There wasn’t any reason to get started early, as it was cold (below 20 degrees) this late-March morning and the bite would improve as the day progressed, Jim Romine said. The weather forecast–blue skies–wouldn’t hurt a thing.
“When you have really cold temperatures, those fish sun themselves,” said Romine, a steelhead angler for 35 of his 49 years. “That sunshine is good for them, especially in murky water that warms up through the day. When steelhead are in the river they spend 99 percent of their time in less than eight feet of water. Even out in the lake, you catch them less than 35 feet deep. They’re not afraid of the sun.”
Well, he has a point. Go out to a thermal break in 300 feet of water and you generally catch steelhead on baits that are barely subsurface.
So we got on the river at 9:30 a.m. and within 15 minutes–less than five of which was spent with baits in the water–we had our first fish in the boat. But we missed our next two.
“It’s still cold,” Romine said. “They’re not taking it good yet.”
Romine is something of a throwback, preferring to run plugs downstream from a drift boat, a technique that was standard 20 years ago but seems to have gone out of favor, replaced by jet sleds and fishing with bobbers.
“I like the quiet and the effectiveness,” said Romine, who has been fishing from a drift boat for 23 years. “I can get in a lot smaller water with a drift boat–though as I’m getting older, I am beginning to see the benefits of internal combustion engines. But drift boats are very effective at what they do. You can find good out-of-the-way spots. And they’re very cost effective, very low maintenance.”
It’s certainly a relaxing way to fish (except for the guy who’s rowing). Just slip slowly downstream, rods in the holders, letting the current make the plugs work.
Our plugs were doing their jobs; by noon we’d put five steelhead in the boat.
I was fishing with Romine and his buddy Rick Behr on the St. Joseph River, a trip I’ve made with this pair a handful of times over the course of a decade or so. We have never not caught them (though last year, Romine went the day before we were scheduled, blanked, and called off our trip) fairly well.
Perhaps part of the reason for our success is Romine is a stickler for detail. There isn’t anything he leaves to chance.
For instance, Romine uses two different sets of plugs, one for fast water, another for softer water. This day we were using Hot Shots in the stiff current, Mag Lips (a new West Coast plug) in the slower stuff. But that’s just the half of it. Romine carries two full sets (four) of rods–shorter, faster-action rods for the fast current, longer softer-tipped rods for slower water–something he started doing 15 years ago.
“I like that fast-action rod for the fast baits,” he said. “And in the slower water, those plugs are more wide-wobbling and the slow-action rods give the fish time to take the plug. It’s soft enough that by the time they realize something’s amiss, they‘re already hooked.”
The plugs have been doctored, too, repainted with accent colors and metal-flake. Romine adds a couple of decal eyes to the aft end of the baits (“I noticed years ago that I seem to get more hits with the baits with the eyes on the back,” he said). And he adds a second split ring to the hook on the bait’s tail.
“It gives the plugs better action and that extra pivot point keeps the fish from being able to get leverage against the plug to throw the hook,” he told me.
Romine changes hooks as soon as he takes a plug out of the package. He prefers Gamakatsu round-bend hooks because they’re razor sharp and are a little lighter (in weight) than standard factory hooks.
“And I never sharpen them,” he said. “If they get bent out of shape, which they do, I just take the pliers and bend them back. But if they get dulled, I just replace them.”
When running four plugs (his standard approach), Romine uses two different color patterns and alternates them: nickel/gold/nickel/gold. His favorites have blue backs (which he paints) though if the water is especially murky, he goes to brighter colors: gold/orange or green pirate.
We hit a fish here and there–only once did we have two from one hole–and put the bulk of them in the boat. At one point, Behr was steering a sizable chromer toward the net and when I dipped it, the fish swapped ends, quickly, and got out of the net. When we recovered and got the fish headed into the net again, one of the hooks caught on the mesh, the fish made a final headshake and got loose. I accept full responsibility for that miss.
Other than that, we only missed one other fish after the early morning half-takes. We wound up going nine for 13; pretty fair fishing for plug-running this late in the year that far south.
And it wasn’t over; Romine and Behr went back for two days the next weekend and did well–though not as well as we’d done–again.
So maybe spring has been delayed a bit this year. Romine’s not complaining.
“The cold weather really helped us out this year,” he concluded.
Images by Bob Gwizdz