Thursday, April 23, 2009

Remembering A Forgotten Steelhead Spot


Decades ago, there was a place on the Little Manistee River that was almost like my second home. It had numerous shallow gravel bars where steelhead spawned, and rather than chasing after brook trout that day when I still have a few months to do so, my son David and I returned to my hotspot from the late 1960s.

“If that’s where you want to fish,” I’m happy to check it out with your. “Show me a place you haven’t showed me before.”

So I did. And he fell in love with it just as I had many years ago. No, sorry, but I’m not going to reveal its exact location although I can get you within 10 miles of it.

The river, between the 9 Mile and 18 Mile bridge, was running low and clear that day as we stepped into the river. Strongly felt was the old familiar tightening of water pressure against my legs as we began wading slowly upstream in hopes of finding a steelhead.

We poked along slowly, easing into the current, checking out gravel bars for the dish-shaped white overturned gravel from the fanning of a hen steelhead’s tail. The bed is slightly upstream from the white gravel at the tail-end of the bed. Some people wonder why these beds are white, and the quick and easy answer is this gravel has been turned over as a hen digs her spawning redd.

David, much younger than the old man, has speed to burn. I nodded for him to charge off in his personal quest for a lively steelhead while I walked slowly, stopped often, and looked for the near-invisible shadow of a fresh hen or the darker and blockier shape of a male.

I covered 200 yards, and stood motionless, looking near a fallen log that had toppled into the river. My vision, at best, is poor but I know what to look for.

First came the dark shadlowy shape of a male holding in slightly deeper water along the edge of the redd. The water was four feet deep here, and I studied it for 10 minutes. The trick is to locate both fish before starting to fish for them.

Make a mistake at this point, and hook the female, and she is gone and the males will vanish with her. I studied the bed, both sides of it, and finally found her holding next to a log 10 feet downstream from the redd. The female was bright silver in the sunshine, and she was very close to being invisible. At first I couldn’t see her, but then I spotted her shadow, and then she became instantly visible. It’s a matter of knowing what to look for, and any skill at spotting these fish comes from experience.

She was in an impossible spot to fish, even if I was stupid enough to try for her. The male held alongside the redd, and in a perfect location. My line was lengthened, and reading the current speed and depth gave me the ideal spot to cast. My orange yarn fly drifted downstream along bottom, and the fish moved away from it.

The fly was lifted out, cast again, and again the male moved aside and allowed the fly to drift past. Again and again I cast, and each time the male slid away, but he was becoming agitated, and on the 20th or 30th cast, he grabbed the fly and the hook was pounded home.

That fish ripped off on a downstream run, ran past the hen, went between two fallen logs, and wheeled in midstream, splashed out of the water in a corkscrewing jump, and ran back upstream. He took 10 yards of line upstream from me, rolled on the surface, and headed back down and turned. He bulldozed into a submerged brush pile in front of me, and in less than a second tangled my line and broke off.

I moved back up to shore, sat down, tied on another orange yarn fly, and rested the spot. It took 30 minutes before the hen moved back into her holding position, and 15 minutes later, the male reappeared. This time there was something different: an orange yarn fly was firmly embedded in the corner of his mouth.

It took at least an hour for both fish to settle down, and I admired the day and the scenic beauty of this portion of the river. It seemed a great day to be alive. Upstream, I heard David talking to himself as a fish splashed. He was into a steelhead, and was telling the world about it.

My male with the decoration in the corner of its mouth lay beside the female, and she let loose a jet of yellow eggs as both fish rolled on their sides, mouth agape, and he fertilized the eggs. I got a good look at the hen, and she was flat-bellied and had successfully spawned.

She headed into a log jam and disappeared from sight. She would now rest, and I had no problem casting again to the solitary male. This time he was more eager, and grabbed the orange fly on the second drift but he’d learned his previous lesson well. He darted into the brush, twisted around, and the hook pulled free.

Minutes later David came back downstream. He had landed a nice male and released in, and said he had covered over a mile of river and saw just those two fish.

Was it a perfect day? The weather was wonderful, and we each found a male fish to cast to. David hooked and landed his and released the big 12-pound buck, and I hooked and lost the same fish twice. Did we have a good time?

The answer was an emphatic “yes!” We fished several other areas today, and never saw another steelhead. But, finding two males and hooking both of them, was just part of a perfect day. Fishing a spot I hadn’t fished in 30 years was a bonus, and it was nice to know that fish still hold in the same locations as they did three decades ago

Posted by Dave Richey on 04/23 at 03:52 PM
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