Hard Core Steelheader
Hard Core Steelheader

What Goes Up – Must Go Up: A Somewhat Humorous Look at Steelhead Fishing in South Western Ontario

Cabin 14

All too often we don’t take the time to try and see the humour in things, and make no mistake, if you look hard enough, most everything does have a humorous side – including Steelhead fishing.


I have now reached the point in my fishing career where it’s almost as much fun to watch other people fish – I said almost - than fish myself.

Not because I’m particularly nosy, or care all that much about what everyone else around me may be doing, but rather to try and get a better understanding of why people fish, and the passion they have for the sport in all its various aspects. 

The story that follows is, as the title alludes, an attempt to take a somewhat humorous look at the sport of Steelhead fishing, based in large part on my own personal observations and experiences.

In my opinion there are few anglers who are more passionate, or some may say obsessed about their sport than “Steelheaders.”

While an argument can be made that the fly fisherman takes the “most obsessed” prize, that argument is certainly subject to challenge.

Who else would go to all the time, trouble and expense of trying to present a realistic imitation of a single, tiny fish egg, tumbling along in millions of gallons of fast flowing water at just the right speed and depth to make a fish, who may not be all that hungry to begin with, think that an easy snack is headed their way?

I have seen Steelheaders bristling with more equipment than a Navy Seal out hunting for Bin Laden, and if you want to see something really over the top, then you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve come face to face with a Steelheader who not only uses floats and lures of various kinds, but is also a fly fisherman.

It’s very much what you would expect to get if you crossed a Porcupine with an Abram’s Battle Tank – and believe you me – when it comes to having all the necessary gear, there is no lack of money or ingenuity employed in order to ensure they have everything on their person that one could possibly need to entice Oncorhynchus mykiss into accepting their offering.

And lets not forget that the majority of these activities take place in the worst weather imaginable, usually while precariously balanced on a slippery, moss covered boulder, or in the middle of a raging river, standing chest deep in fast flowing, ice-cold water.

So what exactly does the well equipped Steelheader take along for a day on the water? 

Before we get to the list of equipment used to actually catch fish, one must otherwise be properly attired, and have all of the necessary accoutrements, such as, but not necessarily limited to:

◦      Waders

◦      Wading Boots

◦      Rain Gear/Waterproof Wading Jacket

◦      Fishing Vest

◦      Warm Clothing

◦      Thermal Socks

◦      Collapsible Wadding Staff

◦      Gloves

◦      Knife

◦      Pliers

◦      Line Nippers

◦      Sunglasses

◦      Hook File

◦      Hat

◦      Sun Screen

◦      Lip Balm

◦      Net

◦      Snacks

◦      Paid up Health Insurance that covers the services of a licensed Psychologist – need I say more?

The list that follows is not exhaustive – no such list exists for Steelheaders – and its applicability and relevance to you personally, will very much depend on whether you are a one trick pony, and by that I mean fish only with floats for example, or are someone who believes more is better, and has no intention of letting the fish off the hook (pun intended) by presenting only one type of offering. 

To begin with, you’re going to need sufficient quantities of equipment so you can adapt to the inevitable changes in water conditions, and the mood swings the Steelhead undergo throughout the course of the day.

In addition to the kind of gear and baits most commonly used, as mentioned earlier, Steelheaders are nothing if not ingenious, and will try virtually anything, no matter how bizarre, to get on to some fish. 

I have personally witnessed anglers using Gummy Bears, wine gums, bits of coloured cloth – even a piece of foam clipped from an ear plug, all of which have produced fish at one time or another – and in the case of the Gummy Bears and wine gums – they make for a tasty snack should the fish show no particular interest in them.

“Conventional” Fishing Equipment List

  • Rods

The more the merrier as they say. If float fishing, consider a rod between 8 and 12 feet in length, rated for up to 12lb test line. For fly fisherman, a 7 wt. that is 9 to 10 feet in length should do the trick under most conditions on most south western Ontario rivers. Bait casting and spin fishermen should consider a 6 to 7 foot rod rated up to at least 12lb test line.

  • Reels

Depending on how you plan on fishing, you’re going to need a quality centre pin, spinning or bait-casting reel that will hold at least 150 yards of 6 to 12 pound test line. Fly fishermen will want a reel with a solid drag that can hold their fly line plus 150 yards of backing. Don’t forget to stuff several extra spools with different pound test lines into your vest, which will at some point during the day begin digging into your ribs just to remind you they are there. 

  • Lines

Good quality, fresh mono, or multifilament line in various sizes is a must. Stay away from the cheap stuff, the fish and the river will resent it, and make you pay with break off after break off.  With regard to fly lines, recognizing that variety is indeed the “spice of life,” take along a floating, sink tip, and if you think you might need a little extra distance on your casts, a weight forward line.

  • Leaders

Carry a good supply in various lengths, diameters and strengths, because you’re likely going to loose a bunch during the course of the day, either via snags or when you get tangled up with the guy who is fishing 3 feet away from you.

  • Hooks

Experienced Steelheaders will tell you that if you’re not getting snagged on every second drift or cast, your offering is not in the right “zone,” and therefore will not produce much in the way of fish, and while I suspect the tackle manufacturers are behind this bit of advice. – there is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest they are right. The long and the short of it is, take along several packages of good quality hooks, such as those made by Gamakatsu and Owner, in various sizes and styles. Octopus style hooks can be a good all round choice.

  • Weights

While having a variety of weights in various sizes is a must – see comment above regarding snags – don’t pack so many that if you happen slip and fall while chasing a fish, you will immediately sink to the bottom of the river. Split shot and/or coiled pencil lead (don’t forget the rubber tubing) are good choices.

  • Floats/Drift Bobbers

It’s no exaggeration to say there is a mind-boggling array of floats available on the market today. Round ones - pencil, tubular and quill shaped - ones made of plastic, balsa, foam and some that even have wings. And lets not forget that many come in every colour of the rainbow. Don’t like the colour options available? Not a problem – you too can be a riverside Rembrandt simply by packing a few paint markers in your vest, and creating your own custom painted floats. Once again adaptability is the key – so take a bunch of different styles, colours and sizes. 

  • Terminal Tackle

Depending on how you plan on fishing, pack some ball bearing snap swivels, and some small and/or medium size barrel swivels that you can use to attach leaders to your main line. Pack plenty, because you’re going to drop a few into the water as you attempt to tie them on with your partially frozen fingers.

  • Bait

This rather broad category is what the separates the Steelheader from everyone else.

Unlike Bass, Pike or Walleye fisherman, who are more often than not fishing from a boat, and therefore able to take along a suitcase size tackle box – the Steelheader must carry what they need on their person, hoping to achieve that delicate balance between having a good selection of baits on hand, while still being able to cast and otherwise move around, while wearing a vest that feels like it’s made out of chain mail.

Stuff your vest, and any spare pockets, with a selection of soft plastics, such as single egg roe imitations, spoons (Luhr Jehnsen Krocodiles, Little Cleos), plugs (Hot Shots, Wiggle Warts, Flatfish, Rapalas), fly’s of various kinds – yarn fly’s are good - beads and of course, fresh roe bags – which by the way you should always remember to remove from your vest and store in the refrigerator, unless you want to start attracting flies or risk a rodent infestation after it’s been hanging in your basement for a couple of days.

Now as for this “What Goes Up – Must Go Up” business.

The one thing that I am absolutely sure of is that in order to access the best water, you are always climbing up – regardless of what direction you may actually be going.

Let me explain.

Other than a couple of forays to Alaska, the majority of my Steelhead fishing experience has been confined to rivers in south western Ontario, such as the Maitland, Big Head and Saugeen.

These rivers have, over millions of years, carved out some very impressive valleys, meaning that while cro magnon man might have had an easy time accessing the river, which at that time was probably on same level as the land surrounding it - not so the modern day Steelheader.

The majority of these rivers feature high, steep banks that are strewn with boulders, boot clutching roots, dead falls, loose gravel, and all manner of thorn bushes that will deliberately reach out and grab on to any bit of line and piece of equipment or clothing you neglected to secure, as you plunge further down into the abyss.

Toss in some rain or snow, and to make it even more interesting a bit of ice, and this already treacherous terrain transforms itself into a giant mud slide, and if you happen to be dumb enough to be wearing felt soled wadding boots, lets just say that the thorn bushes and other obsacles will be the least of your worries.

I’m reasonably certain that some of you must be thinking - why not just find a spot where there is a path or road that will provide easier access?

In the first place, much of the “high ground” around these rivers is now privately owned, and is usually festooned with an endless array or “Keep Out,” “Private Property,” “Beware of Dog” and “No Trespassing” signs – not to mention the guy peering through the window of his house with a pair of binoculars, who is following your every move, with telephone at the ready to punch in 911, just in case you inadvertently wander onto his property. 

Even if you park your vehicle well outside of these restricted areas, you are likely to find a note on your windshield detailing all of the unspeakable evil that will rain down upon you, and your vehicle if you should ever dare to park within 100 km’s of this particular area again.

While there certainly are a number public access points that don’t require the services of a Sherpa to carry you, and your equipment to and from the river, they call them “public” for a reason.

My point being, that if you don’t want to spend your time fishing along side several hundred of your closest friends, trying to catch a fish that has been bombarded with every conceivable type of lure, fly, or roe configuration for hours on end, or feel like a brisk five mile walk (make that ten miles because you do have to come back at some point) in order to leave the crowds behind, and perhaps find a few fish not suffering from shell shock – you aren’t left with all that many options.

So why describe the experience as, “What Goes Up – Must Go Up?” 

Simple, give it a try and tell me if you notice any difference in the degree of difficulty and/or your level of aggravation while tumbling down an embankment, or when attempting to claw your way back up to level ground. 

In my view it’s simply a matter of perspective – not direction.

Last modified onFriday, 29 March 2019 11:34
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