Offshore Winter Steelhead

'Twas the week before Christmas and across the Big Lake, no other boat stirred — not one other wake. No freighters, nor charters, nor sails did we see. Just six-foot waves on the inland sea. Baleful dunes hung over the shore. Spray became ice on the fighting deck's floor.

Mark Chmura of Pier Pressure Charters, netting the winter steelhead above, is the only captain I know that will take you out on northern Lake Michigan any month of the year. So don't ask unless you really want to go. Though frigid outside, the cabin of his 33-foot Tiara is like sitting in a lakeside condo. Nice and cozy.

Fighting a fish is another matter. We went out four miles, over depths of 250 feet. Out there is where Mark finds the "Stability Zone" we wrote about years ago — a buffered, encased body of water that resists change year 'round. But the rugged weather did drive the fish down. Where Mark used boards and high-running spoons to put over 50 steelhead in his net the week before, six-foot waves seemed to push the fish into the heart of that stable zone, and we had to break ice off the downriggers. On this day, all of the fish came from 60 to 80 feet down.

Mark was pulling orange-and-gold or orange-and-silver, 3- to 5-inch Michigan Stinger Spoons on every line. Obviously, orange has been the color. Who would know but Mark? Over the radio came a small-craft warning issued by the Coast Guard. What's the point? Mark's the only one out there. Even the shipping lanes are closed.

No matter what season it is, Mark prefers a rolling deck — but most of his time is spent guiding via jet boat on the Big Manistee River between November and March.

The highest surface temperature we found was 44°F. But most of the way out, his Fish Hawk temperature gauge read 39°F or less. Mark knows where the stable water is. He checks on it periodically, year 'round and, over the years, he's developed a knack for knowing where it should be, based on conditions like recent wind and weather patterns.

Mark ran upwind of waypoints established the week before, then began eyeing that Fish Hawk. As temperatures broached 40°F, we began setting lines, drifting as much as trolling downwind through a bank of warmer water trapped miles offshore.

In years gone by, we trolled Michigan's unique drowned river mouth lakes for steelhead in November and early December, pulling gold or blue-silver Worden's FlatFish on flat lines most of the time. Those lakes were created thousands of years ago by ancient storms that sealed up the river mouths with mountains of sand — which still stand there, protecting us from the westerlies that will freeze you to the marrow this time of year. It was cold duty — with no warm cabin to retreat to. Even with the creature comforts, people aren't breaking Mark's door down to troll big water during winter.

But if you call to book a steelhead trip during winter, don't be surprised if he asks which way you'd rather go — up the river or out into the lake. "You won't see anybody else out here this time of year," he said, gesturing to the blue horizon. "The fish are all ours. And that's the way I like it."

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