I have fished for winter steelhead with Brian for more then twenty-five years. He has taught me a lot on how to fish for steelhead,how to wade the slippery icy-cold Sandy River,how to enjoy a day when the steelhead don't want to play,and how to enjoy the thrill of landing one of the most beautiful creatures on this earth. In my turn,my clunky casting has given Brian the inspiration for his patterns that have a small profile when casting but a big one in the water. Last week, I took my experience to the Midwest for Great Lake Steelies.
The Great Lakes have been the largely unplanned test tube for an amazing collection of exotic plants and animals often the result of careless discharges of ballast from cargo ships. The Welland Canal bypassed Niagara Falls about 60 years ago resulting in several species gaining a foothold in the Lakes.
One of these was alewife,a small herring family of plankton feeder.Another was the lamprey.The top
Salmonid predator native to the Lakes was the lake trout,but they were overfished and very vulnerable to lamprey predation resulting in a huge reduction in their numbers.Without a top predator around, the alewife population exploded. I remember in the 1960's the beaches in Chicago reeked with piles of dead alewives everywhere. West Coast salmonids were lamprey tolerant and were brought in to control the alewives.This result in spectacular runs of 20-30 pound Chinook in the rivers for sportsman and a thriving sports fishery. That's how steelhead came to the Great Lakes. BTW, the Chinook did not stay that big because the alewife numbers have fallen due to the widespread invasion by Zebra Mussels which are plankton filter feeders.
The Day I fished the air was about 33 degrees and the river was 35 degrees. The River was flowing at 150 cfs with seasonal norm of 400 cfs. There were flows of ice coming down and my guide stood upstream to alert me to cast when there was a break in the ice to get the fly below the ice. On my fifth cast,the fly stopped and moved upstream, but I could tell it was too sluggish to be steel. It was a sucker.Suckers are native bottom feeders that also migrate to spawn in the same time frame as winter steelhead.My guide thinks that they follow the steelies to get eggs. A long,cold day later, I got two more suckers. In the late afternoon,a fine snow began to turn the river into a gray fog of invisibility. We went to a spot up river that has ledges with deep grooves looking like parts of the North Umpqua. One of these slots was about four feet wide,too narrow to swing,and forgive me but I used a bead under a float. I did get a small but real steelhead.
Next I moved on to the Muskegon River in Michigan. This River runs into Lake Michigan below a dam which keeps in icefree. It was running 1500 cfs that day. The river reminded me of the North Santiam below Fisherman's Bend. The water is a tea-colored and tannic.
Please note the snow falling.The Bird is a Mute Swan, a non-native invasive species that has significantly impacted native waterfowl. I fished hard and long, swinging flies. I got one good tap that straightened my line for a for a second but no hookup.I did see another boat using a bobber and bead land a nice 25 inch chromer. I kept my honor clean by swinging. The locals like bright flashy sculpin patterns.
The Great Lakes have been severely impacted by exotic species including like Pacific Salmonids, Mussels,Carp,Round Gobies,Lampreys,Swans, and a bunch of unwanted plants. Some of these exotics do improve the life of the sports fisher and are worth checking out. I was told that they are expecting a real good Chinook run in Michigan this autumn. The Lake Michigan flats also produce forty pound carp every autumn that take a fly better than their Pacific Northwest cousins. It isn't wilderness fishing for native wild fish,but most of us have Midwest relatives, and the fish are a great way to get away from the in-laws for a day.
Thanks Mark for a great post on Midwest Steelhead!