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Confessions of a Recovering Steelheader

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I rarely fish for steelhead anymore. I’m not one to give up on things, but steelheading finally took me to my knees. Flogging dead water for hours was tolerable in my youth. See, I assumed you had to “pay your dues”. And man did we pay them – with the assumption it would eventually result with huge jumping steelhead going berserk in high sparkling spring flood waters.

At the end of March and early April, I always get spring fever and recollect to the 1980′s and early nineties when a group of us from Minnesota would load up the vans and head to western Michigan for the annual spring steelhead run. In the mid 80′s the steelhead runs were bountiful, far superior to the paltry trickle of fish we had on the North Shore of Minnesota’s Lake Superior.

The trips were not only tons of fun, but the fishing was generally quite good. We fished most of the small to medium sized rivers south of Traverse City such as the Betsie, Pere Marquette, and tributaries of the Big Manistee.

We knew going in that a good day steelheading is hooking perhaps two fish and landing one. This is interspersed with snagging up on wood and rocks probably 15 – 30 times per day, requiring re-rigging and new flies. For this reason we generally used multi-colored yarn flies on small #4 or #6 salmon hooks which we could quickly tie streamside and get back in the game. Further, with the need to get down quickly, we often clamped a 1/4 oz. splitshot up the line about 3 feet to get down and bounce along the bottom.

Yes, the water was cold but thick neoprene chest waders helped combat the elements which could be bring 25 degree weather or 70 degree weather depending on the season.

Two Indelible Steelhead Memories

Beneath the Cedar

Whenever I try to conjure some of my favorite steelhead memories I generally land on one of the following. 

I have two distinct memories when spring steelheading in Michigan. Both stories are on the Betsie River with the first one occurring during one of the first years - probably in the mid-1980's. My brother Bruce and I were newbies and stumbled about the Betsie looking for fishing spots and information, as we were clueless. We found a hospitable spot on the fabled Harry’s Run downstream from the parking lot at the dam, about 400 yards and six turns of this dynamite fisheries.

There, early one foggy morning I briefly hooked by first large steelhead beneath a sweeping White Cedar leaning out over the river. My line stopped (as it had hundreds of times before on snags) and this time it began to move up river. I reeled down and reared back as a silver torpedo porpoised upriver making two violent leaps before coming off. I’ll never forget that fish as long as I live - though we were connected for only five seconds.

Harold's Slot
The other scenario was a tiny indiscriminate opening along some dense river bank vegetation where a day previous I spied Harold, a long time river rat, nearly hidden in the coniferous foliage - with barely enough room to flip his line up stream for a quick drift. 

We became acquainted this big kind gentleman known only as “Harold”, a local and excellent steelheader - and kept a close eye on his fishing spots. The next day as I wandered that side of the river, I could see where he’d been fishing. And alas, there was no one there! There was little evidence anyone had fished there as Harold stealthily squeezed into the spot without the obligatory pruning done by fisher people. Most fisherman will continue to hang up and break off branches until they have these spots cleared out. They don’t realize the very reason fish are there is because of the vegetation and safe harbor in which they can take refuge.

Spawning steelhead will often choose spawning bed location with overhanging vegetation to obscure them from predators above. The water was murky with spring run off so I was fishing “dark water” meaning we could not see fish in the stream. This day I slipped into Harold’s slot. Upstream about 12 feet was an overhanging cedar I could flip under and bounce the fly along the sandy bottom down to another log about 15 feet down river, that lay just on top of the water, but was clean underneath. Beneath the log, a slight depression of 1 - 2 feet was scoured out making a perfect lie for spring run steelhead.

It also so happened there was a nice push or run of fish into the river over the previous couple of days for which every steelheader prays.

This was a relatively straight run, but more on the outside bend, meaning the water was deeper and the fish were near the bank. So I’d plant my rear tight to the bank and flip my rig upstream and fish just below the rod tip. That day I believe I hooked at least 10 – 12 steelhead and strung up three or four. It was the first and last time I ever killed any wild steelhead, but we were looking for a fish dinner and man, we got one. It was one of the best days I ever had with three hapless fisherman across from me, looking on, as I cracked fish after fish - several of which were followed down river as I could not stop them.

The next day of course, the three fisherman spectators had the spot, complete with a lantern hanging on one of the trees – already being pruned to make room for a couple more fisherman. I watched them for about ten minutes and disgustedly moved on.

I remember afternoons lazily basking in the radiant spring sun backed up to a tree and nodding off for an hour or so. I remember lined up with several good friends along a good run joking and laughing and netting fish. I remember quietly slipping down newly discovered waters and being rewarded with fish and mostly enjoying the adventure that new water brings. I remember sitting in the cabin at the end of the day reminiscing with our crew, comparing notes and stories of the day. These were some of the finest fishing trips ever.

All good things come to an end. The runs of Great Lakes steelhead diminished in the mid 90′s due to the salmon fisheries crash and charter captains setting there sites on steelhead to make up for the lost salmon. The spring runs, so plentiful in the eighties were now just a trickle of fish - with all the stream fly fisherman shaking their collective heads. We finally got tired of flogging dead water and ended the pilgrimage in the early 90′s.

Perhaps the fisheries has returned today, I don’t know or care since it’s a past chapter of my fishing career that still brings many fond memories. But I still get a twinge to be on the river on these warm spring days with snow melting and water running everywhere and I know steelhead are moving up river someplace.

But steelheading requires an intestinal fortitude and patience that I no longer wish to force upon myself. Hours of drifting promising runs with no results, competition for hot spots, garbage along the banks, and fish snagging on visible beds have all turned me off to the sport.

Yes, I know there are those of you that still love it and I know why. But I’ll hold on to the bright memories of yesteryear and when spring fever starts to commence, I’ll instead spend time in the garage preparing for spring crappies and the opening of walleyes.

For those of you that still pursue steelhead, I do have some serious steelhead flies on FlyBass.com, including Rainy’s Steelhead Flies – Subsurface Collection (24 flies). I’m reducing the price on all the Rainy’s fly collections and assortments on FlyBass. Also, the #8 Smokin’ Hot Nucast Fly Rod is a perfect and affordable rod for steelhead, doubling as a great bass and light saltwater rod.