By Blake Sherburne, After Ice Pike
Every winter, the same thing happens.
My life-long fishing buddy, Kenny, and I spend just about every possible moment on our local rivers chasing steelhead. As all steelheaders know, sometimes the bites are few and far between.
During the long bouts of fishing, in between the quick bursts of catching and after we have exhausted every possible excuse of why we are not catching steelhead, where they might be and how we might get into them in the next hole or during the next trip, we turn to making plans.
These flights of fancy take us from streamer fishing for giant Browns in Arkansas to catching out-sized brook trout in Ontario. We plan trips to Colorado to fish sippers on the South Fork of the South Platte and Wyoming to fish the upper Green near Pinedale, where I once had what was maybe the best day of fly fishing I have ever had. We talk about Utah to fish the Green River in Flaming Gorge, Montana for cutthroat, Louisiana for redfish, Florida for tarpon, bonefish and permit, and Alaska for egg-eating rainbows.
Sometimes, we plan trips that would require a passport: Seychelles for giant trevally, Patagonia for familiar species in an unfamiliar place and New Zealand to sight-fish wary, pressured brown trout. But mostly, we make plans for short trips around Northern Michigan; trips we can make after work or on the weekend.
Every winter, we make plans for more fishing trips than we have nights or weekends to fulfill them. We talk about a trip we once took from Hole in the Fence Access, which we mistakenly thought was Yellow Tree, on the upper Manistee to the CCC Bridge.
It made for a long float in our raft, but we had the best day of streamer fishing we have ever had in Michigan. We plan quick jaunts around the tip of the mitt for smallmouth, evening trips to the Tippy Dam section of the Manistee, after most steelheaders have gone home, to look for late-season steelhead and browns.
We promise ourselves more afternoons and weekend mornings to catch enough bluegills to have a fish fry, and every year we swear we are going to find a good place to fish the Hendrickson or Mother’s Day Caddis hatch. This does not even include the excursions we arrange for our other past times like skiing and hunting.
Most years, most of these plans go unfulfilled. I have two small children at home and a wife who likes to see me occasionally. Nights and weekends can be hard to come by. We laugh at our extravagant daydreams, knowing that we are probably going to spend all of our time in our same old haunts doing the same old things.
But finally, last season, we made ourselves live out one of our steelhead-fishing-doldrum fantasies. It was still technically steelhead season when we loaded up Kenny’s Stealthcraft Power Drifter with all of our streamer gear and hit a local Manistee River bayou for post-spawn, post-ice-out pike.
Spring 2018 was a bitterly-cold spring, and this day was no exception. The wind was blowing out of the north at about 25 miles per hour, which would make fly casting a struggle, but we would be throwing heavy sink tip lines that would cut the wind well. We put on all of our heavy winter fishing clothing and launched the boat.
We eased the boat into the bayou dead into that gnarly north wind. The only area of this particular small body of water that was really fishable was the south bank. The rest of the bayou is shallow and weedy and full of expensive, streamer-eating snags. The setup worked perfectly. Kenny rowed the boat into the wind like it was the current of the main stem of the river, and I worked the south bank, wind at my back.
In preparation for this trip, I had looked up all the different ways to attach a bite leader to a tapered leader. To avoid the headache of Albright knots and haywire twists, I decided that the technique that made the most sense, both for my pocketbook and ease of use, was just to make my own leader. I started with a 30-pound tippet and tapered down to 10- or 12-pound.
To that, I tied on a normal-production steel leader. The steel leader had a swivel to help with line twist and a snap to make switching streamers much easier than cutting wire and banging my head against another haywire twist.
I tried several different streamers. I had a couple of dedicated pike streamers and two boxes full of trout streamers that I had tied and some that I had purchased.
Our first couple passes up and back on the south bank produced nary a strike, and we were just about to call the day on account of the wind and lack of success when I decided to try one last streamer.
The last streamer in my box was a Drunk and Disorderly, developed by Michigan’s-own Tommy Lynch, but it came into my possession in a curiously round-about way. I accidentally stole it from a guide in Cotter, Arkansas (Brad Smith, I apologize). I fished with Brad the last day of my second trip to Arkansas last spring.
I had my clothing and gear packed up in my truck for the first leg of the 14-hour drive home after fishing all day. A few hours north of Cotter, I pulled into a McDonald’s for dinner on the road. My wallet was still in my fishing jacket in the back seat. Reaching behind me, I grabbed the jacket and flopped it into my lap, sending the D&D, that I had somehow swept off the boat at the end of the day with my sleeve, onto the dash of my truck.
Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, the streamer went into one of my boxes where I knew it would come in handy at some point.
Just a few weeks later, back in Michigan where that streamer originated and apparently truly belonged, I snapped that Drunk & Disorderly with freshly-sharpened hooks onto my fancy new steel leader.
I do not get to say this often, but the first retrieve with my new-to-me streamer came to a soft stop about halfway back to the boat. It was not the rod-wrenching strike I was hoping for, but in all my previous casts, I had felt no resistance at all, so I strip-set hard and was into a small pike for the first time that day.
Kenny questioned my honesty when I said it was a pike, and quickly a small hammer-handle was in the net and ready for his close-up. A few casts later, my line stopped again. The next pike proved to be only slightly larger, but it got its picture taken, too, and was quickly returned. I worked the bank a bit more before finally feeling guilty about my success and taking over at the sticks for Kenny.
Kenny started his shift at the back of the boat the same way I did. He poured through his boxes, thinking out loud about which streamer was going to be the magic bullet. He selected a double deceiver that he had tied.
I raised anchor and pointed the boat into the wind. The boat slid sideways, nose into the wind, and Kenny worked the south bank. His deceiver failed to deceive, and soon he was switching flies.
I rowed him back and forth along the bank while homeowners nearby burned the brush that had fallen into their yards during winter storms and wondered who would be dumb enough to fly fish in that heavy north wind.
Several streamer changes later, and Kenny had so far failed to fool a pike. I talked him into snapping on the Drunk and Disorderly for the final row back to the launch.
I swung us back towards the cut that led back to the boat ramp and warm hands, and Kenny fished the whole way.
Just when I had given up hope on any more fish for the day, Kenny’s retrieve came tight, and he was into a good fish.
It had been lying just off the brushy bank where the current started to pick up through the little slough that led back to the truck. It hit harder and bent his eight weight more than either of my fish had flexed mine.
We soon had a beautiful, 30-inch pike in the net. This fish was not so lucky as the first two. It was quickly on a stringer. Kenny promised to fillet it for the dinner table and to bring the y-bone cuts to me for the pickling jar.
Within sight of the truck, Kenny flopped the streamer around a few more times without success.
Our day was done and done on a high note. Finally, one of our steelhead conversations had come to fruition and successfully, at that
We loaded the boat and stowed our gear just in time to have our friendly, local DNR officer wheel into the launch. A cold spring rain started to fall to join the bitter north wind while the officer checked Kenny’s rig and fish and our licenses.
Mostly, we stood around, shooting the cold north breeze. Luckily, we had left Kenny’s truck running after towing his boat out, so it was good and warm when we got in, ready to warm wind-chilled bodies and pike-slimed fingers.