I am standing in the St. Joseph River, trying to entice a fish to bite. I can see fish. Big fish. Lots of them. They are steelhead, and they are swimming all around me. They splash on the surface. They drift into view along the bottom. They hold briefly in the current, then vanish. Occasionally, they make love on a nearby redd.
As I stare through my Polaroid glasses to observe the action underwater, I cast my fly upstream, allowing the swift current to propel it downstream in the hope a fish will strike. I am using an egg pattern, an imitation of the roe steelhead deposit on the redds. It is a choice food at this time of year, even for spawning steelhead.
The sun is shining, the afternoon mercury rising into the mid-80s. It is a glorious spring afternoon. Thirty minutes pass without a strike.
There are times when each of us, especially when fishing deep water, go without a strike for so long that we wonder if we fishing stretches of water that hold no fish. At least, that is our excuse for not getting a hook-up.
But I can see plenty of steelhead. And the lack of an immediate strike is what makes steelhead fishing so appealing.
Some of us fish for food, favoring walleyes and yellow perch. Some seek feistiness, fish that jump and fight like largemouth bass or coastal bluefish. A few focus on size, pursuing northern pike locally or, at the extreme end, black marlin off Australia. Some want to catch as many fish as possible – numbers are everything, species does not matter.
Most of us recognize each phase, from wanting as a kid to simply catch a fish, then catching a lot, then reeling in big fish and, finally, catching the difficult fish.
The critical essence of difficult fishing, in my opinion, comes down to the strike. The greater the difficulty in enticing a fish to strike the greater the reward. I am not alone in my belief. Others who have arrived at this conclusion include such legendary anglers as Lee Wulff, A. J. McClane, Russ Chatham, Ted Williams and Arnold Gingrich.
Steelhead on their up-river spawning runs are reluctant biters. It is written in their genes. Only the Atlantic salmon displays a greater reluctance to strike. (It is why many experienced anglers consider the Atlantic salmon the greatest gamefish. Many rank the steelhead as No. 2.)
Biologists explain that while steelhead may feed ravenously in the deep waters of Lake Michigan, they lose their appetite for the most part when the schools head upstream. If they continued to eat, they would consume every small fish in the river, including the previous year’s hatch of steelhead. (The same is true for other anadromous species like king salmon.)
Male anglers — and I emphasize the gender — have a different explanation. When you were a testosterone-addled young man, did you hunger for newspaper restaurant reviews? Of course not. You devoured Playboy. You didn’t worry about food. It’s the same with steelhead.
You’ve got to admit the anthropomorphic analysis is the most compelling.
So I keep observing the piscatorial bacchanalia occurring literally at my feet. I continue to cast, hoping a fish will recall the time when eating was a necessity and chomp down on my offering.
I try different tactics. I add weight to my tippet. I increase the length of my tippet. I move a few steps this way or that to change the angle of my drift. But I cannot move too far. Big fish attract big crowds, and standing room is at a premium.
My partner, Justin Phillips, is having better luck. He has the choice location in this section of river. He has had two solid battles, plus three strikes that did not result in a hook-up.
I finally feel the well-known wiggle and rear back. But the hook pulls loose.
I try switching flies, changing from a so-called “glue egg” to a black wooly bugger. But my luck never changes.
After 90 minutes of standing in and fighting the swift current, we reel in and call it a day.
When we get back to the truck, we look at our wading boots. Each of us has an egg fly hooked in our boot laces, flies lost by other anglers. How they became hooked in our boot laces is a mystery.
I conclude too many anglers are drifting too many egg flies. The fish are leery of them. I decide next time to try something different, perhaps a pattern known as a “steelhead bugger.” I’m told it is favored by northern Michigan fishing guides when the fish have been pounded with eggs flies.