Do A Slow Troll For Steelhead
by Dave Richey
STRONACH - Row, row, row your boat was a popular song many years ago, and the same words were considered great steelhead fishing advice 40 years ago, when Manistee Lake anglers trolled at rowing speed for steelhead. Little has changed since then.
This lake at Manistee and nearby Stronach is considered one of the state's best fall steelhead waters. Hit it just before freeze-up, and chances are very good a trolling fisherman can hook into a high-stepping steelhead. I've caught fish here up to 19 1/2 pounds.
Forty years ago, anglers used to row their bows around Manistee Lake to get the trolling speed just right. Fishermen today can row a small aluminum boat or use a small electric trolling motor or outboard motor to bring the trolling speed down to the putt-putt pace preferred by big steelhead.
This lake, formed by the Big and Little Manistee rivers, comes into its own in mid-November just before the lake ices over. Steelies, fresh from Lake Michigan, move up the channel from the big lake and enter Manistee Lake. Some then move up the Big Manistee while others ascend the Little Manistee.
Excellent boat launches are found in Manistee and Stronach, and there is little need to travel too far from either boat launch site. Both ramp locations are within 200 yards of some of the best trolling grounds.
Steelhead hold in the lake for varying periods of time. Some move directly up one of the rivers, although many winter over in Manistee Lake before making spring spawning runs up the rivers.
The top lure is an X-4, X-5, U-20 or T-4 FlatFish in chrome or pearl colors. Fluorescent red with black spots, gray pearl, orange with red spots and silver-blue colors also produce, and whenever possible, use lures with small treble hooks rather than two large trebles. The smaller hooks seem to hook and hold more fish.
Bait-casting or spinning reels stocked with 10- or 12-pound monofilament tied directly to the lure's line tie are best. Rods in the 8 1/2 to 9 1/2-foot lengths are adequate.
The secret to steelheading success is to troll slowly. FlatFish cannot be trolled fast or they will flip over and pop to the surface. The slower the trolling speed, the better the lures will work. Anglers can effectively troll two or three lures about 30 yards behind the boat. Small in-line planer boards can be very effective here.
Hotspots for this fishery are the south end of the lake off the Little Manistee River between Packaging Corporation of America on the west side of the lake and the Stronach boat launch site on the east side. Another hotspot is north off the Manistee River mouth. Steelhead can be caught from the river mouth west to the outlet of Manistee Lake where the channel flows downstream to Lake Michigan. Often, but not always, steelhead will hit off the first or second dropoff out from shore.
Fall steelies often roll and porpoise on the surface. Make no mistake about it: It's almost impossible to troll too slow. The rod tips should just nod softly as the lures dig in the water, and wood FlatFish seem to produce slightly better than plastic lures but wooden plugs are much harder or impossible to find in sporting goods stores. Test the lures alongside the boat to get the action just right, and it's wise to place rods in rodholders.
One thing about this late-season fishery: The angler won't have any trouble determining whether they have had a strike. Set the reel drag so the line will peel off the reel on the strike, but a fish should have to work to get that line. Tighten into the fish, and enjoy a spirited battle. It's one of the finest fisheries at this time of year, and
other drowned rivermouth lakes such as Betsie, Charlevoix, Pere Marquette, Pentwater and White are other topnotch late-season steelhead water.