Michigan rivers still cold, and steelhead runs come late
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Thursday, 24 March 2005 11:15
Steelhead have been making spawning runs up Michigan rivers for about 140 years, adapting so well to their new home that many streams offer better fishing than rivers on the Pacific Coast, where steelhead evolved.


The big question isn't whether there will be a steelhead run, but when the weather will be right for it.

"I had two on yesterday and lost them both. Today, I haven't had a bump," said Gary Townsend of Ann Arbor, who was wading the Meathole section of the Au Sable River just downstream from Foote Dam.

The Meathole usually is crowded by steelhead at this time of year, but Townsend and other anglers said water temperatures were so low that the fish were hanging around offshore in Lake Huron, waiting for things to warm up a bit.

Out on the pier heads at the mouth of the Au Sable, Rick Reid of Flushing had come for a week of steelheading.

In the first two days, he had hooked and lost one fish and landed another, a five-pound male.

"It's been really slow," said Reid, dressed in heavy Carhart coveralls, neck warmer, fur hat and gloves to ward off the biting 15-knot wind, which made the 38-degree air temperature feel sub-zero. "We took the water temperature this morning, and it was 36 degrees. It's usually a lot warmer than that by this time in March."

It was a similar story on the Pere Marquette River on the Lake Michigan watershed, where Frank Willetts, the new owner of the Pere Marquette River Lodge in Baldwin, said some fish were being caught, but not in the numbers usual at this time of year.

Willetts said his guides "have been averaging about two browns and two steelhead a day on a river trip. The water is still a little cold, but it should get better as things warm up next week."

The browns are brown trout, which anglers also have been pursuing.

Two factors play the major roles in deciding when steelhead will make their spawning runs. One is water levels, the other water temperature. Most rivers have plenty of water, but the unseasonably cold air temperatures and late-surviving snowpack have prevented the warm-up the fish need as a trigger to leave the big lakes.

"We're getting a few, but it's slower than it usually is at this time," said Laurie Supinski, who with her husband, Matt, runs the Gray Drake Lodge on the Muskegon River in Newaygo.

"They're picking up some pretty nice brown trout, which no one is complaining about. But when people have booked a steelhead trip and have been looking forward to it for months, it's a bit disappointing."

Water temperatures in the Muskegon had been mostly running 33-34 degrees, Supinski said, but the forecast for the weekend called for rain, followed by temperatures in the mid-40s by early next week.

"That should help get rid of the snow," she said. "Some rain and a couple of days in the 40s will bring the river up to 38, 40 degrees, and that should really get the fish moving."

So far, anglers on the northern Michigan rivers say the fish are far more likely to take a spawn sack than flies or spoons.

Steelhead are a migratory race of rainbow trout. They are born in rivers and spend their first year there, then migrate to oceans or lakes, where they spend three to five years feeding and growing before returning to their birth rivers to spawn.

Introduced to the Great Lakes after the Civil War, their numbers have exploded in the 1990s as states bordering the Great Lakes and Ontario increased their annual stocking of rivers.

This year, some of the earliest and best steelheading probably will occur in the heaviest-populated parts of the state. The Huron and Clinton rivers have received steelhead stockings in recent years, and anglers on the Huron at Flat Rock last week were enjoying considerably better success than their counterparts on the more famous northern steelhead rivers.

"It slowed down a little this week when the cold weather came back, but it should really pick up as it gets warm again," said Ben Fountain, who works at the Bottom Line Bait and Tackle in Brownstown Township and is a Huron River steelhead angler.

"They were mostly getting them on spawn sacks and flies. But we just got about 100 colors of new spoons. I can't wait to try some of them."

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