Not his raft, but I let him fish in it…

By Emily Hansen

The transition from fall to winter in Northern Michigan was almost eerie this year, and was not able to get my raft out like I normally would. Drought-like conditions and unusually warm temperatures pushed me to adapt my normal winter fishing habits. During this mild winter entrance, I spent a lot less time obsessing over steelhead. They simply were not around in decent numbers. The few that did show up seemed to be zipper-lipped and totally visible in the low, gin-clear waters.

The steelhead were not interested in anything that I floated past them using my center pin setup — beads of every color, yarn eggs, nymphs, you name it. I experimented using lighter test leaders than I would normally ever use for targeting steel and also using less bulky shot patterns. My boyfriend and I had much better luck on streamers while floating the stretches between the vacant steelhead runs. Eventually, I realized I needed to change my target and approach if I wanted to make the most out of my limited time at the river. I put the reel cover on my center pin, broke down my massive rod, stored it in the bottom of the raft and decided to focus on brown trout.

I love rowing my raft. I feel like I am getting my money’s worth if I’m rowing for some reason; I have no idea why, but let’s not question my logic. It was a sunny, 60-degree November day. Cole was in the bow casting like a professional fly snob. I was minding my own business pretending to be a guide and daydreaming about how cool I look while rowing him around when Cole said, “It’s a good fish.”

Not his raft

The author’s boyfriend Cole poses with streamer-caught brown trout from the author’s raft.

Instantly, my adrenaline started pumping. I knew I needed to net this “good fish” without messing it up. I threw the anchor down and hopped into the water while simultaneously grabbing the net. He was right; it was a good fish — a gorgeous male brown trout. This fish was right at my feet, but its coloring made it completely disappear against the riverbed. I did a blind scoop with the net and got lucky. I felt the weight of the fish in the net and let out a scream of excitement and relief. If you’ve ever fished on the same river at the same time as me, there’s a good chance you have heard me hollering when I land a fish. And maybe even hollering if I’ve lost one.

My apologies for briefly disrupting your peaceful fishing experience. We snapped a quick picture and slipped the tired fish back into the water. Naturally, I tell Cole it’s my turn and jump in the bow. My raft, by the way, has a name now — ‘Not His’ because of how often Cole gets compliments on it. He always replies, “It’s hers, but thank you.” He has a drift boat, but lately, we’ve been opting for my sweet flotation device.

I continued to fish the same white articulated streamer — because why change a good thing. I cast back into the run Cole had pulled his beauty out of and saw a massive female brown take a swipe at my streamer and not fully commit. We moved along, excited that things were heating up. I saw what looked to be a colored-up steelhead, so I cast over to it and it slowly followed the bright white snack that I placed right in front of its face.

Cole was on the sticks, telling me to be patient and keep stripping the line. I have a bad habit of freezing up when I should continue stripping. His reminder helped and we watched the fish inhale the streamer. After a quick fight, the fish was in the bag. It turns out our colored-up steelhead was a coho — slightly less exciting but still pretty cool because it was my first one on a streamer. I like crossing species off my fish list using different presentations. After a quick photo-op, we put the fish back and moved on.

I was up front, casting like the newbie I am, still chucking the same white streamer that we’d been getting lucky with. I threw tight to an undercut bank near a little log jam. I didn’t see the fish right away, but I saw my streamer completely disappear as soon as it hit the water. It happened so quickly; I’m honestly surprised I pulled off the strip-set. I stuck the fish, and it started going berserk. A flash of gold gave away the size of the brown and my blood pressure started rising — Especially after that chunky female didn’t commit earlier in the day. I was ready for one! Miraculously, I pulled it off. You can tell by the photo that it was hardly hooked in the corner of its mouth. There’s a pretty good chance I might have more luck than skill, but I’m not complaining. Cole and I called it a day and chalked it up as a win. It was an epic outing on the water.

Not his raft

Emily Hansen poses with a streamer0caught brown she caught from her raft.

A few weeks passed and weather conditions started to change. We ended up getting a decent amount of snow and then a warm-up. The accumulated snow melted and was followed by a couple of days of steady rain. Finally, favorable conditions for my beloved steelhead! The rivers were no longer gin-clear, and they were full of fish. It was the good push of steelhead I had been waiting for.

It was time to break out my center pin and get to work. I wasn’t the only one using a center pin. I mentioned before that my boyfriend is a fly snob — and he very much is — but he bought a center pin reel and I had an extra pin rod for him to use. I honestly think he bit the bullet and made the purchase so that he could out fish me on more than just the fly. Just kidding… kind of. Cole landed his first fish on the pin: a nice skipper. He then proceeded to land two massive chromers. One was a hatchery fish and one wild. I was finally able to break my seven-month-long steelhead drought, and all was right in the world again.

If you hit the water in the coming months, please consider downloading the Great Lakes Angler Diary app and record your catches. This data will help provide management agencies all over the state with important information on how they can best manage and protect our natural resources. As our precious waters and fisheries are facing all sorts of environmental and angler impacts, being a conscious angler is more important now than ever before. Another way to help the DNR collect data is by turning in fish heads. According to the DNR, most trout with an adipose fin clip also have a coded-wire tag in their snout, and more information regarding the state’s stocking program can be found here. There is a reward program in place for participating and helping collect the valuable data. Visit the Michigan DNR website to locate a fish head drop-off site near you and for more information. I would also love to see you participate in a spring clean-up for a chance to win some of my art! Follow “Our Precious Waters” page on Facebook to stay in the loop on upcoming clean-up dates. Tight lines, friends!