Marine News from the Great Lakes

Autumnís River-Mouth Rainbows

Published: Friday, September 27, 2019
By: Dan Armitage

With water surface temps dropping below 60 degrees come autumn, steelhead anglers start eyeing the mouths of Great Lakes tributaries in which steelhead have been stocked. The big rainbow trout that migrated downstream and fed for a season or three in the Inland Seas begin staging off their home rivers each fall, waiting for fresh flushes of cool water to prompt their migrations back upstream. In the meanwhile, anglers from boat and shore can take advantage of the concentrations of fish, trolling and casting minnow-imitating crankbaits and spoons to fool the eager steelhead. It’s great sport for anglers in boats large and small, for often these staging areas are inside harbors or entrances protected by breakwalls creating calmer water in their lee for more comfortable fishing.

During the height of fishing of popular steelhead streams across the Great Lakes, the boat traffic in some of the more confined harbor areas can get congested on prime autumn weekends. While using in-line planerboards to spread trolled baits can be productive, the wide swath of water the tactic takes over can get in the way of others’ angling efforts – and vice-versa – so trolling flat lines right off the transom, or limiting the number and reach of planerboards, makes sense when boat traffic is high and quarters get close.

Most keep their baits working between 75 and 100 feet in back of the boat or board, but distances from 25 to 200 feet back may be used when water conditions call for it; closer when waters have color, and farther back when waters are clear. One fall steelhead-trolling veteran I know won’t wet a line if the water is so turbid that he can’t see the anti-cavitation plate on the lower unit of his outboard.

Trolling speed is another factor when trying to fool staging autumn steelhead, but starting out at 2mph and adjusting up and down in small increments can usually get you dialed-in to the speed that is most appealing to the hungry rainbows in residence at the time. Some anglers seek calm water when trolling baits off boards, to keep the lure speed constant, which they believe is most conducive to steelhead strikes.

Whether trolling crankbaits or spoons, it’s important to ‘match the hatch’ and use baits that mimic the predominant baitfish in size, shape and, to a lesser degree, color. Cranks such as Reef Runner Ripstiks, Berkley Flicker Shad, A-C Shiners, Rattling Rogues, and Rapala Husky Jerks have their following, as do spoons; Little Cleos being a perennial favorite. A visit to the local tackle shop prior to fishing will usually net you the productive crankbaits and spoons for catching local steelhead.

It’s also important to place the lures in areas where the baitfish they imitate – and the big lake-run trout that feed on that forage – are likely to be hanging out. River-mouth areas that are popular with steelhead anglers rarely exceed 30 feet in depth, and much of the action takes place in water half that depth and less. A quality sonar that can show baitfish schools and help the angler locate the humps, holes, and other structures that concentrate the forage is a huge advantage.

Because the fishing, the anglers themselves, and their boats can be so close when the bite is on, it’s important to show some courtesy to your fellows on the water as well as those who may be land-locked and casting from breakwalls. Maintain control of your lines, give others plenty of elbow room, and return to the lake any rainbows not meant for the table. These fish are too much fun to catch to limit their opportunities to merely one battle.

About the Author

Dan Armitage is a popular Great Lakes-based outdoor writer and host of the Buckeye Sportsman show (, syndicated weekly on 30 radio stations across Ohio. Dan is a certified Passport to Fishing instructor and leads kids fishing programs at Midwest boat and sport shows, and is a licensed Captain with a Master rating from the US Coast Guard.


This article first appeared in the Fall Issue (Sep/Oct) 2019 of Great Lakes Scuttlebutt magazine.

tags: Boating 101, Fishing

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