I’m a firm believer that outdoors success doesn’t happen on a schedule.
There are so many variables that go into a productive hunting or fishing trip. After all, we’re dealing with wild animals.
Weather, photoperiods, population numbers, human pressure, and activity levels are just a handful of things one must consider when trying to drop that trophy buck or pin down a fish of a lifetime.
While trying to make the stars align can be mind-numbingly frustrating, there is nothing like the feeling of when it all comes together.
Last year, I decided to pursue river-run trout for the first time. The world was still mid-pandemic and I figured it was high time I try to tangle with a steelhead. I have lived within a few miles of several Lake Michigan tributaries for nearly my entire life, yet I had never tried to take advantage of the spring spawning season.
My trout fishing career began by applying, what I felt was, sound logic based on the little background information I had.
I rigged up a slip bobber on a spinning rod, bought a container of spawn sacks, and headed off to the Pigeon River, a place I had seen steelhead before.
Knowing fish were present and that I was using bait comprised of something these fish were already eating, I figured this was a good place to start.
It couldn’t be that hard, could it?
As it turns out, chasing trout is a lot more complicated than I imagined.
Several trips went by and I didn’t even have a nibble to show for it.
Hoping to accelerate my learning curve, I booked a trip with a local guide. It ended up being some of the best money I have ever spent.
The first thing my guide taught me was that I was doing basically everything wrong.
When we began our float down the Sheboygan River in the early-morning hours of a brisk late-March day, he made an off-hand comment that he could tell just by looking at an angler how much knowledge they had.
He then proceeded to rattle off a host of criteria that, to him, distinguished a true amateur (short spinning rod, Thill slip bobbers, only two split shot sinkers, a small net, etc.) and I checked just about every box.
But that day, I learned loads about proper techniques and the finer points of steelhead behavior. Together, my guide and I succeeded in getting me my first river-run trout and supplying me with the information I needed to catch these fish on my own.
He taught me that spawn sacks weren’t the only thing that could entice a trout to bite. I received a rundown on the basics of bead fishing and learned that, sometimes, all you need to catch a trout is an 8-millimeter round piece of plastic that is colored like a fish egg and a bare hook.
My confidence was at an all-time high. I changed my set-ups to include beads, added the proper amount of sinkers, and was equipped with new knowledge of the spots spawning steelhead like to hang out.
I was sure I was going to hook into a fish before long.
Two weeks later, I was proven right. After hours of floating beads and spawn, my bobber finally dipped under the water’s surface. I set the hook and felt instant resistance. This was it.
The fish began thrashing about, the explosions echoing off the tightly-aligned river banks. After a couple of minutes, I began to make headway and drew the fish closer to me.
There was a problem, though.
I was standing in the middle of the river and my net was on shore.
I beached the fish on the gravel bar I was standing on, hoping to remove the hook and walk the fish to land for a nice picture before sending it on its way.
But the fish had other ideas. As I bent over it, the fish found a new rush of energy and took off upstream.
The fish was gone. It had wrapped itself around a downed log and got the leverage it needed to escape.
It was amateur hour on the Pigeon River.
I felt like an idiot. All of the work that went into getting this bite was thrown away by a lack of planning.
That was the only fish I hooked on my own that spring before the trout retreated back to the waters of Lake Michigan.
This year, I returned to the river with a renewed spirit. Surely, this would be the year.
I repurposed my old musky rod into a trout fishing instrument. I invested in better line, utilizing a fluorocarbon leader with braided backing for the optimal combination of stealth and strength.
When it came to tackle selection, I was armed to the teeth. I bought several colors and sizes of beads, a pack of chemically-sharpened No. 4 hooks, and even ponied up the $7.50 for a balsa wood float.
I also got my hands on my grandpa’s old landing net that he used on his boat when fishing on Lake Michigan.
My friend Brandon managed to land several trout in the opening weeks of the run. Though I hadn’t caught one myself, I felt optimistic about my chances. It seemed like only a matter of time until I found success of my own.
One day in early April, I decided to sneak in a fishing trip on lunch break. It was the first properly nice spring day with bountiful sunshine and temperatures nearing the low 50s. I made my way to a spot where Brandon had caught several fish in the previous days.
About 10 casts in, my bobber slipped under the surface. I gave a half-hearted tug, assuming that I had snagged a rock, a common occurrence in this location.
Much to my surprise, by hookset was met with a splash followed by a trout feverishly darting upriver from left to right.
The beauty of this fish was immediately apparent. It was a male with a small kype on its lower jaw and a stunning pink stripe down its side that would make a perfectly-cooked medium-rare steak jealous.
This time, I was prepared. With the rod in one hand, I reached back for my net. Working the fish toward shore, I dipped the net behind the fish and scooped the trout without incident.
There it was, in all its glory, my first river-run steelhead that I had caught on my own.
After snapping a few quick pictures, I released the fish.
I immediately fired off some texts to a handful of friends, including my guide. I thanked him for all the knowledge he shared with me over the previous year. This moment wouldn’t have been possible without his guidance.
All told, it took me 18 trips to accomplish my goal. Looking back, I enjoyed nearly every second.
Later that afternoon, I reflected upon that journey — the hours of fishing and research and the money invested. I realized that I am a completely different angler than I was a year ago. My level of respect for, and understanding of, these fish has grown exponentially and will only continue to trend in that direction.
With all the hours that I am fortunate to dedicate to fishing, it’s not often that I get to savor the feeling that comes with a “first” anything these days. That made this one especially sweet.
Here’s hoping the second comes a little faster.