MANISTEE — On my fourth cast of the morning, I backlashed the baitcasting reel.
It was well below freezing and I guess, thinking about it, one of the line guides on the rod had frozen and you know what happens when the line on a revolving-spool reel stops suddenly while the spool’s still spinning? It isn’t pretty.
I took me a fair bit of time to pick out the bird’s nest. The water from the line had frozen on the spool, complicating matters, and though I have a fair bit of experience picking out backlashes (trust me), it was a struggle. My host, Mark Chmura kept after me to let him fix it, but heck, I’d done it. No reason he shouldn’t keep fishing.
After I cleared the snarl, I let the bobber drift downstream and within seconds, it disappeared. I shot the rod tip skyward. Bingo.
Chmura started laughing.
“That fish was sitting there looking at that spawn bag dangling there for five minutes and when it came down to him, wham.”
Indeed. It was a gorgeous bull steelhead, about nine pounds according to Chmura’s calibrated eyeballs, bright silvery with that faint red stripe along the lateral line that gives rainbow trout their name. I brought it to the boat. Chmura netted it, hoisted it for a quick photo and released it back into the river.
It was a fine start.
We were fishing from Chmura’s 20-foot flat-bottom boat in what most believe is the state’s finest steelhead river. Chmura, who’s in his 27th year as a charter boat skipper, runs on the big lake spring, summer, and much of the fall, but hits the river in the winter. He said the rest of the day, now that I had my photo, would be all gravy. And a fine sauce it was.
We were fishing with 13-foot rods that helped us keep the slack out of the line as we let the bobbers float downstream.
“Right now those fish don’t fight like they do in the fall, but once they get near the boat, they make sudden jolts and they’re thrashing and bulldogging,” he said. “Those 13-foot rods really cushion the blow, so you can drop your line weight down with a longer rod.”
We were running 12-pound monofilament with a 6-pound leader. That made a difference, he said.
“When the water’s really low you need that lighter leader,” he said. “You get more bites. I use 8-pound when the water’s stained and high.”
Fish have been plentiful this season, Chmura said. “It’s been steady.”
I’ve known (and fished with Chmura) for a lot of years now. He is a good guide. And a good guy. We talked about his job as watched our bobbers drift downstream. He said his main goal is to have everyone on his boat catch a fish. If that happens it’s a good day.
“We’ve done way better than that all year, but in the past we’ve had some lean years,” he said. “Back in the ‘80s, it was a struggle to get everyone a fish.”
Chmura said what makes his job so rewarding is he’s able to put people — many who have never fished for steelhead before — on fish.
“Yesterday I had three people including a father and his son who was mentally challenged,” he said. “The boy caught two steelhead all by himself. He kept opening the cooler and telling the other guys that his fish were bigger than theirs. He was a happy camper.
“It doesn’t get any better than that.”
We’d launched down near Manistee Lake and ran well upstream, then fished our way back down. The water was rising — must have been because of some sort of dam operation up at Tippy because it was way too cold to be run-off. We caught a fish here and one there.
By early afternoon, we’d gone five for six, putting one hen in the cooler — Chmura kept the spawn, I took the fish home — and we’d let the rest go. And I noticed two things almost concurrently: The water had stopped rising and was, in fact, subsiding, and, we hadn’t caught more than one fish from any hole.
And that’s when everything changed.
Chmura caught a fish. And then another. Then I caught one. Then Chmura caught another. And another. Then I stuck a big mama — easily the best of the day — that I fought well up to the boat until he gave me one those jolts that Chmura talked about and the leader popped. (This was my own fault; I was pressuring the fish too much.)
At that point I’d had as much as I’d wanted and called it a day; I could still get home early enough to prepare fresh blackened steelhead for dinner. It was outstanding.
Chmura said the fishing should only get stronger as we head into spring.
“You get fish trickling in all winter, but there’s still a lot of steelhead out there in the lake,” he said. “Pretty soon you’ll be dodging a lot of traffic.
“I stop fishing on the river as soon as I can get the big boat back out on the lake. I don’t like combat fishing — I don’t want to be elbow to elbow. I’d rather be out in the wild as God created it.”
Here, here. All day long we’d only seen one other fishing party. But we also saw eagles and turkeys and who know how many other critters. The scenery alone was worth it. And fishing? Just excellent.
You can reach Chmura by visiting www.pierpressurecharters.com.