Written By Blake Sherburne, Steelhead: After Spawn
My ever-present fishing buddy, Kenny, and I had a tough time getting on the river last year. I was caught up being a stay-at-home dad to my three-year-old daughter after the Christmas tree harvest season ended and getting my five-year-old kindergartner on and off the bus. I was able to get out a few times over the winter but was unable to connect with a steelhead during the doldrums. Kenny was able to make it out on the water a few more times than me and had a decent winter, landing more than a few fish by himself. It seems like I was the bad luck — each time we fished together, neither he nor I hooked a fish.
Our real success started in March. We started fishing our small water stretches in our well-used, much-loved Stealthcraft Hooligan raft. Our small water stretches start attracting us when the crowds start showing up on the big rivers. In the winter, it can be fairly easy to find some quiet water, away from the majority of the traffic. When spring arrives and the sun starts to shine a bit, more fish and people enter the system. That is when we really start concentrating on our smaller water hide-a-ways. It is a real relief to go from waving jet boats by, from a jet boat, by the way, so no judgment there, to not seeing another angler all day.
Using the raft presents other problems, of course. It takes two vehicles or a spotter to get a float done, which is not usually a big deal. We tend to stay close to home. The real problem is weather: you are committed once you put that raft in the water and drift away from the launch. If the weather turns, there is no firing up the big motor and jetting back to the ramp. Kenny and I have been out there more than once when the wind came up and the breeze coming up the river channel made the entire day a push rowing endeavor. Our raft drafts so little water that a stiff wind can make it nearly impossible to drift with the current. You can spend all day pushing against it and struggling to stay out of the brush. The positives surely outweigh the negatives, and there comes a kind of resignation with launching the raft, like well, we are in for it now, no matter what.
Kenny is primarily a bead fisherman, and I like to stick to spawn. Our preferred methods catch about the same number of fish, but since Kenny will be reading this column, I will say that I consistently catch a few more fish than him every season. Last spring was no exception, of course. However, what sticks in my memory was the aggression of the fish we caught last year. I have never had a season where fish regularly moved my bobber across the surface. Usually, the bobber stops drifting with the current and is slowly dragged under at the rate the river is running. I envision a spawn bag drifting directly in line with a steelhead, the fish opening its mouth to take the offering in without moving, the bobber continuing along with the current until all the slack works out and the bobber is dragged underwater by the current. That, I think, is what usually happens. You just about have to hit a fish in the face to get them to take in the winter. They are not up there to eat, so hit them in the face. The water is cold, so they are not moving much. It is why sometimes a fish can be a surprise after setting the hook on snags and bottom all day. All of a sudden, one of those snags starts to shake its head, and you are into a fish. It is also one of the matters that can make learning to steelhead so frustrating. You can spend all day slamming hooks into wood in Northern Michigan, tying up dozens of rigs and never touch a fish, even swear there is not a fish in the system. During a streamer trip with a well-known Michigan guide, Alex Lafkas, he mentioned that we should really expect strikes from around submerged wood. I remember that sometimes and think, man, around here, that is about all we have.
Last season was different for some reason. In my steelheading history, I have caught steelhead on all kinds of bobber movements. One time, the bobber just leaned. I do not know if the fish was drifting along with the bobber after having taken the bait, just making the float lean a little bit downstream or what, but I set the hook and there he was. I have had bobbers bounce like a bluegill was down there messing with my bag, only to set the hook and have it be a 10-pound steelhead. I once set the hook on a shiver. The bobber drifted along a beautiful little seam, paused, and then just shivered like it was finally feeling the effects of the cold early spring water. I could just tell there was something alive on the other end. A steelhead of about twenty-four inches caused the shiver. I even once witnessed my dad, who was a little asleep at the wheel, set the hook on a steelhead that was already running upstream and jumping, his bobber whipping behind in the air, kind of the opposite of what you might expect to see when a fish takes your bait. I believe the bobber is supposed to go under the water after a strike.
What was different last season was the regularity with which this happened. I think it was because we hit the water heavily in more of a post-spawn period, when a steelhead, especially the hens, might be a little more inclined to eat.
Kenny and I had barely left the launch one day, and I was in the fishing seat. We always fish in between our good holes as you never know where you are going to find steelhead in the spring. Every season this leads to a few more new spots to concentrate on and dozens and dozens of snags. We were approaching some good spawning gravel with some great holding buckets behind and I was just drifting my rig ahead of and to the right of the raft. We have never hit this particular area right. We have heard it can be really good and we have caught fish upstream and downstream of it. Success in this spot has always eluded us. On this day, though, my bobber was drifting about the same speed as the boat when suddenly it was moving upstream and we were still moving downstream. I had to gather up the slack this created in my line and I saw the fish go upstream past the boat with my bobber dragging behind before setting the hook. Eventually, I came tight and landed a spawned out hen steelhead of about six pounds. The spawned out hen would come to be the theme of our spring and probably the reason for all of the coming aggressive takes.
A few bends later, we were fishing one of our favorite holes. It is a perennial producer, though not a daily one, and we had not hit it right in a long while. Well, this day we hit it right. We picked up a couple of small fish right away and things started to quiet down a bit when Kenny’s bobber did not bob so much as take off for the opposite bank. He set the hook into a 10-plus pound steelhead and his drag did not even seem to slow it down. I watched him try to slow the fish down until his line broke (with a crack that would have made all the squirrels in the area nervous) about ten feet from the trip of his rod. We watched dejectedly as his fish trailing his entire rig jumped over and through brush hanging into the river on the other side. He looked at me and shrugged and said, “Well, not much I could have done there.”
Later that afternoon, however, he redeemed himself. Still fishing a bead, he drifted a run along a mess of tag alders. His bobber dipped and he slammed into a good fish. I immediately slid out of the raft with the net as this was a good hole, and I did not want to have to pull anchor to follow. When he got the fish close to me, I saw a telltale flash of gold and large black spots. It was a good brown and I kept my mouth shut so as not to jinx it. Kenny worked it back to the raft before it ran again. “I think that’s a brown,” he said. I replied, “I did not say it. I did not say it.” Our karma held firm and we soon had a beautiful Northern Michigan brown trout in the net. Our biggest brown of this stretch, it taped at just a nose over 25 inches and was released to fight another day.
We dropped lower in the same hole and again observed the racing bobber phenomenon. This time it was my turn. I drifted my rig relatively low in the hole, running well away from the brush. Suddenly, my bobber tipped towards the middle of the river and then shot underwater towards the Alders. I set the hook into what would turn out to be another giant spawned-out female. The fish was headed almost directly away from me as I set the hook, popping the butt of the rod out from under my forearm and, at least it felt like, almost breaking my wrist. By the time I was tight, the fish was back under the Alders, where I imagine it came from to take my offering, twisting and rolling. I laid my rod parallel to the surface of the water, efforting to keep my line out of the limbs and steered the fish back out from under the snags. Before Kenny could get his rig entirely out of the water, the big female raced back up past the raft, jumped and bore back into the brush. We were about whipped by the time we got her into the net.
Such was the story of our spring. I was kind of desperate for a hen steelhead with loose, mature eggs to bolster my stocks for this winter. We never ran into one. Not even a hen still in skein. We caught a few males, kept a couple for the dinner table, and spawned out hen after spawned out, aggressive hen. A few fish played nice and were landed. Some just straight handed us our butts, including a hen I hooked, that I think would have weighed more than 12 pounds if we had landed her. When she felt the hook, she decided it was time to go back to Lake Michigan, and there was nothing I could do to stop her. I cannot wait to do it again.