Even the sun was bundled up in layers of down as we descended into the South Shore river valley. Up high the trees swayed in a cold wind. Filtering down through a winding canyon of trees and high banks, the wind becomes a breeze that ruffles the water down below.
As has been the norm for more than a decade now, rivers in the Great Lakes region tend to be low and clear in fall these days. Wasn’t always the case. During my first 20 years of fishing Michigan’s Pere Marquette, the river was always slightly above average in fall. Almost never flooding, but certainly never at the lowest levels normally reserved for winter or dry summer periods. Water levels seemed perfect, and stable, year-after-year, encouraging the optimum number of steelhead to enter the river and run way upstream. In low water, steelhead never run as far in any numbers. Only the most intrepid of rainbows will ascend deep into the forests surrounding the Great Lakes during low-water conditions.
Exploring the steelhead rivers of Superior’s South Shore in Michigan and Wisconsin during fall, the story unfolds from any bridge crossing. We can see what we need to know from high above. Rivers with a high percentage of ground flow are running, and the pools are deep enough to hold fish, even at the lowest levels. Rivers that depend on runoff, at the lowest levels, actually seem to stop flowing. Wandering right down to them, you can see flow occurring between pebbles on a bottom largely exposed to the air. Not a healthy scenario for aquatic invertebrates and steelhead parr.
Autumn steelhead in low water. Sounds like a recipe (but we’ll reserve that terminology for the bait). Steelhead are scattered. We find a pod here and a pod there. As the water cools below 40°F, we no longer find them in the water fly fishermen love—heads of pools, pockets, tails of rapids, and runs with broken water coursing relatively rapidly over shallow rocks. Steelhead seek those spots in warmer water, but as temperatures descend toward winter levels, steelhead descend, in turn, into deeper, slower water.
These spots can be a mile apart. You have to be physically ready for it up here. You could take a canoe or kayak, and carry it over your head a mile to reach the river or to take out from it. But you need to be good. There are never any drift boats on these rivers, because rocks, rapids, and shallows eat them for breakfast. No cabins much, either. Running waters aren’t very watercraft friendly around Superior.
“Scattered” is a relative term. Steelhead we found over the past three days were in relatively large groups spread out over about five miles of river. Other stretches of river had very few fish. Over a week ago, the rivers up here experienced a rain event, bringing those big pods of fish in. As soon as rivers stop rising from such events, steelhead stop entering in appreciable numbers, and that body of fish that enters in rising water will stay relatively close together. In rivers where runs can continue for 30 miles or more, a five-mile stretch suffices to define “relatively close.”
With the right approach, these stretches of river that hold steelhead in low water can be ascertained rather quickly. The data required includes a history of flow levels and a journal depicting when and where fish were caught, and at what water levels, on what dates, and in what water temperatures. You have to keep track of those things yourself. There’s no app for it, and nobody (in their right mind) will do it for you.
Of course, you could come to the river with an army of 12 guys armed with cell phones. The downside is, you have to trust all 12 to actually be able to catch the fish in front of them. And once they find the body of fish, you have to share it with 12 other guys. Other shortcuts may exist, and probably suck just as bad. The right way is hard.
Besides, when I hear a cell phone ringing in steelhead country, I want to grab it and pitch it into the river. No matter how smart that phone gets, it can’t match the complexity of a steelhead. The real miracles are swimming free in wild rivers and finding their own way back to the exact spot where they were born 4 or 5 years ago with no need for a GPS unit, recharging, or a program written by a geek in a dark room then sold by a series of capitalists trained to survey your desires and pinpoint knee-jerk reactions to things that seem really, really cool yet make no real difference in your life and actually pale in comparison to that bird flying over your head that goes completely unnoticed.
Rule number one: Toss that life interrupting, cancer causing, brain-wave altering, dummy box of a cell phone into the glove box. Pay attention to life and the journey begins. No matter how small or insignificant it may seem, it can lead to a pattern. The marching of ants along a tree limb. Pelicans resting on shore. A gathering of birds. A school of minnows. The flight of a single mayfly.
A set of rings in an otherwise placid pool.
All of which, in the mind of an actual angler, just beat the hell out of the most sophisticated toys, games, and phones geeks can build in dark, sterile rooms.
More coming on fall steelhead…