Steelhead Fishing on the Pere Marquette


March 11, 2013

After the Midwest Fly Fishing Expo ended yesterday, friend Mike Schmidt, owner of Anglers Choice Flies, and I drove four hours north to Baldwin, Michigan located on the banks of the Pere Marquette River.  We’re steelhead fishing tomorrow!  However, what started as an enjoyable drive ended difficult.  As we traveled north it not only got dark but thick fog from melting snow mixed with drizzle and rain made it nearly impossible to see the roads.  We arrived late at 10 PM.  Luckily the neighborhood pub was open for food and I devoured a delicious grilled walleye dinner.

Morning came early and it wasn’t one of those jump out of bed ones either.  This early daylight savings that returns pitch darkness in the morning along with a steady rain sucked away our excitement.  Nevertheless, we had Mike’s friends to meet so we headed out. 
At 8 AM we were at a nearby boat ramp and met Mike Schultz, owner of Schultz Outfitters and Tommy Lynch, owner of The Fish Whisperer Guide Service.  I met Schultzy at the Somerset, New Jersey Fly Fishing Show back in January.  This was the first time I met Tommy. 

Although it wasn’t cold, when we launched the boats it was damp and as foggy as you can imagine.  The dim lighting made it seem like dawn and it would stay this way all day.  It was one of those where you could never properly estimate the time.  Tommy called me to the front of his boat and as he rowed us down the narrow tight bended section of the Pere Marquette I got acquainted with my new friend.

Today was my first time on the Pere Marquette.  This famous Michigan River is known for its steelhead fishing and its hefty wild brown trout.  These browns are from the first stocking of browns in North America.  They were stocked in 1884 in the Baldwin Creek, a tributary of the Pere Marquette

As badly as I wanted to jump up and chuck some streamers, Tommy insisted I stay put.  He had a place he wanted to start.  The river is small and narrow and covered by a canopy of trees.  Of course in early March these trees are leafless and snow covered, nonetheless any hasty cast would tangle you up. 

Soon we anchored next to Schultzy and Mike.  Then I watched the boys build the weirdest nymphing rigs I’ve ever seen.  Strange as the rig is, it’s ideal for winter Great Lakes steelheading.  The leader is terribly long yet carefully weight balanced with not one but two clumps of split shot.  Attached about 18” apart are two different colored egg flies and the entire bundle gets suspended by an enormous bobber that resembles something I once used crappie fishing at night in Wisconsin thirty years ago. 

Next I had to learn to cast the ungodly set up.  You think you can cast anything until you cast this.  There’s no over the shoulder back cast involved, it’s a roll cast, but unlike any roll cast you’ve ever seen.  Thankfully the Clutch switch rod does the work for you and after about a half hour of screwing up – I got it.  

Unfortunately learning to apply the new technique didn’t do me much good.  Steelheading has been fantastic here lately but a dousing of rain (“Monsoon Currier” style) throughout the night along with unseasonably warm conditions changed everything.  The free flowing Pere Marquette rose over a foot during our float and its clarity diminished.  Fishing was tough to say the least. 

Half way through the day we were completely skunked.  Tommy was noticeably disappointed.  We stopped for lunch and beers in hopes our luck would change.  After our relaxing indulgence I switched into Schultzies boat and Mike to Tommy’s. 

I was over the steelhead nymphing and chucked a small streamer more like what I fish at home.  Sure enough, I moved a few lethargic browns and landed my first.  Although short, he was no less than gorgeous and now I’d landed the oldest strain of brown trout in North America. 

We came to one of Schultzies favorite banks.  Rather than fish the cumbersome nymphing rig I opted to watch Schultzy fish.  This was a wise choice.  Schultzy showed his experience and meticulously worked the twirling bank then down went his bobber.  For me, when the indicator went down earlier today it meant snag.  For Schultzy this was a fish and his line sizzled off his reel and headed downstream.  I turned just in time to see the strong winter steelhead airlift himself about three feet up.  I ran straight for my camera.

Schultzy landed the dark yet bright cheeked steelhead downstream.  Tommy and Mike were near and helped by providing a spacious net.  It was a fantastic fish to lighten up a tough fishing day that was now pelting us with heavy rain. 

After we released the oversized rainbow everyone was ready to put the streamers down and nymph hard.  I certainly was and did.  Schultzy coached me through several of his top spots as we drifted.  Two hours later we were steelhead-less, the rain was falling harder and the river was rising and losing its clarity fast.  I went back to the streamer and conjured up two more browns, one of decent size. 

I know when its time to surrender the rod and enjoy the day.  Mike and I hadn’t fished together yet so Schultz switched with him and I rowed Mike the last hours.  Mike made a horrible mistake today – he left his rain jacket in the truck.  He was drenched and needless to say shivering miserably.  He kept casting but it was tough to watch.  We’ve all been brutally cold a time or two and it’s no fun.  I enjoyed my rowing however.  The Pere Marquette is small and twisty with an obstacle course of fallen trees.  Navigating it was just as fun as my cold beer and cigar were tasty.

It was a magnificent day of fishing on the Pere Marquette and my first since the Amazon.  As you know by now fish catching is only a tiny element to a great day on the river for me.  I’ve now fished the famous Pere Marquette, caught its browns, learned a new technique and saw a brilliant steelhead.  We pulled the boats at 6 PM then Mike and I drove 7 hours all the way to Dublin, Ohio.  Tomorrow night I speak in Columbus, Ohio to the Central Ohio Fly Fishers.  The presentation is “Fly Fishing Through Midlife Heaven”.

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