By Howard Meyerson
ST. JOSEPH, MI -. Russ Clark’s motto is simple: “patience and persistence.” That’s what it takes to catch steelhead. And on an unusually warm February day not long ago, the 27-year veteran charter captain demonstrated its wisdom.
It was 1 p.m. when two of us, standing on the aft-deck of his covered Carolina Skiff, looked on as Clark reeled in a striking 8-pound steelhead that drew excited exclamations from everyone. The fish had hammered a chunk of spawn the size of a donut hole. We had been fishing since 7 a.m., hunting for winter steelhead on the St. Joseph River.
“That’s a really nice fish,” said Charlie Broadhurst, Clark’s buddy and the owner Broadlow’s Fishing Hole, a fishing outfitter in town. “And that’s something you don’t see every day,” he said referring to Clark working a rod and reel, landing a fish.
Clark is a 50-year-old native of St. Joseph. He’s spends the better part of 270 fishing days a year helping clients get their fish. Clark owns Sea Hawk Fishing Charters and runs St. Joe River steelhead trips and Lake Michigan salmon charters.
Clark smiled in his easy-going manner and hoisted up the bright silver male so we could gawk.
“The biggest thing is patience and persistence. This time of year they can be in pods and you can go and go and get nothing and nothing, then all of a sudden you get two, three or four in one spot,” Clark had said earlier.
Clark’s fish was our fifth steelhead of the day and our luck had just changed after several slow hours spent exploring runs and holes. Before long we would have two more in the boat and be seven miles upriver from where we launched.
That many steelies is top-form no matter what part of the country you fish. The first two were landed just after daylight a mile downstream from our put-in spot.
Clark had invited me come and give the winter steelhead run a try. The St. Joseph River
is well-known for its runs. Steelhead start to move in from Lake Michigan to spawn in November and the fishing continues through New Years after which the river usually freezes. The fish enter the river all winter long, but the run gains volume again in spring.
“It’s definitely one of the better rivers,” said Brian Gunderman, a fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “The catch rate compares with the Manistee and Muskegon Rivers.”
The size of the steelhead run varies from year to year, Gunderman said . Fish-counters installed at the Berrien Springs dam 25 miles from Lake Michigan have tallied as few as 7,000 on a poor year and as many as 27,000 on a peak year.
“The “biggest push” comes in late March and early April,” Gunderman said.
On this winter day, the weather gods had given us a break. The river is usually frozen or just opening up. But it was open and running and temperatures were expected to rise into the 40s.
We had started on a downstream segment that morning, a favorite for Clark who prefers to avoid the upstream crowds. But a stiff, frigid wind began to blow and we eventually were forced to pull our lines and head upstream looking for productive holes in the shelter of higher banks.
Fishing from Clark’s enclosed and covered boat, however, is easy in winter. A heater keeps the cabin toasty even in bitter conditions. And Broadhurst had spiced up the morning with fresh marinated venison chunks that he warmed on the heater before passing around.
Our tactics involved hanging a half-dozen rods off the transom and back trolling, or
“sliding” downstream with a spread of chunk spawn and plugs like Flatfish and Hot N’ Tots working in the current. But our greatest success came from “walking” spawn along the bottom, a technique that involves casting out and letting a chunk bounce downstream with the current.
“I like to start with spawn and lures as the day goes on and then go back and forth depending on how cold it is,” Clark said. “Spawn is more of a feeding bite where lures are more of a reaction bite.”
Clark learned the St Joe’s intricacies by trial and error over the years. He graduated from Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in business, but couldn’t shake his love of fishing so he started a charter fishing business.
Clark caught his first salmon as a five-year old while fishing the Manistee River with his family. Fishing remained his hobby throughout his college years.
“I was hooked,” Clark said. “My dad spent a lot of money on me for college, but he helped me out (with buying a charter fishing boat) and I eventually paid him back.
“I was going to do this for a year or two and get it out of my system, but one year became five and five became ten and now it’s been 27 years.”
Clark’s charter clients hail from Chicago, Grand Rapids and other parts of Michigan.
Many are repeat customers, he said. Some are family groups who want to enjoy the outing while others are serious “meat” fishermen bent getting a day’s limit.
Clark said there is no substitute for time on the water. There are good days and bad days no matter how much an angler knows, but it’s the little things they know that can make a difference.
“I’ve caught fish on every 50 yard stretch of this river for 25 miles,” Clark said. “It took 10 years to really get it down, but you learn new things every year.”
Returning to the launch site that afternoon with seven fish in the box and smiles on our faces only affirmed what Clark had said so much earlier about patience and persistence paying off.
This story appears on: MLive Outdoors
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