Capt. John's
Last Trip for Hire to Steelheadville

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Wily Number 1 Previously Hooked

Fish 2

Roger's Best #3

Mint Number 4

 

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Feisty Number 5

Chromer Steelie 6

Lucky #7

Hot Lures 11/26/03

Number 8 & Done!

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So, you were always gonna book a river trip with Capt. John?  Well, it ain't gonna happen now, because it looks I have a prospective buyer for my riverboat and river charter business.  Any deposit monies I'm holding for future river charters will be transferred to the new and yet unannounced owner.

Let's Begin at the End

November 26, 2003 marks end of 18 years of professional guiding career on the Big Manistee River.  I'm leaving at the top of my game and not doing a 5 year farewell-tour like Naomi and Winona Judd.  I'm not gonna hang on, and keep getting a butt-whipping up like Evander Holifield either........ I know when to call it quits.  

Everything in the fishing business and has a starting point and a conclusion.  And I couldn't have planned my conclusion better if I was writing the script.  Of course my script would include Mel Gibson starring me, because of our extremely close resemblance to one another.  

Under normal circumstances I would have never beat up on 8 Steelhead with regular guests aboard.  This was a catch and release deal right off the git-go with a charter guest I knew fairly well from a prior trip on the big pond.  It's something you might never be able to duplicate with the same folks aboard again.  6 fish for 2 persons is a "legal limit" and a limit is not a fair gauge of a fishing trip.

November 26, 2003

My day with Roger Lewis was a fine parting testament to a fish that I have come to respect, know and love, called fall Steelhead.  The fall iron-noggins are river-rockets that explode impact when they wallop your lure.  Nothing that I know of, can smash a plug like these late season gamesters.  Liquid dynamite best describes these vicious critters bent on destroying you and your tackle!  If excitement is your game, then fall Steelheading is the name.

The way the fish hit on 11/26/03 the metal-heads seemed to know it was on last day as a guide for hire on the big river.  This was their only remaining chance to be caught be me, and they wanted to say goodbye in a majestic fashion.  12 of them were kind enough to let me know they were in the river.  10 of them whacked good enough to get firmly hooked-up, with 2 fish pulling a Houdini act and escaping!   

8 mischievous scoundrels were landed, and 7 of them were liberated back to the river.  We chose to parole them for good behavior for smacking my plugs, like all well behaved Steelhead should do.   We had one deeply hooked hen and she couldn't be released, because her gills were all busted up and bleeding.  Our time on the river spanned from about 8am until we pulled lines at exactly 3:15pm, so I don't want you to think this was daylight to dark forced march.

Sneaky Devil with the Gimp Jaw

We fished one of my very best runs close to the boat ramp, with absolutely no bites.  Generally this long stretch of good water always produces, but not this time.  My confidence gauge was beginning to read some where's between a 1/8 of a tank and empty.  I did the best thing I could do, and went to another likely spot and tried to hide my disappointment.  

This was only the second time Roger had set lines, so as I was explaining what to expect....the number 3 rod took a hard, bone-jarring strike.  He had never seen a river plug-bite before and our first poke of the day was one of the few that we missed.

Within another 2 minutes the number one rod buckled over and we were in business!  This was a crafty fish and used whatever smarts a Steelhead has to extricate itself from the hook.  It's first ploy was to dig deep in fast current and when that wasn't working it started splashing around on the surface.  By then I had  finished clearing the other 3 rods and this energetic, but not huge fish, charged towards the inside bank.   Which, of course was fully loaded with a bunch of snags. After a drawn out battle in "Snag City," I finally slid the net underneath a smaller sized she-devil of about 6, or 7 pounds.

Well, come to find out this fish had been treacherous demon before, with a spawn hook hanging from it's gimpy and mashed up jaw.  This hook had been in the fish for a fair amount of time by the deformity surrounding it's wound.  
We released this clever fish, knowing we landed critter that had chewed thru another fishermen's line.  Click here to see this wily pre-hooked fish

Upon careful and very close re-examination I see the this fish was "lined," with the hook being stuck in the outside part of the jaw.  This goes against any theory that this fish ever bit in the first place, but had picked up the leader-line as the spawn bag drifted across it's snout.  I'm glad I took this close-up so you could see what goes on in areas of let's say, nesting fish.  You'll see this exact same thing many times, especially if you're a dyed in the wool, "chuck-n-duck" fly fisherman.

Roger is No Dodger!  

Cooperation was the key ingredient with Roger being on the fish, like "stink on doo."  Meaning a 85% hook-up average in strikes is not small potatoes in the annals of river Steelheading.  Our landing ratio was a highly respectable 80%.  Roger's alertness made me look good today and don't think I'm not aware of this reel-fact.  Yeah,..... buddy, it's easy to look like you know what you're doing as a guide when the caliber of your guest angler is inspired.  

Roger has what I refer to as forgiving "soft hands" when it comes to his rodsmanship attributes.  This means no brutal moves with the rod and controlled patience is what sets him apart from the run of the mill fishermen.  He does not "panic" when a fish hits and instinctively takes appropriate action with a cool head.  He's not in any hurry, showing patience by letting the fish play itself out.  Something I wish I seen more anglers do!

His resume begins with owning a cabin on the Pere Marquette River and fishing for Steelhead over the course of the last 20 years.  He also skippers a 24 foot fully-rigged salmon destroying machine out of the Port of Manistee.  So, he's accustomed to dealing with large fish on a daily basis.  Savvy, is the one word I use to describe him.

Not enough can be said about fishing with Mr. Roger Lewis.  Roger made the day even more enjoyable with a unassuming pleasant demeanor.  He likes to fish and has been fishing Steelhead since 1985.  I guess you could say I spoiled him today, because I overmatched his prior thoughts as what the outcome would be.  While Roger and I boated 8 Steelhead, only one was kept, so being unlawful, or hoggish was not our supreme goal, catching fish was!  If we were into keeping fish, we'd had had a cooler full of more chrome then a 1958 Buick.  And you'll have to admit, that's a lot of chrome!

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1958 Buick

Roger's ultimate moment of truth came when he boated a dandy colored male with a beautiful red stripe marking his large river trophy ever.  He was up against the wall about maybe keeping his hard fighting foe.  But, then returned his worthy opponent back to the gentle flow of the river.  He relished the reel-fact his big guy would be around to provide someone else the same humble satisfaction he experienced.

Our Glorious Honey Hole

About once every 5 years you find an elusive spot loaded with so many fish, it seems like you have an unfair advantage over your exalted opponent.  We got lucky and found our honey hole around 1:30pm.  Then spending about the next 90 minutes dealing with 5 silvery good-sized iron-heads in the same "run."  In fact, the only reason we left our glory hole is that we got weary of thrashing the same waters.  It was too easy, as fish after fish, tested our skills 5 times. 

At the end of an hour and a half battle,.... the scoreboard read: 5 hits, 5 hooked-up, 3 landed and 2 flew the coop (chewed thru the leader).  Heavy current in our "honey hole" made dealing with these fish even more of a challenging event then normal.  Factor in, there was only two of us in the boat, with me trying to clear rods and run the anchor system.  Also, I had to maneuver the boat away from log-jams and net the fish.  So, you can see we had full time job for our jaws and paws.

Communication is all too important and an overlooked factor when it comes to dealing with large fish that never attended anger management classes.  Landing fish in a river loaded with snags, tree trunks and debris will teach you how to control a fish....if it's humanly possible!  Oh, I almost forgot to mention, the current that you can't slow down, like a trolling vessel on the Great Lakes. By using the line counters on the SG47LCs, Roger was able to keep me informed of how much line was off the reel.  Then, with simple geometry I was then able to determine where the fish was and how near it was to danger zone (snag).  Incidentally, we had one fish rip-off almost 100 feet of line, heading downstream at a speedy clip.  This meant the fish was in a danger zone 140 feet downriver from the boat.  I quickly pulled anchor and chased that guy!

Technical Conditions on 11/26/03

I guess the biggest key to our accomplishments on 11/26/03 was the fact we've had a wet November, providing plenty of river flow.  The more water that enters Lake Michigan the better.  The additional flow reaches further out into the lake and travels down the shore, signaling to fish it's time to come home.  Michigan fall Steelhead are a hard specie to trace when it comes to it's diverse genealogy.  

I suspect our original fish stocks might have traveled sizable amounts of distance to reach their parenting gravel in the spring, long before they were transplanted into the Great Lakes.  It might have taken them all winter.  Especially, if they were from larger river systems like the Columbia River.  So, I'm not from the camp that believes Steelhead grace our rivers in the fall just to feed on Salmon spawn.  Besides, other then a rare left-over Salmon, the Salmon spawn is pretty much over in November.  Almost all of the 8 fish we caught on 11/26/03 were fresh-run silver bullets. However, I will not dispute the fact they'll eat spawn, or Salmon roe at anytime of the year, I ain't near that ignorant!  

I did an in-depth piece that goes hand-in-hand with the point I'm trying to make about the heritage our fish.  

Click here to access my article about diverse history of Michigan Steelhead


Water Temperature was about 42 degrees and Manistee River Steelies love to tear into a high action crankbait like the T-4 Flatfish.  The Flatfish works well until the water temp starts to fall below 38 degrees, then around 36, or 35 degrees, the Flatfish loose their effectiveness.  So the T-4s are not a deep winter lure like the smaller Willies Worms and Wiggle Warts.  You must run the nibbler style, 4 treble hook set-up in the above "hot lures" photo, or the T-4s lose their value in a big hurry.  Pay extra close attention to this paragraph if you're beginning a career as a Steelhead river fisherman.

Water color is another factor that benefited us.  The water had golden tea color and visibility was about 3 to 4 feet.  Having some color in the water lessens Steelhead's spooky instinct when they're in the river.  I'm sure there's a bunch of scientific data concerning Steelhead ability to re-adjust to fresh water and undergo a metamorphic change.  Long before they were planted in the Great Lakes water shed, much of their adult life was spent roaming the northern part of the Pacific Ocean.  Simply put, while Steelhead retain some of their aggressive tendencies from the open water, but once they enter the river they become far more wary.

One thing that needs to mentioned is that we had a full-sun day for the most part.  After the early morning clouds burned off, it was sunny from then on.  So, for bright sun conditions we experienced a pretty phenomenal bite.  Normally, a cloudy day provides the best chance for action like we had on 11/26/03.

Big Manistee River 

Most of the river is bottomland, or flood plain.  In the 6 miles of river we covered today, only 4 small areas had cabins, or homes built on them.  In some areas, logs cut in the later 1800's can be seen jutting from the bank.  This is an wilderness river beyond a doubt.  A trip down the big river is like stepping back into time a 100 years ago.  Vast valleys punctuate the landscape, as the river meanders thru large areas of marsh land and bayous filled with cattails.

Some parts of the river are next to steep hills crowding it's banks, while other parts roam through wetlands and small feeder streams.  Now, with most of the river being bottomland, or natural flood plain building on the banks of the big river is out of the question in most areas.  This has kept the banks pretty much pristine and free from cottages let's say, like the Pere Marquette.  There are some towering pines reaching skyward on some of the high bank areas and second growth forests cover the rest of the landscape.

The section of the river that I'm most familiar with is below Tippy Dam.  This a power generating dam and was built in the 1930s.  It's said to be about 27 miles of river below Tippy before the Big Manistee River enters Manistee Lake I have fished all of it at one time, or another.  

My Closing Thoughts

This is not the end, this is not the beginning of the end, it's the end of the beginning pretty much sums it up.  I will continue to fish the river, but demands on my time prevent me from devoting the time necessary to maintain high standards.  This website and the tackle store are a full time job.  March and April is among the busiest months for tackle sales and March is the month of the "Sport Fishing Shows" in Michigan.  It's impossible to be two places at once, so I'm not even gonna try.

My schedule for 2004 is going to be hectic once all the pieces fall into place.  Several unannounced projects are in the works that will require much personal attention.  I will miss guiding on the river, but not the hoards of unruly fishermen.  Also, by cutting out the weekends and not dealing with the alcohol crowd aboard further limits the amount of revenue I would be able to generate just running weekdays.

Professional guiding on the river requires much time and devotion.  Especially, if you plan on being over fish everyday!


November 29, 2003
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