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T-Bar Steelhead
Dick Swan

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In conjunction with the article, “Steelhead Heaven and Hell,” I offer the following piece to
those who were too young to participate, during this era of Lake Michigan’s “Heaven,” during
those “good ol’ days!”

“Fish on,” yelled my wife, as a mass of silver fury exploded skyward in a series ofjack-knifes,
before an ungracious “belly flop” back into the lake! While Char grabbed the rod and began her
labor of love, I removed the rod from our other downrigger. 
      As she shouted her play-by-play action and I was placing my rod in a reserve holder, our friend, Duke Edwards, yelled: “Fish at 2 o’clock,” from the helms chair. 
      At this, I grabbed a spinning rod which was already armed with an orange K.O.Wobbler, and immediately drove the spoon in an arching, cut-’em-off-at-the-pass direction. After a few turns
of the reel, a jarring slam hooked me into another chrome-slabbed acrobat.
      While following the performance of my fish and listening to Char shout her action report, I
spotted another cruising fish and yelled at Duke to shut the boat down and come take my rod!
      After colliding with Duke, during a panic hand-off, I bounced into our second armed spinning
rod, then wormed my way into the fighting action to deliver a second salvo.. .where another jolting response resulted in three jibbering idiots vying for the “Performance of the Year” award!
Needless to say, Char landed the only fish. No one lands all of these torpedoes!
      “Oh come on.. .this is just another fabricated fish tale,” you say?
       Don’t bet your boat on it!
       I had the most unique charter-boat program going on the Great Lakes. It began in May,
trolling for adult-chinook salmon (up to 2811) in 30 to 40 feet of water, at Ludington’s “Project,”
then June through July, trolling for Skamania steelhead in 10 to 40 feet of water, out of Michigan
City, IN. My season ended Labor Day back in Ludington, trolling chinook and coho salmon at the “Point.” Those who boarded the 25 foot “Lite Liner” landed fish on 2,4, and 6 pound test line.
      It was June of ‘80 when all hell broke loose in Indiana’s waters of Lake Michigan, where this
summer event had Indiana charter captains Bob Cash and Bill Can telling me about fighting
chrome beasts which defied their landing nets. I then accepted an invite from the late Jack Parry
(sports-outdoor editor, “Gary Post Tribune”) after he mentioned a friend had one steelhead
commit suicide...ramming into the prop of his outboard! Ugh!
      In June of ‘81 I was invited to fish the Little Calumet River with IN two biologists, Bob Koch
and Neil Ledet, who nursed this revolutionary Skamania (summer run) steelhead program into
Indiana’s “Skamania Mania”.. .which caused me to leave my family in Clare, during June and July,
for the next eight summers.
       During the first three summers these Skamania averaged 18 pounds. If you didn’t have a 20 plus
pounder to brag about... stay the hell off the radio! During the latter summers, the average weight
dropped to 15 pounds. Awww!
       Aside from Perry’s reported, suicide, by motor-prop, I listened to a radio reported, suicide,
hitting arm of downrigger! Before this inshore fishery folded, due to steelhead no longer stagging at river mouths, I talked to Michigan captains who discovered a similar fishery in northern Lake Michigan. However, the big difference with this northern fishery was having to run 10 to 20 miles offshore! The ports cities of Frankfort, Onekama and Manistee became the focal sites for these long distant trips, where skippers bragged about getting “ripped” by 30 to 50 fish per trip! This also is the first Lake
Michigan site where offshore waters were found to offer one of nature’s phenomena, where the
term, “thermal-bar” is quickly defined.
       It begins in mid- June, when our northern Lake Michigan inshore temperatures read in the high
30’s to 40’s, but while running offshore it can suddenly (wham!) shoot into the 50’s. This quick
temp change defines a thermal-bar, where a difference of four or more degrees can spell,
“steelhead country!” In July, when inshore temps climb into the 60’s to 70’s, we look for these T-
bars, until warm surface covers entire lake.
        While watching for T-bars one focuses attention to boat’s temp gauge, or another “phenom” is
more convenient, looking for large span of “slick” water, uniquely surrounded by riffled water.
Though all “slicks” do not guarantee a sudden temp change they surely require your time to check
them out. You won’t know until you cross the line.
        A more welcomed “slick-sighting” is spotting dorsal fins of cruising steelhead as they slurp
insects off the surface. The “phenom” portion of this sighting is they are surface-feeding in 300 to
700 feet of water! Open their stomachs and you are greeted with a fist-size bolus of insects.., and
maybe a bird. Offshore steelhead are, most assuredly, gluttonous!
        Indiana’s inshore fishery had already established “hi-viz” orange, as steelhead’ s color-of-
choice. However, spoons and plugs in any array of color sequences have also proven to produce
action. The fact these strains of offshore steelhead (and browns) smash spoons and plugs, while
on a 100 per cent insect diet, breaks the rule stating trout are “selective feeders.”
        The most characterized offshore phenomenon is the highly visible “scum line.” This is
miraculously created where more severe surface temperatures conflict, collecting and maintaining
a long defined line of sticks, logs, furniture, mattresses, dead insects, animals, etc. In addition,
since all junk does not float, use caution when crossing to the cold side. No boater deserves a
damaged drive shaft, propeller, or out-drive, this far from port.

General Trolling Program

      Charter skippers generally book 4-6 people and with Michigan’s “3 rod per angler” law, they
normally pull a large planer board on each side of the boat. Trolling these 100-150 feet to the
side, three lines are spaced along each. Add two dipsy divers and four to six downriggers (on
stern), set from 30 feet deep to the surface and you have a very good chance for multiple hook
ups. This type program accounts for those reports of 30 to 50 fish. Trollers with smaller boats
can run the same large planer board set up, but boat’s width restricts number of other rods.

Changing Tactics

     The anticipation of getting into this most unique offshore fishery had me looking into equally
unique additions to my “Lite Liner” program. I began by installing a swim platform on the boat.
Now, once we locate steelhead those aboard have an option to jump into a (towed) 15 foot Lund,
or remain onboard to spin, or fly cast. Needless to say, the Lund is more maneuverable when
fighting these masters of the acrobatic arts.
      When there is no visual of feeding fish, we “flat-line” two rods armed with No.5 J-Plugs,
trolled at 3.5 to 4.5 mph., which obviously speeds up locating fish. With each knock-off we shut
down and begin casting, as described in the opening sequence.
      In April of ‘95, after retiring from chartering, I received a call from F&S fishing editor, Ken Schultz, asking about this offshore fishery. When I mentioned my failed attempts to get a
particular style “dream boat” from Hydra Spots, he assisted in getting us a “demonstrator”
delivered in time for our June 6,7 fishing dates. Since these early dates were a bit too earlycould
put the dampers on steelhead action, when greeted with the prescribed offshore boat, plus calm
seas, we were encouraged to give it the ol’ college try.
       With the temp gauge reading a steady 45 degrees and the graph finally showing 700 feet, we
shut down. This signaled Ken to slip into chest waders and a life jacket, then stepped down the
ladder into the frigid waters, wearing a Browning “Aggressor” belly boat. He became the first
belly boat angler to fish Lake Michigan in 700 feet of water.


      Unlike many inland lakes featuring rainbow trout and browns, Lake Michigan is completely
snag-free, offering open water where anglers have no excuse for not landing the giants of all
rainbow strains (30 pounds) and browns (30pounds)! If you book a Lake Michigan charter
captain you will fish his way, with his tackle; therefore, the following targets visiting sport fishers
interested in applying our Lite Liner techniques, who will trailer boats suitable to fish a lake 300
miles long and 60 across.
       Reels/Line --Whether fishing a lake, or river, water density always presents un-welcomed
resistant against fishing line. Multiply fresh water density, times resistance during each scorching
run, times impetus initiated by each surface explosion and you face the “impossible” task of
landing these super T-bar steelhead! To reduce this factor I suggest spooling 4 to 6 pound test
monofilament on a spinning reel featuring the long spool, or No.4-6 fly line on a large capacity
reel with 10 to 12 pound backing.
       Trollers and spin fishers face the added “leverage”dilemma while fighting these hellions, where
fly enthusiast don’t. It comes with the weight of spoons or body baits hanging from the mouths
of fish who soar to unlimited heights, with inbred tendencies to perform violent vertical and
horizontal jack-knifes, in order to rid their mouth of irritatin~g objects. This leverage factor was
the selling point for trolling J-Plugs, as the large body slides up the line with only the hook-
harness intact. While casting spoons goes against this logic, their weight provides longer casts
than body baits. Also keep in mind the weight of spoons offers more leverage than balsa-body baits.
      Fly fishers should opt for No.5 to 6, floating, weight forward, or shooting head lines. I
suggest spooling backing on large capacity fly reels with Silver Threat, 10 to 12 pound test.
Rod Length—When spin casting or fly casting from boats which sit high in the water, any
length rod will deliver the goods satisfactorily. However, delivering lures or flies is just the first
phase of fishing. Landing fish is another. Therefore, short rods become counter-productive
landing fish who zip’ under the boat. Be prepared. Cast lures with long rods.
      Rod Action— After pioneering the “Noodle Rod-Lite Line” concept for river steelhead and
salmon, spin fishermen have enjoyed the same slow-action rods as fly fishers. This summer, my
most recent designed manufactured rod is a 15 foot “Float Rod” for spin fishers, or a No. 4 spey
rods. It is especially great for belly boat enthusiasts pursuing pan fish... or T-bar steelhead.
       When considering Lake Michigan’s big water is snag free the thought of sitting back, allowing
line to melt from spools, makes more sense. After all, you elect to fish these hellions for their
torrid runs and sensational aerial acrobatics, so why challenge them with beefed-up tackle, which
restricts their fighting program.. .and why tow these prize fighters around with a boat? So.. just sit
back and enjoy the long as it lasts!

I'd personally like to thank Dick Swan who has written articles for all the major publications for sending me this article at no charge.  I'm honored he'd consider contributing to this website!

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