I look forward to few things with the relish reserved for a run up the Big Manistee River in Mark Chmura's jet boat. And the best time to do it — Mark's favorite time — is winter, when the din of other jets and anglers fades away into the white stuff falling from the sky and clinging to the banks.
Not much white stuff this year, but plenty of pink. Pink-sided trout, pink floats, and pink jigs. Mary and I hooked 16 or more and brought 9 into the boat, most looking like the ones in the photos — fat, sassy 8 to 10 pounders.
We used 12-foot float rods, which are a little long for boat duty, but this trip was organized around giving seminars, not steelheading. No room in the truck for every kind and type of rod we'd like to have. So controlling steelhead around the net was a real adventure.
The last time out on Chmura's boat, in the fall of 2010, the fish showed a decided preference for mauve jigs. After the first fish, I announced to Rick Hammer of Aqua-Vu and Rich Eckholm of Lindner's Angling Edge that mauve, 1/32-ounce, TC Tackle jigs (406/683-5485) were selling for a buck. Hammer laughed. Shortly thereafter the float went down again, the long rod doubled over, and I looked at Rick. "Buck fifty." He laughed again, if a little less enthusiastically. By the time my little mauve jigs were up to $3 apiece, the laughter gave way to a frown. He seemed to be working out some details in his mind. He raised an index finger (a critical distinction, in this case), but before he could say anything, my float went down again. I raised four fingers. "Four bucks." He cursed.
Some will never believe that being really exact about color makes much difference. Hammer was like that, but a few days after that trip he called for Tim McFadden's number at TC Tackle, asked about nail-polish colors, and wondered which clear coats to buy. Next time out, he had mauve jigs, pink ones, chartreuse, lime green — a veritable rainbow. So I showed him some taupe jigs. "Got any like these?" He threw up his hands. "Buck apiece," I said. "And the offer may not last."
Sometimes color doesn't matter. Sometimes, not only is jig color important, steelhead show a decided preference for one, very specific, shade of a color. Sometimes that preference changes from hour-to-hour. On this trip, they wanted pink. They would have nothing to do with the metallics, but otherwise, shade didn't matter. Bright pink, bubble gum, hot pink, pearl pink, "grandma's pink," and standard pink all brought fish to the boat. (Remember the smallmouth discussion on Related Color Theory? Same same.) Yellows, greens, black, and purple were rejected all day.We hooked two with mauve, but mauve — in a certain light — looks pink. In some light intensities, mauve looks slightly orange. Sometimes it's just brown, then reddish brown, then...mauve. Needless to say, mauve has a kind of magic about it and you will search forever to find a jig somebody else painted that color. When you finally find it, the head will be too big, or it won't have the right hook for steelhead. Or somebody may charge $4 for it and you just might curse.
The fish were down 12 feet or more in most pools, deep in their woody recluse. Some were hooked 6 to 8 feet down, but most were deep and very close to the wood, which is everywhere in the "Big Manna." We were blanked on all the open pools, so Mark positioned us deep in the tall timber. Bad news for our jig boxes, which are now vastly devoid of pink. Despite the danger, we stayed with 5.6-pound Raven fluorocarbon leaders. The challenge of landing them in heavy cover with light line is a big part of the excitement. I stood high on the cowling of Mark's engine compartment when Mary hooked up, looking for twisting silver down in the dense timber (which drove her nuts, by the way). "Raise the rod. Now lay it over this way. Reel. Lift. You got her now." She really hates conflicting directions. ("Left. Your other left. Try right.") But look at that smile. I was thinking about the drive back to Jim Hummel's cabin. (For all you basketball freaks out there, Jim is Robbie Hummel's uncle. Two days after these pictures were taken, Robbie and his Spoilermaker teammates upset Michigan, handing the Wolverines their first home loss of the year.)
Chmura has fresh steelhead spawn, taken from a female but a day or two ago, tied up in neat little satchels the diameter of a nickel, sometimes bigger. Fall-run steelhead of the Great Lakes begin spawning in February, so the smaller eggs of steelhead are "naturals." The larger eggs of salmon are not. However, guides reported seeing cohos spawning in mid February this year on some of Michigan's rivers. In the Pere Marquette, we were catching just as many fish with coho eggs as we were with steelhead spawn. Not on the Manistee. I couldn't buy one on coho eggs there last week. If he has time, Chmura treats the bait with Pautzke Balls O' Fire Fire Cure in (what else?) hot pink. Pautzke also brews up Fire Cure in orange, natural, and red shades, but Chmura swears by pink on the Big Manistee. "Some days the cured spawn outfishes the fresh stuff," he says. "Unless it doesn't."
Chmura positions the boat directly above the hottest part of a run and anchors up. We drop our floats right off the back of the boat or make short pitches wherever Chmura tells us to. "You can sneak it right through there," he says. "Unless you can't." He's the master of the Yogi Berra delivery. "We'll kill 'em today. Unless we don't." He listens to oldie-goldie rock stations all day (unless he doesn't) and makes up fishing lyrics. While Janis is wailing away, he's singing, "Trolling. Trolling. Trolling on a river." When we hook one, he's like, "Should we chase? Nah. You can handle it." And he goes back to cooking hot dogs over the sunflower heater while a 14 pounder wraps all your rigging on a log 200 feet downriver. Never a dull moment.
In all fairness, Chmura would never treat a paying customer like that. Even if he did, it's well worth the price of admission just to see the adipose fin on his tailbone. Nobody thinks like a trout or salmon any better than this guy. Steelhead enter rivers in waves or pods, depending on just how optimal or minimal the conditions are. Sometimes they continue moving upstream, sometimes they drop back, depending on the time of year, the water level, and the temperature. Chmura knows where those pods went. Before he leaves the dock.
"Straw," he yells. "Drop one over that tree and run it five feet from the bank. There's always one in there." Unless, of course, there isn't. Zeppelin comes on the radio. "There's a steelhead who's sure all that glitters is pink, and she's buying a stairway to Tippy."
Disclaimer: If you're thinking about sending a scathing letter to In-Fisherman because the fish are all being held vertically, please understand those studies were focused on elongate fish like pike and muskies, not muscular power packs like steelhead. No study has been done on holding steelhead vertically, let alone one that claims damage can be done to the internal organs of any Pacific salmon. (Steelhead have been grouped with salmon ever since their classification was changed from salmo to oncorhynchus.) Collectively we've released and recaptured — sometimes weeks later — dozens if not hundreds of steelhead that were held vertically for photographs. The fish always swim off in powerful fashion, especially in winter when the air is cold. Just make sure the gills are never out of the water for more than a minute at a time. Introducing toxins or disease to their gills? Please quote the study if you're still thinking of sending that letter. And please note who's holding the fish. (Sorry, Mark. Your turn. Unless it isn't.)