Another Steelhead Story

Another Steelhead Story

What is it about Steelhead that causes anglers to endure so much physical and mental pain to have a chance at dueling with these fish?  I had my first opportunity to pursue Steelhead on a fly rod and will do my best to recount my experience, what I learned, and some fun info on the Pere Marquette River in Balwin, MI. 

The Fishery

The Pere Marquette is a 64 mile stretch of river located in central Michigan.  It is a tributary to Lake Michigan and is likely the most protected river in the state.  This watershed experiences Salmon and Steelhead runs throughout the year.  Brown trout were first introduced in the United States via the Baldwin River in 1884 which is a tributary to the PMR.  There are also large resident rainbow trout.  We visited a short stretch of river located in Balwin, MI that is flies only.  This regulation is meant to protect precious spawning grounds for these great lakes fish.  



The river is a lot smaller than I expected and is a very technical row, dodging downed trees and shallow water via drift boat.  THE trophy fish this time of year is the winter Steelhead.  These fish spend most of their lives deep in Lake Michigan.  They are capable of making frequent swims to the surface to feed on bug hatches and will retreat back to the depths to digest their food.  Once they mature, they make the journey up the PMR to find their original birthing grounds and spawn.  Certain fish will run up the PMR year round but the thickest runs are in the Spring.  These fish are not stocked and this is a wild run. 



Leading up to the trip, we were told to pack warm clothes and the fishing was going to be tough.  After 3 days on the water, I can confirm this was good advice. 



Packing Tips for Cold Weather

The weather feels much colder in humid places like Michigan vs dry places like Colorado.  I fish in the winter often but this was simply different.  Additional layers didn’t make much of a difference and the hardest part was keeping your feet and hands warm.  Here are a couple of pointers, some of which I learned the hard way..

1.      Bring oversized boots with extra room for multiple socks

2.     Be prepared with different wool socks with varying thickness.  Make adjustments as needed throughout the trip on sock combos.

3.     Lots and lots of Handwarmers

4.     Baselayers are extremely important.  Long Johns and as much wool as you can find

6.     Headwear, gloves and boots are the 3 most important things to get right

7.  It aint a fashion competition, dress for comfort


The Fishing

The downed trees and tight nature of the PMR made for a really technical fishing experience.  We fished 8-10 foot deep nymph rigs that were heavily weighted, lots of roll casting and heavy mending.  There aren’t a ton of fish in the system this time of year but the ones there are large,  8-10 pounds on average. 



Day 1, our buddies on the other boat were spoiled and hooked up early.  We were lucky enough to be fishing in the same hole and this was awesome for the group to experience together.



2 hours later, our buddies round the corner with shit eating grins on their faces and had boated another nice male.  Day 1 was good to their boat..



Lunch was a daily highlight.  Temps were between 8 and 20 degrees the entire trip and we saw a lot of snow.  A freshly cooked meal on the grill was a welcomed luxury. 



By Day 3, the other boat had hooked 3 Steelhead, our boat 0.  Spirits were still high all things considered but it's difficult to watch a bobber for 3 days straight without a tug.  Keep the Blues flowing and all will be well..



Alas, my buddy Gabe hooked up on a nice male! 



And we are on the board!!!!!  A beautiful male Steelhead..



At this point, I am the only guy in a crew of 4 that hasn’t hooked a Steelhead.  But I kept on fishing and hooked up to a very firey hen 30 or so minutes after Gabe boated our first fish.  Shortly after, the fish spits the fly.   


We took about 10 seconds to yell some curse words and the bobber was back in the water.  Gabe and Casey sat back and let me fish.  We had 15 or so minutes until we had to boogey for the 2 hour row to the truck.  The clock was ticking and it truly felt like I was running out of casts.  Our guide Casey repositioned the boat 20 feet higher up in the run and I connected again.  Another nice hen.  2 minutes later and we had a fish in the net!  



Sometimes the struggle and failures are what make this type of fishing so special.  You have to work for the fish and understand it takes time and experience.  Persistence was key on this trip and I got my Steelhead on the last cast of the trip.  Never give up! 


 A huge thanks to Frank Willetts and the Pere Marquette River Lodge for their hospitality.  PMR Lodge can be found here and go check them out!!


Thanks for reading, 

Ben McCormick



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