Steelheads In The Snow by James L. Bruner
It isn’t uncommon here in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to find yourself fishing the silver rockets in early spring shortly after the ice flows from the river. It’s equally possible to lose yourself while casting a fly, floating a spawn bag, or tossing a lure in between snowflakes when the weather suddenly reminds you that our winter lasts longer than any other season. Therein lies the good and the bad of steelhead fishing in the U.P. as the weather can dictate your success especially early in the season. But, that’s fishing.
Our observation of the river flow and visible fish the day before showed a lot of promise. The river itself was practically void of all previous ice except for some very minimal flowage that amounted to nothing more than an occasional hindrance. Several fish had been spotted as we navigated the muddy riverbank on foot. Armed with this information we planned a fishing trip the following day with great anticipation. The trip was actually a very first for a newbie to the sport of steelhead fishing and I could easily observe his enthusiasm towards a day of fishing. As far as calling the entire ordeal a trip might be a bit deceiving. For me, the river we would fish was a whole two miles from my cabin and in total the newbie would travel 25 miles to and from the river. I guess it could be better described as a morning of fishing but, nonetheless, fishing.
Throughout the night I watched the weather forecast while tying new spawn bags for the following day. Snow. Late April and we have 8 inches of snow forecasted. Now I know as well as anyone that early spring steelhead in small river systems use the flowage temperatures like a calendar or possibly a clock. When the time and water temperatures align the run of steelhead begins and typically this is when I prefer to be on the river. There’s a lot less competition from other anglers during this period and the fish are somewhat less wary so small mistakes can be forgiven at this point. This is good news when introducing a new sport such as this to a fellow fisherman. On the far end of that spectrum comes the probability that the steelhead may also turn an about face and head back out into the bay and again wait until the water temperatures warm up before making a second attempt. Early in the season this sequence invariably plays itself out before the rivers steadily start to warm and trigger the larger steelhead runs for the year.
Inch after inch the snow fell in wet heavy clumps and brought about a deep silence once again to the entire area. At 2 a.m. there was a total of six inches of fresh snow on the ground with no end in sight. Since we were fishing the stretch of river from the mouth upriver to a distance of about one mile I figured that our chances of landing any fish were practically zero as this influx of colder weather and snow would drive the steelhead back out into the bay. With that in mind I retired for the night dreaming of fishing and alternative prospects elsewhere in a larger river system.
When I woke the following morning you could feel the pressure. If you’re not familiar with a heavy wet snowfall, it can bring a very weighted feeling to the surrounding area. The density of the snow compresses everything including sound as it clings tight to every object it comes in contact with. I didn’t even have to look out the window to verify that the reason my phone was ringing was that my fishing partner was calling to cancel. To my surprise the voice on the other end of the line simply spoke in a hurried fashion that he was running late but on the way. With that the line went dead and I stood there looking at the phone until an automated recording of the operator began to scold me with reasoning that if I’d like to make a call I should please hang up. Hmmm. Well, alright then. At least she said please.
It was probably 45 minutes later when my buddy knocked at the door already wearing his hip boots which, I have to admit, wasn’t a bad idea. He was certainly still enthusiastic about the day and had enough forethought to realize that getting wet from this sloppy snow before we even started fishing would probably make for some uncomfortable time on the river. During some idle chit-chat and a cup of hot coffee by the woodstove I heard the words “a foot of wet snow in April” and took my first real glance outside. That’s really not what I wanted to hear and certainly not what I hoped to see. Over a second cup of steaming coffee I explained some of the habits of the steelhead and retrieved the two packets of freshly tied spawn from the refrigerator. This isn’t going to be an easy day of fishing by any stretch of the imagination especially now that the banks of the river were going to be as slippery as butter.
Needless to say we had the entire river to ourselves and the day was beginning to break for the better as we geared up and headed for the banks. As we stood overlooking the river from the exact spot we had stood the day before we both kind of chuckled. I don’t know if it was the dramatic change of scenery or the thought that we were probably the only two fools out in this miserable mess trying to catch fish. Either way, the scenic beauty was undoubtedly postcard perfect and the only way it could be better was to do battle with some steelhead. In short order we slid down the riverbank to the edge of the river and paused before making that first cast.
We fished the river slowly and deliberately for a full two hours without even a sign of fish to be observed. Nothing visible moved in the river. No boils, no wakes of fish moving through the current, no jumping, no splashing, no strikes, nada. Zero. Zilch! Obviously the fish had moved back out into the bay which was about three quarters of a mile downstream through cedar swamps and this fresh wet snow. We made a decision of two choices being that we either walk to the mouth of the river and hope to catch some stragglers or pack up the gear and head 20 miles north to a larger river where the fish would be less affected by the recent change in weather. Either way it really didn’t matter to me except for the fact that I’m not one for added windshield time traveling back and forth. My fishing partner agreed and we trekked onward following the riverbank to the mouth where we would cast a combination of floating spawn bags, and Rapalas.
By the time we reached the riverbank we were both sweating like a pair of mechanics that had just overhauled a transmission in a sauna. It wasn’t the walk or the depth of the snow that hindered the travels it was the constant sliding and slipping through the swamp that took it’s toll. In all honesty I think we spent more time picking ourselves off the ground than anything. I can only imagine that if anyone else were watching that they would have surely believed there were two drunken old timers stumbling through the woods. That would be of course until they tried to follow the same path. Then again, we knew this wasn’t going to be easy and opted out of the easy drive further north to a possible crowded fishing spot.
After looking over the situation from the mouth of the river it became evident that our best choice would be Rapalas in the blue and silver and black and silver color combination. We chose both jointed and solid body baits with varying depth runners to cover different areas in the same locations. With the color combinations we also chose lures in the 6 inch range keeping in mind that recently there had been a very light run of smelt in the river and the steelhead had probably concentrated on these as baitfish at one time or another. The range of fishing itself was somewhat limited due to our approximation at the mouth of the river and fairly gusty winds picking up steadily. You could nearly reach the opposite bank of the river with a well timed cast which, of course, as well all know as fishermen is where the fish always seem to be hiding.
We had thrown lures for about a half hour before my fishing partner hooked into a fish that stripped line from his reel with ease. Good size fish no doubt. It held tight to the bottom and made it’s way back towards the bay using the current to it’s advantage before being turned around. The fish made a few attempts to break towards the shoreline where the river had tapered off from the typical undercut banks. The water in this area was shallow from the silt and washout caused by the recent added spring water flow. It didn’t take a seasoned angler to identify the fish as a steelhead even in the short moment we were able to catch a glimpse.
It was shortly thereafter when fatigue began to get the better of the steelhead and she hugged the shoreline as much as possible to avoid the full brunt of the current. I worked my way along the riverbank and hoisted the beautiful trout on the snowy bank some 30 feet down river of my fishing partner. He wasted no time getting through the slippery snow to view his first ever steelhead as it lay there in the freshly fallen snow under a now bluebird sky. His response was simply “wow” as he admired that 25″ female rainbow that had made one final mistake of engulfing a blindly-placed lure on a wet snowy day in April.
We fished for another hour with no luck before calling it quits and sliding our way back to the cabin where we cleaned his fish and packed it with snow in the cooler. In hindsight that may have been that one last steelhead that decided to hang around the river too long that morning waiting for her internal clock to motivate her back into the river system and finalize the spawning ritual that takes place every year. In truth it may have been the first of many working their way back into the river and we may have missed out on a true bonanza of fishing. Either way, at any time, when you can put that first steelhead on the river bank it’s always a fishing trip to remember. Cap it off with a fresh snowfall and it turns into a fishing trip that some say is worth writing about.