By Jon Osborn
Illustrations By David Ruimveld
In the heart of northwest Michigan’s Manistee National Forest, cold rain streams off the roof of a Wellston diner, pooling on the cracked sidewalk. Inside the greasy spoon, sportsmen geared for the “Big” Manistee River’s renowned steelhead run have stacked up like salmon beneath a dam. Their qualms rise and swirl with cigarette smoke and the aroma of frying bacon.
“Water’s too high…”
“ …like chocolate milk…”
“ …fish just aren’t moving…”
…might as well head home…»
Wedged in a corner booth, 12-year-old Jaime Clous fidgets as his father and their would-be guide hash out the day’s prospects over corned-beef and eggs. The outlook is grim. Finally, after countless cups of black coffee and settling the bill, the adults concede: The long-anticipated fishing trip will be postponed.
Dutifully, Clous follows his father to their rusty pickup, then slumps onto the bench seat. But foul weather doesn’t shroud youthful optimism for long. “Do you think we could try the Boardman, Dad?” he presses.
Though Traverse City is an hour’s drive away, Clous’s father knows the value of seeing this important fishing day through. He turns on the wipers. “Let’s give it a shot.”
Fifty miles further north near Sabin Dam, Clous watches pods of steelhead jockey back and forth over the gravel. The notoriously finicky fish, spurred into action by the spawning deluge, fuel the young angler’s ambition. Clous assembles his rod and ties on his chosen fly, a P.M. Wiggler, with fumbling fingers.
To his delight, an aggressive buck quickly inhales the olive nymph and line screams off the reel.
“Steelies are the biggest, baddest fish in the Midwest, and people like that, so they keep coming back for more,” claims Clous, who merged passion with profession nine years later and presently revels in his role as river guide at Old AuSable Fly Shop in Grayling.
On an idyllic October day on the wide waters of the lower Manistee River, he’s at the helm. Over 250 days a year on the water have honed his boating skills to a razor’s edge and he knows this stretch of the “Big Man” like his own home.
“Try throwing in the head of that pool,” he urges his passenger, motioning toward a fishy-looking lie.
It’s a great cast.
“That’s it,” Clous praises. “Now let that dog hunt — you’re in the wheelhouse.”
Suddenly, as the offering ascends nearly to the surface, the river opens into a swirling void. With a explosive swish of its tail, a steelhead slashes at the fly, but misses and retreats into the dark water. “Oh! Toilet flusher!” he exclaims of the dramatic strike.
Clous’s passion for the sport, paralleling his expertise, is what makes him such an effective guide: He remembers the surge of pride that accompanies a child’s first brook trout; relates to a young mother’s elation when she catches her first steelhead; respects the overwhelming emotions of a seasoned old diehard carefully releasing perhaps his last.
Clous lives to put folks amid the dancing streams and majestic fish he loves to his core, and the avid angler caters to a wide range of them.
“Certain guys just like getting their butts kicked,” he says. But others, like spey fishermen (who cast two-handed), are aberrations within a subculture. “Masochists,” he calls them.
“There’s a doctor up here who skates, or ‘wakes’ flies on the surface,” Clous illustrates. “Last season he had something like three hits and landed one fish. For the year. I respect his dedication, but to me, that’s just painful.”
Metallic-gray water mirrors an ashen sky along the Manistee River below Tippy dam. Two boys huddle around a fire that produces more smoke than heat, their ice-crusted spinning rods propped nearby. These budding anglers have spent the frigid day slinging lures with little to show for their efforts, save numb appendages.
Perhaps as a ludicrous act of faith or maybe just out of boredom, one of the youngsters trudges back to the river’s edge and resumes casting. In what he years later describes as a “hallelujah moment,” Brad Petzke suddenly finds himself connected to a leaping, surging steelhead.
Life hasn’t been the same since.
As a boy growing up along Lake Michigan, jigging perch off a vintage Chris Craft was among Petzke’s first fishing experiences. However, his interests soon migrated from lakes to streams. Fortunately, the nearby St. Joseph River was full of steelhead. Dressed for action and peddling a second-hand Schwinn from one fishing hole to the next, Petzke says his waders naturally took a beating. “I was constantly asking my mom to perform surgery on those leaky things,” he remembers.
Petzke’s piscatorial passion eventually lured him north to the solitary, unspoiled beauty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — a region burgeoning with abundant angling opportunities, minus the competition found downstate. “Fight the fish, not the crowds,” is the motto of his Marquette-based outfit, Rivers North Guide Service (riversnorth.com).
To truly appreciate the fish, Petzke shares, it’s important to know their history. Because they’ve been around so long, it’s easy to forget that steelhead aren’t native to Michigan. Like other rainbow trout, the first stocks came from California in the late 1800s. These days, however, a percentage of Michigan’s strains are considered native.
“While some anglers claim they can identify a wild fish on sight, the only sure way is through scale samples,” he explains. “Similar to the growth rings found in tree trunks, scales tell a fish’s life story. Those found on wild steelhead are uneven due to a varied diet and living conditions.” Meanwhile, the scales of hatchery fish are notably more evenly spaced from life in a controlled environment, Petzke notes, adding, with pride, “Up to 95 percent of the fish found in the U.P. are wild.”
Like many fishermen, as a young man, Petzke went through a quantity-over-quality phase, driven more to catch as many steelhead as possible regardless of the method. These days though, how trumps how many.
“Day in and day out, the deadliest fly is still an egg pattern,” the renowned guide attests, acknowledging, though, that spey casting and swinging big streamers are methods that have grown over the past decade: “It takes a certain mindset. There’s no doubt those techniques can pay off big, but you have to be willing to go a long time between fish.”
Fishing for steelhead, Petzke underscores, “You lose for a long time before you win. But when you do, it’s addicting.”
Case in point, Petzke once guided a gentleman who’d recently suffered a stroke and multiple heart attacks. Game to the core, the man never mentioned his artificial heart valves and pacemaker.
“That guy,” his guide affirms, “was totally at peace with the fact that he could easily die steelhead fishing.”
Knee-deep in the icy flow of the Little Manistee River, Ray Schmidt’s mind is reeling. Most anglers of the era are using spawn, but Schmidt is convinced he can seduce the migratory rainbows with feathers and tinsel on lead-core line.
Surely not the first to feel this way, he’s in the minority nonetheless. But his faith in flies comes as no surprise, considering Schmidt learned to tie alongside his uncle, Clarence Roberts (creator of the legendary Roberts Drake pattern), as well as iconic outdoorsman Fred Bear.
Despite his lineage, Schmidt’s initial experience with steelhead was humbling. That day on the “Little Man,” he watched in wonder as his companions repeatedly landed massive fish on bait while he came up empty.
However, by the time the sun set that evening, Schmidt emerged from the river with a profound intrigue for what he calls, “The raw power of big fish.”
Experiences like these prompted him to begin guiding professionally and found Wellston-based Schmidt Outfitters in 1976. Though Schmidt sold the Northern Michigan full-service fly-fishing resort business in 2012, his legacy imprint on the sport remains. Schmidt Outfitters (schmidtoutfitters.com) is still in operation and offers a fully-stocked fly shop, fly fishing schools and lodging. There’s also a casting pond, conference center and professional catch-and-release guide services on waters including the Manistee, Pere Marquette, Little Manistee, Bear Creek and Pine River.
Today, Schmidt hosts adventure trips across the globe through Double SS Outdoors (doublessoutdoors.com) with his wife, photographer and fellow fly angler Kate Smith. He also designs flies for major fly producing companies and regularly contributes to online industry resources such as midcurrent.com.
“From the beginning,” shares Schmidt, “the odds are stacked against a steelhead’s survival. Born (or in some cases, planted) in the river, anadromous fish eventually migrate downstream to a large body of water. The word, ‘smolt’ literally means ‘to return to the sea.’”
In the case of Michigan steelhead, far removed from the ocean, this return is to the Great Lakes. When that happens, the fish “silver up” and school together.
“It’s a survival tactic against predators like pike and herons, which view juvenile steelhead like kids see mini Snickers bars,” he notes. “After living for years in big water, the fish head back to their birth streams to spawn. Their ability to navigate back to a specific river is uncanny, but they manage, despite the odds.”
Today is a bluebird, early autumn day and Schmidt is fishing alone for a change — no small feat for a guide. Skating a down-wing dry fly over a likely lie, a large fish boils, but doesn’t commit. Schmidt ponders his options before tying on a spey pattern of his own design (depicted on page 53).
On the next cast, the steelhead eats the fly without reservation and the stout eight-weight bends in a deep arc. These are moments that live forever in fishermen’s minds.
“A steelhead is the prettiest girl at the ball,” the seasoned angler reflects. “Not everyone gets to dance with her, but those who do remember the experience for a long time.”
Author and freelance writer Jon Osborn resides in Holland. Artist David Ruimveld is based in Vicksburg (davidruimveldstudio.com).
A Day on the River
Steelhead fishing, like steelhead, can be unpredictable. That said, a good guide can mean the difference between frustration and enjoyment. Most guided trips include all necessary equipment, such as rods, flies, lunch and a boat (along with the skill to pilot it.) What’s more, most guides are a treasure trove of river lore, with tales to fill the gaps between fish.
Autumn and spring weather are often volatile, ranging from cold or wet to cold and wet, so proper attire is essential. Dress in layers and don’t forget a hat and gloves. While a cheap, vinyl rain poncho seems like an economic solution, when it’s sleeting sideways, a Gore-Tex parka is priceless.
Because the temperature is often cool, it’s easy to forget drinking water and sunscreen/lip balm. Sunburn, windburn and dehydration are avoidable conditions with a little forethought.
As important as anything else is an open mind. If the fish just aren’t biting, there’s no changing that. Ironically, the fish are a minor component to the overall angling experience — and a day on the river trumps a day almost anywhere else.
— Jon Osborn, Michigan BLUE Magazine.
of a Fisherman
“I fish because I love to; because I love the environs that trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly; because of all the television commercials, cocktail parties and assorted social posturing I thus escape; because, in a world where most men spend their lives doing things they hate, my fishing is at once an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion; because trout do not lie or cheat and cannot be bought or bribed or impressed by power, but respond only to quietude and humility and endless patience; because I suspect that men are going along this way for the last time, and I for one don’t want to waste the trip; because mercifully there are no telephones on fishing waters; because only in the woods can I find solitude without loneliness; because bourbon out of an old tin cup tastes better out there; because maybe someday I will catch a mermaid; and, finally, not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important but because I suspect that so many other concerns of men are equally unimportant — and not nearly so much fun.”
— John Voelker (a.k.a. Robert Traver), 1964, Michigan BLUE Magazine.