Steelhead unpredictable, but pike can fill the day

The lower Pere Marquette River is an excellent pike fishery. This 20-incher hit a gold spinner. Photo by Howard Meyerson

The lower Pere Marquette River is an excellent northern pike fishery. This 20-inch pike hit a gold spinner with red tube on the hook. Photo by Howard Meyerson

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.

Anglers on the lower Pere Marquette River are hoping for a shot at the first steelhead to run. This year’s catch is projected to be average or lower, but it isn’t stopping optimistic anglers. Photo by Howard Meyerson.

Anglers on the lower Pere Marquette River are hoping for a shot at the first steelhead to run. This year’s catch is projected to be average or lower, but it isn’t stopping optimistic anglers. Photo by Howard Meyerson.

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.

About Howard Meyerson

After more than 30 years in the outdoor writing business, you would think I'd know better.
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1 Response to Steelhead unpredictable, but pike can fill the day

  1. Tom Hamilton says:

    Below Scottville there is the lost channel area . Decades ago BC (before Chinooks), we would hike into the channels SE off Stiles Road to fish the pike. It was a nightmare of fallen trees, but a fun riot for summer pike every second cast. We used the cheapest daredevil style lures as very few fish were landed in the fallen trees. Flash forward to 2015, one C&R fisher for salmon and steelhead with a thunder stick Jr on a different river landed a 15# pike and released it. Two weeks later he landed a 15# pike in the same hole and released it. I told him to mark that pike to see how many times he is catching the same big pike. This C&R fisherman releases all his steelhead to spawn. I told him his pet river pike is probably feeding on his steelhead smolts in the spring.

    Liked by 1 person

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