February 28, 2013
"Uh. You've got another one, Strawman," laughed Chris Beeksma
I looked up. The HT Enterprises Ice Rigger flag was down. It was up. Then it was down. It was flopping around. My $80 Thorne Brothers rod, still in the rod holder, was bouncing around on the ice like a thing alive. I was up and running, lunging, sliding, grabbing the rod before it could disappear down the hole. I tightened down a little, but the drag was singing. Away he went — a dark, Lake Superior buck that looked like he'd been in the river for a month.
Suddenly, the line froze. Nothing moved. The steelhead lodged the line into the bottom of the hole. I had to roll up my sleeve, reach in and free it. Amazingly, the steelhead was still on. The line on my spool was 6-pound Seaguar AbrazX Fluorocarbon. I know, I know. Fluorocarbon is too stiff. It bounces off the spool. It's a pain. Well, that was true until a few years ago. Like nylon, fluorocarbons can have varying properties. Which is why Seaguar makes so many different varieties. I like AbrazX for ice fishing steelhead because it stands up to abrasion, has good knot strength, and exceptional tensile strength.
I found if I gave AbrazX a good stretch in the morning, it would behave pretty well all day long. Which was important, because in water so shallow, we have little room or reason to tie in a swivel. If I use a swivel in ice-fishing situations with trout, I want it at least 3 feet from the bait. But, with steelhead — which can range up to 15 p0unds or more — every knot is an opportunity for failure. I prefer to tie the main line directly to a plain, size #8 to size #6 Tiemco Fly Hook, or Owner Mosquito Hook, and I let the weight of that hook carry the bait down unless the current is too strong. In current, we have to add as much dust shot or as many soft BBs as it takes to hold the bait down there. The bait is kept in that little white jar you see by my Ice Rigger (above).
These thaws raise the rivers, and though the bay beyond the mouth is locked in ice, the increase in water pressure exiting the river, the sediment pumping under the ice, and a slight variation in water temperature draws steelhead into 4 feet of water, all around that exiting flow.
Innovations like the Ice Rigger, The Automatic Ice Fisheman, And The Slammer allow us to set traps in that shallow water. Generally, steelhead won't tolerate people walking over their heads in 4- to 6-foot depths. Depends. Thaws bring cloudy water into the bay, and steelhead will bite at your feet sometimes. If you sit quietly in a shelter, you can hover down near the hole and see them come through. Waves of steelhead sweep past the mouth of the river in unison. Some of them are bound to appear under every hole you've drilled in the area.
In our case, whether or not they bite depends on the bait. In that white jar mentioned earlier I was carrying some fresh, untreated steelhead spawn, tied in Red Wing Tackle nylon netting then packed and frozen in mineral oil. Mineral oil is inert, meaning it's not toxic and it has no scent, but it does take on the scent of the eggs and distributes that scent into the mixing currents beneath the ice.
Steelhead apparently sweep past in waves because flags go up in clusters. Who knows how many fish pass in each wave. Could be six. Could be sixty. Could be many more. We'll be covering this topic in detail in the 2014 winter issue of In-Fisherman. Which means we'll need some new photos. As I write this, Beeksma is drilling more holes near river mouths, and I'm waiting for his report.
In keeping with the theme of recent posts, yes — the river mouths of the Great Lakes are another favorite destination of mine in February every year.