Slippin', Chuckin' and Winding For Fall Steelhead by Mike Gnatkowksi

Slippin', Chuckin' and Winding For Fall Steelhead by Mike Gnatkowksi

 manistee river michigan steelhead fishing

Getting up with the chickens paid dividends.

Running up the lower Big Manistee River in total darkness was dicey, but when we came to the run known as "Top-Of-The-Mile" no one was there.

The run is a favorite of Manistee River anglers because it's long and clean; perfect for bouncing bottom with spawn. Fish that negotiate the shallow stretch below during the night tend to hang up once they reach the deeper run. Fish from above, tucked into the wood and logs during the day, relax under the cover of darkness and often slip down and collect in the run.

The fishing is often short lived though. The Top-Of-The-Mile Run is right in the middle of the river and once a few boats run through it and the sun gets up, the fishing is over.

steelhead fishing manistee river

My first cast plunked right in the slot at the head of the run.

The bottom is sand so you don't normally feel the rhythmic tunk, tunk, tunk of your weight sliding and bouncing over rock, especially when using pencil lead. The tunk, tunk I felt was not bottom.

I reared back hard on the custom-built G. Loomis rod and a chrome steelie of about 10-pounds came cart-wheeling out of the darkness. The out-sized rainbow made a sizzling run to the center of the river, but there was nothing for him to get hung in unless he made the other side. I put all the side pressure I dared on the fish keeping the hook notched in corner of his jaw while making the trout fight the current and the rod. The rainbow thumped the rod hard and made several more runs before my friend Jim Balzer slipped the net under the fish.

steelhead fishing manistee

It was Jim's turn next.

He hooked a 20-inch skipper that went berserk cart-wheeling a half dozen times before I prematurely scooped him well before he was ready. The very next cast Jim hooked another brawler that broke him off. I caught a 6-pound hen that had a pinkish blush and Jim caught the twin before we heard it-the high-pitched whine of a jet sled running upstream. We hurriedly cast trying to hook another fish before the jet sled arrived; too late.

We exchanged morning pleasantries as the boat motored through the center of the run. We hooked one more steelhead before the second boat arrived, then the third and the fourth.

"Time to try another spot," I declared.

Jim resisted insisting that there were more fish in the run and it was early, but I told him that we'd milked the spot for more than I'd expected. He finally relented trusting my judgment.

We only went a couple of bends upstream before I found what I was looking for- a deep run, fill with logs that was too snaggy to effectively bounce bottom in.

"Here. Try this rod," I said as I traded Jim a 7-foot St. Croix spinning outfit rigged with an gold in-line spinner that had some chartreuse tape on the back of the blade for his drift rod.

"Cast across behind those logs, put your rod tip down and retrieve slowly across the current."

I didn't have a chance to get the anchor up before a bright silver bullet exploded to the surface, did a couple end over end cartwheels and the spinner came flying back at us.

Jim was in shock. I could only laugh.

The power winch brought the anchor up and I stood to work the foot peddle on the trolling motor to slow our drift. We hadn't gone very far when Jim had another steelie slam his spinner.

steelhead spinner manistee fishing

There's absolutely no doubt about getting a strike when fishing spinners. They hammer it! The rainbows tear into it like it was their last meal. With the water temperatures still relatively warm in October and early November, fresh-run steelies are full of piss and vinegar.

Having 12-pound line on your reel ups your odds of landing super-charged steelies that are prone to going berserk when they feel the sting of the hook.

I instructed Jim to keep the rod low and muscle the fish while I quickly moved the boat with the trolling motor toward to middle of the river and away from trouble. Once in the clear, I dropped the anchor, got the net ready and waited. The fish was strong and after a few more short bursts, the rainbow finally showed signs of tiring and I slipped the net under the 7-pound male.

"So what do you think about spinner fishing now?" I asked. Jim could only grin.

spinner fishing fall steelhead manistee

Slippin’ with a trolling motor and casting in-line spinners has some big advantages, especially on bigger rivers. The biggest advantage might be that you can cover a lot of water. You can also fish a lot of water that other anglers ignore, water that is not conducive to the way they like to fish or that they feel doesn’t hold fish.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Wide, flat-bottomed jet sleds or jon boats make for an ideal platform from which to chuck spinners. My Wooldridge sled was extremely stable and the jet outboard lower unit rode in a tunnel that funneled water to the jet. Because of that, there was nothing below the bottom of the boat. As a result, you could quietly slip into very shallow water without fear of getting hung up, like when using a conventional prop.

You need a powerful bow-mounted trolling motor to move a heavy boat like a jet sled. Bass anglers rely heavily on their trolling motors to fish and chucking spinners is no different. Trolling motors need to be a minimum of a 24-volt system with maximum thrust capabilities. A 36-volt system is even better.

It’s better to have too much power and motor, than not enough.

It’s not like you’re going to use the motor to try and move upstream, but just to slow the boat’s drift or to move across the current to retrieve snags. A strong trolling motor that you can use at half power to slip-the-current is better than one you have to stand on it at full power to achieve the same results. Batteries last longer that way, too.

steelhead manistee fishing

Ideal spinner water is 4 to 8 or 9 feet deep with a medium current. Prime runs have some logs or other cover such as an undercut bank, overhanging limbs or a rock shelf to make steelies comfortable. It’s the junk and potential snags that dissuades other anglers from fishing these places and the kind of cover that attract steelheads.

To spot in-stream covers requires a good pair of polarized glasses. Polarized glasses will help you pinpoint logs and obstacles trout are going to hide behind. Use the glasses before you even think about making a cast.

Try to identify where you think a steelhead might be lying, but don’t make your first cast the ultimate cast. Fall steelhead can be extremely aggressive and will come charging out from cover to slam your spinner. Make the first cast a safe cast. At least get a couple casts in without getting snagged before going for the ultimate shot.

A cast six inches short of the prime lie is better than making a cast three inches too far resulting in a snag and spooking everything in the run in order to retrieve your spinner. Fall steelheads are aggressive. A couple casts to a particular location and it time to move along.

The great thing about using heavier line and spinners is that you can get the majority of your snags out.

steelhead fishing manistee river

Caption: The late Bob King with a spinner-caught steelhead on the Pere Marquette River.

Use the trolling motor to quietly get over to where you lure is snagged. Hold your rod tip straight above the spinner about two or three feet above the water and jig the rod vigorously on a slack line. Most time the weight of the spinner flopping up and down will knock it off the snag. You can also run the rod tip down to the spinner and push it off. I preferred that you did that with your own rod! A last resort is a lure retriever. It will save you a ton of spinners over a season.

Some of the best spots are not going to be really obvious.

That’s the beauty of fishing spinners.

In a long straight run, the water may only be two or three feet deep across most of the river, but there might be a slot along the bank that’s four or five feet that steelies are going to use to travel. It’s that slight change in depth that will cause steelhead moving upstream to funnel along a particular run. Look for a change in depth that is going to concentrate fish. It may shock you just how shallow a run may hold fish, especially on dark, overcast days.

Fall steelheads will also take up residence below long stretches of gravel where salmon are spawning to gulp eggs. Steelheads might position right behind the beds to slurp drifting eggs, but they may be 100 yards below any obvious gravel, too.

Known gravel runs with active salmon spawning beds get pounded every day by a parade of anglers; key is to fish the rest of the river that anglers are ignoring.

You can use spinning or bait-casting tackle for chucking spinners.

fall steelhead fishing spinners

Rods that are ideal for casting spinners are uncommon. There are few that have the right length and action. Bait casters have several advantages for those that can use them. Bait-casting reels have a consistent drag system and fewer moving parts, like bail springs that can break, and are lighter for their size. In fact, you should always manually close the bail when using spinning tackle, but you need to be quick before the spinner sinks to the bottom and becomes snagged. Casting spinners and battling wild steelhead tests the limits of tackle. Be sure to bring an extra rod and reel for a backup.

Regardless of which tackle style you chose, you need to be able to cast accurately.

Inches can often make a difference. I can recall many times telling customers to cast six inches to the right of a log, knowing that if they did, they wouldn’t get snagged and would probably catch a fish. Instead they cast a foot to the right of the log and got snagged.

The best way cast spinners is with a pendulum cast, similar to the way bass anglers flip.

A pendulum cast is very accurate when done properly, keeps the spinner low to the water to get under overhanging limbs, the spinner enters the water very quietly and the rod is in the retrieve position when the cast is completed. The rod should be pointed downstream, low to the water and the spinner should be retrieved at a slow pace allowing it to get deep and swing across the run. Strikes can come at any point in the retrieve, but pay special attention to the point where the spinner turns and begins rising and coming back upstream. The changes in direction often triggers strikes at little more than a rod’s length.

steelhead spinner fishing

There are commercial spinners on the market that excel for fall steelies or you can make your own. John Hoge, vice president of Harrison Hoge Industries, the makers of the famous Panther Martin ( spinner, looked at me a little strange when I said I wanted a couple dozen giant No. 15 spinners.

Trout anglers know how deadly smaller Panther Martin spinners are on stream trout.

They’re equally effective on steelhead. Other commercially made spinners that will make steelies take notice are the Blue Fox Vibrax, Mepps XD and Rooster Tail.

Panther Martin’s No. 15 spinner equates to about a No. 5 or 6 in other spinner manufacturer’s lingo. That seems to be a good size for steelies. Gold or silver are preferred colors, but experiment with brighter and holographic colors, especially on overcast days. If I had only one spinner to choose, it would be the classic black/gold Panther Martin.

Battling a rampaging steelie on a long rod and light line ranks as one of the ultimate freshwater fishing challenges. But I’m not shy about breaking out the heavy artillery either, especially when it means I can effectively fish the other 80% of the river.

 - Written by Mike Gnatkowksi


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    1 comment

    I live out in Idaho I live right on the Confluence of the Snake River and the Clearwater River Clearwater River is renowned for their be run 15 to 20 lb steelhead but the runs are very low the last few years they used to have 12 different kinds of salmon on the Clearwater to now they only have three if you ever get a chance to go on the Clearwater you’ll understand why it’s such a beautiful place to fish.

    Craig Cornelia

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