The wind-driven snows of late December are howling past my windows tonight. Any steelhead that moved into area rivers after last week’s monsoons are holding deep in holes and pools, getting sluggish as water temps approach the freezing mark. A pint of Two-Hearted ale is sitting on my table, and the gorgeous sunset hues of that unfiltered brew helps conjure warm thoughts of summer fishing to drive the chill from a night like this.
I usually revert to memories of late August evenings spent chugging deerhair bugs through lilypads or stalking golden bonefish along the flats of Grand Traverse Bay. Tonight though, the glittering silver flanks of summer steelhead have flashed across my psyche.
A summer vacation had found us camped out at the M-22 Platte River campground. The weather that week had been cool and rainy, and we had forgone the beach to canoe a few sections of the river, dunking worms and fishing spinners for trout. Our first excursion had been mildly successful, with lots of smallish rainbow trout and a few chunky browns that I had coaxed out of hiding with nightcrawlers.
A day or two later, my dad and I decided to refloat that section during a grey, drizzly day. The water was slightly up and stained compared to our first float. We fished some of the obvious pockets where we’d had luck before, but didn’t have much luck. Maybe the rain had flooded the river with worms and the trout were sated. After a few slow hours we decided to paddle to the take-out and explore elsewhere.
Halfway through the paddle, the stretch where I had hit the browns loomed around a bend. Dad ruddered the canoe over and we rigged up, hoping there was at least one decent fish in the pool.
I remember that the gear I was using was very light, a 5 foot ultralight rod and small spinning reel that maybe held 80 yards of 6lb mono. The reel was a veteran of our numerous trips to Northern Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, lightweight and easy to maintain. It was seriously undersized for what was about to happen.
Dad had moved downstream of me, maybe halfway down the length of the pool, and wasdrifting a worm along the bottom. Something immmediately stripped half the worm off the hook, normally the sign of a small trout, too quick to be hooked. I flipped my spinner into the head of the pool. The line came tight in the current and I could feel the dull brass blade vibrating as it spun. I retrieved just enough to keep the spinner moving and flashing above the bottom. There was a slight bump near the end of my retrieve, probably bottom. I flipped the bail open and flicked the spinner in the run again, a little farther downstream this time. I cranked the reel handle a few times as the telltale thrumming of the blade started again in the current.
A vicious strike nearly yanked the rod out of my hand. I don’t recall having time to set the hook, the savage strike hooked the fish. The rod doubled over, there was a heavy headshake and the line immediately started peeling off the reel in a screech as the fish bolted downstream. The fish moved so fast that the line didn’t point right at it, hissing through the water behind the beast. When it was almost directly abreast of Dad, it catapulted out of the water twice, swapping
ends and thrashing the water with its long, green and chrome flanks. I blindly fumbled for the dragknob, knowing that things were going to the limit. Before I could make an adjustment, the fish ripped free and greyhounded off downstream, jumping once more before it disappeared. My line hung lifeless in the current.
My hands shook with spent adrenaline as I reeled it up. My Panther Martin was still there, wire shaft bent like an “L”, with two of the three hooks straightened out. It was my first encounter with a steelhead and it was over before I realized what I had been hitched to.
The haunts and habits of summer steelhead are a loosely-kept secret on Michigan rivers. While people know about them, the anglers that have pinned down their runs and locations are tight-lipped about the how, when and where. Most fly fishermen have dreamt of tangling with these brutes on fly gear. Even people that frequent areas where summer steelhead are commonly found are intimidated by the thought of landing these fish. This can be the result of many factors, including the lack of information about summer run steelhead rivers, a misunderstanding about the tackle and techniques, or confusion due to an overwhelming array of steelhead flies.
Summer steelhead are sexually immature fish that migrate from the river to the Great Lakes for as long as 3 years. They enter the rivers from May through October, and don’t spawn until the following winter or spring. They come from the big water with enough fat reserves to survive in their home river for the entire summer without eating, but soon revert to stream-fish behavior patterns, such as surface feeding, aggressive feeding, etc.
The most important thing to realize is that the information may seem tedious, conflicting or complicated, but the basics of fly fishing apply to these summer run steelhead just like other gamefish species. As Shewey and Maxwell (1996) go on to say in Fly Fishing for Summer Steelhead, “…fly fishing for summer steelhead is a decidedly simple form of fly fishing: We need not match hatches, study entomology, perfect drag-free drifts, land fish on fine tippets or burden
ourselves with other complexities inherent in fly fishing for trout.” This book isn’t written specifically on the Great Lakes summer-run fish, but nevertheless is excellent for beginners to learn the basics of tackle and techniques, how to read water, and of course, flies.
Optimism and confidence play a huge role in the pursuit of summer steelhead on the fly. Have confidence in your fly, gear and presentation, and the rest will take care of itself. Over the years many fine steelhead flies have proven track records for taking fish, but any fly with the right colors, size, or presentation fished with confidence can take fish. Of those factors, confidence and presentation are probably the most important.
A word or two of caution is necessary here. Summer steelhead are more vulnerable than their spring-spawning cousins due to the longer time spent in the rivers, and their aggressive nature. External pressures including poaching, low water levels, high water temperatures and overharvest all contribute to reduced numbers. Elevated water temperatures in summer can guarantee mortality for steelhead that are released, as the warm water lacks enough oxygen to successfully revive a played-out fish. Be sure to use barbless hooks and tackle strong enough to bring fish in without overplaying them, keep captured fish in the water to let them breathe, hold captured fish facing into the current until they recover before releasing them, and NEVER drag a hooked fish onto shore.
I will cover more details of fishing for summer steelhead in columns to come. For the time being, the thought of pursuing these chrome torpedos in shorts and sandals is enough to warm my heart and raise my pulse. Tight lines!