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Kentucky Fly Fisher, Winter Steelheading the Pere Marquette River by Todd Willmoth

The fly fishing article "Winter Steelheading the Pere Marquette River" by Todd Willmoth appeared in the Kentucky Fly Fisher, the newsletter for the Northern Kentucky Fly Fishers (NKFF) in the April 2008 issue.  You can view the original article in pdf on the Northern Kentucky Fly Fishers (NKFF) web site, click here to view the steelhead fishing article.

Winter Steelheading the Pere Marquette River

     February is when I typically make my annual trip to Washington state to fish the Olympic Peninsula for winter run wild steelhead.  As I watched this winter unfold, the west was getting more than its share of rain, and after last years blowout of the rivers while we were there, I decided to try something new.  After listening to our featured speaker, Kevin Morlock of Indigo Guides at the January meeting we approached Kevin and his guy’s about a February week long steelhead trip.  I think we had dates and fishermen lined up before he returned to Michigan, so after a few emails we were set to go.
     Kevin recommended staying in Ludington, Michigan a small tourist destination on Lake Michigan, and since it was mid-winter renting a house for the week was no problem thanks to my wife.  With everything set and us scheduled to leave Sunday, February the 17th, the weather looks to be a problem, Kevin and I talk on Friday, he wants to know if we still want to fish as it is getting colder and the National Weather Service is forecasting high temperatures in the single digits all week.  On Saturday Kevin tells us the rivers are starting to generate shelf ice and our drive is looking worse every minute, so we postpone for a week.  The week passes, we load our gear, and Mick Noll, Jim Patrick, Don Willmoth and I are off Michigan.
     After a 7 hour drive we arrive in Ludington with roughly three feet of snow on the ground, our rental on Lake Baldwin is now a frozen snowmobile road.  We awake Monday to a fresh couple inches of lake effect snow, actually we awoke every morning to fresh lake effect snow.
     After a 30 minute drive we meet Kevin and Jed in Walhalla at 9:00 a.m., load our gear and we are off.  After a short drive we arrive at the landing and since nothing has been plowed we slide the boats downhill about 100 yards to the water.  My first impression of the river is that of a clear free flowing large creek.  I notice the overhanging trees, downed logs and other structure around the river, its then I decide fishing this will be a new game show; I will call “The Spey Challenge”.  I also notice every tree is decorated with flies that were committed to bad casts.
     My plan was to swing streamers and Spey flies, Kevin was apprehensive at first but we found that if presented properly they were as effective as drifting wets.  Don, Jim and Mick would fish a two fly, sliding changeable pencil weight rig with a large indicator (FLOAT).  Don fished this rig on a TFO 11’6” switch rod with a Rio Skagit spey line, allowing him to make a long upstream cast, getting a huge drift toward and past him.  Our first day was spent figuring out the river, her obstacles and what exactly Kevin expected of us.  The experience Don and I have on Western Steelhead rivers needed major adaptation to say the least.  Jim had fished the river before and had an idea of what we would see, for Mick it was his first day as well.
     Temperatures remained in the 20’s all day with a wind chill around 11 degrees.  The snow levels presented a problem in that very few ramps were open which had us taking-out well after dark.  Day two would bring a different stretch of the river, the same weather, and more learning.  Kevin and Jed would leapfrog the boats, giving each boat a chance at fresh untouched water.  We were served fresh Sweet rolls and coffee each morning, soup was served before a hot grilled lunch, making the cold seem not so important.  Day two would end in the dark and without a fish.
     On day three it decides to get cold with a high of 13 degrees, Jim hooked up a nice steelhead that promptly ran toward a Raccoon on the bank, turned upstream and breaks off.  He would land a beautiful wild Brown trout though.
     Day four it is decided that if a fish is seen or rolled, sit on the run, let a few minutes pass and give it another try, this actually worked in a few instances.  The cold weather we suspect had the fish on the bottom, not expending any energy unless a meal presented itself with little movement required.  We anchor at our first run, just upstream of where a major tributary enters the main stream.  Kevin wants me to swing a fly under a huge stump on the bank ahead of the boat; the fly reaches the stump drifts a few feet beyond, Fish On.
     Kevin asks how I would like to play it; I respond lets see what the fish has in mind.  The fish decides to run, I apply side pressure we put some line on the reel, he runs again for the brush, and since we were upstream of the creek merge bringing him to us was not a good idea,  as I move him toward the bank, Kevin weighs the anchor and row down to him.  Kevin does a great job netting him, we take a few pictures and he heads back to his hole.  I just landed my first wild Pere Marquette steelhead.
     Landing the fish put our anchorage directly across from where I had hooked my fish so Kevin had Don make a few drifts before we moved, at the tailend of the run the indicator kept getting a bump in the same spot, giving all indication of a snag until a nice steelhead rolls the rig and is gone.   This is why Kevin was adamant about a snap set as he describes it, with a two handed rod, you quickly push down on the bottom hand while pulling up on the top hand with no follow through.  This allows you to follow through if resistance is felt or let the rig continue the drift without ruining it.  It also cuts down on lost flies by freeing them before they have a chance to set in the snag.  Later in the day Mick would hook up on a big beautiful steelie that wanted nothing to do with him, after a few rolls on the surface it broke off and was gone.
     Day five saw clear skies, temperatures in the 30’s, some needed casting practice and no fish.
     Now for the technical aspects of a winter steelhead trip to the Pere Marquette River, my experience winter steelheading was based upon on western Washington Rivers.  The winter weather in Michigan can be without a doubt much more extreme, a little research prior to the trip ensured we had the proper gear.  We were prepared to wade but did not find it necessary, the rivers size allows for casting from within the boat, so why get out.  As for clothing, layering is key to staying warm with the outer layer being a wind/water resistant outer garment.  A good hat and plenty of gloves to switch into as they become wet, for boots I recommend a Thinsulate insulated rubber boot, I wore a 2000 weight rubber boot that allowed for getting in and out of the boat without worrying about wet feet.
     As for fishing gear, Indigo guides provides everything you need if you are fishing with them up too and including flies, I am comfortable with my own gear and prefer to fish it.  If you take you own, an 8 or 9 weight rod will do fine.  Spey rods do work on the river, you will either improve your casting skills or you will run out of flies.  I fished a Sage TCR 8 weight spey rod 12’3” in length and after some adaptation was fine, that does not mean I didn’t get my share of trees.  Indigo uses switch/spey rods for their nymphing rigs, they allow for a simple overhead toss by loading the rod off the swing.  Icing of the guides remained a problem throughout the week, requiring cleaning every few minutes, since we had two different styles of fishing going on in our boat we would take turns; it became common to have your flies freeze while you waited.
     I brought a selection of steelhead flies not knowing what would or would not work, bright patterns did not produce a single strike, while black combinations dominated.  I prefer to fishing Tube flies, they can be tied on various materials allowing for weight changes to the fly without changing the flies profile, they increase your landing percentages  through their use of short shanked hooks by decreasing fish leverage.  Nymphs and “swing flies” as Kevin calls them are flies that look good drifting and even better when they swing out at the end of a drift.
     Nuke eggs in a #4 or #6, do not reduce the hook gap and stick to the teeth if you are a bit late on the hook set.  Kevin demonstrated that while dry the hard ball style egg looks much better, when wet the nuke has a more realistic look with a natural translucent quality.  Nymphs would include hex, stone pearl shrimp, and alevins.  Swing flies used would be various buggers, Blueberg and some small streamers.  I had tied a few different weighted nymph patterns but found with the weighted setup being used they only increased snags.
     Since you are only going to get a few chances a day enough cannot be said about using a good quality hook.  Steelhead require a reel with a quality drag, the nymph rigs were tied with 6 pound test on the bottom flies so any startup problem with a drag results in a lost fish due to a break off.  We had a one reel that as soon as it got cold would squeal and its drag would be one click free spin one click lockup, it is currently at the manufacture being looked at.  Overlining with weight forward floating lines will work with the nymph rigs, it will provide better rod loading at short distance with the heavy bottom drift rig.
     For the Spey’s I used a Rio Skagit head multi tip line.  I initially had my Sage TCR set up with a 650 grain line but after the first day found it to be too much line for the river, and switched to a 450 grain for the remainder of the trip.  I also removed the 15 foot sink tip and replaced it with varying length tips made up of Rio T14  allowing for easy changes.  We found the 6 foot tip worked well for the conditions we experienced.
     Indigo guide service’s Kevin and Jed provided a first class experience; both are willing to teach anyone who has a desire to learn their style of fishing on the Pere Marquette River.  Indigo put together a nice package because we were willing to come for five days in the non-peak season.  If you go don’t forget a headlamp these guy’s like to fish and use every minute of daylight.
     If your fishing has moved past numbers and you are looking for a challenge, winter steelheading is a sure bet.  At just over 7 hours driving the Pere Marquette River provides the challenge and WILD steelhead.