• Steelheading Roadtrips

    I suffer from a serious addiction. My drug of choice? Chasing steelhead migrations across the Great Lakes. When autumn rains bring the first hint of fall steelhead, I’m off to cure my summer withdrawal symptoms. By the time late winter turns to early spring, I am strung out on Mykiss like a hippie backpacking through Amsterdam. I crave the pursuit of these silver bullets as they undergo their magical migrations. The ultimate high for me comes at the start of snowmelt. Road tripping the Great Lakes coasts during the period of early spring migration takes up all of my available free time from early March to mid April. Lakes Superior, Huron, Erie, Michigan and Ontario have all been destinations on the sort of pilgrimages undertaken by myself and my steelhead junkie buddies. Being homegrown Ontario lads, we seem to relish the fact that the Trillium Province produces some of the most outstanding steelheading of the season. Road trip after road trip, it appears that there is no place like home.

    Unlike destinations such as Lake Ontario’s south shore rivers, or the tribs along the bottom of Erie, Ontario’s steelhead waters are not overly frequented by out of province/out of country anglers. Scanning parking lots on local Ontario tribs will make it apparent; anglers are local. This shouldn’t be the case, fishing these rivers should be on every serious migratory angler’s bucket list. Ontario has much to offer when it comes to migratory rainbow trout. Each Great Lake provides anglers with the opportunity to sample wild run steelhead and, in some instances, the added bonus of successful stocking programs. Planning a road trip of Ontario’s top steelhead waters is a pretty easy task. Anglers crossing the boarder in the south (Buffalo, Niagara, Port Huron, and Detroit) are able to access Erie, Huron and Ontario tribs within a drive of less than 3hrs. Discussing these fisheries in the format below will highlight each lake and help you plan your trip.

    NOTE: It is important to fully read and understand the current Ministry of Natural Resources Recreational Fishing Regulations Summary. This yearly publication can be viewed online or picked up at local sports shops and businesses across the province. Each of the below mentioned tributaries are outlined within the regulations. The province of Ontario has implemented diverse limitations on steelhead possession limits and "all year" steelhead angling zones. It is up to the angler to familiarize themselves with the regulations, anything less is blatant disregard for the fishery.

    Lake Erie

    Anglers crossing into Ontario at either end of Lake Erie have the opportunity to sample some of Ontario’s strongest steelhead. These fish make good use of Erie’s large forage base, growing fast and strong. Ontario’s Erie tribs are not the most popular rivers in the province, but they do produce fish. Anglers will often encounter stray U.S. stocked fish, but can also tap into some very good wild runs. Erie tribs are prone to "blown out," muddy water conditions after heavy rains or quick snowmelt. Time the largest migrations on ice-out conditions out in the big lake. 10-13ft float rods, with line ratings of at least 4lb will get you by on Erie. If you plan on stopping at the upper Niagara, pack a 15ft stick, as you will appreciate the benefits here. Expect a little bush whacking on the smaller tribs, so breathable waders and a tolerance for muddy banks will go a long way.

    Big Otter Creek

    This central Erie trib enters Lake Erie at the town of Port Burwell. During spring thaws it is very prone to dirty water conditions but good numbers of spring steelhead show up once snowmelt and precipitation induce water flows. Extended fall and all-year sections are available to steelhead anglers in the lower sections of the creek. Anglers can expect to have either hot or cold action, as fishing can be sporadic and timing migrating fish means success.

    Big Creek

    Anglers can find Big Creek off Provincial Highway 21. Big Creek enters Erie in the fertile waters of Long Point Bay and it tends to be a popular Erie destination for southern steelheaders. The creek holds fall, winter and spring migrating steelhead but footwork pays off when it comes to intercepting fish on the move. Big Creek has tight riverbanks and is subject to blown out conditions in early spring during the thaw.

    Grand River

    The Grand boasts a massive watershed and is home to big steelhead. It’s a large river, prone to poor water conditions during periods of precipitation. The Grand has been known to take many days to clear up to fishable conditions after steady rains. The steelhead run is spread out from early fall to late spring. Extensive regulations for multiple sections of the river (bait ban, no kill) exist. Steelhead can access 75+km of the Grand. Pack artificial baits; Grand steelhead love them. Flies, jigs, plastics, and hardware all take fish here. Focus on the extreme lower end for fresh pushes of March steelhead, and the upper stretches above the town of Caledonia during the winter.

    Other Mentions on Erie

    There is a smattering of other productive spring steelhead tributaries along Ontario’s Lake Erie shoreline. A close observation of a provincial road map will reveal a handful of tribs that are crossed on highways and roads bordering the Lake. Another productive area for anglers targeting Erie steel is the upper portion of the mighty Niagara. Steelhead can be found above the falls all the way to Fort Erie. This is big water, with fish spread throughout the system.

    Places to Stay on Erie

    Good points for a night’s rest can be found along Highway 3 in the towns of Fort Erie, Port Colborne, Dunville, and Port Stanley to the west. These destinations are within close proximity to the rivers mentioned above and provide accommodations, places to eat, and fuel.


    Erie Tracker Outfitters, Port Colborne (905) 834-9218

    Lake Ontario

    Ontario’s Lake Ontario tributaries are the favored stomping grounds for the majority of the province’s anglers. Productive tributaries are located from the Niagara River in the southwest end, to the rivers well east of the Greater Toronto Area. Many opportunities present themselves to traveling anglers, with major Ontario freeways paralleling the lake, providing fast access to dozens of rivers. Some of "Lake O’s" best fishing can be found within the Toronto region, providing anglers with the chance to hook both stocked and wild steelhead inside Canada’s largest city. Access to nearly every river is excellent, with city parks, trails and roads leading to the majority of popular sections. Just like most productive steelhead regions, Lake Ontario tributaries are prone to run-off and precipitation. Good amounts of overnight rain will send some systems to the verge of flooding, while other rivers down the road may handle the water just fine and produce ideal clarity and flow rates. Ideally, anglers would need close to 5 full days to sample each productive system along the lake. Bank on a couple days tripping the flows we examine.

    Niagara River

    The largest, and one of the most productive steelhead systems on the Great Lakes. Spring steelheading on the mighty Niagara starts in late winter. Good numbers of fish winter over after entering the system in the fall, providing extra steelhead to target. Water conditions are dependent on the state of eastern Lake Erie; ice-out on Erie will produce ice-floes tumbling down the falls, shutting down your drifts for hours. Similarly, high winds from the west can create stained and muddy conditions downriver below the falls. Concentrate on shore access areas knows as the Whirlpool, Pebbly Beach and the Glen. Fresh roe presentations and plastic minnow imitators take steelhead on both float and bottom bouncing set-ups. Hardware anglers take a fair share of fish as well. My most productive day on the Niagara came on Mepps spinners this past spring. I favor float fishing the river with my 15ft CTS and big slip floats holding lots of shot to get presentations down deep. Extra option: bring your own boat and fish the famous drifts in the lower river.

    Credit River

    A large watershed, and one of the larger tributaries along Lake Ontario, the Credit is located within the G.T.A. and 1.5million people consider the watershed home. 3000-5000 adult fish return to the Credit each year, many being wild steelhead. Large fish can be intercepted within the system beginning in late winter. Anglers can expect crowds in "Open All Year" sections during peak steelhead migration. The Credit is a friendly destination for fly anglers, with ample areas to nymph pockets and complete back-casts in open flats. Access the river off of the QEW highway or Highway 2 along the shoreline in the town of Port Credit just outside of downtown Toronto.

    Wilmot Creek

    This smaller, freestone tributary meets Lake Ontario in the town of Newcastle, minutes east of Toronto. This is the former home of Samuel Wilmot’s 19th century Atlantic salmon hatchery. The "Willy" is a surprising producer of wild steelhead. Tight quarters and riffle/run/pool water awaits anglers above the marsh at the mouth. Anglers can find steelhead in the system all winter and into spring. Pack waders, a rod to bush whack, and an assortment of both roe presentations and artificial baits, such as: pink Exude worms, panfish tubes, stoneflies, and jigs. Access this gem just off the 401 freeway or Highway 2 in the town of Newcastle.

    Ganaraska River

    Like many eastern Lake Ontario tributaries, the "Ganny" is born in an environmentally sensitive region called the Oak Ridges Moraine and was once home to one of Lake Ontario’s largest steelhead runs. Excellent stretches of the upper river remain closed until the spring trout opener in late April. Sections in the community of Port Hope at the mouth provide anglers with extended fall and open all year zones. The Ganny is a good sized river in comparison to other eastern tributaries of Lake Ontario. When migrations are timed correctly, the Ganny will still produce the steelhead catches that made it famous. Late March and early April tend to coincide with large pushes of migrating fish.

    Other Mentions on Lake Ontario

    Anglers driving the shore of Lake Ontario can access dozens of productive tribs from the QEW and 401 highways. Rivers such as Bronte Creek, Cobourg Creek, and Bowmanville Creek can produce good catches as well. Lake Ontario tribs are known to produce the Great Lakes’ largest steelhead and bountiful days on the river. Expect crowds on weekends no matter where you venture when fish are migrating.

    Places to stay on Lake Ontario

    This is a "no-brainer"; roadside accommodations and chain hotels, can be found from Niagara all the way to Oshawa/Pickering east of Toronto on the 401. Anglers venturing further east can find places to stay in the towns of Port Hope and Cobourg. Generally, stopping over in Oakville/Port Credit, will allow anglers to hop from one productive tributary to another in short order, all while keeping Toronto close to home base.


    Cast Adventures, Niagara Region 1-888-512-8127
    Gagnon Sports, Oshawa (905)725-5798

    Lake Huron

    Between the tributaries in Lake Huron proper, and the large portion know as Georgian Bay, this Lake has some of the finest steelheading in the Province. Anglers entering Ontario in Sarnia (south) or Sault Ste. Marie (west) will be minutes from productive waters. The entire shoreline hosts productive tributaries that see bumper crops of wild fish, and some stocking. Huron itself could take over two weeks to properly road-trip; however, that is no indication to pass up the area if you’re short on time. Areas to focus on would be the tributaries in Huron and Grey Counties, as well as the regions in southern Georgian Bay. Productive fishing can also be found in the northern end from the Soo east to the town of Espanola on Highway 17. Rivers in these regions differ greatly. The northern tribs are more rugged and remote compared to the rivers found along lower Huron. When timing your trip, keep in mind that spring migrations across the lake do not take place at the same time. Northern flows will come into their prime around the same time the southern tribs are finished and void of fresh steelhead. Also, pay attention to the local possession limits on Huron, if you intend to keep a fish or two.

    Saugeen River

    By far my favorite Lake Huron tributary to fish is the "’Geen". This wide and diverse river produces outstanding access in the lower end below Denny’s Dam. A recent, very successful stocking program undertaken by the Lake Huron Fishing Club, in joint with Ontario Steelheaders, has drastically boosted returning hatchery steelhead numbers, in turn leading to outstanding fishing. Big water and fairly stable water conditions are a highlight of this system. Pack a 15’ft float rod, and some hardware chucking gear. Large numbers of bottom bouncing anglers frequent the Geen, as the deep fast runs below the dam set up nicely for this approach. Anglers willing to wade in fairly strong/deep currents are usually rewarded for their troubles, but beware of late winter shelf-ice. Good fishing continues up until May most seasons. Access the river at Denny’s Dam, just upstream from highway 21 and the accommodating town of Southampton. Waters above the lower dam open to angling in late April. Fishing the lower section will put you in contact with hot fish. Get ready for some spectacular hook-ups in big flows close to the lake. A bonus for early spring anglers: the feeder size Coho and Chinook salmon that enter the lower river to feed on bait migrations.

    Nottawasaga River

    This southern Georgian Bay tributary is the jewel of natural reproduction, in close proximity to the massive population hub of southern Ontario. Notty steelhead are held in high regard as some of the finest in the province. This is a large river system that can become un-fishable for extended periods of time in the early spring due to sediment run-off and high water levels. Stretches in the lower river are open to steelhead anglers all season. Up-river sections have extended fall seasons and "no-kill" regulations. The Notty is a wood debris filled system, and tends to fish smaller than the flow rates may indicate. Don’t let this fool you though, the Notty should be on your list, as it boasts a good return of fish from early fall into early spring. Pack good waders and lots of hooks as well as a few extra yards of fluoro leader wheels. Hooking lots of fish on the Notty requires anglers to fish the "junk". A 13ft float rod will get you by here. Pack leader line in at least 4lb test. Many Notty steelhead fall victim to both fresh roe presentations and properly presented hardware. Gear chucking anglers should bring along cleos, small rapala minnows and Mepps spinners.

    St. Mary’s Rapids

    The "Rapids" as it is know among Ontario anglers is located in Sault Ste. Marie. This huge, but short stretch of rapids is the outflow of Lake Superior into Huron. The mile and a half of fast water is a treacherous wading adventure in the spring, due to the ice cold water of Superior. Steelhead spawn in the St. Mary’s later than anywhere else in the province due to the cold water temps. Expect fresh fish up until late May. Access the river from the Canadian side of the border near the shipping Locks and follow the angler trails out to the roaring rapids. Big gear rules here, with 15ft rods and big floats being the norm. Artificial baits such as spinners, spoons and flies also take good numbers of fish here. Any variations in flow will hold fish; focus on pocket water both inside the spawning channel, and out in the main stem. Wade carefully! This is a dangerous river for the careless or inexperienced steelheader. Bonus for spring anglers: this is the most realistic shot you have at catching a Great Lakes Atlantic Salmon, thanks to the Lake Superior State University stocking program.

    Other Mentions on Huron

    We have just touched on a few of the most productive rivers Lake Huron has to offer. Other notable mentions include the Beaver, Bighead, and Maitland. All of these flows can be found within reasonable travel time from the above mentioned rivers, except the Soo. Anglers fishing northern Huron have many remote tribs to trek along Highway 17 east of the Soo. Huron boasts a healthy return of wild steelhead, take this into account while sampling some of the best fishing in the Great Lakes. Certain systems produce hatchery returns and these should be utilized by anglers. Highways 17 in the north and 26/21 in the south will take steelheaders to all of the important tribs Huron has to offer.

    Places to Stay on Huron

    Anglers fishing the southern tribs of Huron can hang their hat in the towns of Southampton on the banks of the Saugeen, or to the east in the towns of Collingwood or Wasaga Beach, close to the Notty. For the northern tribs, the towns of Espanola and the city of Sault Ste. Marie provide the angler with every amenity.


    Watson’s Tackle House (519) 371-0090
    Saugeen Walk and Wade Adventures (519) 477-0151

    Lake Superior

    Road tripping Superior is an undertaking that requires an article all to itself. The grandest of the Great Lakes provides a wealth of tributaries with wild steelhead abounding. If you are a diligent GLA reader, you would have already encountered my informative piece on Superior in the May 2010 issue. Simply put, the rivers from Sault Ste. Marie, northwest to Thunder Bay all provide special "wild steelheading" adventures.

    Originally published by Feb 2011, March 2011, and April 2011
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