Thursday, October 29, 2009

Salmon Fishing on Michigan's Pere Marquette River

By John Heider

Salmon fishing on the Pere Marquette River in late October is not for the faint of heart, those that get easily bored and frustrated, or for those looking to land brag-able quantities of large fish.
It's a chore - an exasperating, time-consuming, money-depleting (hey! another broken rod!) body-wrecking chore.  And it's a heck of a lot of fun. So if you go - if you really must go - you've been forewarned.

For a salmon fishing trip to the Pere Marquette River in northern Michigan in October you should bring some serious hardware; these aren't small, dainty trout. These fish, pretty fresh from Lake Michigan, average 10-20 pounds and are known for their strength - they¹ll flip out of the water like a berserk gymnast and cartwheel across the water - sometimes pulling you off your feet with their runs. So, a long salmon rod with plenty of power in its mid-section is a must.Most go after salmon with a flyrod on the Pere Marquette, but the only stipulation for fishing the river¹s best stretch (from the M-37 bridge downstream to Gleason's Landing, an eight mile stretch) is that you use artificial flies.No bait, no spinners or crank baits. 

So, technically, you can use a spinning rod with a small fly pattern on your line below some split shot, but, again, most seem to use a fly rod. A good, disc-drag reel is pretty much a  requirement, too. You can try to get away with basic, click-pawl reel, but when you hook into a brawler who wants to run upstream and you have to "palm" the reel to slow him down, your reel will begin to imitate a machine shop grinder and you'll be looking at getting some skin grafts.

As for specific rod types, I tend to favor the nine foot eight weight. It's probably a little undermanned for some of the big chinook beasts that prowl the pools of the Pere Marquette, but it's usually just the right stick. Note that I said "just." I, and many others, have broken more than a few rods on the fish of this river. It's not necessarily a rod¹s deficiency that leaves them in pieces after straining against a 20 pound fish for 30 minutes; it's just physics.
This is the "money-depleting" part. You take these rods to their limits and beyond, and sometimes find yourself back at Cabela's buying yet another new rod in mid-season. For fewer trips to the outfitters to replace shattered rods, consider a nine weight. 

Wading in the Pere Marquette is heartily suggested. It's pretty much impossible to fish it from the banks. Wading's the best way to get close to the fish; most people are able to jump in and move about pretty easily. Watch the flow of the river, though. The Pere Marquette is a huge river that
drains hundreds of square miles in northwestern Michigan and can, with a lot of rain, rise quickly turning into a river that's better surfed that waded. 

I'd recommend wading in flows of 800 cubic feet per second and below. You can do higher, but it's a struggle to maintain your balance and occasionally dangerous, plus you and the fish are dealing with tons of muddy, cloudy water that makes it difficult to get your fly down to the fish. It's also hard for the fish to distinguish your fly from all the crud floating past.You can keep an eye on the river's flow by going to and navigating your way to "Michigan" and "current streamflows" to find its updated condition.

Or just ask the at flyshops in nearby Baldwin. They'll know. I usually fish an area known as "Green Cottage." It's accessed off 72nd Street, off M-37. There's plenty of parking, just remember to buy a pass from the Huron/Manistee Forest or you'll get fined.

OK, so you get on the water of the Pere Marquette and see some fish, sometimes a ton of fish. The idea is to catch them. In order to catch them, you've got to present them something that reminds them of the food they no longer eat (they're spawning, not eating) or flash something in front of their faces that provokes a strike, a grab at your lure.

I've found recent success on the Pere Marquette with two basic types of flies. One is an egg pattern that the king salmon will nail because they're testing eggs that float along with the current to see if there's a female nearby in need of their, uh, "services."

Another type of fly that's worked well for me is what's called a spey fly. It's basically a flashy, billowy type of fly that might strike a salmon as some sort of tiny, jerk of an invader to their space. They'll often nail it with the kind of no-doubt-about-it turn of their whole body, opening of
their big, toothy mouth and bite that's a real joy to see and experience.

In order to get to the place where a Chinook salmon hits your fly, you've got to get yourself in the right place at the right time and not tire of casting, oh, a couple hundred times to the same pool or slot of water. That's right, two hundred times, buster. This ain't no lightweight fishing here. You've got to have the stamina and heart to make a ton of casts in the just-right area and still be prepared for nothing for maybe hours on end until ... you get a strike.

Cloudy weather is better than sunny, (Because the salmon will sulk in the deep holes and be very wary of everything they can see - that includes you, Mr. Fisherman).So, pray for clouds, not really rain, but clouds. And if you've got a bright, sunny day, make the most of it. Look for the salmon in the shaded part of the river. Wait until later in the day with the sun's setting. Work that river.

If you've cast a couple of hundred times to a section of river that has a dozen of salmon in it and you've gotten no response, don't despair. It's not you, it's them. They're painfully choosy, hard to please. They¹ve got their minds on other things (makin' babies, y'all!) and are not trying to hurt
your feelings.

So, change your fly, not once, but maybe a half a dozen times. You¹d be amazed at how a change from a wooly bugger to a stonefly to an egg pattern to a spey fly will do for your luck. Sometimes nothing. Other times, it's like someone's given the salmon the green light to smack away at your offerings.

Your other option is to move on. Try another section of river (if you can find one unoccupied) and your luck may change.

As far as presentation, or type of line to use on the river, personally I favor a straight weight forward line with about six feet of leader material, fairly stiff, with a couple of split shot followed by a two-foot section of fluorocarbon tippet rated for eight to ten pounds - and then your fly.

You can try to get away with lighter tippet, but these salmon are big bruisers with sharp teeth, there's a lot of rocks in the river to fray your tippet. You've got to have enough strength to pull these fish away from the many logs and branches, which to the fish are their version of a pre-fabricated jail-break. They know that if they can get into those logs, they'll be able to wrap your line around them and it's hello freedom for Mister Salmon.

Now it's your turn to get up to northwestern Michigan and find some salmon. They're there, you just gotta' give it a try. Let us know how you do. Photos are believed more than stories. I should know.



Rebecca said...

I enjoyed watching that video~ I wish we had that type of fishing in sweet looking streams like that one around my parts~

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