Archive for February, 2010

By Author & StoneFly WineClub Member Bill Semion

Doc Green’s and Birch Hole. Whirlpool. Rosebud and Jorgenson’s. And Merle T. “Simmy” Nolph. If you’ve ever slipped a wader leg into the swift, westward-flowing waters of West Michigan’s Pere Marquette River, you might recognize those names. If you haven’t, you should.

The Pere Marquette, named for one of Michigan’s pioneer priest explorers and flowing cold and clear from springs to the east of Baldwin, is just as storied in its trout, and salmon history.

It is in the hearts of all trout anglers (or should be), because it was the first stream in the nation to be planted with brown trout, brought to Michigan by boat and wagon to Flint, then carted cross-country to be reared at a hatchery and, as Frank Willetts, the tallish ponytailed owner of the Pere Marquette River Lodge Baldwin will tell you, planted into the river on a Tuesday in 1834. It was designated a Natural Wild-Scenic River in 1978.

The best steelhead action comes from the P-M's holes

Willetts hosts anglers from across the country at his lodge at the start of the flies-only stretch, to fish those storied holes I named above. His guides can introduce you properly to this stream’s seemingly constant cutbacks, oxbows, twists and turns. “It’s simply an awesome cold water fishery because it sustains a huge migratory fishery and having the top 8.6 miles as flies only also enables our browns to grow to exponential form,” Willetts says.

“Along with those you get steelhead, salmon, and coho, and also white suckers, which are a huge food source for the trout. You also get lake-run browns that spawn and once in a while a rare Atlantic salmon. You also get summer-run Skamania steelhead, all naturally reproducing in the river,” Willetts continued.

“Our winter steelhead usually start showing up around Oct. 15 to gorge on salmon eggs. The salmon start trickling into the river the third week in July, and in the ‘little man’ (Little Manistee, just a few clicks north of the lodge off M-37) the third week in June,” he said.

More solid salmon numbers come in mid-August, which is a great time to throw streamers or hardware downstream from the flies-only stretch. Deciding on which of the river’s 22 public accesses to use depends, of course, on conditions.

Water temperature is key, he advises. “Forty-two degrees is optimum. Colder temperatures below 34 degrees make fish sluggish and when you’re at air temperatures below 20 degrees, fishing is questionable.”

While I learned to fish the PM’s steelhead by sight, Willetts says most fish the holes with a strike indicator, which looks like a bobber. Tied between two pieces of surgical tubing, protected from twisting by a barrel swivel, weighted with split shot and ending in a leader that Willetts recommends should be about the length of your rod, it’s the best technique available for plumbing the holes which can reach 10 feet deep or more.

“You should rig like this: fly, another (dropper) fly, split shot, then the indicator. Use a size 12 swivel,” he said. As for flies, there is only one real choice in Willetts’s book: an egg fly. “Egg flies, and possibly stonefly and hex (hexagenia limbata) nymphs. On eggs, use size 10 or 12 hooks and 8s and 10s on stones and hexes.”

Winter, steelies are primarily in the holes and as it turns spring, they’re in center water on the gravel. They’ll spawn at the top of runs and in late winter they’ll still be maybe 15 feet downstream in the pools. So if you’re fishing the wrong spot at the wrong time of the year, you’re fishing empty water.

“Winter fish spawn as soon as the water temp creeps up to 40 or 41 degrees. So as soon as you get warm-ups starting in March or even February you’ll see hen fish on gravel,” guide Ryan White said.

However, first, they’re spawning, Second, if you rip a female fish off a redd, the six or seven males behind it jockeying for a chance to get lucky will leave. Third, anglers like Willetts and White say it’s just not kosher.

“Steelhead are our most coveted fish and I try not to rake gravel if I don’t have to. And, the fish in the darker water are often the ones that will bite best. If they’re feeding, they will be at the back of the holes where all the current is going to funnel food right to them,” Willetts explains.

“Count on steelhead being around until May 11,” Willetts says. “Then the summer run will start coming in at the end of May into June, but that’s more hit-and-miss.”

Fly action for big browns dominates summer. And, come fall, others will be rigging their heavy rods for the salmon that again push upstream from Lake Michigan to spawn, renewing the cycle that makes the PM unique among Michigan trout streams.


February at the PM Lodge's full-service fly shop

The PM Lodge also offers a full-service Orvis shop and plenty of advice, as well as river maps and guides. The PM has excellent access for anglers on foot; however expect plenty of company especially in early April. Closest airports are Traverse City and Grand Rapids.

The river is fairly swift, so you may need a wading staff. For information, call 231-745-3972, or go to www.pmlodge.com.

For information on P-M River Fishing Conditions check out Orvis Fishing Reports


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