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Manistee River Steelhead

By Mark Romanack

The Great Lakes region has many excellent
steelhead streams, but the Big Manistee is the
 author’s favorite for many reasons.
The town of Manistee, Michigan is a sleepy little tourist village with a big maritime history. At one time Manistee was one of the busiest ports on the Great Lakes shipping out timber to serve a growing nation. Today, Manistee serves visitors who are looking to get away from a growing nation, relax and enjoy life’s finer moments.

The Manistee River enjoys one of the largest runs of steelhead of any river in the Great Lakes region. In part this is true due to an aggressive stocking program. The Manistee also attracts lots of steelhead because this river system is also the natal spawning waters of literally 10’s of thousands of king and coho salmon.

In the late summer and early fall when the salmon enter the river to spawn, steelhead follow them to feed upon the salmon eggs. This unique situation sets the stage for some amazing fall steelheading action.

Any time steelhead are feeding on salmon eggs one of the best ways to catch them is a locally popular technique simply called “bumping bottom” that involves drifting a spawn bag along bottom with the help of a few split shots.

Bumping bottom starts by attaching a three way swivel to the end of a mainline consisting of 10# test monofilament. A five or six foot leader of eight pound test fluorocarbon line is added to one of the three way swivel ends terminating into a No. 4 or 6 egg hook and a dime sized spawn bag.

On the third swivel a short dropper of monofilament is added as a place to pinch on two or three No. 7 split shot. This simple rigging method allows the spawn bag to be casted and drifted along bottom matching the speed of the current.

Should the split shots hang up on bottom, a steady pull will strip the shot from the line, salvaging the swivel, leader and hook in tact. It’s not uncommon to go through a half pound of split shot during a long day fishing the Manistee River.

In the fall steelhead tend to hold in the faster water that provides salmon with ideal spawning habitat. Any place that salmon are making their spawning reds, steelhead will set up just downstream and wait for loose eggs to drift downstream.

The best runs tend to feature three to six feet of water, a gravel bottom and steady current. These fish can be targeted both by wading and from a boat. On this particular episode we’re fishing from a small aluminum boat equipped with an Anchor Wizard a boat anchoring system invented and manufactured by Bruce VanScoyo of Evart, Michigan.


Bruce VanScoy of Evart Michigan is the inventor of the Anchor Wizard, an
anchoring system the author uses frequently for steelhead fishing chores.
The Anchor Wizard is an anchor deployment and recovery system that allows an angler to lower and raise the anchor without ever touching a wet and cold line. The Anchor Wizard also allows line to be played out after deploying the anchor enabling the boat position to be slowly slipped downstream to cover more water.

At first glance the Anchor Wizard resembles a beefed up downrigger and it functions using a similar clutch system. To lower the anchor simply turn the handle on the Anchor Wizard backwards one half turn, freeing up the wheel and allowing gravity to deploy the anchor and line. To lock the wheel in place simply turn the handle a half turn forward.

When it’s time to raise the anchor and move to a new location, simply turn the handle forward until all the line is picked up and the anchor stored in the nose cone of the Anchor Wizard system.

Fool proof, American made and guaranteed for life, the Anchor Wizard is the ultimate boat anchoring system. Available in various sizes and models, the Anchor Wizard is ideal for anchoring just about anything that floats including kayaks, pontoons and fishing boats large and small.

The most exciting part of fall steelhead fishing occurs seconds after setting the hook. These chrome colored rockets literally blast out of the water cartwheeling in an effort to throw the hook. The aerial displays steelhead are famous for makes them unique and exceptionally difficult to land. Only about one out of every three or four fish hooked eventually come to net. The rest break off or tear free leaving the angler disappointed yet determined to hook another.

Steelhead like this are typical of the fish caught on 
the Big Manistee River in the fall, winter and spring.
The most avid steelhead anglers collect and cure their own spawn especially for fishing. In the fall nothing beats a dime sized ball of fresh salmon eggs held into a sac with netting. The netting used for tying spawn sacs comes in every color under the rainbow, but orange, flame red and pink are among the most popular colors.

To help the spawn sac drift up off the bottom a few inches, many anglers put a couple small foam floats in each spawn sac. Once the spawn sacs are tied, they are stored in a small jar.

Eggs cured by rolling them in Borax powder can also be used in spawn bags. The Borax powder firms up the eggs and preserves them. Cured in this manner salmon eggs can be kept in a refrigerator for several weeks.

Bumping bottom with spawn is a game best played with steelhead specific rods and reels. Detecting the often subtle bites requires a high graphite content spinning rods about 8’- 6” to 10’- 6” long and featuring a medium light action. In this episode we’re fishing with Okuma SST and Guide Select Steelhead Rods equipped with Trio size 30 spinning reels.

Long rods do a great job of tiring out powerful steelhead and improving the odds of landing these acrobatic fish. A new steelhead rod in the 2013 line up for Okuma is called the T-40X. The tip to butt carbon design breaks from tradition creating an ultra sensitive and powerful rod designed especially for stream steelhead fishing.

The Manistee River is one of the Great Lake’s top steelhead streams. From late September through November anglers can expect fresh runs of fish almost daily. The daily limit is three steelhead, but most anglers practice catch and release.

Once you’ve hooked and landed an acrobatic steelhead all other types of fishing seem to pale by comparison. It’s no wonder steelhead anglers are so dedicated to their niche in the world of sport fishing.