Spring Steelhead

Spring Steelhead and What Changed

Environment or Angling

What is it that feels like its changing? Is the environment around me changing, or is it my angling mindset? I remember back 20-25 years ago fishing for Spring Steelhead meant an April float down the Pere Marquette River. Now its seems Spring Steelhead for an angler/guide means a shift to fishing more in February and early March. What has changed? Why is that I’m more excited to chase Smallmouth Bass in April more than Steelhead nowadays? Why is it that my February steelhead fishing is as good as my November adventures if not better? I think we can all agree the environment is changing on many levels and Steelhead fishing in Northern Michigan is no different.

Spring Steelhead

To be completely honest, Spring Steelhead fishing has shifted ahead of what we considered to be our normal timing. The Spring Steelhead calendar has been pushing forward, simply put, February is becoming the new March. This isn’t a one year trend either! For the past couple of years fishing in February has been really good. I would argue that February has been as good as our best October/November days. There are a number of reasons causing this current trend.

First of all, this is the lowest angling pressure during the steelhead calendar (October to April). Most of the popular boat ramps only have a trailer or two on most days. During the weekdays it is usually light traffic and even on most weekends you normally only see a few other anglers in the know.

Second, we have a solid population of fall and winter fish already in the river along with some early Spring Steelhead pushing in from Lake Michigan. Spring Steelhead are now starting to push in February, a common occurrence over the last few years. This year was no different and we saw really good numbers of steelhead throughout the months of January and February. Just like last few years, February is now setting up like March used to when I started guiding back in 2001.

I used to associate the start of the Steelhead run with the popular Warren Fly Fishing Show during the second week of March. I used to always hate working that show as I knew the fishing was so good on my home waters. Now I know that by Valentines day I need to be ready, almost a full month ahead of schedule.

Environment

The third reason for the change is linked directly to environmental conditions. Our winters have been milder by nature and not as harsh over the past 8-10 years. True, this winter saw plenty of cold days, but with far less snowpack than we are used to receiving. We now seem to have a roller coaster of temperature swings with small to big warmups. These warmups will bump flows and trigger runs of fish to come home early. The environment is beginning to show signs earlier that she is ready for our Steelhead to begin their trek home to their spawning grounds.

Other environmental cues also start speaking to us earlier in February. As the winter season has become less severe we are seeing blue birds and sand-hill cranes migrating back sooner. This past week we had little Black Stones fluttering on the surface on Feb 27th as water temps were peaking at 38 degrees on some smaller streams. The calendar is shifting and as anglers we need to take notice. If you enjoy steelhead fishing take a good look at your calendar and start taking notes because change is happening.

Spring Steelhead
Spring Steelhead

March

March fishing is still one of the safest months for Spring Steelhead fishing as you are less likely to get weathered out. This is the biggest negative for February, however fewer anglers on the water can make up for temperamental weather. Even though our winters seem milder, we can and will get long cold spells. If you can time the weather breaks and have flexibility in your schedule, February has proven to boast some solid Steelhead fishing.

Even though March can offer better weather and a good number of steelhead in pre-spawn mode, the number of anglers is increasing. It’s really a simple mathematical equation and fish divided by more anglers equals less of a shared opportunity.

Top 3

Can steelhead still be caught in April? Yes, absolutely! That is not what I’m trying to say here. As anglers we sometimes get stuck doing what we used to do and not what we should. I have enjoyed fun fishing for February steelhead the last few years and I need to share with our audience that this has become one of the top 3 months for Steelhead fishing in Michigan.

Applying the same mathematical principle leads me to this conclusion. The Fall Steelhead fishing is truly fantastic and will always lead the way for steelhead fishing for me. These fish are amazing and water temperature gives them the ability to do things I just don’t see with other Great Lakes fish. However, for pure numbers of Steelhead hooked in a single day, it’s really getting hard for us to beat February.

With Fall and Winter Steelhead in pre-spawn mode, Steelhead are more eager to feed. With fresh Spring run fish just showing up the Manistee River, Pere Marquette, and other Norther Michigan streams are at there peak spring-run numbers earlier in my opinion.

Streamer Season

What other trends have I noticed when I start thinking back on my angling career? One thing that also stands out is the big differences in the Spring streamer game. The Spring streamer season is for those anglers that want no part of the Spring Steelhead gong show. Streamer fishing gives an angler that escape. Now, just like with our Spring Steelhead, we are targeting Trout, Northern Pike, and Smallmouth Bass much earlier than in years past. This past April in 2021 opened my eyes to what the possibilities are.

On a side note, one of the best things that happened two years ago at Mangled Fly was the opportunity to work closer with Jeff Topp and Ed McCoy. The ability to learn more from each other about tactics/techniques and fly vs lure has expanded our guiding in new directions. The angling opportunities in April are now more diverse than just Spring Steelhead and I for one am all for it.

What I’m really excited about for this upcoming year is taking what we learned from last season and applying it to new waters. With so many of my past streamer trips painted into a trout corner, no matter what you did on some days, it was going to be a tough day on the trout stream. However, we now have a back up plan. No more sunny day April Trout-less days!

Trout

Trout fishing in April is still a very realistic option to pursue most days. However, what do you do during a cold front, especially one with bright sunny skies? It’s not to say you could’t catch the fish of a lifetime, but let’s be honest the sun is not going to help your chances. Having a second option to chase with streamers makes more sense and allows us to focus our Trout efforts at times where success is more likely. I will gladly fish for Trout with streamers on cloudy days knowing my chances are going to be much better.

What are the options now you say? How about targeting Spring Pre-spawn Smallmouth Bass as a viable option. These fish are a super fun and really don’t care if the sun is shining all day. Having diverse fishing opportunities is important for success. Conditions are never really consistent and during the Spring even less so.

Smallmouth Bass

Spring Smallmouth
Early Season Smallmouth Bass

One of the highlights of a tough April steelhead run was taking time off to learn a few sections of the river for different species. The 2021 Spring Steelhead season was one of the warmest on record. Looking back we had river temps warming up at a record pace. As Steelhead to hit their preferred spawning temperatures weeks ahead of schedule we were forced to try and figure out a different program. Let me tell you, Spring Pre-spawn Smallmouth Bass are a lot of fun! The Smallmouth Bass in April tend to be bigger on average and very, very eager to take both Fly and Lure.

The big mature Smallmouth are migrating in from the lakes on their way to their spawning grounds. Smallmouth Bass spawn when water temperatures reach 60 to 63 degrees. We were starting to find these fish eager to crush flies and lures in the high 40’s. We had success over varying conditions and these fish were still weeks away from spawning, making them super aggressive.

Tactics

One tactic that I personally spent some time on was the lure fishing. A lure that changed the way I used to think was the Z-Man Jerk Shad. Fishing this lure over several days opened up my eyes on how to properly fish a Jerk Changer and how to better imitate a dying minnow presentation. This lure changed the way I tie flies and how I fished them. I’ve always prided myself in applying lure fishing tactics to my fly game in an attempt to get better. Now some of you might not have heard of either these two styles, but if you’re into fishing for predatory game fish this style of fishing is so important.

This method of fishing also paved the way to what Ed and I did later in the year with Muskie in the fall. Watching a Muskie interact with a Jerk Changer will change your world. If I had not spent time with the Z-Man Jerk Shad I’m not sure I would know how to properly teach and explain how to present your fly (Jerk Changer) to Smallmouth Bass, Northern Pike, Brown Trout, and Muskie.

Rods and Reels

When fishing for Spring Smallmouth Bass in early spring we tend to beef up our rods just bit from our summer program. One observation was the Spring Pre-spawn Smallmouth Bass really keyed in on bigger baitfish patterns. A 7wt or 8wt rods teamed up with a slow sinking line such as the Scientific Anglers Triple Density I23 were most commonly used. The leaders can be heavy this time of year as the water is usually a little murky or stained. It was NOT uncommon for us to run 16 pound fluorocarbon and even a steel leader.

Jeff Topp, once again our resident lure professional, recommends spinning rods in the 7-7.5 foot range with Medium Light to Medium Heavy power that can handle lures in the 3/16-1/2oz range. Choose your rods based upon the depth and cover type you are fishing. Jeff’s preferred line setup for river Smallmouth uses 15 or 20 lb braid for the mainline with 2-3 feet of 15 lb fluorocarbon as a leader.

Better Angler

I have for years felt like fishing for Smallmouth Bass make you a better angler. When Kevin Feenstra and I did our Smallmouth video together it really opened my eyes to the benefits of Crossover species like Smallmouth Bass. One of our mantras at Mangled Fly is teaching you how to be a better angler. Smallmouth Bass will not only teach you to be better angler, but they will give you more opportunities to learn from.

Crossover species allow you to work on proper streamer presentations that are also effective for trout

by Ed McCoy

Too often in the spring we are faced with bright and sunny conditions. How do you become better streamer angler with fewer chances? You need to catch fish. You also need to practice setting the hook and learning how to fish your fly (ie Jerk Changer) at the right speed. As streamer anglers with a fly, we always have slack in our presentation which can cause failure. There are plenty of times this has caused the angler to say, “I didn’t feel it” on the eat.

Crosstraining

To be a good angler you need to practice and learn from your opportunities. The same holds true for lure fisherman. Learning to fish your lure at the correct speed and understanding what your lure is doing under water is no different. Sunny day smallmouth bass trips allow you to practice all of these skills. Being adaptable as an angler will only maximize your Brown Trout chances on the next cloudy day.

Fishing both a fly and a lure has made me a better angler by far. My understanding of gear fishing has made me a better fly angler and my understanding of fly fishing has made me a better lure fishermen.

by Jeff Topp

Smallmouth Bass, unlike trout, are not shy when it comes to sunny days. Sometimes in the spring, Bass can be found out sunning themselves. They are feasting on the many different minnows that are also migrating to spawn. Gobies, Chubs, and many other baitfish, will provide the Smallmouth Bass with numerous prey choices. Smallmouth are not afraid of the sun and always appear to be hungry. This makes them a perfect teaching tool for anglers of all skill levels. No matter if you’re fishing a fly or a lure, Smallmouth Bass are the perfect crossover species.

Closing

I’m not trying to paint a picture of doom and gloom for those that love to fish in April for Steelhead. I am just trying to bring some much needed attention to what trends we have been seeing over the years. I truly understand February Steelhead fishing is not for everyone. I’m fine with that and I know I will continue to enjoy the fishing as much as I can over the next few seasons. With the changing landscape regarding Spring Steelhead, and Steelhead in general, the Great Lakes populations provide an exciting opportunity.

However, as things change, new options become available and our angling experiences begin evolving. In Michigan we are very blessed to have so much water to fish and a diversity of choices within. As a guide and avid angler, I am always trying to get better and its my job to make you a better angler as well. As an angling community, learning more about what other fishing options are available, should always be one of our goals. I hope everyone enjoys your spring season and good luck on the water no matter what fish you’re chasing.

Jon Ray

Fly Fishing Insider Guided Podcast

Fly Fishing Insider Guided Podcast

Scientific Anglers

I am honored to be selected to be part of the Fly Fishing Insiders Guided Podcast series, this series features the Scientific Anglers Ambassador’s and Advisors . This being episode 15 in the series, the host of the show Greg Keenan and I decided to discuss Northern Michigan Smallmouth Bass.

Smallmouth Bass

Greg mentioned he had not had the opportunity to interview anyone yet as it relates to smallmouth bass. I did my best to cover the different ways that I like to target smallmouth bass in Northern Michigan. Going over a few different lines and setups. A key tip I disclose is how I use smallmouth bass to help me later in the year show me those off the radar steelhead spots. Make sure to give the podcast a listen and let me know what you think.

Podcast

Jon Ray

sculpins kevin Feenstra

Gobies–Everything Eats ‘Em

Over a decade ago, zebra mussels invaded our rivers, and left a trail of destruction in our Great Lakes and their tributaries, altering the resource.    In their wake, something that preys on these mussels also arrived, the round goby.    Round gobies are an invasive species, and as such they squeeze out native fish.   However, they have become a food source in any river attached to the Great Lakes.   In some of the bigger rivers, such as the Muskegon and Manistee, they have become a primary food source.

Fly anglers should take advantage of the presence of this bait fish!    They are most commonly a sandy tan, and can be found just about anywhere.  They are most commonly found in areas with high concentrations of the mussels (especially in proximity to dams).    You can fish them with a sink tip or with an indicator, they work well either way.

I most commonly use them for smallmouth bass and for steelhead in a sandy tan.

Don’t hesitate to try them in an inky black, as the males will carry this color through the late winter and through the summer as they breed.    They can naturally be quite large, and can grow up to 10 inches in length.   Check out how big this one is; it is being consumed by a merganser:

Like so many invasive species, gobies have worked their way into our food chain, and will probably be here indefinitely.    Even the snakes eat them!

As far as invasives go, these are useful ones.  Add some gobies to your fly box; big things love to eat them!

Thanks for looking!

Kevin Feenstra

 

 

 

 

smallmouth bass

The Midsummer Bass Shift

When you spend a lot of time on a river, you eventually learn some of the subtle changes that over the course of a season.   These small changes can have a big impact on the fishing.

Through the late spring and early summer, I spend a lot of time fishing along rocky banks with crayfish patterns or poppers depending on the activity levels.   This type of  fishing becomes inconsistent in the middle of the summer on my home river, the Muskegon.

The target species in the summer is smallmouth bass and any other warm water fish that will bite.    Smallmouth are built to eat crayfish, but they are glutonous fish, gorging on whatever is most available to them.

You would think that this would be obvious but it was not always clear to me–during the summer the slower edges of the river become weedy, and in many places smallmouth simply shift over to the weeds.  They cruise these weedbeds in search of mature minnows that have become super abundant.  Often these weedbeds are directly opposite of the rocky, classic smallmouth spots.   On a large river, this makes such spots easy to overlook.

These  baitfish are the  shiny type minnows such as shiners, chubs, and daces.   They permeate the water column.   I do a bit of snorkeling in my free time.   It is enjoyable and very educational.   Typically the biggest species of baitfish are toward the bottom of the water column.   They can be quite large and there are silly amounts of them in the tailwater rivers.    It is not uncommon to see common shiners and chubs that are over 6-8 inches in length.  Because of the large size of many of the baitfish, large attractor patterns can work very well around the weeds.   Utilize colors such as yellow and white for best success.

Hornyhead Chubs are a classic example of a large baitfish living in the weeds

I used to be fixated on the bottom of the river when snorkeling, until one day I happened to look up agains the surface.   There, in the top few inches of the water column, I was shocked to see a large number of colorful shiner minnows.  These minnows move very quickly!    I came to know these fish as rosy face shiners and they are a very abundant food source among the weedbeds.    These small and quick fish are typically 2-4 inches in length, and this size is often preferred by smallies.  A good imitation of these can be tied simply:  bead chain eyes, wing of gray-olive craft fur, flashabou, and a head of cinnamon ice dub (or red foam if you want a sly and deadly popper).   This fly should be fished stripped quickly with a pause.


Rosyface shiners are common along weeds in the upper part of the water column

If you are fishing rocky smallmouth habitat and have a hard time finding fish, don’t hesitate to fish a shiner pattern above the weeds or a big baitfish pattern a little deeper.    A lot of times a change of fly selection and  habitat is all it takes to find fish.

-Kevin Feenstra

 

Patagonia Fly Fishing uses MFM image

Always flattering when a company like Patagonia asks to use one of our images.

smallmouth bass

Pic of the Day – Yellow streamer and Smallmouth Bass

Underwater Bass with yellow streamerLow clear water and aggressive smallmouth bass, make for some fun images.  Always appreciate the time that customers give me on days when I can get out of the boat.  Special thanks to Jerome for letting me take a few minutes and capture a quick photo or two on your smallmouth adventure.

Smallmouth Bass fishing continues to be really good, with some big bass around this year.  Make sure to follow along on the river reports page for the Manistee River and Kevin Feenstra’s Muskegon River Report.  For your summer smallmouth bass reports.

Jon Ray

Bass Popper

Bass Popper

Bass Popper Pattern

Woke up this morning to a very nice text message from Bob C.  Bob was fishing Bass Poppers last night, and he wanted to share his success on the Mrs. Pakman popper pattern.   Fishing Bass on topwater, no matter if they are smallmouth or largemouth bass, is personally on of my favorite experiences with a fly rod.  The explosive takes and visual experience, that you get when a Bass takes your popper is something every fly angler needs to witness.  It truly doesn’t get any better, than Bass on topwater.

The Mrs. Pakman was a pattern that we covered in the Big Appetite Smallmouth Bass  DVD  from a couple years ago.  Kevin Feenstra and I collaborated on this Smallmouth Video, to cover all aspects of smallmouth bass fishing.  One of  the 6 patterns we covered was this simple foam based popper, it is easy to tie and highly effective.  Check it out, if you haven’t.  The Pattern is covered int he 32 nd minute of the video.  Also you can watch the video On Demand here.  Thank you for your support.

If your not into tying your own top water patterns.  But your thinking of buying a few for this summer’s Bass fishing adventure.  Two things to consider when buying a popper.  First, what is the underbody color.  The most important color is what does the bass see.  Don’t worry about the colors on top of the popper.  Some great choices to start with are yellow, white, and then go dark for an assortment like dark green or black.  Second, is the hook gap on a popper.  Make sure if your buying a Bass Popper that you buy one with a big hook gap.  No less than the width of your thumb.  Make sure the Bass Popper can hook the Bass that your targeting.

Some of the best  Bass Poppers to buy are the Boogle Bug Popper , make sure to check these Poppers out for your Bass fishing needs.  They are a little expensive for a fly, but they are truly worth it.  Very durable, come in great colors, and are perfect size for smallmouth and largemouth bass.

Happy Bass Fishing,

Jon Ray

swing pattern

Fly Tying Beverages

swing pattern

Well, it’s that time of year again.  I’ve inventoried my fly boxes and I am scrambling to fill my spring, summer & fall fly boxes for the upcoming seasons, as old man winter starts thinking about taking his nap, I hope!  This winter has been full of tinkering with new materials and techniques for favorite fishing, steelhead on the swing. Per usual, I completely forgot to do what I always intend, which is to fill the holes in my boxes from a spring, summer and fall of fishing.  Ugh, production tying.  Not a fan.

The most enjoyable part of tying for me is the development stage or learning of new patterns.  When I sit down to let my mind wander and relax into it’s artistic side & start free styling, my default is steelhead streamers.  The array of colors and materials that one could imagine using and attracting this quarry is astounding.  So I play with color combos and styles of flies deep into the night while sipping on something brown.  Bourbon, rye and scotch being the likely suspects.  Sometimes the next day I awake with a headache, grab some coffee and go critique my flies from the night before.  The bigger the headache, the more likely it’s “WTF was I thinking!”  Sometimes I impress myself and sometimes the razor comes out & the hook is shorn of the monstrosity.

Which begets a question that I hinted to in the title- what are my beverages for tying flies?  Sure, whiskey has turned my brain and fingers into madness & what transpired on the vice was abominable, but some nights it’s more about the drink than the tying.  Then there are the nights that a neat dram of whiskey is the perfect accompaniment, as a sip every so often soothes my soul and the whiskey’s temperature does not change & some of the resulting flies have found permanent places in my boxes.

So, here’s my guide to what to drink when tying flies.  Yours may very as we all have preferences.

  1. Production/Repetitive tying- I have three schools of thought here…
    #1 Drink coffee to keep you rolling and the mind free from the numbing effects of doing a dozens of the same pattern.  I know a few guides who really like tying production, as it gives them a “check out time” when they don’t have to think about what they are doing as they done the fly hundreds or thousands of times.  Especially the dreaded egg patterns.
    #2 Drink water- no better time to hydrate.  Until it catches up with you and you spend more time in the bathroom than at the vice.
    #3 Drink a low alcohol beer.  Think macro brew or old world Pilsener.  Pabst has been a fly tying staple for some for many years.  Personally, I go with a craft “Session” beer.  Short’s “Ale la Reverend” is my favorite when it’s available and  Founders “All Day IPA” is good to go all year long and comes in 12 pack cans.
  2. Dry Flies/Nymphs- kind of falls in to the same category as above.  They are not my strong point, so I stick to H2O.  Sometimes red wine is a good option.  It’s a sipper, doesn’t loose it’s temperature and gets better as the air mixes in and it “opens up”.
  3. Wet flies/Soft Hackles- tradition would call for a fine dram of Irish or Scotch as these patterns were originally from the British Isles.  But be careful, as once you start working on the wet flies with tented or married wings, your fingers and mind need to be nimble.  On the other hand, simple soft hackles like the Partridge and Red/Yellow/ Orange that work so well, can be done when a wee bit addled.  The other traditional drink that I partake in if it’s summer and I am refilling the Wheatley box would be a tall Gin and Tonic.  Nothing says summer like a G&T while tying wets/soft hackles!
  4. Traditional Steelhead and Atlantic Flies- Once again a glass of whiskey does well and for me, it has to be a Single Malt Scotch, likely from Speyside and even more likely it’s Mortlach 15yr or Macallan 10yr Fine Oak.  I savor this traditional beverage slowly, maybe only taking a sip as I put the hook in the vice and when I take the finished fly out.  I need all my wits about me when trying some of these complicated beauties.
  5. Streamers- Beer, beer and more beer!  I love tying streamers and nothing goes better than beer.  Likely something with a little kick, like a Stone IPA or a Ballast Point “Sculpin IPA”.  Beer keeps my juices flowing and my thirst quenched.  I tend to wet down and pull back materials on my streamers as they can get in the way of the next step.  Usually all that is needed is a little saliva and beer aides in this process!
  6. Freestyle/Creative Session- Bourbon…on the rocks.  When I’m messing around testing new ideas or materials, bourbon fuels the fire!  It is also my go to spirit, period.  When I am creating new flies, my concern is not for the immediate finished product, as it’s very rare that something comes off the vice and doesn’t get tweaked and refined.  Most of the time it’s put somewhere on the desk where I look at it and critique the shape, size & proportions of materials.  Then I tie it a second time with my improvements.  Then I repeat this a third time.  But I stop there until I can see them all on or in the water.  Some patterns of mine have looked great until water tested and afterwards, straight into the garbage or under the razor.

One last thought…when it comes time to clean up your tying area, as I know most of us let it go until we can’t stand it, I advise a strong cocktail to ease the pain!  Maybe a Dark & Stormy, a Moscow Mule or a Manhattan.  My desk is a mess right now and will be until I knock out all my spring & summer flies.  Then it will get cleaned up and likely stay that way until after the summer, as I will be too busy fishing & not tying.  Unless I blow through a certain pattern that is lighting them up, then it’s back to it and the dreaded production tying begins.  Ugh, production tying…and you better bet there will be an adult beverage involved!

Slainte!!!

New MI State Record Smallmouth

New MI State Record Smallmouth has been caught.  More on the story click here

Jumping Smallmouth – Pic of the Day