Surprises aside, steelhead run is holding up
Written by Detroit Free Press - Eric Sharp   
Saturday, 20 November 2004 19:30

Tim Berger is one of the few Americans who understands how those European fishing floats should be used, with only the tiny red tip sticking a quarter-inch to a half-inch above the water.

When the float is weighted properly, it dips under the water if a fish so much as breathes on it. When that happened a couple of days ago as Berger drifted a spawn sack through a pool on the lower Au Sable River downstream from Foote Dam, he set the hook and felt a satisfying throb on the other end.

He got a surprise a few minutes later when he slid a net under the fish.

"It was a whitefish, about three pounds," said Berger, a Flint angler who fishes for steelhead and big brown trout in the Au Sable from October until Christmas. "I knew the guys fishing off the pier heads where the river goes into the lake get whitefish at this time of year, but I've never caught one in the river. I've heard that 100 years ago, before they put the dams in, whitefish used to run this river like salmon. Maybe a few of them are still trying."

Berger's whitefish was a pleasant surprise, but most anglers wading Michigan's rivers these days are seeking the silvery torpedoes called steelhead, a sub-species of rainbow trout that are born in the rivers, grow up in the big lakes and return to the rivers to spawn.

I fished the Manistee below Tippy Dam the week before the start of the deer season with varying results. The first day was 53 degrees and overcast, and there were only a couple of other fishermen in sight. I hooked five fish on flies (a No. 8 sparrow nymph and a black woolly bugger) and landed two -- a five-pound female and an eight-pound male.

Two days later, on a weekend, I fished the same stretch along with a couple of dozen other fishermen. This time I struck out and saw only three fish hooked in four hours. But I also saw fish free-jumping in the pool below the dam, and a couple of anglers who got to the river early said they saw a lot of steelhead before the crowd arrived.

"There's pretty good numbers of fish here," said Ken Richmond, a Grand Rapids angler who fishes the river a couple of dozen times each fall. "We floated the river for a couple of miles below the dam three days ago, and two of us went 5-for-7. The biggest was 11 pounds.

"If you're not a deer hunter, you'll probably do pretty well on steelhead next week, because all of these people will be sitting in a tree stand someplace."

Anglers were still catching steelhead in the surf and off the piers at Manistee at the river's mouth, which is good news for those who wade the Manistee farther upstream, because that means more bright fish will be coming up the river soon.

There were also reports of good numbers of steelhead in the Pere Marquette River last week, with some fish moving up into the flies-only water below Baldwin.

"But they're pretty spooky," said Albert DiFranco, another Grand Rapids anglers who spends a lot of time on the P-M. "I've been fishing for the first hour or so after daylight and the last two hours before dark and doing a lot better than I do at midday. I got two fish on flies, egg patterns.

"A friend floated the river farther downstream, around Custer, and went 4-for-6. He said that he was doing better on flies than the people who were using spawn. And he said there were a lot of fish in that area that should be moving up to the flies-only water pretty soon. With any luck at all, we should have some good steelhead fishing right through the end of the month."

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