Our Man In Canada
March 12th, 2001

Steelhead
Lake Huron and Georgian Bay Streams

By Scott E. Smith

Guide John Valk with
 Saugeen River buck
Lake Huron was the first of the Great Lakes to be stocked with rainbow trout; primarily stock from the McCloud River system in California. According to "Rainbow Trout In the Great Lakes," a paper by Hugh R. MacCrimmon and Barra Lowe Gots for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (1972), the first watershed in the Great Lakes to receive rainbow trout was Michigan's Au Sable River in 1876. In 1896 rainbows were introduced in several other Michigan (Lake Huron) tributaries, and the first capture of rainbow trout in Ontario took place in the Nottawasago River. Coincidental or not, it seems significant that both the AuSable and the Nottawasaga presently support strong populations of self-sustaining rainbow trout, which we have come to know and love as steelhead.

During the first three decades of the twentieth century, stocking of rainbow trout in Lake Huron continued in various locations within the province. Combined with the natural movement of the species, these stockings established what we now enjoy as prolific wild runs of steelhead in most of Lake Huron's Ontario tributaries. Steelhead that average between six and eight pounds - with numerous fish over ten pounds and the odd fish approaching the twenty-pound mark - are available to the fly angler during both spring and fall runs in many important spawning tributaries. At present the bulk of the Lake Huron steelhead that run Ontario streams are wild, particularly in Georgian Bay tributaries; however some stocking by the OMNR and local fishing clubs occurs in Lake Huron streams, such as the Saugeen, Maitland, Bayfield and Nine Mile rivers. Summer-run steelhead in Huron tributaries are uncommon, with only a marginal number of stray Skamanie-strain (from previous planting by the State of Michigan and by private clubs in Ontario) entering some streams in the last week of July and the first week of August.

St. Mary's Rapids

Additionally, runs of Pacific salmon, (Chinook, pink and coho), brown trout, lake trout, whitefish, and in some cases, Atlantic salmon, provide a variety of spirited salmonids for pursuit by the fly anglers. With the exception of the indigenous lake trout and lake whitefish, these species were also successfully introduced since the turn of the last century. Chinook salmon, which are still extensively stocked by local clubs primarily for the benefit of open-lake boat anglers, average around fifteen pounds and are present in almost all important tributaries mentioned [here]. Coho salmon, which are no longer stocked, have a small self-sustaining stronghold in streams such as the Nottawasaga, Sauble, Maitland and Nine Mile rivers. Pink salmon are present in many tributaries, but not terribly common or popular, except in the St. Mary's, which receives a large and regular run during odd years and decent runs in even years. (Other rivers receive marginal runs in odd years and almost no pinks in even years.)

The Flats, Saugeen River To add to this cornucopia of fish, many of Huron's more fertile cold-water tributaries, such as the Saugeen, the Beaver and the Nottawasaga, support resident populations of brook trout, rainbow trout and brown trout - offering almost year-round opportunities for trout and salmon buffs. Smallmouth bass, northern pike, perch and walleye (and a number of lesser-known warmwater species) are also eager to smash a fly in many of the warmer tributaries, such as the Maitland and the Bayfield rivers, which also support runs of salmonids during the spring and fall.

Consistent with other regions in the Great Lakes Basin, the steelhead attracts the most attention from fly anglers on Ontario's Huron streams. Lake Huron steelhead are regarded as large streamlined fish that fight hard and fast, and take flies well. In contrast to Superior's steelhead, which seem to have a predisposition for egg/attractor patterns, Huron steelhead are duped regularly with more traditional nymph imitations that represent important insects in each particular river. The reason for this penchant for nymphs comes from the predominant limestone, agriculturally based soils through which many of Huron's tributaries flow. These water conditions make for rich habitat for invertebrates, which in turn provide a forage base for juvenile steelhead and resident trout. According to Larry Halyk, Ontario Ministry of Natrual Resources biologist and fly-fishing guru, all of the major mayfly, caddis and stonefly taxa are well represented in the important Huron tributaries. Even died-in-the-wool roe fishermen opt for small black stonefly imitations fished under their floats in early spring. ~ Scott E. Smith

Credits: From Ontario Blue-Ribbon Fly Fishing Guide by Scott E. Smith. We thank Frank Amato Publications, Inc. for use permission!

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