NEWAYGO — Funny, isn’t it, how temperatures in the low 20s can feel like a heat wave?
That’s how it felt when I spent Valentine’s Day on the Muskegon River with Jon Kolehouse. It was the first time this winter that I went fishing without an ice auger and though it was cold — the line guides on our rods froze up after every couple of drifts — it felt downright balmy. Kolehouse, a seasoned veteran of the winter steelhead wars, said the fishing has actually been quite good this winter, though he’s had to cancel more days than usual as a lot of guys have balked at fishing in the deep freeze.
“I had a half day yesterday and we went seven for eight,” Kolehouse said. “I had a full day Saturday and we went 23 for 30.”
It seems pretty obvious that the steelhead haven’t been beaten about the head and shoulders this winter. On my fourth cast, I was into a fish, a good one. It took me downstream immediately and whenever I leaned into it to gain a little line, the drag just slipped some more.
“Are we going to have to chase it?” asked Kolehouse.
“Well, I’m not gaining any ground,”’ I said, but before Kolehouse could even reach for the anchor, the fish pulled off. Oh, well.
A couple of casts later, Kolehouse’s bobber went down. He connected and immediately reeled an 18-inch brown trout to the boat. (It was one of three nice resident browns we’d catch as well as five resident rainbows.) We were fishing with spawn bags on baitcasting gear. Kolehouse has gone almost exclusively to baitcasting reels in recent years, though he sometimes brings a couple of spinning rods along, too, because of some his clients “are afraid of them,” he said.
“They probably threw one as a kid and remembered what happened,” he said.
Truth is, baitcasting reels are much more forgiving these days than your grandpa’s reels were. With magnetic anti-backlash features, even a youngster can master one in relatively short order. They are far simpler to use than spinning rigs for bobber fishing because you can control them with one hand — just thumb the reel and let the line play out; there’s no opening and closing bails every few yards to get a good drift — and if the bobber goes down, just clamp down with your thumb and set the hook. It’s instantaneous.
But there are a couple of caveats; you need a reel with a large line guide in icy weather as small ones will freeze up. And if you don’t keep the ice out of the rod eyes, you can still backlash a baitcaster in a heartbeat. But generally, I find them far superior to spinning reels for bobber fishing.
Kolehouse uses Quantum reels — models that are no longer in production — that fit the bill perfectly. When they discontinued the model, he bought every one he could find, he said. Smart move.
Kolehouse pairs his reels with long rods — he likes 11-footers — and spools up with 12-pound floating monofilament (Raven) line. He adds a 3/8th ounce in-line weight, and about three feet of fluorocarbon leader with a single BB-size split shot halfway down the line. We used small spawn bags tied with steelhead eggs.
After our flurry of trout, Kolehouse hooked, but lost a steelie. I did, too. Then I connected and brought a five-pound fish to the boat.
It seemed to change the pattern. From then on we lost just one more steelhead — a big, hook-jawed, red-colored male, easily weighing in double digits, that Kolehouse seemed to have whipped, but it pulled off right at the boat. (It hit the frame of the landing net I had in the water when it darted away.)
I managed two more steelhead. Kolehouse boated three, too. We were six for 10 — a fairly acceptable rate, I’d say — in a little more than four hours of fishing. Not bad at all.
Kolehouse announced that we had time for one more hole — he wanted to be off the river by 2 p.m. as he had some errands to run — so we ran downstream a ways. I didn’t take too long before I saw the bobber go down and swatted it. The fish came out of the water almost immediately.
“LRB,” Kolehouse pronounced, which is guide-talk for lake-run brown. Kolehouse said he hadn’t seen one since fall. I brought it to the net. It added an explanation point to what had been a very fine day.
Not only was I delighted to spend a day fishing not bent over a hole in the ice, I was intrigued by the trout action. Last winter, I remember, Kolehouse remarked that the trout numbers appeared to be down. Apparently they were there all along — every trout we caught was at least a two-year-old fish — but just not cooperating. The season on brown trout is closed on the Muskegon River until the proverbial last Saturday in April, but the season on rainbow trout remains open. I took a couple home and made Valentine’s dinner for my sweetie: blackened trout with Emeril’s Bayou Blast. They were outstanding.