Warmer weather perks up steelhead fishing on the St. Joe
Written by Grand Rapids Press   
Friday, 01 April 2005 12:17
We were anchored at the convergence of a small creek with the St. Joseph River, contemplating our next move, when the rod on the far right sprung off.

Fish on!

I was first up and grabbed the limber rod outfitted with a fly reel, the trademark tackle of Ken Neidlinger, a 35-year veteran fishing guide on the river and owner of the Silver King Sport Fishing Charters.

"If he runs, don't hang on those handles," said Neidlinger, reminding me that with a 1:1 reel, you've got to let go.

Just in time, mind you. The fish jumped straight out of the water, made a dash for it, jumped again and began cutting hard left, across seven other lines that were trailing off the back.

"Just guide him over to the left," said Neidlinger, now frantically clearing the way with the help of a couple of his fishing buddies, Clayton Benson and Dennis Cogswell.

That I did. It was over one and under another. Then, once clear of the shore, the lines and confusion, the eight-pound male suddenly seemed ready to call it a day. Moments later, I had him in close to the boat where Neidlinger netted him.

"Hot 'n Tots are good but they only have two sets of hooks where the Flatfish has four sets," said Neidlinger, extracting one of those hooks and giving the flopping male a quick "thunk" before putting him in the cooler. "I get more hits on Flatfish because any fish that even comes up and bumps one is more likely to get hooked."

Spoken like a true believer, which Neidlinger is.

We'd come out to enjoy a little early spring fishing on the St. Joe, a river well-known for its steelhead runs. The river is considered the top steelhead stream in southwest Michigan. Upstream counters at fish ladders show the river may pass 20,000 spawning steelhead on an average year. But it, like many rivers up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline, had been slow for anglers -- the result of an unusually long cold period.

The spring run on the St. Joe also tends to be less-visible than the big summer and fall runs. DNR fisheries staff, however, say fresh chrome-colored fish do return upstream to spawn there every spring.

"They are there, but just fewer of them" said Kregg Smith, a fish biologist with the DNR's Southern Lake Michigan Management Unit. Cold weather, he said, had kept the fresh fish out of the river system.

So for anglers like ourselves, the trick would be finding those fish that had come up during the winter.

The river had risen and grown turbid. There was more debris in the water and the fish had spread out.

Fish were no longer in their usual holes nor did they appear to be on the beds. Neidlinger, however, was sure they were there. It would be a matter of enticing them to bite.

Our little foray -- just by luck -- had been scheduled for the first day that would approach 60 degrees. It was sunny and the wait was pleasant. A day of fishing with Neidlinger is never short of repartee.

We'd gotten out on the water at 7 a.m. That first fish had come at 7:30. Then we'd slid downstream a bit and worked the shoreline, letting an array of lures drop off the back of Neidlinger's boat. Neidlinger eventually swapped out a couple of the Flatfish for Hot 'n Tots, looking for the deeper-running lures to get further down in some holes.

It would be two hours before the second fish would bite, taking a Flatfish again, in close to the bank. Dennis Cogswell would get a chance to reel it in. Cogswell's fish wasn't going to make it easy.

It had smashed the Flatfish on a stretch of fast water and instantly went downstream 50 yards. Cogswell took his time and reeled in steady.

"I was being cautious," said Cogswell, once he landed the fish. "It's not like this was a 12-fish day. I didn't want to pop him off and you get more cautious when the fish aren't biting."

Twenty minutes later a ripe, spawning female, also in the eight-pound range, would put his last statement to question. We were re-running the same water where Cogswell had taken his fish, a deep slot along the bank that Neidlinger knows well.

The hen steelie just couldn't resist the temptation and Clayton Benson got his turn to work the fast-moving portion of the river. Benson, an avid perch fisherman, worked the fish patiently. He'd bring it up to the boat only to have it turn and run. He'd reel it in and it would run again.

Benson's fish would be three. A lucky number -- and our last. Not bad for a morning outing and warm weather on its way.

Area fish biologists later said they believe the warming temperatures will make a difference.

"The run just picked up today," said Jay Wesley Tuesday. Wesley is the DNR fisheries supervisor for southwest Michigan "The river temperature at St. Joe is now up to 45 degrees. We've started to get fish at the ladders. We're getting 10 to 15 passing through each hour.

"Down in Lake Michigan, the water is pretty cold. But anglers on the river are now getting a mix of fresh and old fish."

Wesley said the steelhead runs are also picking up on other area rivers. The Grand River is is getting a "mix of fresh and old fish" and the Kalamazoo River now has quite a few.

"We're getting really good report's from Sixth St," Wesley said.

The Grand, he added, is the number two river in southwest Michigan for steelehead. The St. Joe, however, is number 1. "The St. Joe has a run going almost all the time," Wesley said. "We have a spring run and a strong summer and fall run. You don't see that on the Grand."

Michigan plants 80,000 yearling steelhead in St. Joe and Paw Paw river each year, a tributary to the St. Joe mainstream. Indiana plants another 40,000.

On this sunny morning, morning we'd taken just three.

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