March 01, 2012
Here's Mary Savage, spiking Rick Hammer's favorite drift on Michigan's Pere Marquette River. I know a few lieutenant colonels she could teach how to fish.
This is the winter wonderland we woke to on the final day of our trip to Michigan. A slight breeze would bring an avalanche of snow down on our heads as we trudged through the oak, white pine, and cedar forests that describe the Pere Marquette valley. What a beautiful and extremely memorable day.
Ymir was the first of the Norse frost giants. He would approve of steelhead. Ymir can deal whatever hand he wishes, and steelhead continue to bite. They laugh at cold fronts that build ice shelves on "the most stable rivers in the world," according to Dr. Paul Seelbach, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the steelhead of the Little Manistee River, a short distance to the north of us this paper-weight day. (The Little Manistee is the mother of Great Lakes steelhead fisheries, and the savior of steelhead fishing in Lake Erie, which now rivals in numbers any steelhead fishery on earth.)
Steelhead will bite when ice floes build on rivers registering 31°F. Water freezes, of course, at 32°F. But rivers move. And steelhead embrace the breath of Ymir. I've brought them to the bank in air temperatures of 0°F. But only in Michigan. In Wisconsin, Ohio, or anywhere else in the Great Lakes region, the surface of rivers will generally lock up before temperatures get that cold.
The river was flowing at about 34°F on this particular morning. Our destination was a series of bends I've been fishing for more than 40 years. An old set of tracks from a previous snow event told us nobody had been this way on foot for weeks. The depth of the snow and the new stuff falling from the sky told me nobody would be coming this way in a drift boat today.
We couldn't be more alone in the vicinity of the North Pole. Brilliant.
Overlooked water. The density of wood cover here, on a river so dense with wood cover it's off the scale, is titanic. Sixty hooks per day is a conservative estimate. No wonder we see no new tracks in the snow. No wonder guides forsake this stretch.
The hook of choice is the Mustad 9260D, a beaked hook with a down-eye that deflects off wood and allows very little wood to fit between point and eye. People at Mustad once told me they wanted to discontinue this hook about 30 years ago, but "some writer from Michigan" kept inspiring people to buy them.
The bait of choice is a spawn bag, and this time of year, with salmon long gone and steelhead spawning intermittently, steelhead roe is prime. We kept a female the other day on Mark Chmura's boat (and released eight other fish) and every evening since I sat and tied spawn bags with peach-colored netting and float beads from Red Wing Tackle .
The rigging is very simple. I tie the hook to my main line and crimp a few size #3 to size #7 split shot two feet above the hook. I use a spinning reel with a quality drag (pictured is an Abu Garcia Revo, and Mary's reel is an old Daiwa SS Tournament series "banger," one of the finest steelhead reels ever made) spooled with 6-pound Maxima Ultragreen. Mary's using 8-pound Ande Premium. Those two lines of German manufacture are the toughest, most durable, longest-lasting monofilaments on the market. The line on my reel on this trip is at least six years old and was spooled on more than three years ago. I store lines and reels not in use in a cold, dark place, and my criteria for changing a German monofilament is based on deciding if I have enough line left on the spool to let a steelhead run as far as it can go before rounding the farthest bend.
With this simple rigging you lose only the hook and tie only one knot to get back in business. The sinkers will snap off unless you're careful. When snagged, get the line tight, put the rod tip under water, grab the spool of the reel, and — very, very slowly — back up. Abrasion-resistant German lines will snap on the knot over 95% of the time if you follow this simple procedure.
The first drift targets the edge of the bottom that can't be seen. It's a short drift — ten feet or less off the tip of my 9.5-foot G. Loomis 1141 blank in an IM6 graphite they don't use any more. The next cast is 6 inches longer, and so on, until I'm snagged. Then I step down river a few feet and start over. The first four fish I hook this day come right at mid river, at the point where gravel overtakes sand.
Most of the fish are too hot to handle, but we obviously got the better of a few. Even in 34°F water, dealing with a wild, naturally-reproducing steelhead in close quarters is like trying to out-duel a ninja.
I'm an old hand at this. Gray of beard and long of tooth, like old Ymir, who huffed his wintry breath on us all day long. But I made it out here.
"I'm still here, you bastards." Papillon