I loved playing ice hockey as a young boy. Being raise in a Polish/Austrian immigrant household and spending time in the motherland as well as my upbringing in Niagara /Buffalo; with a brief period in Niagara-on-the Lake /Ontario, before my parents could move to the states and become citizens, I already lived in three countries by the time I was 10. But there was two things common to all three. One was the sports I loved and was taught to play- they had a goal-also known as “bramka” in Polish. Two things had to be put into it- a ball in the warmer months and a puck in the icy winter. The other common bond was that all three places loved the art of Trout/Salmon/Steelhead fly fishing. Thus all my passion was fueled towards those two- and oh yeah!, good food and eventually I found out what girls were. But the passion for steelhead was super intense and took-up a great portion of my life even to this day.
My ice hockey matches were at 6 am on a Sunday because Americans couldn’t get ice rink times before Niagara built their own rink in Hyde Park, thus we got crap times due to the best slots being held for the Canadian teams. After we would drive back to the border control in cold winter lake-effect blizzards in January and February and the entire car ride after a brief synapsis by my dad of what I did wrong in the match (Poles always focus on the negative despite I usually scored a couple of goals with my fierce slapshot) , the conversation would quickly turn to April 1st and the opening day of trout season as I awaited my early breakfast of burgers, hot dogs and fries at the local diner joint called “The Whistle Pig”. Back then all the regalia and excitement focused on opening day and the crazy things people would do to be on their favorite pool/ run awaiting the midnight start of the opening of trout season. Some would camp by the stream in the usual freezing cold or walk long distances to burn lanterns and fires to stay warm all just to get to that hot spot we so patiently dreamed of all winter before there were extended year-round trout seasons.
We had three choices. We could go to small trout streams that were stocked, or had wild populations of brown trout and brookies like my favorites Wiscoy, East Coy, the Oatka and the Allegheny Park streams. Or it was off to the Finger Lakes and stalk the migrating big rainbows that ran up Catharine’s and Naples creeks. But unfortunately here we would be elbow-to-elbow with throngs of anglers that had dreams of big migratory silver. Or the other option was to the fewer smaller tributaries of the Cattaraugus up on the reservation of Zoar Valley and hunt those “silver rainbows” that seemed to shoot up in April, do their spawn things and vanish as fast as they came- this was a shot-in-the dark proposition since there were fewer of them back then and they were wilds. So what I’m getting to here is spring meant “silver steelhead rainbows”- for a very short time in April, but boy were they amazing to catch when you you usually caught 10 inch trout!
This same scenario took place in the Great Lakes from Erie PA, through Ontario and into Michigan and upper Wisconsin off the Bois Brule on Lake Superior. Bottom-Line: spring meant chromed silver steelhead mania! And the insane early morning rituals for the spring run still exists 50 years later as I hear guide jet boats racing and flying up the river at 3 AM in front of our lodge to seal the spot. And many a guide will row strong and hard at 4 AM to get to that prime gravel run to post and have the day made if they get it – some things in this crazed chrome fueled passion just never changes does it?
FALL RUNNERS AND THE BEGGINING OF A NEW AGE
So how did fall steelhead start their amazing love affair with trout bums? It was these extended seasons where the quality wet fly swinging sportsman ( spey dudes) and spinner guys fell in love with the chrome ferocity of the fall fish that were so aggressive and loved to chase shiny things and eat salmon eggs. It was here the the Holy Grail of the Great Lakes spey swinging, plug-pulling/spinner, egg dunking passion began.
But!, the spring was still the domains of the spawning run of rainbows/steelhead, and still is! Yet the ethical conservation minded sportsmen saw greater sport and valor in the chasing an aggressive /eating rainbow, rather than molesting them on spawning gravel. But if done correctly, you could still manage to get those same ethically correct thrills in the spring by carefully choosing how and where you fish- that’s all! ( But authors note: Catch-and-release should be mandated on all steelhead rivers from March 1 through May31-PERIOD!, no exceptions)
In my Steelhead Dreams (2001) first edition version I talked in depth about “window-of-run” opportunities to create a fall runner. By their native indigenous range design they start entering their Pacific streams in the fall on salmon runs in Washington, Oregon, California and B.C.-its in their genetic code. Their are summer strains but that is a whole separate topic- we are mainly sticking with the winter strain here. So the engine is built to start the upstream migrations in the fall. BUT!…the catch here is conditions have to be just right. Chrome steel may be aggressive and vulnerable but their bio-brains ain’t no dummies! First of all, big lake and shoreline/river temperatures must unite for that ideal “magic carpet ride’ for the fish to come up ( 45-64F). If one end or the other part of the equation of lake v river isn’t quite right ( one hotter than the other, but rarely colder), fish say” I aint gonna go!”-unless there are piles of King and Coho spewing their pheromonal love scents all over which smells “egg buffet” to our beloved rainbows!
But it all will come down to “water, water, water”. “Got water-got steel” like the milk commercials. But again why did we have big steelhead runs in years where we had dry rivers and hot summers I beseech thee the question? ? It all lies in three factors: summer weather variables, amount of fish in the big lake and possible distractions to keep them from running. One we could track for sure-weather, but the other two are always a mystery.
THAT DAMN CLIMATE CHANGE THING AGAIN
So it has been really, really really hot the past three summers- documented and not folk lore! But we have had these brutally hot summers in the past before- and very cool summers in 2003/2004, which produced excellent steelhead runs in those years in the fall. But what happened in the summer and fall of 2010 even though it was hot and rivers ran low, was the up-down volatility of weather and cold fronts. These wind/rain events cause lake thermocline turnovers and off-shore winds that keep bringing cold water near shore even in blistering hot weather. Summer of 2010 saw some good off-shore blows and kept the steels and salmon moving back and forth in the lake. When you have long, hot dry summers, high pressure, the fish park in very deep water 70 feet and and much lower and far out, and rarely glimpse the thought of the shoreline- same with the bait prey they follow. Thus those volatile years we had lots of turnovers- thus more “shoreline poking” by steel.
Now to numbers in the lake- BIG UNKNOWN! We could theoretically gauge smolting success, fry/parr survival and amount of them in the rivers…but!, what happens to them at sea is always the mystery. One thing is for certain- the amount of warm water predators for steelhead smolts in the Great Lakes river mouths/estuaries and lower rivers is “SOARING THROUGH THE ROOF WITH CLIMATE CHANGE!” Yup, bass, walleye, Musky, pike are eclipsing epidemic proportions and they love silvery sardine looking fish-steelhead smolts! So coupled with massive up-and-down bait fish/alewives monitoring by my good friend Chuck Madenjian at USGS and if you combine bad bait prey years with growing warm water predators?- bingo!, a disaster for returns. Finally, sometimes things get in the way of steelhead deciding to go upstream in the fall. In some years heavy schools of sticklebacks, perch, deep-water sculpins, bloater chubs, shiners and now gobies can keep steelhead preoccupied with staying in the big lake to eat and say “screw the road trip up the rivers!” So there are many variables here and sometimes luck is the final draw. But remember fall steelhead has always been a “panning for silver” game and always are a chase, unlike spring where buckets of them show up!
But what is really important to note in this whole climate change gig ( lets not get into a hate filled political party debate here please- its happening!!, and has happened countless times in 75 million years ok?- its our time!) is that global heating is remaining longer and longer into fall and into the start of winter, keeping our waters to retain heat longer-especially the larger bodies of the lakes that take time to heat up, and reversely take time to cool down . So here we are today as I write this February 8 th ,2021 and we had our first 0 F degree day last night- a little late for the start of winter! Thus steelhead and migratory fish are driven by thermoclines in the big lake/ocean systems and have their finely regulated migratory bio-clocks fine tuned to different variables including light and temperature. So when I am swimming in Lake Michigan in early October- and swimming in one of the deepest cold-water glacial lakes, Torch Lake, in early October, something is amuck here. Don’t you think migratory fish like steelhead, lake-sea- run browns, salmon also are kind of messed up also! What I’m getting at is these warmer cycles are keeping more fish out in deeper zones longer, along with their bait. Thus traditional run-timings are a mess and sometimes the fish dont’ come in until the eggs and sperm are ready to burst through there bellies!- and then its off to spawn fast and furious, and get back to belly stuffing whatever food they can find .( more to come further in this piece)
THE STRAIN GAME
The “hallowed sacred ground-zero cow” of the Great Lakes steelhead Cinderella story took place courtesy of a dude named Fitzhugh Jr. in Michigan.
” In 1876 Daniel Fitzhugh Jr. transferred the first eggs of the western “red-sided, or Shasta trout from the McCloud River to Michigan, and most likely raised them at the Northville Federal Fish Hatchery and the first plantings took place on the the Au Sable river off Lake Huron.” Subsequently eggs from California were then shipped to a new Federal Fish Hatchery near Paris, Michigan on the Muskegon River, where the first wild natural reproduction of steelhead was documented in the Great Lakes. Then the eggs of these Shasta/ Crooks Creek strains were sent to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New York. In 1879 progeny of these first eggs were raised at the Caledonia Fish hatchery and then stocked on Caledonia Spring Creek and went into the Genesee and then down to Lake Ontario.” ( Steelhead Dreams 2001, Matthew Supinski)
So the Cinderella story of the “rainbow goes east” goes on and on from the initial plantings and the evolution is still taking place as to how these western indigenous fish are finding a comfort zone in the Great Lakes. The fact is we have brought so many different strains of rainbows/steelhead from the west coast that there really isn’t a true blue-blooded pedigree line-up of “super steelhead” genetic Gods that swim our waters. Paul Seelbach, “Mr. Doctor Steelhead” of Michigan has done his master work on the Little Manistee Michigan strain back in the 60’s/70’s and these fish probably have the purest “ground-zero'” genetics of all the bows that swim our waters. The other is probably the Skamania summer strain that are carefully selected for their early summer running genetics by Indiana like they have been on the Washougal River at the Skamania Fish Hatchery since their inception.
But overall the winter strains of the Great Lakes such as Chambers Creek, Ganaraska, Ontario and the other micro-strains are a mixture of California rainbows, Rouge, Umpqua, Siletz, Washington state and some few B.C. genetics sprinkled in. The Michigan strain that still is wild and propagated in the Pere Marquette/Little Manistee, Platte rivers is probably the purest breed we have, along with the Bois Brule and Knife Minnesota strains.
DARWIN’S CODE-EVOLUTION OF THE FITTEST
The beauty of psychology is how we are always trying to define human behavior as it evolves due to both human/socio induced factors and what nature is doing and how its molding us, just as it does in the animal/botanical worlds. Nature v Nurture was a concept where is that person a result of its genetic behavioral code or the way it is raised and nurtured- like saying ” all gypsies are thieves by design, no matter how they are raised”- thus Aryan crap theories that failed miserably in the fall of the Third Reich madness. The old “ugly is bad to the bone” sayings and “can’t cure stupid” sort of play on that theme. The movie “Trading Places” with Eddie Murphy is sort of like that. Is nature molding evolution or how the species is responding to it, is part of the this brain twisting conundrum. Same goes with fish frankly, and I think the evolution of steelhead in the Great Lakes has been occurring and is doing so at a much faster rate with climate change. “All rainbows are not created equal-close!, but not equal”.
In my popular Steelhead Dreams book I predicted that Great Lakes steelhead are slowing evolving towards spring runners. This was the same spring runner I encountered as a boy back in the late 60’s/early 70’s- they were spring rainbows! – and rainbows spawn in spring! The fall running genetics are still there, but!, as our waters stay warmer longer into the fall, droughts and “no water” keeps becoming a constant thread, the big lakes stay warmer, thus the late winter/early spring is becoming more-and-more the norm for returns, and the fall becomes more a unicorn hunt! But those fall fish are so super hot, so amazingly aggressive to strike a swung fly or egg pattern, and look so sexy in chrome, we just cant help but love them!- plus those first big alpha fish are big and beautiful!
From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense to run later. If I were a steelhead, why would I want to come up river in drought stricken, no-water situation and dodge anglers, predators’ when I could stay in the lake all winter and eat prey comfortably, gain weight and than run in May when I absolutely have to- and usually on high snow run-off waters!- makes sense to me!
WHAT IS THE PERSCRIPTION -MANAGING THE FUTURE AND NOW
We can’t reshape what nature and climate change, and the natural evolutionary cycle that is occurring with all living things, even Covid viruses. But we can re-think a few things and how we manage. Here are some thoughts to help spread the love for steelhead out to everyone and the fall/winter and spring runs intact with their integrity for each in place.
One is to obviously stock more steelhead which is the prescription Lake Erie abides by on the US side, not in Canada where wild is held sacred and management is for the wilds. Lake Erie between PA,NY and OH gets about 1.2 million steelhead stocked in it every year!- THAT’S INSANE! BUT!…you go there and you catch lots of steelhead “rainbows” – a double digit day there is the norm! “If you stock it- they will come” is the rule and its working. In Michigan which prides itself on its steelhead runs being predominantly on the wild side and probably 60/40 wild v wild strain stocked, we dont have the stocking power due to the size of our state and the 151 rivers that have steelhead runs- Erie ,PA has 22 of them- and they are tiny for the most part? So Michigan must do a much, MUCH! better job in protecting their wild Paul Seelbach sacred cows by going to a “1” fish limit-PERIOD!, not the absurdity for allowing to kill 3 fish daily limits that still exists today- that is ancient fisheries management in todays modern management approach. Plus we must have more spawning sanctuary water closures like they do to protect wild strains and mandate catch-and-release for spring steelhead like the MDNR does for walleye, bass and other species. It is obviously a ridiculous double standard and we are sending the message out that “we don’t care about steelhead- bass and pike are more important?- absurdity ! As we see the pie ( steelhead population) is shrinking, the only logical immediate solution is lower the harvest rates- more slices of pie for everyone!- common logic here.
Finally, our state has great fisheries management judgement we must seriously give credit to, We use wild strains to stock our brown trout and we hold the Michigan strain steelhead in high integrity by only doing egg-taking/stripping from one wild genetic population on the Little Manistte weir every spring- but herein lies the problem! Each year it seems winters take longer to manifest, and they stay colder/longer each year with climate change. Thus our egg taking seems to be pushing later into April each year on the average- so exceptions do apply. But we are creating a pure spring run-fishery by this method. So we are capturing spring running fish on the average that have spring running genetics. If we want to preserve more fall genetics that we love, we should capture a few each fall and preserve those early running genetics like Indiana does with their Skamania program. Yup it is more costly and where do you keep these fish till late winter is the dilemma. But my logic makes sense! Maybe in managed ponds like we do walleye since the air and water are already colder and dont need ground water- don’t know, just tossing that out there!
2021 SPRING PREDICTION AND LAKE-BY-LAKE ANALYSIS
I’ve been at this steelhead guiding gig now for 27 years. My guided customers will attest to the absolute hysteria and excitement I “still” convey when we hook-and-land a gorgeous steelhead. I don’t have to fake the steelhead orgasms, it just happens! Some people are called to do this-I was. That rush is in my spirit and soul and I can’t change that!-nor do I want to! The excitement of each fish is earned and such a blessing we can never take for granted or we are doomed! – numbers only taint the entire experience. A true steelheader is one of dreams and visons of these unicorns on certain days …or the gates open and we are flooded with chrome and nothing can go wrong. Steelheading either sucks or is amazing- for me amazing is catching that one magnificent gorgeous chrome hen adorned with pink and lilac hues, or the crimson red-banded buck that gives blistering runs and aerial leaps and gives you the adrenaline and endorphin high indescribable. When I loose it I will quit guiding! When you meet a guide that treats each fish as a nuisance you find a guide burned out and should be flipping burgers at Micky D’s, not the sacred honor of guiding for steelhead!
So…every year we always go into this waiting game in winter. Unless we had a great fall/early winter run we get nervous, start writing long blogs like this, accusing the DNR and DEC agencies of neglect, mismanagement etc. etc. Believe me!, those agencies and biologists want nothing more for you than to catch lots of fish!- they want you to be very happy! But sometimes mother nature throws curve balls like she is doing now- “is what it is”
So in hindsight after all this analysis by paralysis, I know one thing that hasn’t really changed. Somehow these Michigan strain holy cows, these precious Paul Seelbach 150 year creations of genetic uniqueness, these masterpiece fish “just show-up”, and usually when everyone thinks “the run is over!” I always humor myself every year getting my old clients back for their return spring homage and them always telling me… “we stopped by the fly shop and they said “the run was over”-meanwhile I’m seeing more fresh chrome steel that day and its well into May than ever before in April-funny how that goes eh !
SO… Michigan steelhead /Muskegon prediction for now through spring of 2021 is we will see a massive spring run, as we always do!- nothing changes!, they just always seem to show -up…God bless us! I think its going to be awesome and you wont have to read my blogs anymore and go fishing and catch stunning steelhead!- wouldn’t that be great! :)..But, we must learn to cherish each fish and earn them and forget this crazy Great Lakes numbers game we have been so spoiled with. Gluttony and greed just taints the experience and remember how gifted and blessed you are to get the opportunity to go on hallowed waters and maybe catch a beautiful fish! It’s a privilege that every day of life brings us, and let us never take that for granted.
In the winter issue of Hallowed Waters Journal, myself along with 6 other amazing authors put together one of the most in-depth pieces on how to hunt and chase winter/spring steelhead that was ever authored in a magazine. I covered the science here, so now its time to go fishing! Yes 20 K words on how they respond to the fly, how to read water, how to present your flies-every in-depth variable you could ever think of when hunting steelhead- Great Lakes and West Coast! Dig into it and subscribe toady!…for the passion and journey for all things Trout/Salmon/Steelhead , come to www.hallowedwaters.com
BRIEF ANALYSIS OF EACH GREAT LAKE AND THEIR STEELHEAD SITUATION
Nothing needs to change here. Their wild steelhead rivers on the Ontario side of Thunder Bay and Wawa are doing well. The small tributaries and the Knife of Minnesota’s Grand Marias coast and the Bois Brule of Wisconsin have stunning wilds in an arctic-like, deep-cold oligotrophic lake where steelhead should really not exist! Remember they evolved in the California/Baja of Mexico 1.5 million years ago and normally like rich, eutrophic hunting grounds for prey like the ocean is, not a sterile deep cold lakes. If there was anything we need to look at here is how carefully they managed their wild steelhead fisheries when their runs collapsed in the 70’s/80’s due to over-harvest/kill by greedy anglers . These wild things of perfection are tough to replace. Minnesota’s progressive management kicked in with a state-of -art fish weir/scientific data collection cost of 600,000. to study returning adults’ and emigrating smolts for sustainability. They went to “no-kill only” when runs declined to 90 fish from historic highs or 3-4K. Though floods damaged in in 2012, they are still studying this iconic river. The same was done on the Brule in Wisconsin and they went to a 28 inch limit and 1 fish with a scientific weir in place to study sustainability. These modern approaches must be praised!
Lake “Michi gami” as called by the natives is a tale of three coast lines and three totally separate micro-ecosystems. Michigan’s wild steelhead and amazing hallowed rivers embodies this iconic steelhead legacy of the Great Lakes since its ground-zero 1870’s inception. It is a story of amazing ground water spring flows, sandy/fine gravel rivers that lack the soil run-off smothering of the prairie states. Michigan has ideal spawning habitat for wild steelhead and still amazing wild and wild/stocked fisheries that reflect west coast rivers and their indigenous glory. But!, things are changing rapidly with climate change weather causing more floods and droughts and sustained heat waves or deep arctic blasts. Also a lake that is going through prey/predators’ upheavals and imbalances, smolts “missing at sea” and increasing exotic invasive species like the zebra/quagga mussels/spiny shrimp and increasing warm water predators gobbling up smolts like sardines in a can.
But the good news is there is still plenty of food/prey for steelhead in the lake! Though the iconic alewives go through up-down-cycles-mostly way down lately, there are still deep-water sculpins, shiners, chubs, sticklebacks and large mayfly infestations that steelhead love to eat! Gobies also are favorite evolving prey and ideal for the slower predator attack speeds steelhead have (3-7 mph) verses the speedy alpha king salmon. So last year we saw some of the largest king salmon approaching 40 lbs for the first time in the tributaries in a very long time. Thus the recipe for steelhead runs is good. We just have to find out what is happening to many in smoltification and juvenile life.
Michigan must enter into a new era of progressive steelhead management focusing on preserving its storied wild legacy and protecting more spawning sanctuaries like Ontario does. A “1” fish limit must happen NOW- the 3 fish limit is 60-70’s management and is outdated. Also more importantly, a river-by-river micro ecosystem approach is a must, not the “one shoe size fits all ” current approach which is damaging the resources. We have very bright and talented fisheries biologist that are capable of this , so let them do their work!
Wisconsin tries really hard with its lake river systems but the prairie estuaries are not the same as Michigan and does not have the huge abundance of ground water, spawning gravel and structure Michigan does. They have stocked as many as 4 different strains in the past with mixed results and their fishery is a sum total of what it is- variable results. But they have done an amazing job managing for the their world -class, world-record seeforellen brown trout that regularly approach the 20 lb mark. A truly amazing coastal fishery along with their Kamloops programs where they are maximizing their natural resources- well done!
And enough accolades cannot be given to Indiana in their tiny 40 miles of coast and tiny creek-like rivers to produce an amazing world-class Skamania summer steelhead fishery- lots of hard work here and well done!
Since the massive collapse of the king salmon fishery and alewives, Huron is finally coming into their own with slowly creating a world class Atlantic salmon fishery. The wild steelhead program Ontario has in place is working and managed carefully. And Michigan’s steelhead program is doing the best it can given the vast cold lake system which has limited prey: but emerald shiners, mayflies and other prey secondary predators’ are available and loved. Avian and warm water predators are the challenge here to maintain this fishery.
“If you stock it, they will come”. The massive amount of smolts stocked here is unequaled on the planet! And people catch fish here by the bucket full! But increasing lack of water from droughts/climate change, increasing bass/walleye populations are cutting and gobbling into the pie each year. But Erie is a warmer eutrophic rich ecosystem and will produce bait/mayflies for rainbows. And their 1800’s strain rainbow steelhead run smaller and eat less! Ohio’s’ Michigan strain fish tend to run bigger with some nice trophies and more into the early/late winter and spring. But again water here is a problem, when droughts leave rivers in trickles. Again there is probably more natural reproduction here and more effort must be made to identify and protect them.
New York’s Erie fishery went from an amazing era when there were so many Chambers creek strain steelhead on the Cattaraugus in the 2001 era decade that double digit days were common! But things have changed here also and NY and MI have one massive common problem- trying to “make one shoe size fit all” approach. Also the bass population is decimating smolts like on the Mirimichi River for Atlantic salmon in New Brunswick. More analysis must be given to opening upstream spawning gravel above Zoar Valley and boutique carful managing of wild steelhead in those precious Zoar Valley tributaries I fished as a kid. And also an overall appreciation for “each fish is a blessing” mentality must eliminate the numbers game “stink” tainting that has cursed the Great Lakes steelhead fishery.
On the Ontario side, its a whole different approach. Managing for wild steelhead and appreciating everything in its natural beauty is so typical Canadian and appreciative- why I love Canadians!!!! Their beautiful Grand River steelhead behave like wild west coast Pacific steelhead of the McMillan days and take dry flies during the caddis hatch for my friend Larry Halyk-steelhead spey guru and talented as hell biologist. “Less is more” and the Canadians who just don’t throw money at problems, think through them naturally and they embody what management style we should all focus on and appreciate- bravo Canada!
The closeness to the Atlantic ocean biomass exchange helps their alewife population and other bait/[prey situation immensely. Their visionary “1” fish steelhead limit on the Salmon River was very progressive, along with two flies-only sections and line restrictions.. But greed is another similar problem anglers have there in common with Michigan. Yes their Altmar facility pumps out smolts but they have similar warm water predator/cormorant problems and just feeding those mouth don’t improve the fishery. They have had some pretty tough runs the past few years. But still have amazing returns , especially their lake -run brown program on Oak Orchard and 18-mile. But appreciation is again the magic tonic here to making happiness and appreciation. Ontario again is focusing more on their wild strains and appreciating their gifts they are given, including their Atlantic salmon restoration with New York. Its always a “one step forward , three steps back” with todays fluctuating ecosystems.
That’s all folks!-Cheers!- and to many chromers and double red-band bucks to come!! But remember to love and appreciate each one, one at a time!
For more reading my two books : “Steelhead Dreams“- both 2001 and 12 year anniversary(2014) and a more intricate/in-depth look: “Selectivity” will keep you occupied thinking steelhead. Rick Kustich’s “Fly Fishing Great Lakes Steelhead ” and “Advanced Great Lakes Steelhead Fly Fishing ” are also must reads!- enjoy!