The rod tips were nodding softly in the rod-holders as the small outboard motor pushed the14-foot boat slowly across the mouth of the Manistee River where it empties into Manistee Lake. The water was 10 feet deep, an ideal depth for our lures to be.
I made a slow outward turn into slightly deeper water, and as we made the turn to port one of the rod tips snapped down toward the surface, and 60 feet off our stern a 10-pound steelhead seemed to hang two feet above the water before crashing back down with a heavy splash.
John McKenzie of Mt. Morris grabbed the rod as the fish burst off on a 20-yard run, yanking 10-pound monofilament off the reel. John had played this game before, and knew to keep the rod tip high and the line tight.
"It feels like a good fish," he grunted, as the trout took out more line before it was ultimately landed. The intense tug of war took place under a leaden November sky as a cold north wind came tunneling down Manistee Lake. It was cold and getting colder by the minute, and this was the second fish to strike in an hour.
Our first fish was a bit smaller, and it hammered a silver with pink spotted X-5 FlatFish, and tore line off the baitcasting reel as it lathered the surface. I grabbed the rod, leaned back to tighten into the fish, and McKenzie reeled in the other two lines to avoid having this fish tangle everything up.
Trolling for steelhead is a trip, in more ways than one, and it can be especially productive during November and December as steelhead move upstream from Lake Michigan, through the lakes and into the rivers. The trick is to be there at the right time, and knowing how to troll.
Not everyone hunts deer during November. Many people like you and me are still fishing, and catching some trout.
My personal preference is to hunt during the rut but my daily fall routine often includes some surf and turf, to turn an old phrase. I'll fish hard in the morning and early afternoon, and then hunt the last two or three hours of daylight.
A select group of hardy individuals will fish some inland lakes from now through ice-up. Some years that may come in early December, and at other times, we can troll the drowned river mouth lakes until late December or early January. An angler has to be a hardy soul to fish just before ice-up and on several occasions we've had to break skim ice for 20 yards to get away from the launch site.
Drowned river mouth lakes? Say what? What does that mean?
A drowned river mouth lake is a lake at the downstream end of one or more streams, and just upstream from Lake Michigan. The water of these rivers pour into these lakes, spreads out and eventually drains into Lake Michigan through a long or short channel.
There are a number of such lakes near Lake Michigan, and all can provide good steelhead fishing until ice-up. Examples are Kalamazoo and Silver lakes in Allegan County; Betsie Lake between Frankfort and Elberta in Benzie County; Arcadia, Manistee and Portage lakes in Manistee County; Pere Marquette Lake in Mason County; Duck, Mona, Muskegon and White lakes in Muskegon County; Pentwater, Silver and Stony lakes in Oceana County; and Macatawa and Pigeon lakes in Ottawa County.
Knowing these lakes are there is one thing. Knowing how to fish them effectively is a different story. I've trolled these lakes for more than 40 years, and over that period of time, I've managed to learn some tricks that work at times and fail at others. This is not a 100 percent success fishery.
The first thing to understand is it's impossible to troll too slow. If you see an old-timer with even more grey hair and whiskers than me, and he is rowing a 14-foot aluminum boat, pay close attention to him. Rowing a boat slowly was the way I learned to fish these inland steelhead lakes.
The lure of choice among old-timers is the FlatFish. This doesn't mean it's impossible to catch fish on other lures, but these lures have always produced well for me and are the lure of choice for most anglers.
FlatFish can only be fished slowly. Troll them too fast, and they flip over and come to the surface. I've yet to see a steelhead grab a lure skittering upside-down across the water.
X-4, X-5 and U-20 (small to larger) FlatFish work best for this type of fishing. The smaller sizes seem to work best although the larger lures seem to produce better as the weather turns really cold before freeze-up.
During my guiding days I spent a great deal of time experimenting with lure colors, and have narrowed it down to several fish-producing colors. Silver seems to work best although silver with pink spots is productive. We also use flame-red with black spots, grey-pearl, orange with a black stripe, and have caught a few late-fall steelhead on a variety of other colors.
Where to fish is fairly easy. Troll along the edge of the first dropoff that falls from the shallows into approximately 10-12 feet of water. Any sonar unit can help a troller stay in steady contact with this depth.
Where to fish doesn't mean sticking to this specific depth at all times. It means moving slowly in and out of shallow to deep water, but be aware that too shallow water may cause the lure to foul on bottom debris. This cuts into trolling time and leads to the possible loss of costly lures.
Be alert to the fact that most drowned river mouth lakes were used more than a century ago to hold logs for saw mills. The bottom of these lakes are laced with slab docks and old wood pilings. Lure loss can be a challenge.
Trolling also means making sudden turns to port or starboard. Steelhead often follow lures for some distance, and if a lure suddenly darts to the left or right, or speeds away, it can lead to a jarring strike. A short 10-foot speed-up and slow-down also can trigger strikes from following fish.
Don't double-back too fast on a trolling turn or you'll tangle the fishing lines. That can lead to more wasted time. Troll lures 60 to 70 feet behind the boat. We fish three lines: one off each side and a shorter line directly behind the motor. Planer boards can hold lures away from the boat.
If a fish hits and isn't hooked, triangulate that position with three points on shore and slowly make a wide turn and go back through the area again.
Anglers are advised to read specific regulations for the counties in which they fish. Find specific regulations in the 2008 Fishing Digest listed under the county in which the lake is located.
Anglers will be well served by a 71/2- to 8-food light to medium-action rod. FlatFish can twist a trolling line, and one way to avoid this is to tie on a barrel swivel six feet up from the lure, and then tie in the leader to the swivel and line tie. This will allow the lure to wiggle freely at slow speeds while reducing twisting the line. A level-wind baitcasting reel with a smooth drag works well.
Adjust the trolling speed by dropping a lure over the side on a short line, and watch the wiggle. If it flips upside down, or appears as if it may turn over, slow down even more. A slow throbbing of the rod tip usually indicates the lure is working properly. If it runs to the left or right, bend the line tie in the opposite direction. A tiny adjustment may be all that is needed to make the lure work properly, and test each lure after a fish is caught because they may need another careful tuning.
It's possible to hold the rods while trolling but we've found it is far less tiring, and easier on the wrists, when a big fish strikes. These fish are about as subtle as a root canal, and there is little doubt when you've had a strike. A handheld rod can lead to a sore wrist.
Fall steelhead often roll or porpoise on the surface, and it's been my experience that such actions mean the fish are not actively hitting lures. Most strikes seem to come from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and especially when the sun peeks out from under heavy cloud cover.
Just how big do these steelhead get in the late fall? It's a good question. My late twin brother once caught one weighing 191/2 pounds, and lost an even larger fish. Steelhead that size are still hooked at times, and are occasionally landed, but everything must be working in the angler's favor.
He fought that fish for nearly 40 minutes, and it jumped twice, wallowed on the surface 30 feet from the boat, and then it dove again. He noticed the fish was hooked by one hook on the tiny treble on an X-5, and decided to play it gently. The hook fell out as it was netted and lifted into the boat.
Such fish aren't taken every day nor are they taken every year. Such big steelhead come along only occasionally, and Lady Luck must be on your side to put such fish in the net.
Tired of trying to find a good deer runway to hunt, or hoping beyond hope that a mature whitetail buck will turn your way, then perhaps it's time to sample a different November pastime. Trolling drowned river mouth lakes can be the ticket to an exciting new experience with a hefty steelhead.