Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Big Manistee, Little Manistee, and Pere Marquette

I turned 37 years old this past Friday. Just another number in what I hope to be many. My lovely wife talked me out of staying home for the event and into a solo road trip across the state of Michigan in pursuit of Great Lakes Steelhead. She is a wonderful woman and I cannot thank her enough as I didn't feel 37 on Friday but more like a child of 10 years. What a wonderful birthday present.

Western Michigan is a magical place heavily forested and filled with an abundance of wildlife. So much so that one has to be ever ready for a large buck to jump in front of your car as you drive across her. I witnessed 2 such events unfold on my way to the Big Manistee as well as a great deal of dead deer on the side of the roads. Wild Turkeys are also everywhere along the roads and if one is quick enough you can capture a nice picture.

My destination early Friday morning was Wellston, Michigan and the Big Manistee River below Tippy Dam. After quite favorable reports from fellow freaks adventures I figured now was as good a time as any to earn my wings on the fabled Big Manistee. For as long as I can remember my father would tell tails of his adventures at Tippy Dam back in the 60's. Snagging was allowed for Salmon and one can imagine the scene with leaded trebles literally flying everywhere. Although snagging is highly illegal today remnants of the past still prevail.
The river has two distinct fishing sections. Above the coffer and below the coffer. Above the coffer affords some slower water with a more industrial feel as the section is defined by the dam itself and the coffer that spills down into the river. This section can be deadly as fish stack up with no further means of heading upriver. The Big M's fish are strong and genetically blessed as I was to find out on this trip. After loosing a couple of fish I had to beef up my rig as much as I could to better my chances. After landing a few fish I decided below the coffer was more my style and afforded some breathing room so I ventured down to have a go. This section earns big water designation. The coffer spills down a raging flow with plenty of seams and riffles. I quickly learned that once below the coffer there are a million smolts. There are browns, salmon, rainbows and steelhead all aggressively pursing food. After my 4th crushed roe bag I decided to slip on a pink worm. First drift in and I hook a fair sized fish but quickly find out it is a nice sized Walleye. Wow Walleye also. This river is truly a magical place. The water has a magical golden bronze colour to it and the river bed is a mixture of sand an gravel. Steelhead are stacked in the fast water and when you get into one hold on because these fish can run as I found out many a time on this trip.
I fished well into the afternoon and decided I better do some more exploring. I wanted to visit the Little Manistee and add her to my list of rivers. After some poor directions from the local tackle shop I found myself driving down a network of Snowmobile/Atv trails with no signage other than trail marker numbers. The trails were in great condition but I couldn't help but wonder if anyone would find me if I broke down. A while later I found a side road and came upon the 9th bridge well below the village of Irons. The river is rather small with little or no defined banks. The water runs golden bronze and the river bottom consists of sand and the most beautiful gravel I have ever seen. Deep black holes abound with a plethora of logs offering cover and shade. Once the steelhead reach these waters they are on holy ground. I did manage a few resident rainbows but had no luck with steelhead. Local reports for the Little Manistee had been poor but I suspect that the fish blew through the weir and up to the spawning waters during the last big precip event.
Similar reports were coming out of the Pere Marquette and Betsie rivers as well.
Because of this I decided I would fish Tippy Dam again Saturday morning prior to the dreaded drive home. Saturday morning was a whole new story at Tippy Dam. I suspected that it would be slightly busier because of the weekend but I arrived to a full parking lot at first light. Luckily for me there as a decent room below the coffer but the fishing was slow. I hooked and lost a large fish early on along with a fat 12" Resident-rainbow but that was it. Being it was slow I decided to pack it in and hit a Baldwin, MI fly shop for some insight on the Pere Marquette. The staff at Ed's Fly shop were very friendly and accommodating with directions and a map. I drove down the road to the open water section and parked at a state run parking lot/river access station. I paid my $3 access fee and was on the water in no time. The Pere Marquette is a fly fisherman's paradise. Truly a text book trout river. Fallen sunken wood everywhere. Deep black abysses covered by a network of fallen trees. Large sweeping bends with decaying remnants of bank protection projects from years gone by. As per all of the Western MI rivers the Pere Marquette runs Golden. The river bottom was predominately sand and the water flowed steady with microscopic pieces of decaying leaf matter and such rolling over the sand ridges on the bottom. One could picture the trout lying under the sunken trees waiting in ambush for aquatic insects rolling down the river bottom. I was blessed to hook and release a stout 10" Resident Brown. These fish are truly beautiful creatures. I only had 1 hour to fish the Pere Marquette and She left me longing for more. This river is truly the quintessential trout stream and I look forward to my return.
Michigan has hidden treasures on her Western Shore. I can see spending much more time learning her hidden secrets and pursing my passion for Great Lakes Steelhead.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The White

As the end to the spring season draws near an opportunity for another road trip came to fruition. After the successful PA adventure I was tempted to return for another round of juvenile chromers with a friend from work but local reports suggested I pursure other venues. Inspiration came in the form of an email indicating favorable reports were coming out of Michigan. MI is literally at my door step and home to an abundance of world class steelheading rivers. One in particular I have wanted to fish for the last couple of years being "The White".

The White River is a bronze coloured small to moderate flow with expansive gravel bars, deep lumber lined holes, and swift chutes. The White is best waded but we did encounter the odd drift boat guide throughout each day. Typical to the US there is adequate river access and an expansive network of river trails which made exploring that much more enjoyable.
The White river gives one the feeling that you are fishing in the North. The river is surrounded by a mixed hardwood bush with plenty of large towering Hemlocks and cedars shading the deep holes. The runoff is well filtered by the sand and gravel substrate typical to Western MI. She was high water during our visit yet crystal clear. I was told it is rare for the white to be unfishable. This river is where steelhead should live!

While driving thru Western Michigan we were surprised to see there was still snow remaining in the bush from the previous weeks dumping. Upon arrival in Hesperia we hit the Sport Shop for our NonResident licenses and some local info. We were going into this trip blind and any info was greatly appreciated. Within 15 mins were were back in the truck with a map and licenses in hand.
Ya gotta love the outdoors enthusiasm of Michiganders. Upon arrival to the state owned river parking we quickly observed that weekends are what Michiganders live for. The parking lot was crowded. We didn't let this discourage our spirits and we suited up and made our way down the trail. The sounds of spring were in the air. Numerous song birds were singing, a giant Pileated was hammering on a long dead Hemlock and the golden clear river chanted its hypnotizing melody. It didn't take long to slide into a beautiful gravel laden river bend run. The river runs clear but carries a slight stain that is exaggerated by the abundance of golden gravel. The river bottom can be hypnotizing and is quite hard not too look at. The success of this trip was not measured in numbers but more in personal accomplishments, raw beauty, and the spirit of adventure. Western Michigan is truly beautiful country and I cannot wait to revist and explore some more fabled rivers.

Hmmm I wonder if old man Norland is up to it this Friday?
Stay tuned...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

All That Is Oak

2:30 am came quick this morning and once again we found ourselves on the highway embarked on a quest to quench our insatiable thirst for Great lakes Steelhead. Today's destination was Western NY. Specifically Orleans County and the infamous Oak Orchard River. Just the mention of the Oak conjures up images of mud, mono, zebra muscles and oh yes steelhead. The Oak has been a kind river to Gene and myself over the past couple of years and she has yet to turn us away unrewarded. Today's adventure was to prove no different. With all of the recent events surrounding land ownership and public access we were hesitant to fish our usual section of river but decided to persevere and were glad we did.
Today I landed one of my largest steelhead to date, a large hen well into the 30 inch class. I question if I would have managed this fine specimen had we made acquaintance in December and she had a couple more pounds to her credentials. None the less she made my trip. Another highlight of my day was meeting up with a very handsome resident brown.
Gene had a great morning as well putting a few on the beach and lost heart breaker in the 8lb range. I was privileged to get a very good look at the mint coloured up male before he broke free. The fishing was steady and rewarding. All we could ask for on yet another adventure.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Quaker State and Steelhead Alley

Pennsylvania-The Quaker state or Keystone state. Birthplace of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Home of the Hershey chocolate bar and the Liberty Bell. Truly a state richly engrossed in US history but what is most memorable about PA to this Canadian are the 51 miles of Erie shoreline in the heart of Steelhead Alley. Having been intrigued by the Internet reports coming out of "the alley" over the past couple of seasons it was inevitable that we would find ourselves on another road trip in pursuit of our passion. The decision for this trip came at the last minute and almost didn't come to fruition. Through my experience these outings make for the best ones. The better part of 5 hours, a couple tanks of gas, multiple coffee's, countless lines of BS, a PA "Tourist" License, and a secret tip from the local tackle shop attendant we were in to our first PA steelie.

Droppies were plentiful up river hidden under the ledges of this slate lined trib and were more than happy to take our offerings. Being a slate lined trib we found ourselves in long sections of crystal clear water with depths of 2-3 feet. We longed for the deep holes we were accustomed to fishing on our home waters. We ventured up river and found a nice long deep run under a train trestle lined with a large tree on the backside. Exactly what we had hoped to find. It didn't take long to hook into a couple of fish. We shared this run with a local. He was intrigued by our success and ventured over to ask what we were using. He looked at me like I had two heads when I produced a 4" pink worm and handed him one to try. He quickly put it on his hook and cast it onto an extended branch from the sunken tree. :0) "Some men ya just can't reach..."
The droppies were fun but really not the reason we traveled around Lake Erie to Steelhead Alley. The day was slipping away and we had yet to meet up with our hosts. A quick hike back to the steelhead mobile and a quick call on the cel and we were on route to meet up with Wallacio and Tripper at our accommodations. It is always nice to meet up with fellow chrome enthusiasts and it kinda funny how it doesn't take long to break the ice and get the BS flowing. We decided we better hit the local beer store and quickly discovered that PA handles their liquor retail a little different than other states. Being from Ontario we are accustomed to purchasing Beer from a distributor but in PA you have to but from specifically licensed retail outlets and you can only purchase whole case quantities. I can honestly say I have never heard of beer going to waste so it wasn't much of a problem. A few drinks later found us near the mouth of the river where the smolt action was hot and furious. Apparently the annual stocking program had just taken place and the river was full of 4-6" smolts eager to devour roe bags. It truly is a test of ones persistence in conditions like this but we were determined to persevere as we were told of a daily push of fresh chrome in the evening hours. We ventured towards the straight deep sections that lead to the mouth mid evening in anticipation of encountering a pod and were not disappointed. Genes spirits were getting low after the smolt brigade but we quickly remedied that with a barrage of 2-4 lb leaping chromers. We returned to the cabin to reunite with our hosts and share a few Rolling Rocks, hot wings, sausage and hot pepper pizza, and tall tales of the days events. Many laughs were had as tales of infamous GL steelheading characters were retold. Morning was getting closer so we subsided to the sleeping bags for an early rise. Apparently I sound like Darth Vader when I sleep so G thought he was right at home.
The game plan for the morning was to fish the mouth. The strong North winds from the previous day had subsided and this was going to be a posibility. Gene and myself decided to fish the deep straight sections prior to venturing to the mouth. We fished from 7am to 1pm and never made it to the mouth One could only image how many juvenile steelhead were in this section of the river as we landed fish after fish some times 6 drifts in a row. We encountered multiple doubles and at one time broke out into laughter after achieving another. These steelies fought like they were twice their size and jumped like the water was boiling.
At one point in the morning I caught my self prior to complaining that my arm and shoulder was getting sore and quickly ate my words. As a passionate steelheaders we live for moments like these and on this trip we lived indeed. As we were exiting an local angler across the river yelled "way to go sure had a good day!". What a nice gesture from a fellow angler to end the day on a positive note. We geared down in the parking lot and cracked a cold one to celebrate our success.
We quickly broke into discussion with a couple of fellow anglers from out of state. They reported on little success for the day. We questioned them on their approach and I reached into my vest and gave them my remaining roe bags. We instructed them where to fish that evening and how to do it. Driving home we elaborated on how much we both hoped those fellas were blessed with the success that evening that we had been on this great Steelhead Alley adventure.