Anglers tolerate the cold for steelheads

The low temperature cuts down on the time spent


SAULT STE. MARIE, Ontario — Both of us are pretty quiet because neither wants to state the obvious.

Fishing from the concrete berm, we are able to stay out of the 34-degree water. Unfortunately, the steelhead and coho salmon that had been hitting in the pools below the water-control structures on the St. Marys River a couple of days before are ignoring everything we offer them.

The next-best option would be the Canadian Hole, a half-mile downstream, where we could stand ankle-deep on a big, flat rock after a short wade to the edge of the pool where we know fish are holding. Unfortunately, an easterly breeze would make it impossible to keep a big bow out of the fishing line, and that would make it very difficult to detect strikes.

John Giuliani sighs, reels in his lure and says, “OK, we’re gonna do it. We’re going out to the middle hole.” That means wading a couple of hundred yards through fast water that sometimes gets chest-deep, and standing in water up to our waists most of the time.

If we were smart, we’d say to heck with it and come back when fish were hitting from the relatively warm and dry berm. But if we were smart, we wouldn’t be winter steelheaders, so we pick our steps gingerly and make our way carefully to the edge of the hole in midriver between the highway bridge and the rail bridge.

It takes only about 15 minutes before Giuliani gets a hit on the spawn bag he’s casting and lands a five-pound steelhead, a beautiful fish with a deep rose stripe on its side.

Another 15 minutes pass before I feel the tap-tap take of a fish, but I react too late and miss it.

“The steelhead and cohos are in the deeper holes when the water is this cold, and the take is really subtle,” says Giuliani, a St. Marys River guide who is unrelated to that other Giuliani running for the U.S. presidency. “Whatever you offer them, you want to present it very slowly. Most of the time you just feel a little tap like a perch was hitting it.”

Steelhead fishing has been good this winter in Michigan and adjacent Canadian waters.

Al Tyson, an angler from the Chicago area who regularly fishes Lake Michigan streams, says he and a couple of friends recently had two good days on the Pere Marquette downstream from Baldwin, where “the fish are pretty much everywhere.”

“We fished the flies-only water and had the best luck using egg patterns. We were fishing with float reels, which give you a fabulous long drift, and we averaged three fish landed and two or three more hits each day. My best day was Sunday, when I landed four and had three others come off. And we never fished more than four hours on any day. It was just too cold.”

Good steelheading also was reported from the Muskegon and Manistee rivers, where the early-week thaw and rising waters were expected to bring pushes of fresh fish up from Lake Michigan.

Tim Lehman of Grand Rapids says egg patterns worked well when he fished the Muskegon, although one of his friends did almost as well on nymphs, including a No. 14 green caddis and No. 12 black stonefly.

“What really was crucial was fishing the flies under a float,” he said. “One of the guys who fishes with us is a real hardhead who insists on fishing a traditional floating fly line without a float. The rest of us would get four or five strikes in the time he got one. I think the problem was that fish were taking his fly and spitting it out without him even knowing he had a hit.”

“I fished a floating fly line with a strike indicator on the leader, and another buddy used one of those Canadian-style float reels with a 12-foot rod. Both of those systems worked really well because you could see the take. But the float reel was more effective because he could get the really long, drag-free floats,” Lehman says.

It’s about the same distance from my home to the Lake Michigan streams or the St. Marys, but I prefer to fish the latter because of the incredible mixed bag it offers even in winter. Though steelhead predominate, there is an excellent chance of taking a coho or Atlantic salmon through February, and Giuliani says that in recent years he has caught chinooks in March and April.