I’ve got good news for Michigan steelhead fishermen. You can look forward to catching big fish this fall. I’m not talking twenty pound chromers, those days are gone but there seems to be a growing number of 12-15 pound steelies swimming in Lake Michigan. If you are interested in catching a big silver bullet when he is full of fight, willing to tail-walk like a runaway tarpon, then plan a trip now for fall steelhead.
I gauge the size of the steelhead in the fall run by comparing them to those caught in Lake Michigan during summer and early fall. A couple years ago plenty of 6 pounders came to net and the following fall run was comprised of punkass 6 pounders, 10-pound fish were rare. However, this year bigger steelies are hammering lures, some tip the scales around 16 pounds. If you want to catch a trophy, under ideal conditions when the fish is super-active, charged with energy, firm fleshed and mint silver, now is the time to go. Here’s why.
Come late fall, say after Halloween, Michigan gets plenty of rain, streams increase flow and big water Great Lakes steelhead charge area rivers. The fall runs historically peak in November, just when most Michigan outdoorsmen are busy chasing whitetail, which guarantees fewer crowds on steelhead tributaries. The key to the fall run is linked to water temperature changes, as the Great Lakes roll over they become very cold and steelies, lake trout, white fish and menominee suddenly are found close to shore. Surf fishermen have a riot catching bright silver steelhead using floating spawn bags suspended 6-12 inches off bottom. During early fall and when streams are low, surf fishing remains hot but when cool rains and shortening days bring an abrupt temperature change, steelies pack their bags and many migrate into rivers. Last year November fishing was spectacular and it only got better as December rain and unseasonably warm weather fooled spring spawners into making an early run.
I’d begin by trying the surf using floater spawn bags. If I had to pick a hot spot, I’d put my money on the beach south of Frankfort, from the Elberta Municipal Beach south for about one mile. Many anglers prefer the Elberta pier come fall and the fishing can be hot as a July firecracker, but it is hard to compete with the beauty and serenity only provided by the tranquil surf. At times, the surfin’ action can be so productive that you will only need 1 rod to catch your limit.
Most surf fishermen use long rods, deep spooled spinning reels carrying 8 lb. main line and 6 lb. fluorocarbon leader. A pyramid sinker or egg sinker is attached to the main line and a barrel swivel keeps the weight from slipping down to the hook. 18-36″ leaders are rigged with size #6 wide bend salmon egg style hooks and a size #7 round split shot is placed 6-12 inches from the hook. A quarter-size floater spawn bag is attached to the hook and the offering is cast as far as possible into the open sea. Anglers increase cast distance by wading to the top of their waders, casting, free spooling line until the rod is placed in a tall sand spike and the excess line reeled up. Sand spikes are made by duct taping plastic tubing to a metal pipe and sticking the make shift rod holder into the sand.
The fun part of surfin’ is fighting the waves, wind, and spray coming from the surging sea and catching mint silver steelhead with white bellies and few dots on their body. Steelies in the surf grab food and run with the hook, frequently they are hooked deep and they jump, strip line and fight like crazy. Michigan’s Great Lakes surf is perhaps the last frontier where man and steelhead can meet in a pristine environment, unobstructed by modern developments, trains, planes and crowded fishing conditions. Once you get a feel for this brand of fishing, you will love the beauty of the vast lake, enjoy the sound of gulls, crashing waves and no people; and love the bright steelies that strip line from your reel like a runaway freight train.
Years ago, when I was a surfin’ bum, my frequent haunts included: Benton Harbor pier, Grand Haven, Pentwater and Manistee. But I truly fell in love with more pristine hot spots like: Arcadia pier, Herring Creek, Platte Bay and a host of scenic stream outlets into Lake Michigan that offers a beautiful fishing environment and escape from human influences. My home base was the mouth of the Platte River, Benzie County, in Platte Bay, which offers gin-clear water and come late fall the fishing is fantastic. At one time I quit fishing rivers and streams because I could catch more, bigger, better fish from the bountiful waters of the Great Lakes surf.
After fishing for more than a decade by myself in the surf, I sort of missed the fight of silvery fish in fast current and fishing in crowds. Today, I take great pleasure in focusing steelhead outings on popular locations that have plenty of other anglers and piles of fish. Come late fall you can expect to see my smiling face at popular steelhead streams like: St. Joseph, Kalamazoo, Grand (especially 6th St Dam), and Muskegon, Pere Marquette, Big Manistee and more. And hey, don’t think for a minute I still don’t have some secret steelie hot spots that I prefer to not give ink. I was born at night but not last night!
The best part about fall fish is they are easy to catch, well, by most steelhead fishing standards. Truth is they bite like hell and fight like hell too. Savvy anglers use a variety of techniques like: casting spinners or spoons, drifting flies, bouncing bottom with spawn, using drop-back techniques off a boat with plugs or spawn and casting plugs. If I were to make one recommendation, it would be to use fresh spawn bags below a bobber.
Fall steelies love fresh king eggs tied in netting colored: red, pink, orange yellow and white. One strategy is to use a variety of different colored bags, tied in sizes ranging from a dime to a large quarter and try them all. The fish will tell you which color and size they prefer by jerking your bobber under the surface like a shark attacking a wounded fish. Oh yes, fall steelhead will take a bait and give you a violent jerk when they strike. This helps to identify hits and guarantees you will detect the strike and set the hook. That’s when all hell breaks loose. You see, fall fish are full of power, strength and water temperatures keep them super-charged. I mean they fight like no other time of year.
Finding fish in fall is an easy task, just make a few casts in your favorite spot and move to another. Those who cover the most water will inevitably get the most hook ups and catch the most fish. In addition, by covering plenty of water, trying several locations, you will locate where fish are stacked. Sure, fall runs tend to leave a few steelies in every hole and savvy steelheaders know that fall fish congregate in deep holes and runs, but they also tend to be stacked in certain locations where the main run is still in a school. Perhaps the best way to find a pack is to begin outings at dam sites where schools tend to congregate. If they are not there, move downriver until you hit on good fishing, at times you may need to cover several miles before you find the mother lode. Don’t spend all day at a single location, fall fish are not like spring fish in cold water that require a thousand casts per strike. The fall variety will snap at the first spawn bag that drifts past and provide action, if not, move and move again until you locate the main run.
With fond memories I recall a phone call from a steelhead friend informing me of a run of chromers. I quickly tied fresh treated king single eggs into rather large bags, grabbed rod, waders, vest and drove to the location.
It was the 13th of November, a couple days before gun deer season. The skies were low hanging and it rained the night before, bringing a fresh run from the big lake. We walked to the rivers edge; each made a cast and POW! POW! We both were into steelhead. My friend’s fish charged upstream and catapulted skyward, leaving droplets of water in a huge pearl-like rainbow around the thrashing white bellied fish. My steelhead shook its head, splashed at the surface showing its large maw, then blitzed downriver, making line sing from my reel. “See Ya!’ I told my buddy as the brute jerked me downstream. I finally caught up with the mean monster, held line tight to the blank and forced the big brute to go airborne. He came out of the water with jet-like speed, tossing water with his broad tail like a great white shark curling skyward to gulp a seal. I muscled him, gave no line, forced him to jump my direction, but the steelhead was big, energy enhanced fresh from the Great Lake and he snapped the 8lb. fluorocarbon leader like it was sewing thread. Then he exploded from the river again, splashing white water in every direction on the calm stream surface, soon as he touched down he torpedoed out of the water again. Each leap seemed to be higher, each splash down seemed to be with more force, as if the fish was making fun of me; almost like it was throwing sand in my face.
If you want to witness a steelhead gone berserk, I recommend you plan a trip soon. Big steelhead are waiting to do battle with you…NOW! Are you ready?