Spring Steelhead on the Manistee River


Tired of waiting for the St. Joseph River to clear up—and having postponed our annual St. Patrick’s Day steelhead sojourn already into April—Jim Romine made the call: we were going to the Manistee River instead.

Within minutes of our start, as soon as we cleared the first bend below Tippy Dam, Romine was at complete peace with the decision.

“I love the Joe,” he said as he rowed the drift boat slowly against the current. “But this scenery is hard to beat.”

He’s got that right. Is there any place prettier than where the north woods meets the river?

Within an hour, the decision paid off in the currency we were seeking.

I saw the rod tip bounce on one of the four plug rods were using as we drifted downstream, and leaned to grab it. “Oh, oh,” Romine said, “Bob’s on point.” But when the rod failed to load, I settled back into my seat—only to lean forward again a second later when the rod tip repeated its unusual gyration. Obviously (in retrospect) the fish had taken the plug and charged upstream with it. I grabbed it, reeled, and was fast into a steelhead.

Before I could gain much ground, Romine hollered to Rick Behr, who was manning the seat next to me: “Fish on four!”

A double. Nice way to start.

Rick Behr shows off a fresh steelhead.
Rick Behr shows off a fresh steelhead.

I reeled in my fish—about a four-pound, colored-up buck—and brought it in. Romine, who’d dropped the anchor, netted my fish. But Behr’s took a little while. It was a highly-colored fish, too, but it could have eaten mine. It was easily in the double digits.

We were running Fatfish, from Yakima Bait Company, which, if you’re unfamiliar with the lure, is similar to a Wiggle Wart. We had two gold ones and two nickel ones—custom accent-painted by Romine, as is always his way—and both fish took the nickel lures.

“Makes sense,” said Romine. “Nickel reflects the most light on overcast days.”

The pattern continued. Two hours later, we had two more in the both, both on the nickel baits.

This is when a lot of guys might have switched to all nickel baits. Not Romine. If you can’t catch ‘em on two, what makes you think you’ll catch ‘em on four?

As we wound our way downstream and hit some softer water, Romine directed us to switch baits—and in Romine’s case, that means switch rods, too.

Romine carries two sets of rods, using stiffer, faster-tipped rods for the fast-water plugs and softer, slower-tipped rods for the wide-wobbling baits he prefers in less current. We switched to Mag Lips (again from Yakima). Within a half hour we had our fifth fish in the boat, a chrome skipper—also on a nickel bait—that I immediately released.

That’s when things changed. The wind switched directions, cooled down, and picked up. We were in the teeth of a weather front; the birds were no longer singing or flying around, the squirrels, which had been omnipresent, disappeared. We went three and half hours without a strike.

That was fine by all of us. After the brutal winter we’d endured, just being out on soft water again was cake enough. The steelhead were icing.

It gave us time to go over some of Romine’s fishing philosophy, which is both widespread and reasonably deep.

Romine takes the belly hook off his plugs, saying it decreases line-fouling and doesn’t impact hooking rates. He adds a second split ring to the rear hook—he replaces the factory hooks with Gamakatsus—which not only increases his hooking rate but his landing rate as well, he said. He sets his reel drags as light as possible, but still allow a hook-set on the strike, despite the fact that he runs 17-pound test line. You just use your thumb to clamp down on the line when you’re gaining on the fish. It if makes a run, lift your thumb, and let the drag work.

Jim Romine's decision to fish the Manistee River, instead of the St. Joseph, paid off in steelhead.
Jim Romine’s decision to fish the Manistee River, instead of the St. Joseph, paid off in steelhead.

When our drought broke (at 4 p.m.) we hooked—and landed—our sixth ‘head. This one was more chrome, a newer arrival to the river. It took the nickel bait, too.

It turned out to be a momentary reprieve. The next two hours produced nothing, except a little more philosophy. Romine carries an extra of each of his rods. If you hang up and break off a plug, which we did a couple of times, you take the spare, put it in the rod holder, and are fishing four rods while you re-tie.

This is a guy who maximizes his opportunities.

At 6 p.m., as we neared our take out, we hit (and landed) another fish—another chromer, taken on a gold Mag Lip. So what changed? Who knows—would it have taken the nickel bait if that’s all that was out there? I can’t say.

Romine slowed us down and worked the last several hundred yards meticulously. We hit another fish (again on gold): a chrome hen that was dripping eggs as we hoisted her aboard.

Romine immediately produced a Ziplock bag and had Behr hold it under the fish’s vent as he held her. Fresh steelhead spawn is like gold this time of year.

Within sight of our take-out point, another rod went off. It was another chromer (and again on gold).

We’d gone nine for nine. One of the fish had wrapped around a branch, which we reeled in with it. Another ran across two lines and both plugs, but when we cleared the line, we still had the fish. No explanation for that except clean living.

It was outstanding. But not unusual. It’s rare that I fish with Romine that we don’t catch ‘em well.

As for his call – “go to the Manistee, forgo the St. Joe?” Well, what can I say? I’ll tell how he figures it next St. Patrick’s Day.

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