February 27, 2012
By Matt Straw
It's limbo. The time between. Fall-run steelhead often spawn by the end of February. The spring runs may not peak until April.
This year, steelhead had plenty of thaws and warm weather to make whoopee in. Just look at the high bank behind me. That's not right, folks. Not for February in northern Michigan. Should be laden with snow. It was like May out there the first few days of last week.
But that soon changed. The week come in like a kitten and went out roaring like Old Man Winter. Which makes for interesting discussions. How did it affect water temperature? How did it affect fish location and behavior?
This was the week's first fish. Obviously, he has a little color. He was tucked into the head of a pool below a series of spawning riffles. The water temperature was about 38°F by the end of the day. Though no fish were appearing on the gravel above us, a lot of beds were recently worked (the gravel is lighter and brighter on a fresh bed, so don't tread anywhere near there on rivers with natural reproduction).
That was the only fish we touched the first day. Working on information from friends, we started on the section of river that was hot through late fall. If an area is hot in late fall, conditions can change things all kinds of ways but steelhead generally continue to use those same pools and areas until they spawn during late winter or early spring.
Those fish spawned. Some new fish moved in, but not many. Limbo. For the first two days it seemed like the river held about one steelhead per mile. It was up slightly and a little off color. Perfect. But not really. The fall-run fish were back in Lake Michigan with a few holdover drop-backs hanging around in the river. Peak spawning for spring-run steelhead occurs at about 41°F or so most years, and their runs can be brief and urgent. Some of the fish we would catch over the next few days would be bright silver. Always a few spring fish nosing around in late February, and they're hot. Too hot to handle, sometimes.
Over the next few days we fished on our own, with our old friend John Hojnacki, and with guides Mark Chmura, owner of Pier Pressure Charters, and Kevin Morlock of Indigo Guide Service. We worked various methods to match the flow and cover while the weather went haywire. The five days we spent in Michigan formed a microcosm of a typical March around here — in like a lamb and out like a lion. Calm and warm, then windy and cold, then downright boreal.
Steelhead don't care. I should say, they care enough to move, but they don't stop biting when temperatures drop. In fact, far fewer anglers show up to harass the fish, making them more aggressive. So we figured some things out by the end of the week. What they wanted, how they wanted it — and where they decided to hang out during this particular rendition of limbo. Solving those daily puzzles can be fascinating stuff. But I just drove about 500 miles. In case the quality of the writing didn't clue you in already, I'm exhausted. More on these topics tomorrow.