October 07, 2021
By Matt Straw
Somewhere on a tributary of the Great Lakes, snow builds on the horizontal branches of phantom trees, not to mention forearms, hands and shoulders. Squalls curtain the view like fog. Heavy, wet flakes sting your eyes and slap the rod, the sensitivity of which becomes mere rumor, held uncertainly between fingers the shade of a cloudless afternoon sky.
Step right this way. You have an invitation. The magical mystery trout tour is waiting to take you away. Right. One mystery concerns the questionable logic that leads people to abuse themselves this wayâ€”the north wind slicing through six layers of clothing above feet that feel like blocks of ice.
One answer is to dress right. But the best answer is in the tap-tap of sinkers meeting bottom. At some point, the tapping stops. The rod tip doesn't move. Time stands still until that tip slowly bends down. From the hookset until a big silver something-or-other break dances into the net 15 minutes later, and long afterwards, the misery is forgotten. Adrenalin is better than a warm fire. Suddenly the top button of your coat is undone, your hood comes off, and the snow is beautiful. That's the ticket. You're now beyond help, joined at the hip with the undead zombies that wade northern rivers in winter.
The mystery is many faceted. These fish leave perfectly good lakes full of food to run headlong into current that checks out at 36Â°F or less. What's wrong with them? Nobody knows. Some come to spawn, some come to feed, some simply seem crazy. Some are lake trout averaging 8 pounds. Some are steelhead the size of your leg. Some are brown trout the size of Hulk Hogan's leg. And only some rivers have them all, which leads to the most intriguing part of the mysteryâ€”what's going to bite next?
So step right this way. Literally thousands of rivers, streams, and creeks that empty into the Great Lakes entertain fine runs of steelhead. But the bus stops only where mixed bags of salmonids, including browns or lakers, can be taken anytime from November through April. And step lively. The tour started yesterday.
The Niagara River
I've been to the Niagara River three times during the height of the mystery tour, and each time the situation was precisely as described in the first paragraph. Snow, wind, and an obscured view of the ancient gorge created by the slow, steady retreat of Niagara Falls. The view, in fact, shrank to the confines of the boat with occasional hints that something approaching a shore actually existed somewhere out there.
The Niagara runs deep and heavy, and the trout fishing is like few other places on earth. Sometimes the hot bite is 20 to 30 feet deep on rock and gravel flats, where the fish are best approached vertically from boats. A weight somewhere in the vicinity of an ounce hangs on a long 2- to 3-foot dropper from a three-way swivel. The 10-pound leader is 6 feet long in average clarity, replaced by a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader that's 10 feet long when the water runs clear. Hooks range from a #4 down to a #10â€”depending on clarity and the bait du jour.
Baits can be pieces of cut skein (roe or eggs still in the membrane), spawn bags (salmon or trout eggs tied in nylon mesh), emerald shiners, yarn flies, artificial worms, or a variety of other plastics. Lures (jigged without additional weight) include spoons and bladebaits in the 1/2- to 11â„2-ounce range. With boat control, the bait is kept moving at the speed of slower bottom currents, by slowing the drift with the bowmount trolling motor.
At other times, shore fishermen catch their share on floats with jigs and spawn, minnows, or plastics to entice steelhead that average 8 pounds with a fair number over 20 pounds. Some years the Niagara gives up more 20-pound steelhead than any other river in the Great Lakes region. Lake trout and browns run in and out of the river all winter, some topping 20 pounds, too. Prime time on the Niagara tends to stretch from a week or two after Christmas into February, with spotty (but sometimes incredible) bites through March and April. If the river clouds up, lakers and browns always bite out on the Niagara Bar outside the river mouth into Lake Ontario.
Contacts: For lodging with guide service, call Bruce Blakelock, 716/754-4101. Guides: Captain John Oravec, 800/443-2510; Captain Frank Campbell, 716/284-8546.
The Grand River
Next to the Niagara, the Grand River in Michigan's southwestern Lower Peninsula produces the hottest fishing around the Great Lakes for lake trout locations. In fact, research fails to unearth any other river south of the sub Arctic with a more prodigious spawning run of lake trout. Most lakers at this latitude spawn in lakes. But at some point in November each year, tens of thousands of Lake Michigan lakers roll up the Grand to spawn. Most of them stop at the 6th Street Dam in Grand Rapidsâ€”a low-head dam that salmon often jump, in spite of the fish ladder installed on the south side.
In the shadow of skyscrapers it's possible to land 100 or more lakers in a day during the height of the fall run. Trying to get a bait through the milling lake trout becomes a source of aggravation to locals chasing big steelies and browns, since the season for lakers closes on Labor Day. These aren't the huge 20-pound lakers that prowl the depths of Lake Michigan, but sporty units running 6 to 12 pounds. If you go, take a wading staff. The Grand at 6th Street is floored with broken concrete, broken rock, and boulders that feel like greased bowling balls to wade on.
The lake trout bite recedes through December, but the Grand produces sensational catches of steelhead with the occasional bonus brown all winter and into April. It rolls through myriad parks and state land with fishable numbers of anadromous fish all the way to Lansing (60 miles upstream of Grand Rapids). The best bite, however, is from Grand Rapids west, where dozens of smaller tributaries like the Rogue River, Sand Creek, Buck Creek, and many others tap a percentage of the run each spring.
But, where is everybody? That's the big mystery surrounding the Grand. In a county with a population of 500,000, the only pressure you're likely to see is at 6th Street. After running through Lansing and Grand Rapids, the river is understandably cloudy (not to say polluted). Yet it houses giant smallmouths, walleyes, pike, browns, salmon, and rainbows, so the pollution factor is far from critical. Run a jet on the Grand from December through March and yours is the only boat you'll likely see, which is amazing. I once lived near the Grand and experienced several 50-hookup days with steelhead and browns, and just as many 75-hookup days for lakers, without ever sharing a pool.
Because the water runs a tad cloudy, and because so much of the Grand's bottom is broken rock, drifting a bright fluorescent jig (from 1/32- to 1/8-ounce) under a float represents the most efficient presentation most of the time. From a boat, a 10-foot rod is optimum, while a 12-foot or longer rod is preferred from shore. Use a river float like the Thill River Master and balance it with Thill or Red Wing soft shot placed in a shirt-button pattern on the line (six inches apart with the heaviest sinker near the float). The float should ride upright. Tip the jig with a bright fluorescent orange, pink, or chartreuse spawn bag, or with a pair of waxworms. Anchor at the head of a long pool and let the float drift from the top to the tailÂout, putting just enough pressure on the line to cock the float and to let the bait swing out in front.
Information: Al & Bob's Tackle, 616/245-9156; For guides and information on the Grand and all other rivers on the tour, contact the Steelhead Site at www.steelheadsite.com.
The mystery tour bus could head north from the Grand and find the Muskegon River within an hour. Like most western Michigan rivers (among the most stable on earth in terms of ground flow), the Muskegon stays open and fishable all winter and spring. It's a fairly large river, two long casts from bank to bank on the wider pools, and the best fishing takes place from small jet boats. Big steelhead and browns are stopped by Croton Dam, about 50 miles inland from Lake Michigan as the crow flies, and the best fishing occurs from there down to Newaygo. Several parks and public landings in this stretch form access points for foot soldiers. Pools are long and deep. Float fishing with waxworms or spawn is recommended, but the water is quite clear. Fluorocarbon leaders testing 6 to 10 pounds terminating in a #6 Red Wing Sabertooth or Owner Mosquito hook with natural-orange or "Oregon cheese" spawn bags tend to produce better than bright jigs until rain clouds the water.
The tour bus could continue north, stopping at any of dozens of spots along the way in Michigan, including the White River, the Big or Little Manistee Rivers, or the AuSable Riverâ€”all entertain big browns and steelhead (but the rare laker) and remain open to fishing and are ice-free all (or almost all) winter.
The St. Joseph River
Or the mystery tour could turn south down US 131 and make for the St. Joseph River. Just depends. It's all part of the mystery. Each fall and spring, a different river turns red hot. Knowing which rivers will pull the most fish is a matter for biologists or truly plugged-in anglers, because it depends on how successfully steelhead and browns spawned, or how much stocking occurred 3 to 5 years ago. But a quick phone call to a reliable source dialed in on each system can clear things up in a hurry. Just ask, "How many, how fast?" But clues are seldom required on the St. Joseph. It's always hotâ€”once the water coolsâ€”so we might just park it here for a week. Maybe two. The St. Joe receives the biggest run of steelhead anywhere on earth. Thousands of massive browns, some topping 20 pounds, ascend the river in fall and spring, and hundreds of bonus lakers remain in the river all winter as well.
The St. Joe is big water, and the steelhead run is massive because it's fueled by stocking from two statesâ€”Michigan and Indiana. (Stocking totals almost 200,000 steelhead per year.) Ladders allow salmonids to pass five dams, and how much natural reproduction might occur in feeder creeks along the way is largely unknown. The run finally terminates at the base of Twin Branch Dam in Mishawaka, Indianaâ€”a distance of 50 to 60 miles by river. The Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife estimates that the salmon-trout fishery along the St. Joe boosts the local economies in Indiana alone by over $6 million, even though more fish are caught in Michigan.
"Walking spawn" is the preferred tactic of the most knowledgeable anglers on the St. Joseph, according to Bob Gwizdz, outdoor editor for Booth Newspapers. "Guides use three-way rigs with 3-foot leaders and a one-foot dropper to a small 1/8- to 1/2-ounce bell sinker, depending on current speed and depth," Gwizdz said. "They anchor the boat, bait with spawn, and drop the rigs to bottom right off the transom. They let it sit for a few moments, then lift the rod. The rig is carried a few feet by the current, then they drop the rod tip and let it settle for a few moments, repeating this process until they lose touch with bottom. Then they let out some anchor rope and start over." The same technique is popular on the Big Manistee.
Fly-fishing is enjoyed here all winter, wherever anglers can access large, shallow shoals. Drifting a fly or bait under a float is effective, too. The summer run of steelhead here is one of the most prolific anywhere, with lots of fish topping 20 pounds in July, August, and September. The water can warm quickly on the Joe, and summer steel will stack in the cooler water just below a spring or incoming trout creek. If the water stays too warm, these fish might wait until October to run, but they don't spawn until late winter, so big ÂSkamania-strain steelhead can be found through January and into February on the Joe.
Contacts: Bob Warner of Lucky Duck Charters, 517/568-4971; Guide Tim Shaffer, 616/471-9633.
The Menominee River
Magic and mystery transports us to Escanaba, Michigan, on Highway 35, where the bus crosses a number of small creeks, all with runs of steelhead, browns, and lakers, before pulling up on the banks of the Menominee River, which forms more than 100 miles of boundary between Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, draining cedar and tamarack swamps along the way to Lake Michigan. But anadromous fishâ€”browns, steelhead, and salmonâ€”are stopped only a few miles from the big lake by a dam in two townsâ€”Marinette on the Wisconsin side, Menominee on the Michigan side. During late fall and early winter, thousands of big trout, with a sprinkling of lake trout can stack up in this short stretch of river.
Much of the river below the dam can be reached on foot. Though the wading is dangerous near the dam, it always attracts a few brave souls in November and early December when giant Seeforellen brown trout concentrate there. It's easy to tell when these monsters arrive. They porpoise all over the plunge pool, erupting like missiles. Some actually try to jump the dam like salmon. Steelhead enter the river in fall, too. Perhaps the best and least publicized tactic for unbridled browns in fall is the suspending jerkbait. A small Rapala Husky Jerk (in #6, or #8, or sometimes the larger #10) twitched then allowed to drift with the current produces arm-wrenching strikes and monstrous fish. But the best tactic for numbers remains a spawn bag under a float on a 1/32- to 1/16-ounce jig in cold, high water or a #6 Red Wing Tackle Sabertooth in low, cool water.
During the height of the hunting season, the fishing can be incredible, with just a smattering of anglers around to enjoy it. During winter, sheets of ice cover the slower eddies and pools, and fishing is spotty at best. Somewhere between late February and early April each year, the river opens up again. As certainly as the sun rises in the east, some winter-over steelhead will be waiting, after several months of asylum from fishing pressure. The first man on 'em reaps certain rewards. As March spits and blusters its way into April, more fish trickle inâ€”some of them prodigious brown trout in the 12- to 20-pound range. And the run won't peak until late April or early May.
The mystery tour passes south over some fabulous mixed-bag fisheries in Wisconsin, like the Peshtigo, the Oconto, the Kewaunee, and the Manitowoc Riversâ€”which all attract huge browns and fair-to-excellent numbers of steelhead in early spring. But, like most rivers in Wisconsin, these streams freeze up in winter. The Kewauneeâ€”one of the slowest of these tribsâ€”freezes so hard the locals ice fish the deep bends for steelhead and browns in January and February.
The Root River, which enters Lake Michigan at Racine, Wisconsin, is far enough south that it stays open more often in winter than those rivers to the north. It's the playground of anglers from Chicago, and it's stocked accordingly. Hundreds of thousands of salmon, steelhead, and Seeforellen browns are planted in and around the river each year. It's slow and shallowâ€”perfect for fly-fishing, drifting bottom, or stealth rigging with floats.
Contact: Guide Dave Sura, 262/930-8260, or 262/939-7777.
One more thing: You have a better chance of meeting John or George than Ringo or Paul on this tour if you wade where you shouldn't in unfamiliar water without the proper gear. Carry a wading staff and wear dependable boot-foot neoprene waders with cleats on the soles. When the air temperature approaches 0Â°F, which is about as cold as it ever gets on the tour, rivers form "anchor ice" that coats rocks and gravel on the bottom of the river. Anchor ice in current is as slick as footing gets anywhere. Without cleats, stay on the bank or in ankle-deep water. For the most comfort, wear polar-fleece everything, including boot socks and pants, because it's lightweight, dries fast, and insulates well. Polar-fleece gloves with the fingers cut off at the second knuckle are great, too. When it snows, you'll be happy with polar fleece.
Snow flakes? Sometimes feels more like corn flakes cutting into your eyes. In the swirling white haze, the optic-orange float is still visible, riding on the surface tension. There it is. Blink and it's gone, diving under. The long graphite stick comes up fast, comes alive. Something heavy. What is it? It's another mystery tour that takes you down the bank, around the bend, and out of sight.