Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Different Era For Steelhead Fishermen

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Time has a way of changing all things. It’s zero outside, and I’m remembering an era 40 years ago this April when steelhead fishing was a thing of which wild dreams were made.

It was 1968, my second year of guiding brown trout, salmon and steelhead fishermen, and I was scouting the Little Manistee River for clients who would arrive the next day.

The river was rain-swollen and murky, and in another hour of heavy rain, it would be a foot higher and the color of chocolate milk. I thought a big buck steelie was spawning with a hen on a shallow gravel bar an easy cast from shore. Brother George shinnied up a nearby tree and stood on a big branch to study the spawning bed.

“That fish is huge,” George muttered to me. “It’s bigger than any steelhead I’ve ever seen, and his cheeks and gill covers are an orangish-red color. It is an awesome fish.

“You know about where he is. Cast a copper spinner upstream and reel hard when I tell you.”

I cast, and George said to cast another six feet farther upstream in hopes of getting the spinner down in the heavy current. My next cast, he said, was on target.

“That’s the spot,” he said. “Keep casting to it. Reel hard now!”

I reeled, and nothing happened. Cast after cast went into the right spot, and I’d reel fast enough to make the spinner blade turn over in the current, and after 40 or 50 casts, George yelled “Hit him!”

The hooks were slammed home as I felt the strike, and nothing happened, so I pounded the rod tip back to set the hooks again. The huge fish rolled to the surface, his cheeks and gill covers glowing like an evening’s campfire embers, and the fish started upstream, his dorsal fin creasing the surface like a shark. Not fast but with great determination and power.

I moved along the bank but stayed downstream of the fish. The trick was to make the giant fish fight the rod pressure and the river current. We duked it out in the soggy rain for 10 minutes before the fish swapped ends and headed downstream into a deep hole. I was reeling while running but still the fish tangled the line in underwater brush and broke me off.

“How big,” I asked George. He’d caught steelhead to almost 20 pounds, and guessed this ponderous male was at least 25 pound, perhaps more.

Wow, you say. That’s what I said, and of the thousands of steelhead I’ve caught before and since, it remains the largest one I’ve seen.

My point with this rhetoric is that it occurred back in the days of very few steelhead fishermen and lots of fish. The Little Manistee River at that time had a huge run of spawning fish that averaged, according to the DNR, between 11 and 12 pounds. A 15-pounder wasn’t anything special, and it took a 17- or 18-pound fish to raise any eyebrows. And fishermen were conspicuous by their absence.

That year, also on the Little Manistee River, I found a 30-yard stretch of gravel that was wall-to-wall fish. The bottom was honeycombed with spawning redds, and 15 or 20 feet away would be another redd, and every one held a female and one to four males. We fished only for the male fish because a hooked hen would take all the boys with her.

On that day I set a record of sorts. I hooked 30 steelhead in eight hours, and am proud to announce to one and all that I made a professional release on every fish. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a professional release means I lost every fish, one way or another. Did it rather handily, I might add.

There were far more steelhead in those days than now. There are far more fishermen today than back then. It’s easy to do the math; fewer fish are being caught by more fishermen.

There are still some rather exciting days if anglers can find a spot where fishing pressure is minimal. Two years ago me and another man hooked 30 steelhead in a morning. We landed about half of them, and released each and every one. Those days seldom occur anymore.

Low Lake Michigan water levels haven’t helped. The Betsie River mouth has been so low in recent years that very few fish make it upstream. Rivers like the Manistee below Tippy Dam can be very good at times, but fishing pressure is just too much for me. I can take a half-day of fishing in a crowd, and then get turned off by it.

That doesn’t mean that you should, but it’s easy for me to remember way back when to those days of yore when a steelhead fishermen would be unlucky to see two other anglers all day. And, back in the day, the fishermen didn’t crowd you or wade down through a spawning bed like an idiot.

Anglers back then had some class. The fish were larger and more plentiful, and the rivers weren’t swarming with anglers. It was a much different era, and although steelhead fishing now is still fairly good, when comparing what it was like 40 years ago to what it is like now is enough to make a grown man cry. It’s doubtful fishermen will ever see fishing of that magnitude again.

Posted by Dave Richey on 01/19 at 06:23 PM
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