By Howard Meyerson
ALLEGAN, MI — Miles Hanley was in the middle of setting rods when the first one began to thrash around. We were just five minutes down river from the Allegan Dam launch site and things were already looking up.
“There’s one,” the 48-year-old Kalamazoo angler said excitedly, grabbing the rod and handing it to me just as a nice steelhead leapt out of the water. I took it and reeled down on the fish, then gave it its head, thumbing the reel to slow it down. It took a bit of line, came in as I reeled, saw the boat, and bolted again.
Hanley netted the nice six-pound female as I got her in close to the boat once more. It would be the first of five we’d hook over the next two and half hours, and the first of four we would put in the boat.
“This has been a usually good year, better than normal,” said Hanley, a boat sales consultant for D & R Sports in Kalamazoo. “The river got a bunch of fish this fall. We’ve been catching some Skamania too.”
I’d joined Hanley for a morning of steelhead fishing on the Kalamazoo River, one of the better steelhead waters in southwest Michigan. It is stocked with nearly 15,000 Michigan strain steelhead in early spring, but also gets the occasional, stray summer-run Skamania steelhead. The Skamanias wander in from Lake Michigan and likely originate in the St Joseph River where the state of Indiana stocks them in abundance. The fish run upriver and are stopped by the dam. They then drop back into the waters downstream.
“We do get some natural Skamania too, in the Grand River, Muskegon River and Kalamazoo,” Jay Wesley, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, told me later. “We don’t hear of many in the Kalamazoo in the summer; these were probably strays that followed the other steelhead upstream.”
TOO WINDY TO BACK-TROLL EFFECTIVELY
Hanley had extended the invite earlier in fall, but work schedules had interfered, so we managed to line up the trip on what would become the last day of good fishing before the snow arrived. It was a blustery 20-plus degree outing with 20-knot winds and gusts over 30. Neither of us expected the action we got this morning.
The wind wreaked havoc on Hanley’s fishing strategy which was to back troll down river, fanning an array of Brad’s Wigglers downstream of the boat, then slide the spread of lures into holes and hope for a strike.
The gusts all but countered the river’s slow current and Hanley opted to move the boat downstream a half-mile, to holes he knows very well, and switched to trolling upstream. The move would quickly put two more fish in the boat.
Hanley is well-known in fishing circles as bass enthusiast, a serious one too. He is a competitive tournament fisherman and was the Michigan State Bass Champion in 1998. He fishes for bass every chance he gets, but once fall arrives, Hanley is all about steelhead.
“I’ve caught 112 steelheads since October,” Hanley said. “The steelhead fishing has been good. It’s been non-stop since then.”
GROWING UP IN A FISHING FAMILY
Hanley grew up in a southwest Michigan fishing family. His father got him started, on Eagle Lake just north of Decatur where his grandfather had a cottage. The pair began to travel to Canada to fish when Hanley was just nine.
He spent many youthful years living with his family in Dowagiac and lots of free time visiting the Heddon Lure Company where his grandmother worked. Heddon operated in Dowagiac from 1902 to 1984. The company was started by the late James Heddon who is credited with making the first artificial wooden fishing lures in the 1890’s. The site today is home of the Heddon Museum which showcases the works and products made during the era when the company was in its prime.
“When I was a kid, I’d ride my bike over there and bounce around the factory,” Hanley said. “I had grocery bags full of lures, the seconds my grandmother would get. If I had kept that stuff, I’d have my own museum.”
Hanley’s mother also owned a sporting goods store in Dowagiac for several years, but it was his father that turned him on to steelhead, often fishing southwest Michigan rivers like the St. Joseph. He met his wife, Jill, at D & R Sports where they both work today.
“To this day, I love to fish bass,” said Hanley, who has been known to refer to himself as a ‘bass fishing freak’. “But when fall hits, I put my bass stuff up and look forward to fishing steelhead.
“This may be my last trip for a while. The river can freeze up and you get ice on the bottom. But if we get a warming trend in January or February, it can be phenomenal.”
Not long after, we managed to tussle with two more nice fish. One got away, but the other didn’t. It was a fine way to cap off the fall steelhead season.
This story appears on MLive Outdoors