Eric Haataja is a renowned Wisconsin guide who has decades of experience targeting massive Lake Michigan steelhead and brown trout through the ice. When ice conditions allow, tremendous ice fishing opportunities emerge on many of the Lake Michigan tributaries. Besides targeting these rivers, Haataja also points out that some of the harbors that feature incoming rivers can also produce ice fishing for steelhead.
Steelhead will move into these river systems throughout the winter and pulses of fresh fish will often move into the river after warm spells or rain. When targeting steelhead through the ice, Haataja stresses the lower sections of the river will often hold the most steelhead during the winter. Classic locations include holes or long runs of slower and deeper water, but sleeper locations can also include flats that range from three to four feet of water that can have faster water.
For simply catching steelhead, nothing is as effective as an auto hook device like an Automatic Fisherman or Jaw Jacker. These devices are important for several reasons. Wisconsin regulations allow anglers to use three lines per angler. The auto hook devices hook the fish immediately so there is less mortality with fish swallowing the hook. These devices also enable the angler to fight the fish on a rod and reel. Because these fish can be so difficult to catch with heavy line, the drag on a good reel is important. In other words, if you used a tip up, the heavy line that would be necessary to land one of these hard fighting fish would result in few bites. If you used a tip down of some other device where the fish could run and swallow the hook, mortality would be extremely high. These fish can bite surprisingly light, and these fish can need finesse but the horsepower these fish have in the current is remarkable. Haataja believes steelhead under the ice in strong current is one of the hardest fighting fish that can be caught through a hole in the ice.
The current velocity dictates much of the presentation. In light current, the rig can be as simple as an octopus hook and a few split shots. In stronger current, many anglers will use a heavier egg sinker and a swivel above a one-to-two-foot leader where a spawn sack is used with floats to suspend the sack off the bottom. In extreme current, Haataja has also used a three-way rig with a heavy weight to cut the current. Size 8 octopus hooks with eight-pound monofilament are the standard for these river steelhead.
Spawn sacks are extremely popular and deadly effective for steelhead. Brown trout spawn is often preferred by many steelhead anglers but steelhead spawn and coho salmon spawn can also work well. Colors can be experimented with by using different mesh and floating bead colors. Shrimp, either raw or cooked will also catch steelhead if no spawn is available.