The sun was still attempting to rise on a warm July morning, as my buddy Jim Lyon and I made our way down a steep hill to the Rogue River. When we got there, we found Paul Barrett, an oft-times fishing partner of Lyon’s, knee-deep in the river fishing.
“I hate to tell you, but I’m zero for two already,” he said.
I took that as good news; it meant the fish were there and were biting.
We rigged up with bobbers and small jigs that we tipped with wax worms. Lyon, who prefers wax worms over spawn bags pretty much any time of the year, says they are especially better during the off-season.
“Maybe it’s because they eat more bugs that look like that out in the big lake in the summer, but they like those wax worms,” Lyon said. “The only time I use spawn is when the salmon are in the river, I know one guy who uses live crickets and says they do good, too, but I’ve never tried them.”
I got two bites in my first 30 minutes; they were resident trout, a rainbow and a brown, nice fish, but not what I we were looking for. But a short while later, when my bobber went down and I swatted it, I knew I had hooked what I’d come for: a summer-run steelhead.
Called Skamania by most Michigan anglers—after the West Coast hatchery where the summer-run strain was developed—these fish are all they are cracked up to be: tough, aerobatic, bruisers. This one didn’t disappoint at all.
The fish charged upstream, coming out of the water several times, taking drag all the while. It ran back downstream taking more drag, then started heading back up again. I gained line on it as I came upstream and stopped the fish, but it soon took more drag. It was upstream and down, back and forth across the river, and it was all I could do to keep it out of the deadfalls. Every time I’d ease it toward us, it would get a burst of adrenaline and take drag again. I bet you I played that fish for five minutes before I finally steered it head-first into Barret’s net.
It was a dandy, bright as a star. I guessed it at about eight pounds.
Ten minutes later I had another chance and I was up to the task. This fish pulled down the bobber shortly after I cast and I muscled it in much more quickly than the first. But it was half again bigger; Lyon pronounced it a 12-pounder, maybe more.
The Rogue’s summer-run steelhead is one of Michigan’s best-kept angling secrets.
They aren’t there every year, but when they are, hold on.
“Last year I caught one,” said Lyon, who discovered them five or six years ago and has been chasing them since. “We didn’t have as much water in the Rogue and the Grand (which the Rogue feeds into) was warm and low. But five years ago we had tons of them in here.
“Usually they show up first or second week of August but this year it was the second week of July,” he continued. “We had such a great amount of rain before the Fourth of July—The Grand was way up, the Rogue was way up—and it brought them in. The Rogue is always cold; it has cold creeks emptying into it—cold, brook trout creeks—and the Rogue had a lot of rock and gravel so it doesn’t get muddy or anything. It’s a good river for trout.”
I fished hard a while longer then started loafing as fatigue set in. (I‘d been out late the night before bass fishing, but that’s another story.) So I fished a little bit, but mostly stood, camera-ready, hoping to get the action shot when either Barret or Lyon connected. Both did, but neither of them closed the deal as the fish made their escapes. That’s not unusual for summer runs. If I land 50 percent, I feel like I’ve done well.
For my part, I caught two more rainbows just making an occasional cast. Obviously I had the hot rod. But the bite quit. We stayed another hour—all the while the fish were porpoising or splashing around us, sometimes coming fully out of the water.
“They move around a lot,” Lyon said. “They’re splashing and jumping, chasing bait. If you’re fishing a hole and you don’t see any moving around, you might as well leave because there aren’t any around.
“A few weeks ago they were jumping at the dam like that, but then they backed off.”
I only made one more trip last summer, again with Lyon and Barrett, and while they went with their bobbers/jigs/wax worms program, I tried my luck with a spinner. (No sense in all three of us doing the exact same thing, eh?) I caught a half dozen fish—all smallmouth bass—while my partners blanked. So I gave up on it. Not 15 minutes after I left, my phone rang. It was Lyon. They’d hooked three and landed two.
“You left too early,” he said.
I made a mistake not going back, too. Lyon and Barrett continued to fish them, a couple of days a week, right into fall when the regular steelhead started to come in.
“I caught more summer-run steelhead that I’ve ever seen last summer,” Barrett said. “I don’t remember a time we went that we didn’t catch fish. I’ll bet between Jim and me, we hooked more than 100 fish last summer.”
The Skamania will hang around until they spawn, Lyon said.
“We’ve caught them in November and December, when the regular steelhead come in, and you can tell they’re summer-runs because they get so dark when the fresh fish are bright.”
Lyon said the downside to fishing summer-runs is that catch-and-release fishing is problematic.
Fisheries biologist Jay Wesley, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Lake Michigan Basin coordinator, agrees with Lyon on that.
“If you’re going to target summer-run steelhead, probably the best thing to do is to keep them,” Westley said. “Their recovery rate is pretty low that time of year because of the temperatures.”
Wesley says he’s not sure how the summer run of steelhead developed on the Rogue.
The DNR has never stocked Skamania-strain steelhead there.
They are one of three things—strays from stockings in other rivers (most likely the St. Joseph or the Manistee), progeny of strays from other plantings, or simply ordinary steelhead that headed upstream early.
“Next year we’ll know if they’re Skamania because all of the steelhead in the lake are implanted with coded wire tags,” he said. “The Rogue stays cold enough for them that they can get in there and not be so stressed. The Grand is usually way too warm, but we had rain and some colder nights in July which allowed them to come up and take refuge in the colder rivers and streams.”
The DNR doesn’t produce any summer-runs in its hatcheries. Michigan gets some from Indiana—which is into them in a big way—that are stocked in the Manistee River, below Tippy Dam.
That’s the most dependable summer-run steelhead fishery in the state.
I’ve caught them a number of times, usually on the jigs-and-bobbers program, though I know guys who fish them at night with body baits (Rapalas and the like) who say they do well. The only time I tried that, we went one for two.
It will be interesting to see what the coded-wire tags tell us, but, frankly, I don’t really care. That you can catch rainbows weighing double digits in the middle of summer is all I need to know about that. And the Rogue isn’t the only place they show up un-stocked. I’ve caught a couple in the Pere Marquette, both times while I was fishing for trout, one on a Rapala and the other—a long, bright fish—on a Hex pattern while fly fishing. That remains the only steelhead I’ve ever taken on a dry fly.
I remember my first summer-run steelhead, caught almost 30 years ago, like it was yesterday.
I was fishing the St. Joseph River below the dam at Berrien Springs with a bass fishing buddy.
We were chunking spinnerbaits at the bank, catching smallmouths, when I connected with something that I immediately suspected was not a bass. About two seconds later my suspicion was confirmed when, a long, silvery fish rocketed into the air.
It was an experience as the fish charged downstream.
My partner quickly 180-ed the boat, kicked the trolling motor on high and gave chase but it didn’t stop the critter from burning up my drag, and, equipped with a light-action, pistol-gripped casting rod, I didn’t think I could hold it. But the warm water in the river eventually took its toll and I got it upside the boat and, without an appropriate landing net, my partner grabbed it two handedly and hoisted the fish, an estimated 12-pounder according to my calibrated eyeballs, aboard.
We took a quick photo and released it; though it looked totally spent. It rode the current downstream. I could only hope it would survive, but in retrospect, I probably should have kept it.
Back in the day, the St. Joe below Berrien Springs was noted for its excellent—though ignored by most anglers—summer-run steelhead fishing. These days, not so much.
Tim Shaffer, who guides anglers for anything that will bite on the St. Joe but specializes in steelhead, says the Skamania have been unpredictable in the last few years.
“When they’re here, you can catch them for three or four days, then they go up the fish ladder and are gone,” he said. “It’s not anything you can plan on; I’ve got some clients who I can call and they’ll go, but you never know when they’re going to show up and it doesn’t last long.”
Lyon, who fished the St. Joe back in the day, says he doesn’t even bother with the St. Joe any more.
“We caught tons of them, but they don’t come back there like they used to,” he said. “I used to go down there with Hojo (John Hojnacki, who is somewhat legendary as a steelhead angler in Michigan). We’d go around June first and we’d wade out and bottom bounce dark flies below the dam.”
Lyon says he fishes slightly different water in the summer than he does the rest of the year, places where there are apparently refrigerator holes—places where there are springs or cold-water streams flowing into the main river—as the Skamania will not tolerate warm water. But other than that, he pretty much fishes the same way fall, winter and spring.
“Skamania like a darker jig,” he said. “In the summer we use mostly black jigs. In the fall and spring we use brighter colored jigs—pink or orange—but that’s the only difference. Otherwise it’s all the same.”
- Written by Robert Gwizdz