Steelhead Fishing Doesn't Suck

I know – a while back I wrote a post titled “Steelhead Fishing Stinks” but, if you read that post, the “stink” part wasn’t because it was a bad experience but because the time of the year I went, mid-November, was when the river was basically lined with rotting Salmon who can come up the river to spawn earlier in the season, and were now dead. The experience itself didn’t suck, and still doesn’t suck!

So this was my second go-round with steelhead fishing. My buddy TJ and I had been trying to schedule a trip since last November but our schedules never seemed to sync up, until this past weekend. I had been seeing several posts on social media from the Pere Marquette River Lodge and the Baldwin Bait & Tackle shop – all the pictures of all the steelhead and trout that were being caught, and I was gettin’ excited… you know, those damn posts that show all the monsters the river has given up?! Such a tease!

As the weekend approached we continued to check the forecast. It said, cold and snow in a nutshell. But hell, I was in regardless. Come on, it’s the middle of January and I haven’t been fly fishing since… hell, I don’t remember (that might be a function of age). I was ready.

Fast forward, Saturday morning in Baldwin, MI. We get dressed, hop in the truck with the drift boat, and drive down to the river to the “Green Cabin” launch site and think for a bit… do we float… or do we wade. It was cold and snowing a bit but not too bad. We saw that a couple of other boats were on the water (as evidenced by several other trucks and empty trailer), and agreed, let’s float. We got the boat in the water. TJ parked the truck/trailer, and we were off.

TJ was going to swing a streamer, and I was going to use a center-pin rig. Now remember, this is my second time chasing steelhead, and this center-pin rig is still a bit odd to me. For those who don’t know what center-pin is, but have been nymph fishing with a strike indicator, think of center-pin as the same – only much larger – the bobber itself is just that, a big bobber. It’s weird to me because I don’t really think of it as fly fishing, but it is.

For me it was a bit of a struggle. Much heavier rod, line, and rig. When you cast upstream you have to mend the line to get a good drift through the holes… yeah, yeah I know what mending is – with a dry fly or a streamer, but with a center-pin rig you need to get it just right – where the bobber is floating perpendicular which indicates the flies are deep down to the fish. Ha! My efforts at mending correctly were somewhat pathetic at best… clumsy. Practice makes perfect right? Whatever!

The weather was cold, about 23 degrees, and snowing – sometimes hard, but we continued to float, stopping every so often the wade then getting back in the boat to warm our feet and hands – thanks to TJ for the portable propane heater he keeps in the boat – then continue on. We’d leapfrog another boat every so often and return the favor. One of the boats asked if we were going to fish one of the holes just ahead downstream as we were wading a particular spot… I said yes, but go ahead and fish it yourself, you’re not going to pull all the fish from the river. It was nice that they asked. It may bother some, that others would choose to fish nearby, but to me, the river and fish therein are constantly changing. With so many variables involved, them fishing a spot where we may want to fish a few minutes later isn’t going to impact our chances of catching a fish.

Looks like we have a fishing buddy for good luck!

About halfway into the float I had made a couple of casts and at the end of the one drift, the bobber sunk… I had a bite… the bobber rose, and then sank again. “You got a fish on,” TJ said, “hurry strip the line!” Problem was I had too much line in the water, my fingers were too cold and with my finger-tip covers on I couldn’t get hold of the line to strip it fast enough. Fish lost. Ah well, lesson learned… every cast can hook a fish, but ya gotta be ready for it. I was asleep at the wheel.

A bit further downriver, TJ hooked into a nice steelhead. I was busy warming my hands when I heard him say, “Here we go!” I looked up in time to see a beautiful, big chrome-colored monster breach the water and return with a splash… a few seconds later it was gone. Got away. Son of a bitch! It was cool anyway. About 20 minutes later, TJ hooked into another fish. This time a nice big brown trout that jumped out of the water as well. But that one got away too… as TJ mentioned he was so excited thinking it was a steelhead at first, he muscled it to much.

We finished the float that day, headed back to the motel and spent the evening sippin’ on scotch slushies, and watching the Red Wings lose another hockey game.

Day 2 we decided to wade the river down by the Green Cabin launch. It was a bright sunny day… but only 14 degrees… so it was cold. We didn’t have too long to fish because we had to drive back home, so we wanted to make the most of it. Since we were wading I asked TJ if he remembered his net. He said nope. Steelhead aren’t the size of fish that you can just play until they’re close enough for you to reach down and pull the hook from their mouth. This should be an adventure if we hook into one!

Nothing like changing flies when you can’t feel your fingers!

For me, I had decided to take more pictures and a few videos, than fish. As such, TJ was the only one successful. Almost as soon as we got in the river, I faintly hear, “Hey!” I yelled back, “Hey what?” “I got one!” he yelled back. “You got a fish?” I responded… I know, a dumb thing to say… what else was he going to catch. Ha! I heard him yell back, “yeah a big brown.” I hurriedly reeled my stuff in, got out of the river and trotted through the snow to where he was. Sure enough, a very nice 20-inch brown was down by his feet still hooked in the water. See below.

The big brown that didn’t get away!

After that we continued to fish a bit more, when my bobber took a dunk. This time I was ready. I quickly tightened the line and began to strip. Whatever it was was heavy, but it wasn’t fighting – odd. To my chagrin, as I lifted it higher, I had caught a rock. No kidding. A rock. I felt like Charlie Brown on Halloween… “I got a rock.” We laughed. Who the hell catches a rock when fly fishing? Uh, that would be me!

Until next time… Tie one on!

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