Fly Fisher Show fishing for spring steelhead. I’ll leave a link for that below.

As a full-time steelhead guide for the last twenty years, I have figured out the steelhead runs and times from early fall to the middle of May. Timing the runs and knowing when and which river to fish can drastically improve your success on the river.

I’m about to provide some of my secrets and my advice to help you catch more steelhead once they enter the rivers.

When to fish for steelhead in Ontario?

Author and guide graham with a nice September steelhead.
Author and guide Graham with a nice September steelhead.

The steelhead start showing up in the rivers around September 1st or just after the first big rains of September. By the end of October, the rivers have plenty of steelhead, and my clients are often catching 10 to 20 steelhead a day from mid-October to late December.

Best Times To Fish For Steelhead

An angler fighting a big steelhead on a small river,
The author’s client fighting a big steelhead on a small stream. Using one of my proven steelhead fly patterns will help you catch more steelhead.

In the above picture of my client fighting and steelhead. I decided to fish this smaller stream because I knew that the larger rivers were higher and possibly muddy, which can spread out the steelhead and make it harder to catch them.

Knowing how to predict water levels, how fast rivers rise and drop, and which rivers to fish is a key to catching more steelhead. Smaller rivers like this will fish better than larger rivers because the pools are smaller and concentrate fish, and the water drops and clears faster.

The steelhead runs are often triggered by four things. The water levels, the temperature, the time of year, and by the wind.

Time Of Year

Best time to fish for steelhead
This is my client fighting another big steelhead in the fall.

If you know when the steelhead start to enter the rivers, you will have a better idea of when to fish for steelhead in Ontario.

One of the reasons my buddies and I catch a lot more steelhead than the average angler is that we focus our efforts during peak times. That means we don’t fish on slow days and only fish when the fishing is very good. That’s how some of my buddies will catch more steelhead in one day than most anglers will catch all year.

Of course, other factors come into play as well.

On some rivers, some steelhead may enter the river in August or early September, but on average most steelhead will start to run up the river around the 2nd week in October and will continue going up in small runs until the river gets too cold or freezes over.

Some anglers believe that some steelhead will even run under the ice but I think that is minimal.

The steelhead will start their spring runs in late February and early March as the weather starts to warm and the snow starts to melt. Once the ice breaks up and leaves the river, more steelhead will start to run up the river.

Steelhead will continue to run into late April and some will even run in early May.

Even if the conditions aren’t perfect some steelhead might run up the river simply because their urge to spawn is too great for them to wait for perfect conditions. Knowing this will help you know when to fish for steelhead in Ontario.

River Water Levels

Water levels will tell you when to fish for steelhead in Ontario
This is my client swinging flies for steelhead in early May.

Monitoring the river water levels will help you know when to fish for steelhead in Ontario and there are a few reasons why. I’ll give you my guide tip for monitoring water levels easier and from home below. First, let’s just talk about why water levels matter so much.

When the river levels are very low at the mouth of the river there is not much water pushing out into lakes to show the fish where the river is.

Think about it this way, if the river is very low and the river water that flows out into the lake only goes out about 100 feet and there are no fish within that 100 feet of shoreline the steelhead can’t locate the river very well and no fish will run.

If the river rises up 24 inches due to rain or snowmelt and now the river pushes out into the lake about 1 kilometer, there may be a thousand steelhead that will swim within that 1km of shoreline and as they cross paths with that river outflow they may turn and head up the river.

The other thing with the river water flows is that the steelhead will not want to try to run up the river in 6 inches of water. The higher water makes it easier for them to move and navigate the river and it gives them a sense of security when it is higher and off-colored or dirty. Many steelhead will wait until the water is at a suitable level before they run up the river.

Now that you know rains and snowmelt will raise the water levels you will know better when to fish steelhead in Ontario. This isn’t perfect because sometimes the river will rise enough but no steelhead will run up the river. Other factors may be at play if this happens.

Guide Tip: There is a website that you can go to which monitors most of the rivers in Ontario and tells you what the current water levels are. Go to wateroffice.ec.gc.ca to find this information.

You can see from the comfort of your own home if the river water levels went up 2 centimeters or 60 centimeters.

You will have to make your own list of rivers that you want to monitor. What I recommend to my clients is that every time you go to the river you should record what you see and match that to what the website water levels say.

As an example, if I go to a river today and the water is slightly off-colored and dirty and I can see the tops of my boots in only 12 inches of water or less, then I consider this 12 inches of visibility.

I will record that number as well as when the last rain stopped. This can tell me stuff like 36 hours after a big rain it will be 12 inches of visibility and that it’s on the verge of fishing well. It will also tell me that only 24 hours after a big rain, it was probably still too dirty to fish.

I also use the water flow to tell me safe levels to cross. On some rivers, I know that if the water is at 4.8 it’s too fast and too high for my clients to cross safely, but I also know that I was able to cross the same river when it was at 4.55.

Every river measures differently so one river may be perfect at 5.8 while another river is too low at 8.5.

You will need to keep records for each river that you fish and record the data that you want.

I record safe levels for crossing and fishing, also best boat levels, levels too low for the boat, what the river looks like and its clarity at all different levels, and how it looks after different amounts of rain.

You may also notice that the river at 5.8 is perfect when the water is dropping from a peak of 6.4, but the same river is pure muddy at 5.8 when it’s rising fast from a low of 5.4. Rising water can bring in muddy water from farm fields, roads, and muddy banks, but dropping water is usually clearing up.

Knowing all this can really help you know when to fish for steelhead in Ontario. Knowing that last year a certain river went up 30 centimeters in the middle of October and a bunch of fish ran up the river an tell you that each year if you get a rain of 30cm you know it’s likely time to go fish.

I discuss my secrets for reading the stream flow charts on my other website in my article Interpreting Stream Flow Data Related To Fishing.

Another thing to remember that will help you know when to fish for steelhead in Ontario and all around the Great Lakes is that rising water is usually not-so-good for fishing even if it stays clear, but dropping water can be the best time to fish.

River Water Temperature

river temperatures will tell you when to fish for steelhead in ontario
River water temperatures can help you determine when to fish for steelhead in Ontario

On some of the bigger rivers that never get too low for the steelhead to run, steelhead can run the river based on water temperature. Or they may not run based on water temperature.

This means that if they are out in the lake and they are swimming through the outflow of current from the river and it’s at a perfect temperature for them, that could trigger a run of steelhead.

If they swim through that same river current in the summertime or early fall and the river current is too warm they may not run up the river. The opposite is true in the winter. If the winter river flow is much colder than in the lake, they may not run up the river.

Steelhead have a preferred water temperature, and if they swim through the river outflow and that flow is perfect for them, they may run the river then.

Wind Triggers Steelhead Runs.

Fishing for Ontario steelhead

This is a little known factor that most anglers won’t know about. If you understand this you will know when to fish for steelhead in Ontario when many other anglers are staying home and waiting for the big rains to bring steelhead in.

When strong winds blow into shore it causes currents that can push baitfish and steelhead in closer to the shore.

This means that steelhead that might have been swimming 2 kilometers out in the lake on a non-windy day probably won’t swim through a river outflow out there. But when the wind blows into shore hard and the wind blows the steelhead in closer to shore they are more likely to swim through the river outflow and then head up the river even if there are no rains to trigger the runs.

Knowing which way the winds need to blow to push the steelhead close to shore can be your secret weapon to knowing when to fish for steelhead in Ontario when others stay home.

The Guides Know When The Steelhead Run

A new guide training another guide
This is a top guide training a new guide. You want to be sure you choose only river guides that have learned how to guide from other top river guides.

According to the guides at A Perfect Drift Guide Company, the best times for fall steelhead is October 10th to November 30th, but it can still be great in December.

By the middle of October and through November, the rivers are usually full of steelhead with many 10 to 20 fish days possible.

Winter and spring fishing for steelhead is often best from around March 1st to May 15th.

For the most success, they recommend the best time in the spring to hire one of their guides 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 might have late or early runs of steelhead, and it can mean many steelhead will be in and out of the river sooner, or some years, the steelhead might stay in the rivers later.

Guide Tip: I network with dozens of anglers that I know. If I need to know if a river is fishing well or if it’s clear enough I send out a bunch of texts to friends in my network. If they need advice they can ask me. We help each other out. I suggest going online to Facebook or Instagram and forming a network of guys to help each other out. Just be sure not to post when the fishing is great because that causes crowds and makes guys angry.

Catch More Steelhead

Knowing when to fish for steelhead in Ontario is great, but if you don’t know which rivers to fish or how to fish for steelhead effectively, you could show up to a river full of fish and still catch nothing.

Watch me and the guys from the New Fly Fisher Show fishing for steelhead in the Spring and in the Fall.

Check out our page on Steelhead fishing for more on steelhead fishing in Ontario.

Tight Lines,


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