Green poses with a 15- to 16- pound steelhead that he landed swinging large flies on the Pere Marquette River in October.
The water was high and off-colored — a reminder of the close to eight inches of rain and snow that fell within a week. It was Halloween, and although I wasn’t donning my used Hunter S. Thompson costume again, I was dressed for another occasion: swinging flies for steelhead.
A wet snow had recently fallen on 127 North — a testament to the usual luck that befalls me when I plan for a day of fishing. I was to meet my guide, Jeff Hubbard, at 7:30 a.m. in Baldwin at Houseman’s Food Center. I was late.
I scurried out of the vehicle with some excuse about the weather or roads. It was readily apparent that Hubbard wasn’t interested. He had broken his arm about three months before our trip and it was going to be one of his first days back at the oars. As with most diehard, successful (if you can even call them that) steelheaders, Hubbard was optimistic that we would find some fish.
Steelheading in late-fall and winter is the reason I fish. I go just enough trips between catching a fish that I almost call it quits and sell every rod I own. Then, though, a bobber drops, and I am reminded of how strong and beautiful this worthy opponent is.
Notice I wrote “bobber.” Those who truly fly fish for steelhead in the winter, not that chuck-and-duck rigmarole, are the definition of insane: “In a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction; seriously mentally ill.”
Those who swing flies for steelhead should be committed.
Nonetheless, Hubbard talked me into the boat at Green Cottage and said we would be swinging flies for the day. It was quiet for the first few bends, and the only sound to be heard was the water dripping from the oars. I tried to muster up some self-inflated conversation about my fly fishing past. Hubbard humored me before pulling over on the next bend.
The view from Green Cottage on the Pere Marquette River. Editor Nick Green was able to tag along on a float trip with Outfitters North owner Jeff Hubbard on a steelhead swinging trip.
From the moment I got in his truck, I could tell Hubbard was an all-inclusive kind of guide. He didn’t expect anything from his clients except a willingness to learn and listen. He tied the knots, he rigged up the rods and he rowed — all things I am used to doing during my angling adventures.
Hubbard stepped out of the boat with the rod I would be using. After a quick casting lesson, he turned me loose. I won’t get into casting a two-handed fly rod; the process can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Those guys flailing the line everywhere are just showing off, in my opinion.
The casts I was making were short, maybe 30 to 40 feet. Hubbard stood next to me and talked me through each swing. He helped me to understand exactly what my fly was doing and what effect that might have on a steelhead thinking about gobbling it up.
Every question I had was answered enthusiastically and definitively. I remember Hubbard saying, “I want everyone who takes a trip with me to leave the river having learned something.”
Our next stop along the river was a hole that Hubbard said “swings good,” whatever the hell that meant? In my earlier lessons, Hubbard had instructed me to not set the hook immediately if a steelhead took the fly; I was to wait until I felt a tug and some line peeled out. I had to keep rehearsing this process in my mind.
It was my third cast through the hole when my rod was given a long, slow pull. I didn’t set the hook, but the fish came unbuttoned. Hubbard, being the ever-optimistic steelheader, said to keep casting. Actually, he has swung flies long enough to know a steelhead will come back for more.
Two casts later, an even slower, longer tug about took the rod out of my hands. I waited about two seconds and lifted — the battle was on.
Hubbard didn’t know me or how many fish I had played. He shouted orders and I followed them — I am glad I did because on a river as small as the Pere Marquette it is pretty easy to lose a fish in a logjam.
The reel “zinged” as the fish took drag. The fish was taking too much drag, though. Quickly, Hubbard caught up with me and cranked the drag down as tight as it would go. It didn’t matter. The fish was still peeling line, and both of us thought something was wrong with the reel.
My arms burned as I did everything in my power to turn the fish’s head and get it pointed toward Jeff, who was holding the net near the bank. After about a five-minute fight, I coaxed the fish into the net and Hubbard started celebrating.
Hubbard releases the 16-pound male that Green caught. The fight lasted about five minutes and the large buck made several long runs before Green could bring him into the net.
I hadn’t just landed the normal seven- to eight-pound steelhead that graces the Pere Marquette River. I had put a 15-plus-pound fish in the net. It was the biggest Hubbard had seen so far this year — a little too big for my first steelhead on the swing, if you ask me. I was addicted.
After a few grip-and-grin shots, we got the buck back into the water and let him regain his bearings while we did the same. We slapped high fives at least four times before getting back into the boat to float down to our next hole.
The quiet, calculating Hubbard became chatty. Quickly, our conversation turned to bird dogs, deer hunting and women.
Hubbard has been swinging flies for more than two decades — in the world of Michigan fly fishing, he is likely one of swinging’s forefathers. He talked about a time before modern lines when he would splice together different kinds of fly lines in order to achieve the proper sink-and-swing method.
Through all the conversation, though, I couldn’t take my mind off of the brute I had just landed — it was the biggest steelhead I have landed.
Hubbard had said earlier in the day that swinging for steelhead, although mostly unproductive when compared to other kinds of fishing, usually yields the biggest fish in a respective piece of water.
This makes sense — we were swinging four- to five-inch flies. The steelhead that are going to chase flies that big are aggressive and are meat eaters.
Hubbard rowed us another few hundred yards down river before stopping us at a run where he put a client on some fish a few days before.
It should be noted that one steelhead a day swinging is a good day. Chasing more is just greedy — but we persisted.
Hubbard rows his Stealthcraft drift boat on a stretch of the Pere Marquette River between Green Cottage and Gleason’s Landing. Green and Hubbard hit three fish on the day swinging.
I slowly worked my way down the run; after each cast, I would take a step downstream in an attempt to cover the water in the most efficient way possible. About halfway through the run, I received a tug. I lifted the rod tip and a chrome hen rolled on top of the water before spitting the fly and turning up a fin that I can only imagine is the fish version of a middle finger.
“It isn’t often they come unhooked,” Hubbard said. “But, it happens.”
I continued down the run as Hubbard worked it behind me with a different fly. About ten casts later, I had another tug, and this time, the buck didn’t come unbuttoned. He was no match for my preparedness after the first fish of the day — weighing in at about eight pounds, I quickly brought him to the net.
Green poses with the second steelhead he landed of the day — an eight-pound buck that came up the river in early fall.
“So, should we hit the grouse woods?” Hubbard asked in a passive attempt to bask in the day’s success.
After a short float, we pulled off again to have lunch. Hubbard warmed up some venison chili that had just the right amount of spice, meat and whiskey. It was tasty.
Both of us knew how good of a day we were having. The mood had peaked, and we were both riding the come down hard.
The conversation again turned to future grouse hunts, winter swinging trips and the magazine. I had made a friend — not just a “friend” who is a guide — a true friend.
Hubbard’s humble, soft personality was a joy to be around. He was more excited than I was when I hooked the three fish that day — that says something about a guide.
Hubbard swings a run on the Pere Marquette. He is one of modern-day swinging’s forefathers in Michigan — he can remember a time when they had to splice lines together to achieve the proper sink-and-swing method.
“I didn’t really know that when I got into guiding it would essentially mean I no longer got to fish,” Hubbard said. It’s the same with most guides, I assume.
However, Hubbard does spend the slow winter months on the river with a two-handed rod. He swings religiously and is even rewarded on occasion with more than ice in eyelets and frozen snot.
“Swinging for steelhead is the closest you will ever get to reaching out and grabbing the fish,” Hubbard said. He was right.
Hubbard owns Outfitters North, based in Baldwin, Michigan. He offers guide services year-round and specializes in taking clients swinging for steelhead.