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ERIC SHARP: Drifting for steelhead in the cold Manistee

March 25, 2004


MANISTEE -- A few miles upriver at Tippy Dam, several anglers waded into the Manistee River from the banks, and three boats maneuvered into position to drift near the best bubble lines where the steelhead hang out.

"The fishing is kind of slow, but I'm surprised there's not a lot more people here," said Roger Jameson, who drove five hours north from his home near Ft. Wayne, Ind.

"We come to the Manistee or the (Pere Marquette) about three weeks out of four from February to April. It's usually more crowded than this no matter what the weather is like."

Tippy Dam is a popular angling spot, but crowds probably weren't there because word had spread that steelhead fishing had slowed dramatically in the past couple of weeks.

It's not hard to figure out why. Blasts of cold air from the northwest ended a relatively mild period at the start of the month and returned parts of Michigan to the depths of winter. The air temperature over many of the best steelhead streams dropped into the single digits on several nights, with daytime highs in the teens, and the water temperature followed into the mid-30s.

Things had improved slightly on a recent day on the Manistee, when guide Mike Gnatkowski of Ludington launched his jet sled just upstream from Manistee Lake and headed up the river, which is strewn with shallows and gravel bars.

When Gnatkowski fishes the rivers, he runs an 18-foot jet sled powered by an Evinrude outboard engine, with a water jet at the business end instead of a propeller. The boat can run in eight inches of water, and he doesn't have to worry about damaging a prop on the bottom or the occasional sunken log.

The trade-off: An engine that would be rated at 150 horsepower with a propeller is listed as a 105 horse with the jet, which requires a lot of energy to run the pump.

The day was sunny, but the air temperature was barely into the 30s, and a 20-knot wind from the northwest made it feel a lot colder. The water was 36-38 degrees, still cold enough for the fish to be sluggish.

"I still think we can catch a fish," Gnatkowski said. "This part of the river is where they stop as they come up from the big lake (Michigan), and I have some good holes where they like to lie."

Gnatkowski fishes the river for steelhead and salmon from fall through spring and runs a bigger salmon charter boat on Lake Michigan in the summer.

He was using the drop-back technique, anchoring at the head of a pool with the rods in holders at the stern of the boat. He let Wiggle Wart and Hot-N-Tot lures run 30 feet back, where the big lips on the plugs made them dive and shiver in the current.

The technique is called "pulling plugs," and in decades past the guide rowed the boat back and forth across the pool while he held his position in the current and allowed the lures to work. In those days, drift boat guides had arms and shoulders like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Gnatkowski used oars for years, but now he lets an electric trolling motor at the bow swing the boat back and forth while the chain anchor holds its place in the pool. Every couple of minutes, he raised the anchor chair to let the boat drop half its length downstream so the plugs swept a new area.

"This time of year, you have to keep the lure working right in their faces and tick them off," he said. "Sometimes if I see fish and know they are there, I'll let the lure keep working in the same place for 10 minutes. It's funny how they will just look at it for a while, then all of a sudden they decide to smack it."

Gnatkowski likes to put out a variety of lures. They have shiny silver or gold bellies, but the backs can be blue, green, orange or black.

"In conditions like this, pulling plugs works better than spawn," he said. "The fish are pretty lethargic, and you have to irritate them into striking."

There were no takers in the first run he tried, but halfway through the second run a rod tip began jerking wildly. It was a six-pound steelhead, silvery on the sides but with the back turning light olive and a rose-colored stripe on the sides and cheeks.

"That fish has been in the river awhile," Gnatkowski said. "You can tell by the way it's getting darker. I like this section of river because we get fish that are still moving upstream, and later on, we get fish that have already been up and spawned and are dropping back to the big lake. My best day last year was May 2, and they were all fish that had spawned."

The Manistee also gets a run of spawning walleyes in spring, but Gnatkowski said it's unusual to catch them while pulling plugs in the holes.

"They get walleyes up at Tippy, so you'd think we'd get a few here, but it's a real rarity," he said. "I don't know why."

Farther downstream, anglers braving blustery winds, rough seas and cold waters have been catching steelhead in Lake Michigan, and so have people fishing from the pier heads at the river mouth. Anglers fishing the St. Joseph River in southwestern Michigan and the Huron at Flat Rock also have been doing well. Those rivers have reached the 42-degree mark where steelhead become much more active.

"There are still a lot of fish down there waiting to come in," Gnatkowski said. "If we get the warmer weather and rains they predicted for later this week, it should bring those fish into the Manistee. That's when the fishing is dynamite. You can get a dozen, 15 strikes a day and land eight or 10 steelhead. That's great fishing."

Gnatkowski can be reached at 231-845-8400, or online at www.gnatscharters.com.
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