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Woods, water & worse/Jim Junttila

Wading an awesome steelhead watershed

April 2, 2010
By Jim Junttila

Now that another Yooper winter is outa here, nothing sounds as good as running water, especially when you're wading in it, drifting a spawnbag, crawler, egg or yarnfly, or working a spinner against the current, waiting for the subtle take of a steelhead.

These anadromous (migratory) lake-run rainbow, Oncorhynchus mykiss, are the first fish of Spring to run up our remote coastal rivers to spawn; the Big and Little Carp in the Porcupine Mountains, the Montreal near the tippa the Keweenaw, the Big Huron backa L'Anse, and a lotta cricks in between.

Most years, April is barely ice-out on Lake Superior tributaries, but Verna Equinox got it in gear a month early. Even as we speak, steelhead are either already in the rivers or on their way, staging off the mouths, waiting for just the right flow, temperature and spawning urge to trigger the run.

Some years they do it in torrential flows and snowstorms, but not this time.

"This is the most graceful, fishiest flow I've managed in years," Verna smiled. "You don't hear the fishermen complaining, do you? The water may be low and slow, but the urge to spawn isn't. It can't be repressed, ignored or denied, nor should it."

If I'm lucky, I fish the Mouth of the Montreal or the Huron 3-4 times during the season, but I know guys who are steelhead junkies. Gordie Lake of Wakefield has been known to hang out on the Huron for the entire month of April, or until the river gets too low to fish or the suckers show up, indicating the run is over.

He's got a great place to stay. Lake's Rainbow Lodge is one of my favorite fish camps ever. The Huron runs right through his front yard, and steelhead swim past brazenly day and night, heading upstream to spawn. For a change of fish and scenery, the Falls, Slate, Silver and Ravine Rivers are all close by. Baraga County is spoiled rotten as a steelhead watershed.

Gordie has worked the entire seven mile stretch of river which winds a serpentine course from the confluence of the East and West Branches at Big Eric's Bridge to the mouth on Lake Superior. He travels light, carrying a 9-foot-6 graphite steelhead rod handmade by Robbie Nyman, a Martin fly reel spooled with 12-pound line, and a short (1-2 foot) 8-pound test leader tied to an ant swivel with a single bead and a drop sinker.

"My spawnbag and spoon days are over," Lake says. "Now I drift the smallest single egg or yarn fly I can tie on a red No. 10 hook." When I saw it, I thought he was fishing with a bare hook.

He made a believer outa me. I've downsized and simplified my presentation to match his and I still manage to catch fewer fish, but then I can sleep through a bite with the best of them. While many Yooper steelheaders drift spawnsacks and bottom bounce crawlers with flyrods, these fish will also strike spinners and spoons, but slow down your retrieve to give the blade a tumbling, flopping effect. Other productive baits are yarnflies, stonefly nymphs or glowballs in chartreuse, hot pink and orange.

A 25-inch fish will weigh about five pounds. They tend to grow a pound per inch after that. Hook a five pounder in the Huron, at the Moutha the Montreal, or any Yooper river and you've got a fight on your hands.

"The bite kicks in as the water warms up in the afternoon, with the best bite coming between noon and 3 p.m. when it's gone from say 35 degrees to 38-39 degrees," observes Lake.

Every Spring, the campground at Big Eric's Bridge becomes a rendezvous for rainbow fishermen from far and near, many of whom have been showing up for 30-some years, staying in every make and model of trailer, tent, camper, motor home and RV you can imagine, humble to high-tech, some with portable saunas in tow. If you're lucky, you might run into a fish fry in progress or a pot of kala mojakka (fish stew) on the boil.

I can tell you from experience that a cold one sure hits the spot after a shift on the river, especially if your fish fry to be is swimming on a stringer while you fire up the charcoal.

For river conditions and fishing reports, call Steve Koski, Indian Country Sports, Downtown L'Anse Vegas waterfront (524-6518),, Huron Bay Trading Post (524-7418), Michigan DNRE, Baraga (353-6651), Billy the Finn's Huron Bay Tavern, (524-6272) or Bella Vista Bar (524-6306). The new license season began Thursday. Licenses are available at all vendors or online at

Jim can be reached 24/7/365 at



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