November 25, 2020 4 min read

Our crew of anglers began to show up Tuesday evening at Scully’s Outpost in Manistee, along Route 55. We had a solid group of both experienced steelhead nuts, and a few newbies brave (or crazy) enough to swing flies for steelhead in northern Michigan in late November. The original plan back in June was to book a cabin big enough for us all, but I decided to play  it safe and book hotel rooms. As I ate my take-out chicken dinner from a Styrofoam box in my own room, I congratulated myself on making the safe decision.

We met our guides 20 minutes before the sunrise at the boat launch – a typical meetup time for guided steelhead trips. I go back and forth about being on the water at first light. Now that I am a parent, sleep is cherished even more, and fishing trips can allow me to squeeze in a few more hours of sleep. It was not warm one bit, but the temps were expected to rise today and throughout the trip.

My first day was with guide John Ray of Mangled Fly, a Manistee river veteran of over 15 years, and Mark, a loyal customer of the shop. I started the day with my preferred rig in late November: T-14 and an unweighted Laser Dance. The 3 of us exchanged steelhead theories, conspiracies and lies throughout the day. A few hours into the day John received a text from Topper. The text didn’t contain text, just a photo:

Michigan steelhead guide fly for spey casting

Jeff teased a few more details out of Topper and found out Rob hooked but lost a nice fish on the fly. 

With that information I opened my box and looked for a weighted, mostly black fly with an orange head. Despite literally designing the exact pattern, I had no such fly in my box. In the last few seasons, I decided to mostly fish absurdly bright flashy flies. Fortunately, John had the right fly for me. I switched flies, went to a heavier longer tip and was back at it with a renewed sense of delusional confidence.

About an hour later I got cranked on a fish. I let the fly fish out and dangle, but it didn’t come back. I reloaded and swung it again. Nothing. We dropped the boat down through the run but the fish didn’t come back. I wondered if the Ahrex Homerun would’ve connected with the fish.

We fished a few more pieces of water. Swing, swing, drop the boat, swing, swing, and on it goes. Sometime in the early afternoon I stuck a super-charged steelhead. The fish immediately charged downstream. My reel was screaming, when all of a sudden, the fish jumped. The steelhead wasn’t just way downstream, it also ran across to the other side of the river, creating a huge L shape in my fly line. Once airborne, I began to lose tension on the wild animal. I couldn’t reel line in fast enough; I tried stripping in line by hand but that didn’t do the trick either. 

By 3 pm, we wrapped up the day back at the boat launch, compared notes, and enjoyed a few ice cold Labatt Blue Lights. The clear winner of the day was Rob.

big steelhead spey casting on the manistee


Day 2 started in the dark at the boat launch like day 1, but the temperature was nearly 20 degrees warmer. What made the day interesting was the wind forecast of 15-25 MPH. 

The night before we tied flies that looked exactly like what was working that day - a weighted black fly with an orange head. I tied a variation of the hot fly with Ripple Ice Fiber (best stuff ever) instead of marabou.

Today, I was fishing with Captain Steve Pels, and one of the new guys, Adam. Not long after we launched the wind began to roar upstream, its intensity varied from annoying to hilariously unbearable. I ended up getting a nice fresh hen steelhead that day but the real story was the wind. I like to say that the wind keeps you honest and doesn’t let any bullshit casts through. Today was the exception to that. The wind didn’t let any casts through. I felt like I was playing basketball against Shaq – I had no chance. There was no way around it, every cast got pushed around or slammed back at me.

spey casting out of a boat on the manistee

 Just before noon I got a big pull. It was definitely a steelhead and it was definitely hooked.

She taped out 26”*15”

manistee steelhead on the swing

In the afternoon we worked our way downstream passing through 3 self-proclaimed “No Wake Zones”. Apparently, river law allows any property owner to enact the law and everyone just follows it. Fair enough I thought, but what if the neighbor on the other bank had a “No No Wake Zone” sign? These are things I ponder when spey casting.

Back at the boat ramp, we talked up the day; more fish were lost than landed. The steelhead did not appear to mind the wind, maybe they even liked it. That night, half the guy headed back downstate; the other half hit up the hotel hot tub. 

hot tub in northern michigan

We talked more steelhead theories and we talked the regs in the flies only of the PM. Later in the night we arrived at our best hot tub idea. A fishing bum should get 2 sugar mommas – one in Alaska (oil money) and one in Florida (real estate money). The bum could spend summers in Alaska fishing for Salmon and giant Trout. When the weather turns, he heads down to Florida and gets after Tarpon, Permit and Snook. I think we decided it would make great reality TV too.  A boy can dream.

Day 3, the last day of the trip and the wind was back and stronger than ever. Pels and I fished hard, and late morning he got a big tug but little else. The fishing was tough, even the pinners weren’t getting anything.

manistee river

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