It’s sad that so many Great Lakes anglers have their boats put away for the season. In the southern part of Lake Michigan, the fishing is still rocking, and you don’t need a real big boat to catch some steelhead.
Or at least hook some steelhead, as my friend Troy Scharlow and I found out this week. We hooked five of them out of his 17-foot Boston Whaler. We landed zero.
Shortly after steelhead number five came close enough to see it weighed about eight pounds before making one last lurch to freedom, Troy commented, “it’s a good thing we both have turkeys defrosting at home and aren’t fishing for food.”
But good fishing trips aren’t always qualified by the quantity of fish in the cooler. I’ll take five hookups in three hours any day, along with good company and learning about where to catch, er, hook, steelhead on Lake Michigan in late November.
Troy invited me for a Thanksgiving Eve day trip after he and his 16-year-old son Drew caught a steelhead trolling the channel between the big lake and Holland’s large Lake Macatawa the previous weekend. That fish hit an orange Silver Streak spoon behind a Church planer board almost immediately after they set lines under a midday sun.
We met around noon on Wednesday, and soon had four lines set. The lake proper was a bit lumpy with a moderate breeze from the south, so we trolled an oval pattern between the piers, out to where the slightly murky Macatawa outflow mixed with clear Lake Michigan and back up the channel. It got downright repetitive, and whatever fish might have been there didn’t like our offerings, which included the weekend’s hero Silver Streak, a soft plastic swimbait on two colors of leadcore and a couple of Brad’s Thin Fish, a short, rattling crankbait.
After an hour I pulled the swimbait and replaced it with a jointed orange and gold Floating Rapala Minnow, a cold-water favorite. Within a couple minutes the planer board swept back and a steelhead of maybe three pounds somersaulted out of the water. It was on about 90 seconds. And then it was gone.
As we continued our oval troll, I got a call from fishing and hunting pal Kevin Essegburg, who calls Holland his home port. When I told him how we were trolling and our general lack of action, he suggested we try the sandbars to the north of the pier.
“Some guys surf fishing up that way have been catching some steelhead. I’ve done well trolling in that direction all the way up to the state park, about a mile and half up.”
He said lots of guys troll crankbaits slowly and catch fish, Others get steelhead by trolling as fast as 4 mph with small spoons such as Dreamweaver Super Slims.
We opted for the crank technique, putting out a second jointed Rapala and adding a fifth line that had a copper/red Thin Fish.
Kevin had spoken truly, and we soon hooked a second steelhead on the Rapala behind the 20-yard length of leadcore. It stayed hooked for about 30 seconds. Then it was a Thin Fish’s turn to briefly hold a steelhead, and then ia fourth steelhead bit and spit the Rapala behind the leadcore. It was a wee bit frustrating.
“You’re bad luck,” my good friend told me rather directly.
“Yeah, it’s the curse of the camera,” I said, reciting a common outdoor writer excuse but actually feeling like maybe I really had put the whammy on the outing. “I’m good to go back whenever you want to.”
“OK, we’ll just turn and troll back and up the channel,” he replied. He was doing the driving while I was watching the four rods across the back of the boat.
“Hey, your flat-line spinning rod just took a hit!” I said. It had jerked down violently. Just as Troy turned to look, it bowed deeply, this time, drag squealing as I pulled it from the holder. It felt like a really good fish. Troy slowed the boat to a crawl and cleared the leadcore as I tussled the fish towards the boat. Two long runs and much guessing about the species since it hadn’t jumped like most steelhead do, it came close enough to see. It was indeed a steelhead. About eight pounds—smaller than I had figured. Troy had the net ready, I eased it closer and it jerked its head, snapping the line and swimming away with the second orange Rapala.
Good time to call it an afternoon. Those fish made both of us mad enough at them to look forward to another trip!
First image by Troy Scharlow, second by Dave Mull