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
Whenever I conjure up some of my favorite steelhead memories, I generally land on one of the following.
Beneath the Cedar
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.
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 on 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 steelhead, but we were looking for a fish dinner and 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.
Other Steelhead Memories
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 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 no 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 the snow melting and water running everywhere and I know steelhead are moving up river somewhere.
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.
The best and handiest tool I’ve found in recent years is the Mitten Scissor Clamp.
When I’m fishing I generally carry several different kinds of tools.
- One is a clipper or nipper for cutting line and poking out glue in the hook eye holes.
- I carry a needle-nose pliers for hook removal, crimping barbs and split shot or extracting hooks embedded in my fishing buddy.
- I carry a small wire cutter that doubles as a line cutter. I like to have a wire cutter in the rare event I need to cut off a hook somewhere if it’s embedded where it should not be.
- I generally have a hemostat in case I want to clamp down and hold something like a hook, etc.
Recently I’ve been using a 7 1/2″ Mitten Scissor Clamp (NuCast) and found these instruments very handy as they are five tools in one! The Mitten Clamps contain the following uses:
- A pliers or grasper for holding or crimping.
- A clamp for solid containment with three levels of tightening to ensure a forceful grip.
- A surgically sharp scissors to cut line, light wire, & small diameter rope.
- A hook eye cleaner pin with insertion hole on other arm.
- A 1/8″ hole in the lower handle for hook holding when tightening a heavy mono knot or adding a lanyard.
I no longer have to carry several different tools and now just used the Mitten Clamp for everything!
The 7 inch model is great for larger fish such as bass, pike and saltwater. There is also an 8 inch model for larger hands and applications. The 5 1/2 inch models are perfect for trout, panfish and smaller hands.
Many of these clamps come with a cushioned grip material called NuFoam for easy non-slip gripping and protection in cold weather.
You can check out the whole line of Mitten Scissor Clamps here: http://www.flybass.com/mitten-clamps/
The Compleat Skinflint’s Guide to Saltwater Fishing
Many of you are lucky enough to escape the frigid grip of winter, if only for a week or two, to warm weather destinations. Don’t be afraid to pack a spinning or fly rod along. Many of us can only lay in the sun for so long – before we get the itch to flog some water.
A Word About Guided Trips
A guided fishing charter is a great way to experience what real saltwater fishing is all about. The advantages are many, with the main ones being:
- Good guides are on the water nearly everyday and know what’s happening and what’s biting.
- They can provide everything you need, including rods, reels, bait, etc. – making life pretty simple.
- They will take you to good fishing spots only accessible by boat and help you catch fish regardless of your skill level.
- They will also point out interesting aspects of the natural environment, including birds, plant life and, of course, fish species.
The main issue for guided charters is the cost. A good guide will get $500 – 650 for a full day charter. Half days are always available, but you don’t save that much as they run around $450.
If that kind of expenditure is beyond your reach or comfort level, try a little Do-It-Yourself saltwater on the cheap!
Whether you’re going to the Caribbean or the U.S. southern Gulf coastal waters, here’s some tips to put you on fish for the cost of a rental car.
What equipment should you bring?
- Medium to Medium Heavy 6 – 71/2 foot rod. Typical “stiffer” walleye-type equipment works great.
- 8 – 12 pound monofilament line
- 20 – 30 lb mono tippet material (you will often want a a couple feet of heavier mono on the business end of your set up since many of these fish can break light mono.
- Larger spinning reel that will hold at least 100 yards of line, the more the better.
- Assortment of jigs in different bright colors (white is one of the best) with barbed stainless steel hooks. Sizes 1/4 oz to 1/2 ounce will handle most situations.
- Bring plastic tails in various shapes such as twister tails, shad patterns, shrimp plastics and worm patterns to dress your jigs.
- Assortment of plugs and spoons. Everything should be stainless or non-rust type tackle. If you don’t have any stainless plugs or spoons, buy a couple when you’re down there – or don’t worry about it and throw jigs everywhere.
Fly Fishing Gear:
- 8 – 9 wt – 9 foot fly rod. Pack or Travel rods are great since they’ll knock down to 6 or 7 pieces and will easily fit into any luggage. Four piece rods will need to be in an external hard tube, rod/reel case, or placed into an oversized roll bag. I can get several four piece rods into my oversized roll bag that is 30″ high. I use an 8 and 10 weight four piece NuCast Smokin’ Hot Fly Rod. The four piece rods are 30″ long in a short soft rod sock and need to be angled to fit in the suitcase. They will not fit if in a standard four piece rod tube. Make sure you cushion the rods with soft clothes etc. to prevent damage.
- 7/8 or larger fly reel will work in most cases. Since you won’t be off shore and it’s doubtful you’ll hook a large, long running fish (like a giant tarpon), standard floating weight forward (WFF) or intermediate sink tip flylines will work great. I use a NuCast Blue Crush which is a saltwater reel with a captured waterproof drag system that keeps the corrosive elements at bay. Saltwater reels are more expensive, but worth it, since they’ll hold up in these harsh environments and the drags are built for saltwater fish which can really smoke your line.
- Leader and Tippet. If you have a tapered bass-type leader, stay with that and use at least a 12 lb tippet of hard mono or flourocarbon. If you don’t have a tapered leader, bring smaller capacity spools of: 12, 20, and 40 lb flourocarbon. You can build a quick leader with a butt section 6 feet 40 lb and the next section 3 feet of 20 lb, then add a short section of 12 lb. You can tie directly off the 12 for smaller fish, such as sea trout, smaller jacks, redfish, snook and ladyfish. For larger fish, add a shock tippet of 20 lb (approximately 2 feet long). Join the line sections together with a surgeon’s connection knot, especially when pursuing larger fish. If you don’t know how to tie this knot – learn!
- Flies – If I had to bring one kind of fly, I’d bring a bunch of Clousers. You can tie various colors to emulate bait fish and shrimp with different weights by simply varying the eyes on the flies. Always tie the flies on stainless steel or rust resistant metal hooks. Most common sizes for smaller flies are sizes 4 & 2 with larger flies tied on 1/0 – 2/0. Nearly all of my Clousers are tied on size 2.
Incidentally, I don’t pre-crimp my saltwater fly barbs anymore when tying. I may flatten the barb on-site, but some of these fish jump a lot and I use the barb to my advantage. Just make sure you have a good rust resistant pliers or heavier Mitten Scissor Clamp for barb crimping and hook removal. Most fish are typically lip hooked with flies so removal is not a huge issue – even with a barb. Also, I always carry a small wire cutters to cut the thick line (and emergency hook cutter when embedded in one’s skin).
Other flies to consider (and these are just a few) are:
- Other Items
- Good polarized shades
- Head wear
- Butt Pack
- Pain Reliever
- Small towel (from the hotel)
- Pliers, nippers, and/or cutters
- Garden glove – you know those cheap cloth gloves with the rubber dots on them? They work great for holding fish in case you’re not sure what you just caught!
- Bug lotion
Where to Fish
Beaches – Yes, the very beaches you are gazing at in a drunken haze may be teaming with feisty gamefish. Experiment early and late in the day and on different tides until you find a pattern that works. Fish will be closer to shore generally on the higher tides so plan accordingly. You can get a smartphone app to tell you tides in your specific area.
If possible put on your snorkeling gear and look around. This goes over big with the wife and kids – they may actually believe dad wants to have family fun. What appear to be featureless underwater beach areas may contain oyster bars or other structures that hold fish. Many times artificial bulkheads of rip-rap are prime targets that hold baitfish and subsequent gamefish. Just watch your backcast unless you’re trying to snag a hot bikini top off a coed during spring break.
Most saltwater destinations have channels dredged out for development or mosquito control. Drive around and ask around about such inland channels. Local bait shops should have some shore fishing information. Target any kind of structure you can find, including mangroves, docks, bridges – anything that disrupts the layout of the channels. Many times you’ll notice variations of currents in bottleneck areas and these spots can be super depending on the tidal movements.
Tell you wife you want to go exploring in the rental car, she’ll be excited by your newly awakened sense of adventure. Drive down some “out-of-the-way” dirt roads and see where they take you. Often you’ll encounter lagoons, inland bays or other backwaters shallow enough to wade and fish. Always wear something on your feet when wading in saltwater and shuffle along – this will help you unearth critters burrowed in the shallows that can cause shock and awe.
Most bridges will have areas where locals park and fish. Bring a bottle of Ripple or Muscatel when you encounter local inhabitants and need a peace offering or just want to “fit in”. These areas are best suited for spin fishing. Since bridges are generally built over straits, there’s always current there’s always fish hanging around bridges.
Marinas and even restaurant on the water will hold fish. People clean fish at the marinas and restaurants and throw much of the waste into the local waters (depending on where you are). Obviously, this periodic chumming keeps fish in the area and you’ll often encounter jacks and the omnipresent saltwater catfish in such spots.
Remember every place you go now has kayaks for rent somewhere. Perhaps for a small fee they’ll even drop you and the kayak off on a nice stretch of water or explore a channel maze via kayak.
When in doubt, ask at the local bait shop or even tavern. You never know who you’ll run into and what they’ll say. After all, you’re clearly not a resident and will be gone soon and for the price of a beer or two, you might get turned on to some cool spots.
I never go anywhere without a fly rod. Sometimes I don’t use it, like last winter in the Bahamas (on a cruise) when I was all set to fish and realized I’d forgotten all my flies in Minnesota (my wife and daughter thought it funny). So don’t be a dummy like me and plan accordingly. You need not bring a lot of gear to have a lot of fun.