The Agonies of a GL Winter Steelheader
Excerpt from a Michigan humorous out doors book.
I have done some stupid things chasing winter steelhead on ice clogged rivers and deep snow covered forest roads, icy fisherman paths down steep banks, snow and sleet storms, etc.. but don't think I would ever have tried this one. I have fished this river and can imagine where they were. Actually lived for 7 years within a 30 minute drive of this location.
The Fish of a Thousand Casts
Tales of Mischief and Mayhem in the Great Outdoors
by Steven Hutchins
and The Big "V"
Beef and I paid a visit to our good friend Wally. His wife nervously paced the house, as she doesn't like Beef or myself, but didn't say much because she knew we were on a mission of mercy.
"How ya feelin' old buddy?" I asked. Wally was sprawled out on the couch with an ice bag covering his . . . well . . . sensitive area.
"I'm a little sore," he answered. "Feels like I got kicked!"
"I'd be more than sore if they cut mine off!" Beef pointed out.
"They don't cut `em off," Wally answered. "What do you guys want?"
Before I continue, allow me to explain that Wally's predicament was self-induced. You see he and his wife felt that with three children they'd contributed enough to society. Since there was now plenty of offspring to carry on the family name, Wally was elected to undergo "The Big V". I think you know what I'm talking about. I'd recently gone through the Big D, but at least that painless, and welcome, extraction didn't involve surgery. Wally was now recovering and Beef and I felt his recovery would be faster if he got out and enjoyed some fine winter steelheading. The cold Michigan air would do him some good . . . maybe reduce the swelling, who knows?
"What do we want? What kind of question is that?" I said. "Get your coat, we're hitting the river!"
"Hitting the river? I'm in pain!" Wally shot back. "I'm not leaving this couch for anything!"
"I can't blame you," Beef spoke up. "I wouldn't want to do nothin' but lay around either if I got mine cut off . . ."
"They don't cut `em off," I said to Beef. "Now quit whining, Wallace, and get your rod and waders . . . we're angels on a mission of mercy here."
"Angels? You two?" Wally's wife snorted. "More like the angels of death . . ."
As I said before, Wally's wife doesn't like us, but that was neither here nor there at the moment. Undaunted by her snide remark, we continued on in our mission of mercy. Wally was adamant about not joining us for a little fishing. He was bound and determined to stay on that couch. He argued and refused even as he sprawled himself out in the back of my Explorer.
"You'll feel a lot better," I said as we backed out of his driveway. "A little fishing will take your mind off the pain."
"How would you two know about the pain?" he whined. "It's not like you've been through this! So you forced me off my couch, that doesn't mean that I'm going to get out of this backseat . . ."
"You know," Beef said. "I remember this old dog my grandparents had. He kept running around every night and the neighborhood was over run with puppies. They finally took him to the vet and that poor dog didn't want to do anything afterwards. It was like they removed his soul. I felt bad for him you know?"
"And your point would be?" Wally asked.
"Oh, no point," Beef answered. "I just feel sorry for you that's all. I know I could never get mine cut off that's for sure . . ."
"They don't cut them off!" Wally and I shouted in unison.
A heavy snow was falling as we made our way to the Dowagiac River in Niles, a favorite destination of ours for winter Steelhead. The Dowagiac has a large mixture of summer run fish and fall fish so we usually had pretty good luck there. When we arrived I had two choices, I could park at the easy access parking lot or I could slap the Explorer in four wheel drive and navigate a rough two track back to some isolated holes.
Wally began whining as the vehicle bounced along the two track.
"Ouch!" he shouted. "Is there a particular reason you're doing this? EEK! Why didn't you just park back in the lot? OOF!"
"Just hang on to your ice bag," I countered. "We'll be there in a minute."
When I finally stopped the vehicle, Wally was glaring at me as a cold sweat ran down his face. I could tell that he wanted to unleash a flood of vulgarities but that's not his nature. He did everything to restrain himself. The snow continued to fall at a blinding pace . . .
"Ah . . . doesn't get much better than this," I said. "There's nothing like being on the river in the middle of a snowstorm."
"Yeah . . . let me know how it is," Wally said. "I'm just gonna lay here with my ice bag and wait for you guys . . ."
There is an overpowering urge to winter steelheading that cannot be ignored. Wally tried to ignore it but as Beef and I donned our waders and began rigging our rods, he started to flash a little enthusiasm and finally relented to our mission of mercy.
"You know . . . maybe I'll make a few casts after all." Wally said.
Our trek to the water was delayed a bit as Wally slowly snugged his waders up to his chest, wincing all the while. He positioned the ice bag inside his waders for maximum relief and hobbled along the narrow trail down to the water's edge.
The spot we chose to fish was a long, deep hole that ran the entire length of a wide river bend. Winter steelies often like to hold in such areas and we'd had decent luck there in the past. At the tailout of the bend were several logjams that made fighting a fish tricky if you let them run that far. A layer of shelf ice created a small ledge at the riverbank.
"Anybody got a bobber?" Wally asked. "I left mine up in the truck."
"If you were in good health, I'd make you walk back up there and get them," I said, "but since I'm feeling benevolent today, I'll let you use one of mine . . ."
"I'd make him walk," Beef stated. "He did this to himself . . ."
When it comes to fishing for Steelhead in the dead of winter, bobbers are like gold. We die hard anglers horde them like kids with a stash of Halloween candy. It was a great sacrifice for me to give one up to Wally thus proving that I was, indeed, on a mission of mercy. Under different circumstances, I'd have made him walk.
Now, despite the fact that when the three of us get together certain bad things happen, I will say that we do pretty well when it comes to hooking fish. A spawn bag under a bobber is our standard offering of choice and we take a lot of fish with that, but when things are slow we break out the "secret weapon". The secret weapon is nothing more than a wax worm. Put a wax worm under a bobber and you'll get fish. It's as simple as that. The bobber is the key, however, and the reason we value them so much. Winter steelies are a pretty lazy bunch and the only sure-fire way to tell if they hit is to watch your bobber go down. I've tried doing it by feel but with cold, numb fingers, you don't feel much. Heck, I've had steelies inhale the wax worm, chew on it for awhile like bubble gum, swish it around their mouth a few times and then spit it out. All the while my numb fingers never felt a thing. With a bobber, you can at least wear gloves!
The three of us lined up on the ice ledge and began casting into the hole. The snow at this point was coming down so hard that we had it piling up on the top of our heads and we could barely see our bobbers.
"You know, this is pretty peaceful just standing here," Wally said. "I really don't feel that uncomfortable!"
"See? I told you so . . . beats laying around on the couch feeling sorry for yourself." I answered.
We kept casting and finally my bobber went down. A nice buck steelie, maybe 6 pounds or so, decided my pink spawn bag would make a good snack. He was pretty lethargic and after a quick battle, I removed the hook and allowed the vanquished creature to wander back to the depths of his hole to sulk for awhile. It wasn't long after that when Wally's bobber went under. He set the hook and realized he was into a fish much bigger than mine.
"Whoa! I think this ones a biggie!" he grunted.
The fish darted back and forth around the pool as Wally kept pressure on the rod. In an instance, the fish leaped from the water in spectacular fashion revealing his enormous length and girth.
Everything goes in slow motion when you're out on the river. What happens in a second seems like minutes. The fish was in full winter colors and as he hung in midair you could almost count his spots. He had a brilliant crimson streak down his side and a gnarly hooked jaw that showed he was a pretty nefarious figure in the underwater crime syndicate. Other fish most certainly avoided this character, as he was probably the type of bully that would push you down and steal your milk money! He hit the water with a resounding and magnificent splash. Soon after, he made a break for one of the logjams.
"You better follow him or else he's going to get in those logs!" Beef pointed out.
Wally shuffled along the slippery ice ledge as best he could. The faster he moved, the more he started to grimace. He was obviously in a great deal of discomfort and most of us would have said, "Nope . . . I'm not risking further pain by chasing a stupid fish," but this was the biggest steelie of Wally's life and he wasn't about to let a few ripped stitches deter him from subduing this thug.
Despite his efforts, the beast went under one of the logs, turned around and headed back upstream. Wally's line was wrapped around the log as his bobber went scooting by him in the opposite direction.
"Hey . . . he's still on," Wally said, "what should I do?"
"See if you can get your line out from under the log!" I answered. "Go out a little further on that ice ledge and see if you can run your rod tip under the log . . ."
"I don't know how safe that ice is!" he shouted back.
"Just put one foot on the log and the other on the ice . . . it will take some weight off the ledge," I said. "What's the worst that could happen?"
Wally did as instructed. He put one foot on the log, left the other on the ledge and was beginning to get his fishing line out from under the log when . . . the worst thing happened.
It was so slow, that it is painful just to describe it. First, there was a loud cracking sound and Wally's eyes shifted downward with a look of panic. Immediately thereafter, a section of the ice ledge broke free and began drifting away. Apparently, the excessive snow and cold caused the felt on the bottom of Wally's wader boot to adhere to the ice. As the ledge drifted away, Wally's legs began getting further and further apart. He began to scream. It wasn't a normal scream, mind you, but more like a high pitched wail. Beef and I were helpless and could only wince as Wally sunk lower and lower; his legs separating all the while. It was painfully slow. Wally reminded us of his faith in the Lord by summoning up numerous "Good Lord help me!" and "Sweet Jesus have mercy!" phrases mixed in with his high pitched wails. I was amazed at the absence of profanity in all of this. Weaker individuals, like myself, would've used up every vernacular in existence and even created a few new ones! But that's Wally, God fearing and focused . . . even under the direst of circumstances. The agonizing descent continued and when it was all said and done Wally had performed the splits so well that a teenaged cheerleader would have stood in envy and asked for pointers. His legs were completely straight out in opposite directions.
"Did you get the line out from under there?" Beef finally asked.
Wally's response cannot be printed here but, suffice to say, he was going to have to go to confession when he got home. Even I was shocked that such vulgarity could escape the lips of a God fearing man like Wally. Everyone has their breaking point.
As Wally hung inches above the water with legs spread wide, the fish grew tired due to the pressure on the line and began thrashing on the surface. I waded out to him and slipped the net under it. He was a pig . . . almost twenty pounds! Beef got Wally dislodged from the ledge and helped him back to shore.
It was the biggest steelie of his life and Wally decided to have it mounted. All the way back home, Wally didn't say a word. He simply lay in the back of the Explorer; cradling the fish and whimpering like a lost puppy. We helped him back to his couch where he didn't move for almost three days. His doctor figured that Wally had set his recovery back by more than a week.
"Why is he blaming us?" Beef asked. "He shouldn't have been out if he just got `em cut off!"
"I know!" I said. "The doctor told him to just take it easy and relax."
"Some people just never take responsibility for their own actions!"