Back To The Big Mana'

After venturing into the foam and spray of Lake Michigan (a Christmas card to remember), we jumped on Mark Chmura's jet boat and sped up the Big Manistee River. "Fishing's been slow on the river," Mark said. We had a better chance on the "pond" for awesome fishing, but big waves and small-craft warnings chased us here (where I'd rather be, anyway — drifting floats on the big river).

The Big Mana was running low and clear, but Mary hooked up right away. She was drifting a 1/32-ounce TC Tackle Jig (406/683-5485) under a Thill River Master , using Thill Soft Shot above a small SPRO swivel tied to a 4-foot, 5.6-pound Raven Fluorocarbon leader to get the rig down 8 feet or so. With water temperatures of 37°F and air temperatures in the 20s, steelhead are as releasable as  they'll ever be, so we slipped her back into the flow.

After an hour or two I finally hooked up. The beast leapt skyward 3 times, not far from the back of the boat, and Mark got a good look at him. "That's your biggest steelhead of the year," he said with confident assurance. Then he disappeared into the "cabin" to cook hotdogs on his propane sunflower, knowing I wouldn't need a net for a good long while.

Biggest fish of the year or not, Mark wasn't about to leave a spot where we actually hooked a steelhead to chase it. Fishing was too slow. "You can fight it back up here," he said, cheering me on. "Unless you can't. But I've seen you do it before. If you'd never landed one over 15 pounds before, we'd probably chase it."

For several hours, we were losing a lot of rigs in the heavy wood so common in the lower Big Mana. So I was kicking myself for tying up with an even thinner fluorocarbon. Sounds counterintuitive, but the thinking was: "I just want to hook one today." So, of course, with a fish finally on, the thinking became, "I really want to land this one. Why does it have to be my biggest steelhead of the year? Why couldn't it be more like Mary's fish? Why am I such an idiot? Why do I even have that junk in my vest?" And so on.

Reeling slowly with the rod tip submerged, I had it almost close enough to net about four times. "Dive for those," I laughed.

"He saw your ugly face," Mark replied. "I don't think he's coming any closer." Which he didn't. The 4.5-pound leader finally exploded. I was rather amazed we had him on as long as we did. I wasn't amazed to realize at the end of the day it would be my only hookup.

Several days later, as Mary and I packed the vehicle for the long run home, it began to rain. And it rained all day, bringing some fresh fish into all the rivers we sampled on the trip. I looked to the heavens, water dripping from my nose. "Why now? Why me? I mean Mary. Why Mary?"

Fishing was slow the entire trip. True. But it didn't stop us from boating some real beauties on some fairly unusual tactics. Tomorrow — the Muskegon.

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