I’ve been fly fishing for 20 plus years, but never been steelhead fishing until this past weekend (Nov. 16 -19), when my fly fishing mentor and all around great friend “TJ” asked me to go… o.k., well, he’s been inviting me to go steelhead fishing for years, but I finally decided to give it a shot. What a great experience!
Now, as I mentioned, I’ve been fly fishing for a long time… you know, the “normal” kind with a normal 5W, fast action rod using dry flies and streamers. Most of my experience has been on the South, North, and Main branches of the Au Sable River in NE Michigan, and on the Big Green, and Crooked Creek Rivers in SW Wisconsin, from March through late November. In all that time, I’ve never caught anything really that big – other than a 22” rainbow, with most of the trout being 7” to 14” brooks, browns, and rainbows. Yeah, I’ve always talked about hunting for the big ones late at night, as is how the diehards do it, but I’ve always found myself back at the cabin drinking scotch, playing guitars and trying to sing – right around the hours the big boys wake up to rise to the hatch of the day, a terrestrial or to gobble up an errant mouse. It’s all good with me. Steelhead fishing on the other hand is a different experience altogether.
As my title alludes, you would’ve thought I had a terrible time. Not the case, but because of where we fished, and the season we fished, the water we fished literally had an odor of Eau De Rotting Fish. That’s because just several weeks prior to our trip, the salmon crowded the river to spawn, and then as they usually do, they die. So there were literally hundreds of salmon carcasses lying about the banks on the river or caught in the downed logs/branches, doing what they do – in various stages of decay back to nature. What an odor! Truth be told, the odor wasn’t everywhere along the river, and it wasn’t overpowering but it was certainly present the minute you stepped foot along many areas. I mention this because, well, I wasn’t expecting it, and hey, it is an attention grabber for a blog post title right! Ha!
Moving on. I’ve been fishing in the cold before so the time of year wasn’t new… low 20 degrees in the brisk mornings rising to the low 30’s at the high, no big winds, and a few snow showers here and there, mostly cloudy with some sun late in the afternoon. Absolutely gorgeous! The water temps hovered around the high 30’s, so the fish were most likely to be found in the deep holes and in the deeper slower moving water in the turns. A beautiful time of year on a new-to-me river.
The Pere Marquette
The river, the Pere Marquette, I had never fished before. Winding through the Manistee National Forest, undulating, and crystal clear when we were there it was absolutely stunning. Yep, I get that the crystal clear water part isn’t the best for fishing but awesome nonetheless to really see the river, and even spot some fish. Not only fish but other wildlife, like 5 deer running through the woods, and launching themselves into the river to cross to the far banks to resume their sprint away from whatever spooked them. An amazing site to be blessed with.
Being a novice to steelhead fishing, I was unaware of how popular the Pere Marquette was for salmon and steelhead, but it is well known nationwide. I also didn’t realize how big these fish were and how difficult it is to actually land one. Sure, I’d seen pictures, and I’ve seen some good size browns, but it doesn’t compare. These fish are huge! Big! Amazing creatures to see cruise through the water. More on this later.
Lucky for me, my buddy TJ has a drift boat that allowed us to reach areas of the river you just can’t get to on foot, mostly because a lot of the river runs through private property, and there isn’t a lot of safe wadeable water access through the national forest. But a drift boat provides the access you really need to experience this type of fly fishing in all its glory.
On the Pere Marquette, there are 11 boat launch sites, and 7 walk-in sites (some both). We launched at the Green Cabin and float down to Gleasons. It is a 4.7 mile stretch. If you’re not fishing and in a canoe various sources say it should take about 1.5 to 2 hours for the trip, but it took us from 9:00 a.m. to about 4:00 p.m. Slow you say? Well of course we’re slow… we’re fly fishing and took advantage of every opportunity to stop and wade where we could or just anchored and fished from the boat next to one of the many deep holes. As well, with the cold we definitely drank some coffee and may have also had a beer along the way, which after several hours required a different type of stop.
On a side note, at this time of year getting down to some of these launch points can really be tricky if the roads are icy… ya gotta pay attention! We came close to launching TJ’s truck into the river one day because we were yappin’ and didn’t apply the brakes until half-way down the hill, and well by that time the icy road had other ideas but to yield to the truck. Don’t mention this to our wives O.k.?
Back to the river and steelhead fishing. As I learned, the techniques used to catch these buggers are quite different from normal dry fly methods. There is “swinging,” “center-pin,” and “chuck-n-duck.” Love those names.
Contrary to warmer water fly fishing where a trout may reach out 10+ feet to grab a fly, because of the much colder water and their desire to conserve energy, the fish are deeper, in slower moving water and may only move a foot or two to grab a fly, so ya almost have to hit ‘em in the head… which requires a different approach. Swinging is a bit like streamers except you’re not stripping the line. Once you cast across the river you’re letting the current sweep the fly across the river to cover as much water as possible… only moving a few steps downriver after two or three casts to repeat the process. Center-pin is much different than Swinging. Center-pin is a lot like traditional nymph fishing with a twist… everything is much bigger. The rig is relying on the fly being weighted down to go deep near the bottom, and the bobber (not a strike indicator, we”re talking large bobber here) is used to keep it off the bottom and let you know when you have a strike. This type is tricky to say the least because you want the line/fly to drop straight below the bobber and very near the bottom because that is where the fish are (and you know you’re doing it right because your bobber is straight vertical – anything else and your fly could be way above the fish or striking the bottom – neither are good). Once you cast across stream, you let it float downstream 30 to 50 yards. Then you repeat the process moving slowly through the entire length of the hole.
One last technique I learned was Chuck-n-duck. This technique requires a heavy weight to take the line down to bounce off the bottom while your fly is floating about 18” to 24” inches above the bottom. You cast it out like a bait cast and let that sucker dive and bounce. I tried each of these techniques and have to say I enjoyed Swinging the best because I’m used to streamer fishing so its most familiar to me, although they all can be effective. I gotta say however that Chuck-n-duck is by far the best name I’ve ever heard. It’s called Chuck-n-duck because this style can create a lot of snags which result in quite a few lost flies, where you need to break the line… with the rest of the rig zinging back towards your head, and if you don’t duck, it’s gonna leave a mark!
The flies? There are dozens, but as I was quickly told by TJ, a streamer is NOT the same as a steelhead swinging fly. Ya coulda fooled me. They look damn near identical, so consult your local fly shop unless you have a TJ to make sure you use the right fly! We also used stone-fly nymphs of various sizes, as well as egg patterns. Usually the egg pattern we used as droppers off the nymph.
Your Rod – Size Does Matter
Steelhead fishing requires a long rod… either a Spey or Switch rod, between a 7 and 9 weight and between 11’ and 13’ long. I imagine you could use whatever rod you like, but a stiffer, longer, heavier rod surely makes casting easier and definitely helps if you hook into these monsters. I used an 11’ 7 weight, and TJ used a 13’ 8 weight. Choose whatever weapon is best for you. And holy cow, that 13-foot rod was quite a beast… I’ve never had a rod that long – it pretty much did all the work for you.
The line is another matter unto itself, which I can’t begin to get into and would recommend talking to the nearest fly shop. I relied on my own expert, TJ, who created a mixed line ending in a 400 grain, 50-foot sinking head with a narrowing leader and tippet starting at 10-lb. down to 8-lb. to 6-lb.
Release the Krakken
Steelhead are big fish. Yeah, you can catch big mighty browns on big streamers and mousing but it’s not the same (well it isn’t for me, but I’m a novice at steelhead fishing so what do I know). And if you hook into one, the battle has just begun. We spent 3 days on the Pere Marquette fly fishing for steelhead. The water was crystal clear which enabled us to see quite a few of these tanks effortlessly cruise the waters, and what a sight to see. Along the way, we also saw quite a few trout, some small and a few large ones, but the steelhead dwarfed each one. There was one long stretch about 25 yards long where we saw about 6 steelhead and dozens of trout in various sizes. As we went quietly drifting by, the smaller fish darted. The steelhead stayed put, I’m sure looking up and thinking, “what the hell do you want, get the hell out of my water.” Seeing the opportunity, luckily the other side of the stretch was very shallow so we anchored the drift boat, got out and spent about an hour casting what we could to try to hook anything. Nothing.
TJ has fished the Pere Marquette about 30+ times, has hooked into about a dozen fish, but has yet to actually net one. Not because he’s not a good fly fisherman (one of the most knowledgeable and best I’ve ever fished with), but because these fish are strong and will outsmart and outwit any angler who has the opportunity to test their mettle, or maybe they’re just really picky and didn’t like anything we threw out. Once hooked though, these creatures run, stripping your spool perhaps even to the backing. They’ll breach the water surface and fight that hook with violent writhing to free themselves in the air. All along it’s your job to keep a tight line even when they switch directions and race toward you and you’re frantically stripping the line to eliminate the slack. Then they want to drive deep and among the logs and whatever else they can find cover, raking your line over harsh submerged tangled timber. Then suddenly… snap! They’re gone. Frustration? Uh, yep, you know the feeling.
Even though I’m a novice to steelhead fishing myself, I’ve heard more stories from steelhead fisherman about those that got away than those that have been caught. However, those that do land one are rewarded with a catch that is more than memorable.
It’s An Experience
Most fly fisherman that I know will say that fly fishing is just as much about being out there as it is about catching the fish. It’s an experience that is more a religion than a sport. Steelhead fishing is the same. It is an excuse to extend the season, to learn more, and to enjoy the great outdoors and the company of other who share the same passion… the ever elusive quest to land the big one(s).
My host TJ asked me at the end of day one… cold, tired, having smelled Eau De Rotting Salmon for much of the day, and without even a bite, let alone not seeing one or hook into a damn thing… would I want to come back? My answer was, without hesitation… absolutely yes.