By Howard Meyerson
LUDINGTON, MI – We knew the odds of catching steelhead were slim. It was mid-October, not November. The weather had been unseasonably warm, but scattered reports had surfaced on the Internet. And fishing, after all, is an optimistic endeavor.
“I have the trailer hooked up. I’ve had my lunch. We’re going to go out and try to catch the first steelhead of the season,” my friend said on the phone when I called to confirm our plans. And so it was that we set out on a cloudy, cool day to enjoy an early season lower Pere Marquette River steelhead hunt — only to come away six hours later having hooked two northern pike.
“You can usually find a pike or two along the river here,” my friend explained. “Most are 20 inches to 26 inches. They add to the migratory steelhead run.”
What he meant by that is if the steelies don’t bite, there is usually a pike around to spice up the fun. In fact, the lower Pere Marquette River is an excellent pike fishery, according to Mark Tonello, the fisheries biologist at the Michigan DNR’s Cadillac office. They move between the lower river and Pere Marquette Lake.
“Pere Marquette Lake is an outstanding pike fishery,” Tonello declared. “Every few years, I hear of a 20 pounder caught through the ice.”
Ours were hardly in that category. Neither measured 24inches, the minimum keeper size. One was a healthy 20 inches; the other was 15 inches and slim. They hit gold spinners and added some excitement to a day where steelhead seemed to be absent.
“We didn’t see a thing,” two boat anglers reported at the launch site that evening upon returning.
Warm conditions can delay
“The fall run is very unpredictable,” Tonello explained. “They (steelhead) are not coming in to spawn, and if they have favorable conditions in Lake Michigan, they will stay in the lake and wait until spring (when they do spawn). There haven’t been many steelheads yet on the rivers up here. There are a few down low on the Big Manistee River that guys are catching, but the run is going to be more of a November phenomenon.”
Tonello added that it’s been a warm fall. Even the salmon were late to run the rivers.
This year’s fall steelhead runs are expected to be average, or a little below, according to Jay Wesley, the DNR’s Lake Michigan Basin coordinator. Anglers should expect smaller fish too, the result of having less to eat in Lake Michigan given the decline in forage. More also have been harvested by big lake anglers who would otherwise target salmon.
The increased lake harvest will not have a negative impact on the river runs, according to Wesley. River anglers typically harvest far more than charter boats and other lake anglers each year.
“We combined the creel reports and charter reports and expect the lake harvest will be above what it was last year,” Wesley acknowledged.
Some river guides, particularly on the Muskegon River, have expressed concern that lake anglers will take too many thus diminishing the river runs.
River harvest higher than lake
Lake anglers kept 49,000 steelheads last year, according to DNR records. The longterm average is 37,000. But the river harvest far exceeds that, Wesley said. Just the Muskegon River harvest alone averages 23,000 steelheads and the number released averages 68,000.
Summer steelhead showed up late this year in southern Lake Michigan tributaries. They appeared in September and October, according to Wesley, who expects the same will be true for the usual fall run in November.
“There are steelheads in the rivers now like the Grand, Kalamazoo and St Joe, but not big numbers,” Wesley said. “Since everything is running later, it might be December before we see the (fall) run. Temperatures are still relatively warm.”
A great deal depends on the weather, water temperatures and rain.
“Last year, we had horrible fall (steelhead) runs on all of our rivers,” Tonello said. “But two years ago, it was just the opposite. “It was epic on all of our rivers. We had several good pulses of rain in November that year. Last year, we got snow instead of rain. If you were a pier or surf fishermen, you had a banner year. The fish stayed in the lake and never ran.”
Appears in MLive newspapers and MLive Outdoors.