The Manistee River in Michigan is likely best known for its steelhead and salmon fishing. But the rage of fly fishing for smallmouth bass is flowing strong throughout the Midwest. To many, the Manistee River is king for smallies.
After giving my full day seminar yesterday down in South Bend, Indiana, Terry Wittorp and I and seven friends drove straight north to Wellston, Michigan. We spent last night here in the comfy cabins of D Loop Outfitters and today we floated on the Manistee River.
Along with all the goods for yesterday’s seminar I packed my Winston Boron III Plus 5- and 6-weight rods along with a small box of smallie flies. Although a Clouser minnow nearly guarantees a smallmouth bass under any conditions, I couldn’t wait to tie on a Ben Byng hard bodied popper.
With nine of us this was a three-boat trip. The scene reminded me of the end of the year party I have with my old boys of Grand Teton Fly Fishing on the Wind River in Thermopolis each November. We had heaps of beer and food and one common goal beyond the fishing – have a great time. After some organizing and a massive breakfast we pushed off around 10 AM.
To describe the Manistee River as beautiful is an understatement. Compared to a western trout river the Manistee is slow moving and its banks are covered with hardwood trees and flowers. Its edges have rows of aquatic weeds and there are sunken logs throughout. This gorgeous river provides perfect habitat for smallmouth bass.
We had huge expectations but fishing started slow. I racked up three tiny largemouth bass (unusual on this stretch) and between all three boats only about three less than average sized smallmouths caught before noon. It was a head scratcher trying to crack the code with different colored poppers and streamers. I stuck to my druthers and kept my same popper popping.
Finally, I dropped my fly in the right spots and picked up a couple decent smallies up to 14”. Terry’s friend Steve nailed a nice one of his own. It was good to have some action but clearly the guys were surprised not to find a few bigger fish. Then, despite the flurry of hungry bass, the Manistee smallies turned completely off and not a fish could be found.
I’ve learned there’s a universal move anglers make when fishing is slow whether in the Yellowstone Country, a saltwater destination or here in Michigan. If guys are truly about having fun – you take a break and eat, drink and have a laugh together. When things didn’t pick up much by 3 PM we anchored the boats side by side and crushed a few tasty Michigan brews and delicious snacks and shared some stories.
Late afternoon turned to evening and everyone got serious. This is when big fish generally happen whether its trout, pike, crappie or in today’s case, we were hoping it would be smallmouth bass. Here the evening light lingers and the scenery on the Manistee came to life.
Terry, who rowed much of the day, took the front of the boat and went to work with one of his own green poppers. I stuck with the popper but downsized it to a size 8. No doubt the bite returned and we each picked up a few small smallies.
The highlight of the day came around 8:30 PM with the last glimmer of sun squeezing light through the trees. It was a great looking spot and Terry’s and my poppers weren’t six feet apart gurgling along a deep bank. His got slammed hard and he went tight. As I watched his hook up unfold the same happen to me. A couple minutes later we were posing with double trouble!
You should know by now for me it’s not how many big fish I catch but rather how much fun I had with the people I’m with. My first adventure on the Manistee River was a fine one. We ended up pulling the boats out in the pitch dark after 10 PM.
We were starving and craving that “after fishing all day burger”, but all restaurants and bars in Wellston were closed. It’s Sunday night. Instead we returned to our D Loop cabins and ate tomorrow’s lunch snacks. Terry opened a couple bottles of good wine. It’s now a little after midnight and time for bed. Tomorrow it’s back on the Manistee.