Friday, July 04, 2008

Hot-Tempered Questions & Cool Answers


A friend stopped by the other day with a buddy. The other gent wanted to meet me, and talk about steelhead fishing.

It began mildly enough when we shook hands, and we made small talk for a few minutes. Then, in a burst of what seemed like anger, he questioned me about my steelhead fishing.

“In the past, you’ve written that you have caught 100 steelhead in one day, and another time you wrote that you’d probably landed nearly 10,000 steelhead in your life,” hesaid. “I think both statements are a crock. No one can catch that many steelhead these days.”

Mind you, this dude was a guest in my home. I didn’t take too kindly to his ranting insults that I might be lying.

I agree that he was probably right. It would be most difficult, if not impossible, these days to catch 1,000, let alone 10,000 steelhead, in a lifetime. I also added that he must have missed something from both stories he had read. I learned long ago that people read what they want to read into a story, and then want to argue their mistakes.

“First of all, Bud, I wrote that two of us caught 100 steelhead in one day, and will gladly introduce you to the other man who has a much shorter fuse than mine,” I said in an soft even voice. “ Call him or me a liar, and you’ll find a rocky road ahead.”

“But ... but,” he stammered. And I then told him it’s not polite to interrupt someone when they are speaking. He quickly shut up.

I explained that the 100-fish day happened over 25 years ago, on a cold and snowy day with lots of wind, and most steelhead fishermen were home. We happened to find a big school of fish, and it seemed as it they hadn’t eaten in a month. Every orange-colored fly we pitched to them resulted in a strike.

We quit fishing once with nearly 60 fish that we had caught and released unharmed. We went for breakfast, checked another stream, and headed back to the hotspot for a second round. We were up to about 85 fish when my buddy fell, got soaking wet and headed for the car.

I stuck with it, caught what it took to hit 100 fish, and kept only one small male that had inhaled a fly through his mouth and was hooked in the gills. The fish was bleeding heavily and would die so I kept it. My hand on 10 Bibles on that story.

And then, the case of approximately 10,000 steelhead. I’m 68 and will be 69 on July 22, and began steelhead fishing at age 11. By the time I was 15, I was catching between 100 and 200 steelies each year, and that was from the Sturgeon River between Indian River and Wolverine. Mind you, that was back in the early 1950s.

By the time I was 18 in 1957, I was fishing even more often, and the fish numbers shot up to about 300 steelhead per year. Some of those fish were caught during a “temperature run” caused by Burt Lake fish seeking comfort in the cold river water. Competition? There wasn’t any.

By my mid-20s, I was fishing steelhead along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Favorite streams were the Betsie, Little Manistee and Platte rivers, and those rivers held lots of fish and very few fishermen.

It was really amazing, and seldom would i keep a fish. I would have six or eight 30-fish days each year, and always put the fish back. A quick, hard fight, and a swift release and no harm to the fish.

I began guiding salmon fishermen in 1967 when the spawning runs first began, and my clients cared nothing about steelhead. Everyone wanted salmon, so I’d give them fishing lessons and once they learned how to cast and how to fish flies along bottom, I’d “go check for other hotspots.” I always carried my Black Beauty fly rod, and I always looked for steelhead holding downstream of spawning salmon where they gobbled free-drifting salmon eggs.

Those fish were always caught and released, and I’d return often to check on my people and lead them to new batches of salmon. I guided for 10 years, spring and fall, and not once did my clients go home without having caught a limit. Not once!

I was the first fly-fishing wading guide in the state for anadromous browns, salmon and steelhead. If I had a free day, I would check rivers to keep track of the status of the runs, and the best way to do that was to fish. There were countless days, especially in November and December when the rivers were full of steelhead and everyone else was deer hunting.

I could easily say I personally landed 400 to 500 steelhead each year during my guiding years, which would mean 4,000 to 5,000 fish during those 10 years. One also must remember the limit back then was five fish daily, and seldom would I not catch my limit. Again, 99 percent of those fish were released. Many of my clients would release all of their fish although a few people wanted to keep a limit.

One also must remember that the big push by the Michigan Steelheaders group really didn’t get underway until the mid-1970s. Back then, people who had caught three or four steelhead were introducing their friends to the sport.

High steelhead numbers held through the early 1980s, and although I no longer was guiding, I was still fishing hard in the spring and fall. It was great: I’d fish for steelhead in the morning, and bow hunt for whitetails in the afternoon and early evening.

Do I know precisely how many steelhead I’ve landed? I had caught over 8,000 steelhead by 1976 when I quit guiding. I know I’ve caught well over 2,000 fish since then, and if it hasn’t reached 10,000 by now, I’d be very surprised.

I’d consider myself a fish hog and poacher if I’d kept everything I caught, but nearly all fish were released after a fast, hart fight. Most spring steelhead are soft-fleshed and not tasty, and they don’t freeze well. I only fished for male steelies in the spring, and never bothered fishing for the females.

Nowadays, with my vision problems, I don’t fish steelies as hard or nearly as often as I once did, and that is a good thing. Bowlers become expert bowlers by rolling 20 games or more each week, and steelhead fishermen become better by fishing daily.

I courteously ushered the head-shaking gent to the door and on his way. I don’t know whether he believed any of this or not, and it really makes little difference whether he did. All I know is that for many years the numbers of river steelhead far outnumbered the anglers who were qualified to fish for and catch them.

Those who could, caught lots of fish. Those who couldn’t, bad-mouthed the hot sticks.

Posted by Dave Richey on 07/04 at 07:33 PM
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