To say that a steelhead trout is just a rainbow is like saying that a Bengal tiger is a sort of cat. There might be similarities, but that?s about it. This mighty fish was discovered and extolled by legendary anglers such as Hemingway and Zane Gray, who hunted them in the great rivers of Michigan. Conservationists bred from various strains and developed wild stocks from the toughest breeds.
Their life cycle is that of Atlantic salmon, spending the important parts of it in the sea, or in this case one of the Great Lakes, eating their fill of small fish known as alewives and sculpins, and browsing in the insect-rich shallows, putting on great weight and muscle. Twice a year, they venture up the rivers to breed or gorge on protein-rich salmon eggs. They are torpedo-shaped, pug-nosed, thick-muscled ingots of silver, with tails like malt shovels. After a spell in the river they become more bronze in colour and then cherry red. They do not care to be hit by a fly, not one little bit, and they show it.
This is a fish worth travelling far for and a few thousand miles from the fens I landed at a small town in Michigan State where my second son Peter, who lives thereabouts, was waiting for me. An hour later we sat by the log fire in his cabin on the Muskegon riverside. We were to be joined by David (son number one) and an old friend, JR, who had never caught a steelhead.
The airline security confiscated my bottle opener and two bottles of water, obviously weapons of mass destruction. When JR came through Chicago they wanted his single malt, but he refused to hand it over. He had to recover his bag and put the bottle in there, by which time he missed his flight. Passing thought ? I wonder what airline staff do with all the stuff they pinch from you at airports.
Crack of dawn, for Peter is a hard taskmaster when fishing is concerned, we were up and in his boat on the river, the surface writhing snakes of mist, the air cold as charity. Luckily I had the use of Big Keith?s all-in-one suit. Big Keith had been a previous guest and bought a padded suit suitable for the arctic. Deciding it was too thick for anything the UK had to throw at it he left it behind.
Woolly hat, gloves and more layers than an onion made me resemble a Michelin man, but at least I was warm. We were to fish flies, just as in salmon fishing. Of all the ways of catching a steelhead this is the most difficult, but the most rewarding. Others fish bait trotted downstream or bob egg flies along the bottom and catch them that way. Such are the methods of fishmongers. To swing the garish fly hard as you can all day might mean two hits and one fish or not even a tweak, but should you connect, the battle on a fly rod is worth it. Good anglers know the hot spots. To me the river looks featureless, swirls by sunken rocks or fallen trees, riffles of shallows and slow, black, deep dubs, but in general a bit samey. The experts know that under the umpteenth tree from the left past old Pa Jackson?s woodpile is a lie that has held fish for generations.
A pair of bald eagles rose lazily from a stump and wafted high above the water, their hooked bills and menacing stare visible even at that range. Surely that was a good omen, as was the heron standing hunched on the margin, much as herons do worldwide. Then the line was singing out, plenty of tips and good coaching from Peter, ?Pause a bit on the back cast, Dad. Let a bit more line out, Dad.? Having taught the lad how to fish, the pupil has become the master and was telling me, which is just how it should be.
We worked the pool down raising and dropping the anchor before reeling in and off to another spot, growl of mighty engine and unfurling wave of creamy water as, hanging on for grim death, we roared away. In America few people travel slowly and smell the flowers. By a great log half-sunk on the margin there was a swirl, a rising fish perhaps. Staring at the place I was delighted to see the blunt, bewhiskered head of an otter break surface and then another one beside it. You can fish the Muskegon for 12 months and never see one, so to see two at once on my first day? we saw another later in the week, five miles downstream.
I was getting the hang of it now, taking turns to put one hand at a time into the capacious pocket of Big Keith?s mighty trousers to warm it. Then the reel jammed, my best one from a famous maker. It would not budge without a mighty heave. Broken? No, only frozen solid, the little boat trip had turned the water into iron and it was a block of ice. I got it going at last by brute force and sticking it inside Big Keith?s trousers ? lucky he wasn?t in them at the time. Next the rod rings froze. A couple of casts and the water droplets in them went rock solid, so every few times you had to haul in and crack them off with a fingernail.
A fight on hand
The sun rose, turning the wooded banks into apple-pink and the temperature warmed. On the umpteenth cast as the fly swung round yet again, the deep sunk line fading into the depths, there came a pull to startle. Like a bulldog snatching at a dressing gown it all but tore the rod from my hand. I have heard people using that expression and thought like most anglers they were exaggerating ? but it is true. Unless your grip is of iron on the rod butt it is as good as snatched from your grasp, so savage is the take. Whatever was on the other end, it and not I was in charge. It ripped off 50 yards in one run, the reel did not scream ? it squealed and grew warm to the touch.
The line whizzed into the water and then at right angles to it an enormous silver fish exploded in a blur of foam. It tore off more line and then appeared again 25 yards in the opposite direction. This is one of the fastest freshwater fish. Surely no hook hold could withstand those acrobatics? By some miracle it did. At last I got him closer, but seeing the boat sent him off on another unstoppable dash right across the far side. What a fish. Again he came in and when close to the boat leaped a yard above the surface and as he did so twiddled himself round, did a somersault and whacked the line with his great tail. I dropped the rod tip and by some miracle he stuck on and slowly drew closer. Peter made a deadly strike with the net and he lay quiescent on the thwart. It had taken 10 minutes to land a fish of about 8lb. Had that been a salmon, it would have come in in quarter the time and, avert your eyes you salmon purists, the fight this fish put up made an Atlantic salmon feel more like a bream.
Peter never kills a fish ? he loves them too much. After the statutory photographs and admiring the great, thick tail root, sliver flanks, the solid muscle and even in defeat the pug-nosed aggression, the silver darling was slipped back into the water. That was my first steelhead on the fly and if I never caught another on this trip it made the awfulness of flying all that way just about acceptable. In fact another fell to your old scribe later in the day, with the same fight and power, a fish a pound or so heavier than the first. It had been in the river for a week or two, for its flanks bore a coppery sheen. Two on my first day was
a proud boast, for these chaps do not give themselves up easily to the fly man.
Kevin Feenstra is a professional angling guide on the Muskegon and JR and I had a day with him. Kevin has a benign smiling countenance and a calm spirit, and my word he knows his fishing. He is a purist who will fish with fly only, even if it means catching fewer fish. He took us gently along on the oars dropping in at certain secret spots known only to him where we swung our flies, covering the water. JR landed his very first steelhead so that was a monkey off his back and now we could all relax. Kevin hauled into the shore at midday where the sun lay warm on a grassy island. While we sat resting and watching white tailed deer on the far bank, he cooked three enormous steaks on his portable barbecue set in the bottom of the boat. We fished hard the rest of the day, losing three steelhead for they are so powerful that you are likely to lose as many as you land, and as the sun set in blood and the temperature dropped like lead, we engaged the engine and chugged home.
On the way we passed whole trees full of roosting turkeys, the old Tom or gobbler on his extra tall tree a bit apart from his harem of wives and admirers who occupied cheaper digs nearby. At last light, three deer swam across the river behind us, another thing not often seen. One behind the other they ploughed gracefully along, hopping out on the far bank where, as everyone knows, the grass is always greener. It was the opening of deer hunting season and many anglers were wearing orange to avoid being shot. We heard the odd rifle shot and a minute or so after every one came a second bang, obviously the finisher. Maybe US hunters do not believe in making the first shot count.
?Twould be repetitious to recount every fish of the dozen or so we had that week, for they all performed spectacularly, but one the next day with Pete deserves a mention. Never in 50 angling years for all sorts of fish from Sutherland to Arctic Lapland, Africa to Bolivia, have I had such a beast. It took line so quickly that the reel handle was a blur, the powerful 15ft rod was ripped almost to the water, the reel went into meltdown and has never been the same since, and the backing was way out and down the river. The steelhead stayed on by some miracle, took a quarter of an hour to land and weighed about 12lb, chrome silver and the hook fell out of its mouth in the landing net. My arm was aching and fingers scored where the line had ripped out. Never have I landed such an exciting and powerful fish. That was the one I remember in my dreams safe back in my little truckle bed in old Blighty.
Too soon it was over for I had to be back and on my way to Spain to try for a few partridges: it?s all go and they told me to take it easy at my age. My observations on small-town America are that they seem to have preserved something we have lost. I saw not one scrap of litter in all my time there, no sprayed graffiti, no vandalism and folks with high standards of conduct and good manners. On the river I saw with my own eyes a smoker put his cigarette butt into an empty beer tin and into a bag for taking home rather than flick it into the water. Look on Tweed or Spey to see plastic bottles and rubbish in every backwater. Outside the local school was an electronic notice board with a display announcing forthcoming events. Even in my quiet and usually well-behaved village that would have a brick through it in a week. In Pete?s town they leave the cars unlocked with keys in the ignition, engines on boats and thousands of pounds worth of fishing tackle propped up on the bank. Where did we go wrong?
As for the mighty Muskegon it is but one of many rivers flowing into the great lake Michigan, where steelhead, brown trout, salmon and other fish may be caught. Were that river to flow in the UK it would cost hundreds of pounds to fish, but in Michigan the rivers belong to the people. No money-grubbing owner who inherited it from an ancestor who stole it can claim ownership of a waterway and charge you through the nose to fish it. They are for everyone, are well managed by the state and fished by anyone for the cost of a $43 annual licence, all the money going into management.
Too soon I was back on the silver bird flying out of Detroit, cramped into my economy class seat for eight hours, tussling with a chicken surprise (the surprise was what the chef had done to it to render it so unpalatable), and sipping a small bottle of Japanese burgundy. I was squashed between a stout lady and a mother with a child that already looked restive, but what the heck. Insert earplugs, close my eyes and there was that majestic river, there were people I loved and there was the mighty steelhead tearing off line as though on fire and making my poor old heart skip a beat.
For more information on flyfishing on the Muskegon, visit www.feenstraguideservice.com