Chilling Out: Steelheading on the Pere Marquette River by Steven J. Masello

Chilling Out: Steelheading on the Pere Marquette River by Steven J. Masello


“Ah, bitter chill it was!”

(to borrow a line from John Keats).

But that’s to be expected during this prime time for steelheading on Michigan’s Pere Marquette River (PM) in late March and early April. And yet that’s when I most enjoy fishing this lovely, tranquil Blue Ribbon trout, salmon and steelhead stream.

‘Tis the season for quiet river time, sans the boisterous recreational inner-tubers, canoeists and cell phone addicts of summer. The early spring months allow one to savor the tranquil black timbered and frost banked beauty of the prime steelhead run. And there are few, if any, other anglers to contend with.

Winding its way through the Huron-Manistee National Forest, the Pere Marquette River is a designated National Wild and Scenic Waterway flowing 98 miles from Baldwin, Michigan, to its mouth at Ludington on the Northeastern shore of Lake Michigan.

pere marquette river driftboat fishing snow

To this day, the PM remains the only undammed Blue Ribbon trout stream east of the Rockies.

In short, it’s a gem.

The world- class fly fishing is restricted to catch and release only, from M-37 downstream to Gleason’s Landing, a distance of nearly eight miles.

To celebrate my eldest son’s college graduation, I secured a nicely appointed and beautifully secluded cabin in the woods from Kathy Lockhart who, along with her husband, manages a private club, nearby; Dan and I happily settled in for our trip. (Phone: 231-745-4423) I had arranged for two full days’ drift down the hallowed flies only stretch of the PM with a premier guide, Capt. Tom Johnson. I have gotten to know Tom and his wife Chrissy well over the past several years. (Tom and I hunted grouse and the ever elusive timberdoodle last October over his brood of Brittanys.)

Tom knows as well as anybody I’ve ever fished with, where the fish are and how to best hook and net the big ones. And because this was a celebratory outing, Tom pulled out all the Professional Guide services, replete with fine dining at streamside. (His grilled venison steaks are an exceptional treat.) Yes, despite the challenges that Mother Nature was to hurl our way on day two, we did not always rough it.

I have learned from experience over the past several years to dress warmly;

I mean warmly. In March of 2006, I remember my teeth chattering and vigorous shivering setting in at sunset as Tom and I finished our drift down the PM that day and put into our landing none too soon! I don’t want to ever be that cold again, so I now come fully prepared. In addition to my initial outfit, including wool long johns, wool socks, heavy fleece pants to go over the long johns, wool shirt, new Columbia Omni Heat Squall Line fleece jacket and my Filson 5-layer waders and wading jacket, I stuff my Fishpond gear bag with enough layers to satisfy an Amundsen Antarctic expedition, including a second thigh-length Columbia Squall Line parka—just in case. My favorite weathered felt fedora fishing hat will generally do unless the elements really turn nasty—as they did—and I reach for my trusty heavy wool waterfowling hat. A Gray’s Sporting Journal model I’m not. But I’m warm and ready.

Day one broke clear and cold with a steady breeze.

The water was a bit stirred up and murky. The fish proved extremely difficult to spot on and about the redds. We had little at all for the first part of the day. But a lovely day it was! The steelhead and browns remained elusive but the rest of the river wildlife rejoiced in the early spring air. River otters, minks, whitetail deer and raucous diving and dipping kingfishers escorted us along the way. Wild turkey, too, were in abundance.

Dan was casting a 10’ and I, a 10½’ Airflo 8-weight rod, both tied with green caddis nymphs, salmon eggs, big black stoneflies, among other delectable offerings. The fish are lethargic at this time of the year, particularly on very cold, bright days and, when deep nymphing, Tom never tires of presenting one temptation or another. (In winter and early spring steelheading, no need to match the hatch!)

After a Lucullan feast at streamside (I could get used to this!), both Dan and I rerigged with a shooting line; with the stiff breeze, I found this much easier to cast, effectively. So did Dan. In fact, Dan hit the trifecta: a handsome 2 and ½ pound brown, a lovely rainbow and our chief prey, late in the afternoon, a magnificent male steelhead. Even Tom sucked in his breath when this big boy first flipped and tail-danced about fifteen yards downstream. The colors were truly beautiful on this bright, red-banded, 34”, 16–pound bruiser. Dan kept the rod up, let him run briefly, and then after 10 minutes, reeled him into Tom’s waiting net. What a wonderful graduation gift for the outdoorsman! We were lucky he kicked back our way and to net him as soon as we did—he still had enormous energy and fight in him; I had to cup my hands over him in the net lest he escape before photo time. I seized my Pentax Optio 90 (a great waterproof companion), did our photo op and released this fellow to swim another day.

Day two promised to be a Shackleton voyage adventure.

(Yes, I love to romanticize my outings). In short, the slate gray dawn brought us abominable weather. But as duck hunters know, bad weather often provides the hunting for waterfowlers and the best fishing for the angler. But it was miserable. The river gods cast all form of inclemency into our chattering teeth. Beneath a darkly overcast and brooding sky, we rowed into a cutting wind, with temperatures in the upper 20s—it barely made freezing in the course of the day—with spells of every type of “wet”: spitting rain, sleet, hail (with accompanying thunder boomers) and near blinding snow squalls. My photos will attest to my veracity.  I had yet to land a steelhead (a challenge on the best of days) despite several spirited battles—and even a couple of handsome browns. But I was after a big boy. And Tom is a determined and tireless guide, more than willing to push on with a clear d expectation of success.

steelhead fishing pere marquette

So into the blast we rowed:

(well, Captain Tom manned the oars while Dan and I searched for a dark, submerged shadow.) At long last, late in the day as a frosty dusk was closing in, a big black stonefly did the trick. I pulled up hard and firmly set the hook in a powerful and husky male in the Wadel Riffles stretch of the PMR. (According to the river folk and guides up there, this was reputedly Ernest Hemingway’s favorite spot on this river when he fished here with President Herbert Hoover, no less, in the ‘30s. I’m investigating this claim with those at the nearby Pere Marquette Rod and Gun Club; no corroboration, thus far. But it’s not an unlikely fish tale about these two avid anglers and celebrities in their own spheres.

The Wadel Riffles is a shallow riffle with fast pockets of riffled pools. Perfect for me to take my time with this bruiser and tire him before reeling him in. Tom coached me a good 100 yards along the inside bank. I had removed my glasses; sleet was driving into my eyes; Dan had the net at the ready several yards out and behind me. I was finally able to spot this big fellow as he thrashed above the surface—he had no sign of diminished fight in him—close enough for Dan to close in as I struggled to keep the rod high and tight. Dan thrust the net under him; this was the biggest steelhead I’d ever landed: 13 lbs., 32 and ½ inches. Not quite so bright and beautiful as Dan’s, but nearly so! I was a bit winded, but exhilarated. I quickly snatched the camera for the obligatory “catch photo.” Thunder boomers and sideways sleet demanded a quick photo-op and release.

Heaving myself back into the boat (my graceful entries never cease to amuse my son; Tom keeps diplomatically quiet), we all felt the cold really pressing in. I emptied my dry bag and hauled on a second Columbia Interchange parka over everything else I had on. I pulled my wooly camo watch cap down to my ears. Dan said I looked as if I had dropped an ice fishing shack over my head. (If there had been a shack available, I’d have donned that, as well--outdoor fashion catalogues be damned!)

We at last, at the end of a very long but wonderfully adventurous day, we drew into our take-out landing, backed up Tom’s Silverado, hooked up and headed home, an exceptionally happy lot. Dan and I returned to our warm, rustic digs. We pulled our waders onto the Peet Dryers and cooked up some very thick steaks to accompany the great father and son memories we had secured in the course of our two days on the splendid PMR.

- written by Steven J. Masello

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