By Jim Bedford
With over 50 years and many thousands of hours of hardcore steelheading under my wading belt, I’ve landed a bunch of steelhead I shouldn’t have. Usually, the story involves logs or other underwater obstacles. Most of the time when a steelhead takes you into the wood, it manages to break your line and escape. Sometimes if you are patient, you get fortunate and the steelie swims back out the same way it swam into the jam.
More often than not I have had to pass my rod under a log or find my line with my wading staff below the wood and try to hand line the fish to the net.
When I thought the fish still had too much fight left in it, I would, after the fish quieted down, cut my line, pull it out of the logs and then re-tie. Blood knots are hard enough to tie at home, but when you are on the river with a big steelhead or salmon on the end of your line, they become really difficult. Once a steelhead gets you into a log jam, you lose control and often it will find something else to wrap the line around while you are trying to free your line from the first spot. A number of times, I have had to chase a big steelhead and free the line from multiple snags.
A bunch of winters ago, I found a new way to get really lucky landing a steelhead — I shouldn’t have even hooked this fish. The weather had been very cold and cabin fever was really building. I was anxious to get back on the river. Finally, I gave up on waiting for the temperature to get to the freezing mark and ventured to the upper Grand River with a forecasted high of 27 degrees. Most of the river was frozen, as were most other rivers, so I picked a spot below a dam where I knew there would be some open water. The water temperature was dead on the freezing mark, so I knew I would have trouble with ice in the guides; there would be no dipping the rod in the water to allow the flow to slowly remove the ice.
Steelhead remain active and will still chase a lure at water temperatures down to freezing and even slightly super-cooled below the 32-degree mark. For some reason, the steelies were quite willing to chase spinners and stickbaits on this day, and I hooked and landed four in about three hours of fishing. Since the fish were hitting I would put off deicing my guides as long as possible. Because the air temperature was relatively mild at 26 degrees, water was being carried to all the guides before completely freezing. Sometimes I would just melt the ice out of the guide that was completely full and leave the rest until later. This procrastination was not a good plan, and I was soon to pay.
I approached a good run and cast my favorite steelhead stick bait, a suspending Bomber Long A, across and down the river. When I started to reel I couldn’t bring in any line. Four guides and the tip top were now completely filled with ice. So, with the line and plug trailing downstream, I started to suck the ice out of the tip top. Wham, a steelhead grabs the lure with the rod tip in my mouth. I grabbed the line and feebly tried to set the hook. Somehow we were still attached but now I had another problem. There was no way to reel in line and the fish could only very begrudgingly take line. And after four relatively calm fights, this steelhead got really frisky. It jumped completely out of the water but somehow didn’t dislodge the lure. Then, it made several strong runs while I waded after it and extended my arm toward the fish trying to decrease the pressure on the rod and line. Before the fight was over, I couldn’t give any line at all. When the fish ran back toward me, I had to wade away from the steelhead to keep the line tight.
Eventually, the steelhead tired and I carefully brought in line hand-over-hand. I still had to give line a couple of times when the fish made last ditch short runs. Finally, I was able to corral it in the net. Using long handled forceps, I freed the 10-pound female from the plug, dropped the net rim and it swam back to the depths. I wish now that I had taken a photo of it but at the time I knew the steelhead was really tired and I wanted to get it released as soon as possible. Besides, my hands were cold and wet and there was line everywhere — digging for the camera in my vest didn’t seem like a good idea.
I don’t think it would be possible to get any luckier than I did hooking and landing that steelhead. I fish less on those days when the air temperature is below freezing and the water is right at 32 degrees now; but when I do, I religiously deice the guides before they become close to freezing shut.
Staying as close as possible to steelhead that are hooked in relatively small rivers with lots of logs and roots is key to getting them landed. Rarely can you stop a steelhead headed for the wood, but usually, you can alter their course a bit with rod pressure. But, if the fish is a long way up or down stream from you, there will be no leverage available when it decides to turn left or right and head for the logs or roots.
I was fishing a relatively small northern Lake Michigan tributary when a good-sized steelhead hammered my spinner. Most of the stream flowed over a firm gravel substrate and was only a couple of feet deep, but along both sides of the river there were lots of logs and exposed roots. So, as the fish took off on a strong run, I quickly waded after it. It should have been easy with the relatively shallow gravel bottom but there was a surprise; an unseen stub of a branch was buried in the gravel, and I did a complete header when I tripped on it. Off came my hat and glasses, but I kept from breaking my rod and reel. The fish was still on and had not wrapped the line up on any wood. The battle continued until the fish tired and I corralled it in the net.
The search for my glasses and hat began after I released the steelhead. The hat was easily spotted, but I never found my glasses. Strangely, I did find my clip-on polarized sunglasses but not what they were attached to. Luckily, my old age farsightedness had just about “neutralized” my lifelong nearsightedness so I was able to keep fishing with only slightly impaired vision. The best news was that I didn’t have to tie another knot, as I would have needed the bifocal part of my glasses.
If anybody was watching, I am sure they would have thought that it was strange that this angler kept holding up clip on sunglasses to his eyes to survey the next piece of holding water. I even caught some more steelhead before reaching the bridge where I ended my day. So far, I have been successful at watching where I am wading as well as keeping track of the hooked steelhead without falling in again. I do occasionally grab the wading staff when chasing hooked steelhead to help me stay upright.
About a dozen years ago, I was fishing the same stream where I took the header. My partner and I were fishing adjacent stretches. He dropped me off at lower bridge and drove the car to the next bridge where I would finish and then pick him up at his “get out” bridge. We had done this many times and were looking forward to good fishing as the steelhead run was going strong.
Right away, I was into fish and landed several steelhead in a couple of hours. In a brushy run I hooked an especially frisky steelhead that I struggled to keep out of the logs and brush. Since trouble was close by, I was ready to net the red-sided fish as soon as I got a chance. When the opportunity arose, the steelhead dodged the net and dashed downstream with my rod pointed upstream. Before I could react, there was a sickening crack, and I had a three piece rod.
Now, it became important to land the fish — as about three feet of the tip section had slid down to the fish. Luckily, the fish was now pretty tired and I was able to land the fish and the rod tip. I had broken the rule of never pointing the rod away from the fish. You can get away with this when using a noodle rod but not a 7-foot graphite spinning rod with a fast taper. Always try to keep this type of rod perpendicular to the fish. Pointing it in the opposite direction puts too sharp of a bend in the rod and too much strain on the graphite.
I was now an hour walk to the car and my spare rod with a river full of steelhead flowing right past me. I decided to utilize the electrical tape that was in my vest for this purpose and splint my rod. I overlapped the broken rod sections with the tip under the butt section and wrapped tightly with the tape. The repair job was tested right away by a ten pound hen and I landed the fish. The rod was wobbly and not very much fun to fish with but it was better than losing two hours of fishing time on a stream full of steelhead.
Fast forward to last summer; I was using a light, 7-foot high modulus graphite rod on a modestly-sized trout stream that also contained some summer steelhead that had strayed into it to cool off from the warm river they had migrated up from Lake Michigan. I beefed up my line test to 10 pound test to give myself a chance at landing a steelhead in the creek while still casting small enough lures for resident brown trout.
The plan seemed to be working — I hooked a large summer run and was just barely able to keep it out of the wood. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally thought it was ready for the net. As I guided it toward the mesh, the steelie suddenly dodged the net and dashed through the five hole. In a semi panic, I tried to step over the line but, with my rod pointed to the sky, the steelhead surged and snapped my rod just above the butt guide. It was definitely angler error and my brain had cramped at a critical time.
Luckily, the steelhead was pretty tired as I fought it with half a rod. At the end, I hand-lined the beautiful fish into the net. As I held the tired 31-inch trophy in the gentle current until it was ready to swim off, I decided to give myself a bit of a break (pun intended) on my repeated mistake.