Beautiful weather steelies

Michigan has had some strange weather. December and January were highlighted by rain, flooded river conditions and steelies by the thousands migrated inland. Mother Nature then served up icy conditions in late January and early February and cold stream water temperatures put spawning runs on hold. “This could be one of the earliest runs of steelies on record,” reports Mark Tonello, DNR fisheries expert from Cadillac. “There will be plenty of steelhead available in Area Rivers this winter and anglers can look forward to limit catches without dealing with traditional crowds.”

Michigan is blessed with vast water resources and some of the best stream steelhead fishing in North America. Typically major runs occur in March when stream temperatures reach 40 degrees, steelies begin spawning chores. Unlike last winter which was highlighted by deep snow, shelf ice and cold water temperatures and exceptionally cold weather this year anglers can look forward to exceptional steelhead success throughout winter due to high water and lack of ice or snow.

Reports across the state indicate that the balmy, spring-like weather highlighted by rain has caused an increase of fish activity. Big rainbows have migrated from the Great Lakes to many tributaries like the St. Joseph, Kalamazoo, Grand, Rogue, White, Pere Marquette, Big Manistee, Little Manistee, Betsie, Platte and Boardman. On the east side good catches are coming from the AuSable, Thunder River and Acqueoc.

Most Great Lakes tributaries have runs in March and April but this winter should be exceptional fishing because of the extreme warm weather during late fall. In some rivers the main run occurred in late November through December as warm rains have caused Area Rivers to belch with water in the 40’s and 50’s. Steelies responded, thinking that spring has finally arrived.

“Steelhead anglers can expect super action now that massive numbers of big trout have ascended Area Rivers and stream,” reports Danny Hale from Ionia, a well-known steelie expert and custom reel maker. “We are getting fresh run fish right now and plenty of fishermen are missing the hot bite because they are waiting for spring. Late fall runs are attributed to warm stream water temperatures but the fishing is red hot now that the days are growing longer, and the weather is absolutely beautiful. However, I’m somewhat concerned that the spring run could have charged up tributaries this late fall and few fish will be coming with the traditional spring thaw.

“Smart fishermen try large rivers like the St. Joseph, Kalamazoo, Grand, Muskegon or Big Manistee which offer splendid winter steelheading. Large schools are reported in deep holes and runs where they are waiting for the spring thaw. With record numbers in area streams there is an excellent change spawning chores could be completed by the traditional April 1st opener.”

I love chasing big trout when the weather warms and you can fish from the bank free of deep snow and ice. One of my favorite hotspots is the mighty Grand River. The Grand is a very large river and it tends to hold massive numbers of fish below the 6th Street Dam. If the water is low anglers wade out and fish the spillway below the dam but this season the water has been raging and limit catches are coming of the east wall near the Quarry Hole and off the walkway bordering the Post Office hole.

This tributary is large and often water is somewhat stained but most anglers use long fluorocarbon leaders and small size hooks. Savvy anglers dangle a fresh spawn bag on a bare hook or waxworms on a small jig 3-4 ft. below a bobber and dust size split shot is employed rather than large split shot that trout with excellent eyesight can spot.

There has been a hot bite at daylight lately, as though fair weather steelies like to welcome a new day with breakfast. When the eastern sky turns pink, you should have your line in the water. If the weather turns sour and stream temperatures drop, you can expect the best bite during mid-day when the sun slightly warms river temperatures. There is something powerfully addictive about hooking, and fighting a tail-walking steelie at first light as the eastern sky turns from purple to pink and bright orange. If the sky is clear the bite lasts about 2 hours, overcast skies and rain can signal fantastic fishing all day.

Now is a great time to go. Limit catches await those willing to cast a jig tipped with waxworms, or drift a fresh spawn bag and don’t overlook the power of a well presented fly or spinner tossed close to log jams. A slick strategy is to fish on days when temperatures are above freezing, wind calm and schedule trips during midday when the high sun warms the river water. If we get another winter rain you can bet the steelies will go bonkers and respond by chomping on hooks like piranha on fresh flesh.