The old adage is that when the wind blows from the east, fish bite the least. But along the Michigan coast of Lake Michigan, a prevailing easterly wind in the summer blows warm water towards the middle of the lake and brings cold water—and steelhead—to shore.
And steelhead usually don’t care which way the wind is blowing. They bite.
Most of the fish at the pier heads in summer are of the Skamania strain, named for the river in Washington where the broodstock originated. They move up rivers in summer, staying until they spawn in late winter. They are lean fish, known for long, aerial battles when hooked.
When steelhead anglers hear that the lake has “flipped”–that the cold water is now close to shore–the word spreads quickly. They line the piers or put in their boats to troll around the river mouths and the fun begins. And this week, when the lake flipped, the water temperature around St. Joseph, Michigan was 54 degrees and the steelhead were there. On Monday, the action was fast and furious. Many pier anglers caught three-fish limits. Others hooked into limits, but some of the steelhead were too much for their tackle. One fisherman reportedly caught and kept way more than his limit and got pinched by a conservation officer.
So on Tuesday evening, we headed out on the south pier surrounded by thick fog—and we learned we should have been there yesterday. Oh, fish had been caught earlier in the day and several more came to long-handle nets when we wet lines shortly after 7 p.m–we just didn’t happen to be the guys dipping dime-bright steelies, and the action didn’t come close to matching Monday’s top-shelf mayhem.
Such is fishing, and as a pier rookie, I still learned a lot.
Tyler Harmon, a 21-year-old fish-head with 14 years of experience catching silver fish in Lake Michigan tributaries and from the pier, took me under his wing. I had brought a couple of steelhead rods spooled with 10-pound test Blood Run Hollow Monofilament, a new, unique line that floats. Tyler, who works at Brett’s Place on the Bay tackle store in Sodus and is on the Blood Run Tackle Pro Staff, was eager to demonstrate how well the line worked with bobbers.
His two nine-foot spinning rods already had slip floats, sinkers, and hooks rigged and he soon duplicated the set-up on my rods. He added fluorocarbon leader below the main lines and tied a single 4/0 hook on one, sliding a fluorescent orange Berkley Power Bait Trout Nugget up the shank and hanging a large peeled shrimp on the hook. He snelled two 2/0 octopus-style hooks on the other, piercing an alewife fillet so that the bottom hook swung freely. One of his rods had the Power Nugget/shrimp bait; the other had a small dead alewife.
Before baiting, he had checked the depth on each rod by attaching a one-ounce pyramid sinker to the hook and adjusting the slip-bobber knot until the bobber was two to three feet under the surface—which meant it would suspend the bait two to three feet off the bottom.
With bobbers set, we cast just a short distance from the side of the pier and stuck the rods in PVC-and-rebar holders Tyler had jammed into holes in the concrete pier surface.
Floats appeared to be the most popular presentation, although some fellow anglers had bait pegged to the bottom and a few cast brightly-colored spinners and spoons.
It turned out we had the right presentation in the water, but apparently on the wrong part of the pier as a few anglers farther out and near the end of the pier caught fish on shrimp below bobbers.
One was Clyde Brazie, a pier regular from Hartford, Michigan who set up a special bobber rig that used a pyramid sinker to keep the float from drifting into other anglers’ lines. He caught two nice steelhead on shrimp.
Although west winds will no doubt start up again, pushing warm water into the eastern Lake Michigan shallows, Tyler said that steelhead fishing can still be good if the water temperature doesn’t climb over 70 degrees. Steelhead often stick around, especially if there are schools of alewives and other baitfish in the area, and the same bobber set-ups work. Plus, you never know what you’ll catch—Tyler has hooked into big catfish, freshwater drum, and some anglers have even caught walleyes.
And few things are more relaxing than soaking bait from the pier. Bring a couple of rods, a folding chair, rod holders, and a long-handled net. Either a cooler or a long stringer works to keep your fish. It’s a simple way to enjoy some of Michigan’s finest fishing.
Editor’s note: This article originally indicated that limit for steelhead was five. It is in fact three, and has been corrected as such.
Images by Dave Mull