NW Michigan Steel

6 12 2017

Friday, Dec. 1st.  The start of a 3 day smack down on the local Steelhead population.  At least I was hoping it would be.  I honestly had no idea how this trip was going to turn out.  I had some people telling me that the rivers were full of fish, big fish.  Other were telling me the exact opposite.  I didn’t know who to believe.  All I knew was that I was out of work early and headed north west to Wellston, MI and D-Loop Outfitters. I singed up for this trip back in June with Schultz’s Outfiiters who would be the host for the event.  Normally I take my time during these drives but dinner was at 7:30 pm and Google Maps had me arriving at 7:38 pm.  Just as I pulled into the driveway Schultzy was calling my cell to ask where i was at.  I told him I was in  my car staring at him talking to me.  After introductions we sat down for a dinner of lamb chops.

I expected to lose weight after 3 days of fishing but based on this first meal I had a feeling I was going to gain weight (turns out it would only be a pound).  After dinner we were paired up and assigned a guide for the next morning.  So after talking with a few people and drinking a very bitter craft beer I was off to my cabin and bed.

Day 1, The Pere Marquette.

After Breakfast Robert (my fishing partner for today) and I were headed south to the PM to meet up with our guide, Brad Turner, from the Tommy Lynch Fish Whisperer Guide Service.  After a brief discussion of what the plan was going to be for the day we piled into Brad’s truck and headed to the launch site.  Brad launched his drift boat and after about a 15 minute row downstream we were stopped at our first run for the day.  We were using indicator rigs with a couple of beads pegged a couple of inches above each hook.  The rationale here is that the steelhead will grab the bead thinking it is a salmon egg.  Once I set the hook it should catch him in the corner of the mouth.  This was going to be the plan of attack for the whole day.  Fish a run, get back in the boat, row to the next run, repeat.  At our first stop Brad got me all set up and I went to work.  It didn’t take long and I had the first fish of the day on.  It made a few big jumps in the beginning and I could tell it was a decent sized and nicely colored male.  After his third jump he hauled ass upstream and I just let him run.  I was free and clear of any log jams that way and it would be the perfect area to land him.  He must have realized that himself because he turned around and ran back to where I hooked him.  Once he was in there he got tangled up in some old fishing line that was wrapped around a log.  What started off as a very promising beginning ended with disappointment.  After a few minutes I was rigged back up and at again.  Just as Brad was telling us it was time to move on I hooked into another fish.  The fight didn’t last long.

My smallest steelhead to date. I need to reverse this trend.

These two fish would turn out to be the only ones we would hook all day.  Most of the day was spent trying to dodge other boats and stay ahead of them so we could fish clean holes that hadn’t been disturbed.  I expected it to be busy on a Saturday but this was nuts.  It wasn’t until about 2 o’clock that we were finally able to get ahead of the pack.  Not that it made any difference but at least it kept our hopes up.  It’s hard to remain positive about fishing a run or hole if you know someone else has already been through it.  Fishing was tough enough already, playing second or third fiddle to everyone else just made it worse.  We kept at it until just before sundown which was about the time we arrived at our take out.  It was a long day but still a good one.  I would have liked to have landed that first fish but I wasn’t going to keep it anyways so it wasn’t too heartbreaking.  If you believe that I got a bridge over some swamp land to sell you.

Hopefully Day 2 will be better.

Day 2, The Big Manistee

Day 2 started off at a bone chilling 23 degrees.  This wasn’t going to last long but for the first few hours I was going to appreciate the heated cabin on the boat we would be using.  Our guide picked Robert and I up at our cabin and by 8:00 am we were at the launch and ready to go.

A Beautiful but cold morning on the Big Man

The name of the game today was floating beads under a float using a center pin rig.  I had never done this before but I was curious to find out how it worked.  Center pins are becoming more and more popular with the Steelheaders and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  After some quick instructions from our guide we were drifting our beads to the fish.  Basically what we would do is anchor the boat upstream of the run or hole and just let the float drift downstream.  This is where the reel comes in.  There is no drag or “clicker” on the reel, it just free spools as the float drifts down.  These reels are so smooth that it just spins without causing any drag on the float, thus allowing for as natural a drift as possible.  No mending lines.  No repeated casts.  Just let it drift.  The draw back is that when you have to set the hook you have to remember to clamp down on the reel with your hand, otherwise you will create a bird’s nest that no self-respecting Robin would want to deal with.  Fortunately for me I never did that, can’t say the same for Robert.  After about half an hour I was getting the hang of it and getting into a groove, interrupted only by short breaks to clear the ice out of the guides every 15 minutes or so.  Not much happened at the first hole, it was more of a practice stop anyways.  The next stop was different.  By now the sun was up above the tree line and the temps got above freezing.  No more clearing guides.  Once we started drifting our floats they were getting bumped and played with by the fish.  The float would drop, we would set the hook and nothing would happen.  This went on for about 15 minutes but the guide told us to keep at it.  Sometimes the fish feel like playing or it is a skipper screwing around.  Turns out he was right on both counts.  On one of the numerous bumps Robert set the hook and this time the fish was on.  I reeled in and got out of the way to give them plenty of room.  This would turn out to be a very cooperative fish.  Instead of running towards the wood he stayed out in the middle of the river.  After about 10 minutes of this he was in the net.  A quick pic and he was on his way.

Rob’s 75th Birthday Fish

Now it was my turn.  While Robert was getting set back up again I went back to fishing.  On my next drift my float dropped and I buried the hook into what appeared to be a good fish.  I’ll never know for sure, 10 seconds later he was off.

FRAK!!!

I reeled in, reset everything and got back at it.  A couple drifts later my float dropped and once again I clamped down on the reel and set the hook.  I hooked the fish but the weight wasn’t there like the previous one.  Once again the Skipper curse reared its minuscule head.  A minute later he was in the net and quickly released to fight another day.  I’m going to start telling everyone that I am dealing in Steelhead Futures, catch them small and let them grow later.

My Big Manistee Brute

Once we were done drifting floats through this hole our Guide broke out the Spey rods so we could swing flies through this big run.  This is what I wanted to do all weekend so I was tickled pink to finally get the chance.  He set me up on the back of the boat and just let me cast away.  Meanwhile, he set Robert up at the front of the boat and gave him a refresher course on casting.  I had never been on a boat where you had two spey casters fishing at the same time.  I will never do it again.  I had the whole back of the boat all to myself so I  really didn’t have to worry about anything.  The guy up front had to time his casts to make sure he didn’t hit my line or me.  While Robert never did hit my line (I was timing my casts to help prevent that) he did manage to hit just about everything else, including me.  After the third time he bounced his fly off of my hat the guide finally said that’s enough and we went back to the center pins.  I was lucky that I never got a hooked buried in me and I preferred to keep it that way, even if it meant fishing a method I really didn’t want to.

We continued on for the rest of the day with the only excitement being Rob hooking into another fish for a few brief seconds.  The clear blue skies created a lot of glare and trying to watch a float through that was proving to be difficult and giving me a headache.  Around 3:30 pm we pulled lines and headed back to the dock.  We didn’t want to be late for dinner, steak and lobster tonight.

Day 3, The Little Manistee

This was the forecast for day 3.  I was supposed to spend it on the Big Manistee again with Robert but the guide couldn’t make it so another guide was assigned to us.  Personally I think the guide didn’t want to get rained on all day.  Because of this there was some reshuffling of where we would fish.  One of the other guests wanted to hike and wade the Little Manistee and his partner wanted to fish the PM.  That meant that Robert and I would be splitting up to fish one of the alternatives.  He chose to fish the PM and I was happily relegated to  the Little Manistee.  It was already raining so I gathered all my rain gear and piled into the guide’s 4-Runner.  After about a 30 minute drive we arrived at our first stop of the day.  We would be fishing Indicator rigs again but John (Our Guide) did bring along a switch rod for swinging flies, just in case.

The Little Manistee and all its log jam, fish losing potential.

We set up on the first run and started drifting egg flies through the run.  This part of the river wasn’t very wide and we were literally casting just 10 feet in front of us.  John, the other fisherman, was downstream of me by about 20 yards.  Our guide was standing next to me answering my questions when I happened to see John set the hook on a fish.  He never said a word so I pointed downstream and said “fish”.  About that time the Fish made one of 3 straight up in the air jumps, headed downstream, turned and swam back upstream to the hole and then reversed course and hauled ass downstream.  John and John gave chase while I just continued to fish my spot.  I kept an eye on them in case they needed help but there really wasn’t much I could do.  They had their hands full in the skinny water and they really didn’t need me to get in the way.  About 15 minutes later they were both walking upstream, John 2 was all smiles so I assumed they landed the fish.  John 1 later informed me that they did not.  He told me that it was about a 10 pound male and it got hung up on a tree stump and broke the line just as he was about to net it.  It was the first big Steelhead that John 2 had ever hooked into and he was all wound up now.  Thus the reason for him being all smiles.  We fished the spot for a few more minutes but nothing happened so we moved on to the next run.

At spot number two John 2 and I were a little more separated so our guide had to split his time a little more carefully.  He got John 2 set up first and then we walked a little further upstream.  He told me where to fish and I made a few casts.  Once he was comfortable with my presentation he headed back down to check on John 2.  Just as he rounded the bend I hooked a fish.  He started to run back but I told him to take it easy.  This one wasn’t going anywhere.  Skippers usually don’t.

It was still a fish and as it would turn out I would be the only one from the group that would catch a Steelhead each day.  I also got to claim the prize for the smallest fish each day.  It takes real skill to be able to do that.  We fished this area of the river for the next hour or so but to no avail.  I even got to swing a streamer through a run that held both Coho and Steelhead but they didn’t want to play.  The fish were there, we could see them in the runs (some well over 10 pounds) but they didn’t want to cooperate so we headed back to the car and lunch.  By now the rain had stopped which made for a pleasant dining experience of a turkey sandwich and vegetable soup.  Once that was done we packed up and headed out.

Our next stop was a section of the river about 3 miles from where we first started.  This stretch was full of spawning Cohos.  There was a great run of these fish this year and many were still holding over.  John 1 mentioned to me that some of them will be here until January and fresh ones will probably move in with the latest rain.  I was surprised to see so many and I was hoping there would be plenty of Steelhead feeding on the eggs.  John 2 was set up on the first hole and he immediately hooked in to a Coho.  It didn’t last long and he got hung up.  John 1 decided to just turn me loose.  He gave me a box of egg patterns and some leader material.  He asked if I was ok with that and I assured him I was fine and headed upstream.  He told me he would check on me in about 30 minutes or so.  I started methodically working the runs, hoping to find one cooperative Steelhead while all the Cohos swam around me.  As I was making my last drift on one run I saw a nasty looking Coho swimming my way and into the run.  Of course she grabbed the egg.  I didn’t set the hook, hoping she would spit it but she didn’t.  She turned and buried the hook in her jaw.  I managed to work her out of the hole and into the skinny water downstream.  Once I did that I yelled out to John 1 and he came up to assist.  He saw the fish and the look of disgust on my face so he just grabbed the line and gave it a good yank to pull it free.  We joked about it for a second and said we should move up to the next run.  John 2 had hooked into about 4 or 5 Coho by now so I asked John 1 if he really thought he would be able to get him to leave.  He gave me that “yeah your right” look so I just went off on my own again.

At the next run I managed to hook a few more Coho but I really didn’t try to land them.  They were looking quite nasty and I didn’t want to grab them.  Eventually I moved on to another hole and started fishing again.  About this time John 1 had made his way back up to check on me and it was then that I hooked another Steelhead.  Only problem was that it was another smolt no more than 8 or 9 inches long.  I got her close and removed the hook without ever taking her out of the water.  A few minutes later I followed that up with a couple of small Brown Trout.  John 1 told me there was a good wild population here but that the ones he catches are usually in the 15 to 20 inch range.  Leave it to me to break the trend.

Small but very colorful

John 1 told me we only had about another 20 minutes so I started to work my way back down.  I made a few more casts but once I broke my line on a sunken log I just packed everything up for the day.  John 2 was still playing with the Cohos so I just sat back and watched.  If these had been fresh fish I would have joined in but I wasn’t feeling the need to catch zombies.  It had been a long 3 days and I was starting to feel it.  A hot shower and sleeping in my own bed was sounding really good right about now.  I just had to get through the 3 1/2 hour drive first.  Still, I caught fish, there wasn’t any size to them but it was better than nothing.  I had the chance to land some bigger ones but it really didn’t happen.  I ate well and didn’t get hurt so I really can’t complain.  I’m sure I’ll do it again next year.  I just may fit in a few trips beforehand on my own.

 

Next up, back to The Alley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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