Ontario Steelhead Fishing: A Complete Guide

The Author with a big Ontario steelhead caught in early September on a small lake Ontario stream.
Author and guide Graham with a big Ontario steelhead caught in early September on a small lake Ontario stream.

I grew up fishing for steelhead in Southern Ontario, and after almost 20 years of steelhead fishing, I started guiding the area. I soon became the top independent river fishing guide in Ontario, often guiding over 300 days a year. Many of those days where chasing wild steelhead that averaged 5 to 8 pounds.

Thanks to extensive stocking efforts and wild runs of naturalized steelhead, Ontario steelhead fishing can be very good. It’s not uncommon to have days where my clients would hook over fifty steelhead.

I will share my most effective methods, baits, and provide the information you need to catch a lot more steelhead.

About Ontario Steelhead Fishing

Author and guide Graham with a big steelhead caught using a switch rod and switch reel.
Author and guide Graham with a big steelhead caught using a switch rod and switch reel.

Fishing for steelhead in Ontario is widespread since Ontario shorelines are hundreds of kilometers long and line Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Georgian Bay, and Lake Superior.

All of these Great Lakes have abundant steelhead. The image is me with a small stream steelhead from Ontario.

Ontario has more steelhead rivers and more shoreline areas than any other state around the great lakes.

Ontario steelhead fishing can be great in the open lakes, up the tributaries, and at the mouth of the many rivers.

Anglers who know what triggers the steelhead to enter the rivers and where to go can be there at the right times and they are more likely to have days when they can land over thirty steelhead a day.

Not only can there be huge numbers of steelhead in the rivers from October to May, but the steelhead in Ontario can also reach sizes over 25 pounds. My best steelhead was about 24 pounds and was caught in April on the Credit River.

Steelhead fishing in Ontario is good thanks to a lot of rivers that provide good clean water for natural reproduction.

Other areas and some rivers are stocked with steelhead in the upper sections of select rivers, or they are stocked near the mouths of the rivers when the steelhead are young.

As they grow, the fingerling steelhead will eventually migrate to the lakes where they feed heavily on baitfish and grow rapidly.

Mature steelhead will return to the points or river where they were stocked and continue to make their way further up the rivers to the best spawning grounds.

When Do Steelhead Run In Ontario?

Steelhead On The Spey Rod
A summer steelhead caught by my client while fishing for salmon in early September.

Steelhead runs occur every year, and they can start as early as the beginning of September in small numbers, providing the conditions are suitable.

The image is my client, who caught this twelve-pound steelhead while fishing for Chinook salmon in early September.

In most rivers, the largest runs of steelhead start after the Canadian Thanksgiving (mid-October) and will get better in November. Even early to late December can have large runs and lots of steelhead in the rivers. The steelhead fishing gets good again in March and April.

Most steelhead, even the ones that enter the rivers in September, will spawn in March and April.

At times, some rivers will have steelhead into late May and even early June. The Niagara River is one of them.

An angler steelhead fishing on a low clear river.
An angler steelhead fishing on a low clear river.

I also fish for summer hold-over steelhead in the summer.

On some small rivers, steelhead will move into the rivers in late spring, spawn late, and then get trapped in the smaller low streams.

Summer steelhead will hold in deep pools and start feeding and active like trout.

Twenty years ago, a summer run strain of steelhead called a Skamania, were stocked in some rivers. Stocking has ceased and I don’t hear of any reports of these steelhead being caught.

Different Rivers For Steelhead Fishing in Ontario

An angler doing some Ontario steelhead fishing on the Saugeen river
An angler doing some steelhead fishing on the Saugeen River

Most steelhead fishing occurs in Southern Ontario or Northern Ontario, with some good steelhead fishing in Lake Superior and tributaries.

Ontario has very large steelhead rivers like the Niagara River and the St Mary’s River, which can be over 300 feet wide and very fast flowing.

It also has smaller streams like the one in the picture that can be less than 15 feet wide.

An Angler Steelhead Fishing a PA Rivers
One of my clients euro nymphing for steelhead.

Some of these small tributaries can have runs exceeding 15,000 steelhead annually, making the fishing excellent.

Both the smaller and midsized rivers like the Credit River, Saugeen River, and Nottawasaga Rivers can see thousands of steelhead crammed into these rivers.

They are easy if you know when, where, and how to catch them!

Steelhead Rivers Of Lake Ontario

The primary steelhead rivers that flow into Lake Ontario are:

  • Ganaraska River
  • Wilmot Creek
  • Duffins Creek
  • Humber River
  • Credit River
  • Bronte Creek
  • Niagara River

Steelhead Rivers Of Lake Erie

Lake Erie tributaries on the Ontario side are warmer, muddier rivers flowing out of farmland, and there are only a few that are actually good for steelhead fishing.

The best Lake Erie rivers are the Grand River and Big Creek.

Ontario Steelhead Rivers Of Lake Huron

There are many great rivers flowing into Lake Huron on the Ontario side. Some of the nicest steelhead rivers are found in this area.

Best Rivers Include:

  • Bayfield River
  • Nine Mile
  • Maitland River – Best guided by Fly Fitters
  • Saugeen River – Said to have run over 30,000 some years
  • Sauble River

Best Georgian Bay Rivers

Georgian Bay is a huge bay and is technically part of Lake Huron. It has some of the best and cleanest steelhead rivers in the province. There are over twenty steelhead streams along the southern shores of Georgian Bay that anglers should try.

Best Rivers Include:

  • Bighead River
  • Beaver River
  • Nottawasaga River
  • Sydenham River
  • Coldwater River

Seasons For Ontario Steelhead Fishing

An Angler Steelhead Fishing PA Rivers in winter

As an angler and guide, I would say the best steelhead fishing of the year is in the fall.

Fall steelhead are big and strong after feeding in the lake all summer, and they will feed on any well-presented bait that passes them in the river.

Fall steelhead can enter the rivers in huge numbers and will winter over in these rivers, which provides good steelhead fishing all winter long or as long as the rivers stay unfrozen.

Salmon Lure fishing can be effective on giant salmon like this
Great river guides like head guide Cody from Reel Fresh Guide Service catch huge salmon in rivers using salmon lures, flies, jigs, and baits.

The fall is also a great time for chasing big salmon that run the same southern Ontario steelhead rivers.

If huge salmon is your thing, try Cody from Reel Fresh Guide Service.

Most rivers will freeze solid during winter, but the steelhead will be there waiting for the spring. In Ontario, most rivers usually freeze solid in January and February.

Late February or early March is when the ice starts to break up ,and the spring runs of steelhead start. Most river guides, like Matt from Smooth River Guiding Co will start fishing and guiding around early February.

Matt Martin From Smooth River Guiding Co.
Matt is a friend and fellow guide as well as a contributing guide on this website. Look for Matts’s tips and articles.

Matt guides early spring steelhead on some Lake Ontario rivers and on the best Georgian Bay Rivers. Matt is also a great guide for fall steelhead and salmon.

Spring steelhead fishing in Ontario can be very good. The best spring fishing is when they first start entering the rivers in March and then again in late April and early May.

Most of these steelhead will wait and spawn in March and April.

Note: Ontario has strict open and closed seasons for steelhead. Most rivers are closed to trout and steelhead fishing from October 1st to the fourth Saturday in April.

There are some rivers with extended open sections to Jan 1st or year-round sections. Check the Ontario fishing regulations for more.

An Angler Steelhead Fishing PA Rivers in winter

As a guide, I fish for steelhead through the winter months and have found methods and patterns to catch winter steelhead consistently.

I have also found ways to stay warm, dry, and comfortable even on the coldest days. For more information, check out these pages.

Best Methods of Catching Steelhead in Ontario

Drift Fishing For Steelhead

The best methods for Steelhead fishing will depend on the river and conditions. The baits you use will change based on the methods.

I go into a lot more detail on each method on my page on Steelhead Fishing Methods and Tactics page.

Fly Fishing For Ontario Steelhead

An big Ontario steelhead caught while Ontario steelhead fishing with A Perfect Drift Guide Company
A big late fall Ontario steelhead caught while fishing with A Perfect Drift Guide Company.

Fly fishing is a great method and is the method that I use and guide with the most. There are multiple methods used for fly fishing for steelhead in Ontario.

Nymphing: Nymph fishing with indicators is the most common method but anglers proficient at Euro Nymphing for Steelhead will do much better in the shallower pocket waters found on most Ontario steelhead rivers.

Streamer Fishing: Streamer fishing is another fishing method for Great Lakes steelhead that anglers can do well with.

Spey Fishing: Spey fishing is a growing fly fishing method used to swing flies across the pool for steelhead. It is best used on mid-sized and larger rivers.

Float Fishing and Centerpin Fishing

Float fishing with spinning reels is also a popular method in Ontario. Centerpin fishing is the same as float fishing but with a specialized river reel called a Centerpin reel.

Centerpin fishing is said to have originated in Ontario and is now one of the most popular and effective methods for steelhead around the Great Lakes. I have been the top centerpin guide and instructor in Ontario for over 12 years.

Bobber Doggin

Similar to float fishing is a new method known as Bobber Doggin. Bobber doggin is rarely used in Ontario and is trumped by the Centerpin fishing and fly fishing methods. Check it out at Bobber Doggin For Steelhead, Salmon, and Trout.

An angler holding a nice steelhead caught float fishing
One of my clients holding a nice steelhead caught while float fishing. Float fishing is one of the most effective methods for steelhead in rivers.

Drift Fishing

Drifting fishing is another method used by Ontario steelhead anglers on larger rivers.

Drift fishing is simply casting your bait and weight out and letting it drift down the river without a float or bobber.

Drift fishing is good on larger deeper river sections with moderate to fast currents.

It is similar to bottom bouncing which is an even more popular and effective method used in smaller and shallower sections of the rivers and is often the best method in pocket water.

Best Baits Ontario Steelhead

Different types of spawn net
Different types of spawn net give your eggs a different look.

My most effective baits for steelhead are spawn sacs, flies, worms, and beads. These baits used with the above methods are very effective.

Change your baits and sizes, and colors based on the conditions and the steelhead mood.

Spawn Sacs: Spawn sacs, also known as roe bags, are probably the most popular bait for steelhead, and at times spawn sacs will be the most effective bait for steelhead, however, at other times different baits will work better.

Worms: Live worms and plastic steelhead worms are my go-to bait for steelhead at any time of the year. At times, and often, worms will be more effective than spawn bags. For this reason, I always have plastic steelhead worms with me. Just be sure you know how to fish them effectively and how to rig them, and which ones are the best steelhead worms to use.

Hard and Soft Beads: Honesty, fishing with beads can be as effective as fishing with real eggs if you rig them up and fish them properly and then use them in the right type of water. Both soft and hard beads are very effective in faster moving current.

I discuss the proper rigs and the details of fishing each of these baits and a few more hot baits on my Best Steelhead Baits page.

Egg Imitations are Great Trout Baits
Egg imitations are great baits for trout and steelhead without the mess of reel eggs.

Some anglers don’t like using reel fish eggs, so they opt for the alternative of using artificial fish eggs.

Artificial eggs can mean plastic single eggs, plastic egg clusters that are meant to look like a spawn sac, or it can mean soft or hard beads.

Artificial baits are rarely more effective than beads but they can be good in faster water.

Lure Fishing For Ontario Steelhead

Lures like spoons, spinners, jigs, and plugs like the Qwikfish or Flatfish are very good for Ontario steelhead. Just make sure you have a variety of colors and sizes.

Some lures will work better for steelhead under certain conditions such as water clarity, water speed, and water temperature. As an example, in very cold water, it’s hard to beat the slow enticing wobble of a Kwickfish.

I discuss this and how to effectively catch more steelhead as well as my favorite lures in my article Tactics For Lure Fishing For Steelhead.

If you have a question, comment, or some tips and tricks about Ontario steelhead fishing, let us and our readers know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,


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