By Charles Chandler
Many Newaygo County fishermen think November is about the perfect month for chasing steelhead. The oaks and maples along the river are showing off their fall colors, and on a given day the weather can still be pleasant. The eagles, hawks, and waterfowl are not as spooky and the river appears be slowing down and getting ready for a winter's nap.
Not all is slowing down because steelhead fishermen know this is that wonderful time of the year when those chrome missiles leave the depths of Lake Michigan and streak up the rivers to their favorite winter hangouts. Steelhead are called the “King of Trout” and each autumn one of these fish brought to the net is a well-earned trophy. They are wary, reluctant to bite and once hooked, a challenge to land. At the end of the fishing day steelhead fishermen most often talk about the reel-screaming runs and those signature tail-walking, tippet-breaking jumps, rather than the number of fishes brought to hand. There are a couple of tricks that you can use to up your odds of getting a photo of one of these beauties: hire an elite river guide and choose your fishing partner wisely.
November 1 was perfect when this N3 correspondent met elite fishing guide, Nathan Hulst of Hulst Outfitters and fishing partner, James Helgemo, for a day of fall steelhead fishing on the Muskegon River. Nate has been guiding on the Muskegon for about 25 years. Jim is a retired White Cloud school teacher, Master angler, a former Fenwick Rod representative and fly-fishing instructor on the famous rivers around Bozeman, Montana. On this day there was about 65 years of steelhead fishing experience in the boat. Both Jim and I have our own riverboats and regularly chase steelhead on the Muskegon with friends and family, often fishing the same favorite spots. Curious minds might ask why, with that amount of experience and equipment, would they hire a guide? Because it makes for a fun, less stressful day of more productive fishing.
Each day these fishing guides like Nate have to solve a very complicated puzzle for their clients. To consistently catch these “King of Trout”, the guide has to solve a rubik's cube of variables while interacting with clients, watching the weather, reading the water, untangling lines, dodging hooks and all while the clock is ticking. When you fish with a guide it is a busman’s holiday and you can sit back and relax because you don’t have to work the day's puzzle. Jim and I agree we love our sport but would not be a river guide for all the money in Fremont.
The launch point for the day was Mystery Creek. We loaded into Nate’s custom guide boat or as we think of it, the brown magic carpet. With a push of the throttle, we were flying down the river watching the beautiful fall foliage roll by. We stopped at one of Nate’s hot spots and the game was on. The gear of choice was centerpin rigs and the steelhead plat du jour was 8mm custom-painted magic guide beads. It should be mentioned that steelhead fishermen are quite unrealistic about their sport, most addicted, most superstitious and all believe in magic.
As we watched our indicators (floats) drift through yesterday’s hot spots, the boat chatter began. When we saw a Great Blue Heron wading along the shore the conversation turned to the challenge the Muskegon rainbow and brown trout are having. According to those in the know, this year the rainbow trout population on the Muskegon River was decimated. The likely causes were the unfortunate timing of maintenance on Croton Dam with the lack of rain resulting in low water levels, minimal flow and excessively warm water temperatures. Trout simply cannot survive in water temperatures like we had in the Muskegon River this summer.
It is suggested that another ongoing factor in their demise is predation by the growing numbers of Great Blue Herons that are stalking the riverside. These voracious fish catchers have learned where the fish hatchery trucks dump fingerling trout. They know that after being dumped at the boat ramps and bridges these small trout hang around for several days making them an easy meal. The river guides say that it is rare to land a Muskegon River rainbow trout that does not have a scar from a near miss by the dagger-like beak of the Great Blue Heron.
After giving the herons what for, we are off again and flying up the river to the next secret spot. Nate is constantly changing the puzzle pieces trying to find that elusive combination of factors that will elicit that magical bite.
It is very dramatic when a hot fall steelhead bites. It typically freezes your reflexes and the decision-making part of your brain. When you hook one of these bullets a good steelhead guide knows that usually the battle is lost in the first few seconds. He will stand six inches from your ear and scream as loud as he can, “DON’T TOUCH THAT REEL”, “HOLD THE ROD UP”, or “REEL, REEL, REEL.” Sometimes this works and your body reacts automatically, but most often not.
The first matchup for the senior correspondent resulted in a total beatdown by one of the bright silver acrobats. The fish cartwheeled across the river like an Olympic gymnast, as I predictably dropped the rod tip giving the fish of dreams enough slack to dive into a world-class log jam, breaking the spider web tippet. There is nothing like that feeling when the line goes limp and your friends quietly tell you, “It's gone.”
After one of these heartbreaking moments, if you have chosen your guide and fishing friends well, they will comfort you and help you recover some sense of self-respect. In this case, a short break was recommended so Jim broke out the greasy donuts and sliders. Hot coffee was poured all around, Jim fired up one of his trademark cigars and someone told a joke. While we drank coffee, we did the obligatory instant replay, shedding all personal blame for the previous loss (kind of like the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboy football coaches do at the end of the season). By the time the denying and lying and coffee break was over, hands had stopped shaking and Nate had tied on another magic bead. It was time to get back in the ring.
So went the day on one of Newaygo County’s great rivers -- zipping along the river on a brown flying carpet, chasing steelhead, sharing sandwiches and coffee and telling those “Do you remember that big fish…?” stories with friends.
It was truly a thrilling and magical day on the Muskegon River.
For a day on the river, whether new to the sport or an experienced veteran, there are many different methods and types of gear you can use to fish for these great sporting fish. Additionally, there are many quality river guides in our area that will accommodate your skill levels and preferences.
For a variety of very good reasons I always recommend two Guide Outfitters: Nate Hulst and Kevin Feenstra and his guides. These outfitters are usually booked a year in advance so make your appointments early and wait impatiently. More details can be found on their websites: http://www.michiganriverguide.com/ and http://feenstraoutdoors.com/wordpress/
Sidebar: Sports fishing on the Muskegon River makes a significant contribution to the Newaygo County economy. During peak fishing season you will see cars from a variety of states. We have fishing friends living in Denver, Kansas City and Dallas that come each year to fish for Michigan steelhead. It is strongly argued that you have to fish the storied rivers of Oregon, Idaho, Washington or British Columbia to find steelhead fishing as we have here in our home waters. The local guides, lodges, B&Bs, fly shops, custom boat builders, car spotters, and restaurants all receive a share of the proceeds delivered up by these fishermen.
As a cautionary note, our Western Michigan salmon and steelhead are a fragile resource and must be carefully monitored and managed. As the reputation of the Muskegon fishery grows so does the number of fishermen. All factors in the life cycle of these sporting fish are important and impact the health and numbers of these migratory fish. These include the impact of invasive species on their food chain, the DNR stocking programs, the quality and amount of the water in the Muskegon watershed, their predators like Pike, Lamprey, Heron, Osprey, Eagles, Kingfishers, Mink, Otters, and the number of fishermen and the “catch and keep” creel limits. All fish and their environments can take only so much stress, be it from loss of habitat, over-fishing, predation or changes in the larger environment. Many of the rivers are losing their steelhead population and in many of their former ranges, they are being listed as extinct or an endangered species. We cannot take our Western Michigan rivers or these great sporting fish for granted.
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