A proper steelhead adventure

I have this working theory: if you have the chance to do something that you know you won’t be able to stop talking about afterward, you best do everything in your power to make it happen.

It was early winter when I found myself scrolling through Instagram. I stopped on a post that featured a beautiful array of large trout and salmon that caught my eye. While the gorgeous fish certainly gave reason for pause, it was the caption that really drew my attention.

“Book your 2021 trip now for a chance at a giant like these,” the text beneath the photos read.

After doing some digging, I discovered the guide responsible for the post was local. In fact, he lived in Sheboygan Falls, just as I do. His name was Bailey Adamavich and his outfit was called Crazy4Chrome Guide Service. I spent time scrolling through his Instagram feed as well as his website. By the time it was all said and done, I knew I had to book a trip.

I proclaimed to my wife that I really wanted to schedule an outing with this guide in hopes of pursuing trout in our local rivers. I was intrigued by the possibility of being able to have such a memorable experience so close to home.

That night, I sent Bailey a message on Instagram. I congratulated him on a stellar 2020 season and let him know that I planned to book a trip with him in the spring.

A few months later, as the days began to warm, I found myself with enough money saved up to make this dream adventure a reality. I gave Bailey a call and set something up. The agreed-upon date was a little more than two weeks away.

I couldn’t wait. I immediately requested my day off from work and I spent loads of time talking to my wife and family about the excitement surrounding the adventure that awaited.

However, as the day approached, the weather forecast took a sour turn. Rain followed by cold temperatures threatened our plans. After some discussion with Bailey, we decided to push out another week.

Finally, the day came — for real, this time.

I met Bailey at the end point of our float at 5:15 a.m., roughly an hour before legal fishing time. We shook hands and he explained the plan for the next hour as our headlights provided the only light that shined upon the paved backroad.

With waders on and all of our gear situated, we hopped in his vehicle and drove to a spot closer to the point in the river where his raft was tied up. After a brief, brisk walk, we arrived at the 13-foot gray raft, gently floating in the lazy current.

“What are we here for today?” Bailey asked as I climbed into the front of the vessel. “Do you just want to catch fish? Do you want to learn to read rivers? What are you hoping to get out of this?”

I told him I was after all of the above. Without a doubt, I wanted to land my first river steelhead. But I also wanted to learn as much as I could about the process.

We lifted anchor and began the float to our portage point.

Once there, we took care of getting our watercraft back into the river and we continued our journey to our first spot. We spent time talking about our fishing backgrounds and getting up to speed on the plan of attack for the day.

Daylight began to break, but there was still some time before we could begin fishing. We passed the minutes with more conversation as suckers began jumping all around us. It felt like there were hundreds of them. I probably asked a dozen questions, the subjects of which ranged from catch and release practices to basic steelhead biology. By the time we got to the bottom of everything, it was time to get after it.

It was a cold and clear morning, with temperatures hovering in the low 30s and a slight breeze that still held the taste of the dying winter.

We began by floating spawn sacks and a bead (meant to imitate a fish egg) underneath slip bobbers with several equally-spaced split shot sinkers helping to provide the proper presentation.

Ice buildup on the rod guides was our primary issue early on. The added resistance made accurate casting difficult. We overcame this by occasionally dunking the rod tip in the water or manually removing the ice ourselves. Eventually, we resorted to changing out rods every few casts. Bailey would get one rod back in working order while I continued to fish with another.

With no bites to speak of, we continued downriver to the next hole.

“It’ll get going once the sun starts hitting the water,” Bailey reassured me.

The next location was one of his favorite spots on the river. The presence of shore anglers had prevented him from being able to fish it up until our trip.

“We’re going to spend some good time here,” Bailey said. “I guarantee you there are a bunch of fish sitting in this hole.”

We continued to float spawn and beads, switching up colors every once in a while. He even had me try a spinner. Still, no luck.

“Just so you know, if the fishing sucks, we can call it an early day and push to another time,” said Bailey.

While I thought the offer was incredibly generous, it didn’t exactly spark confidence in what the next few hours held. I started getting the sense he was becoming nervous about the lack of action.

The sun rose higher and began to shine on the water. Its warmth was a welcomed addition to the cold morning. We spent about an hour at this particular hole, but were still in search of our first bite. Bailey said it was time to move on.

This next stretch of river was more on the shallow side. Bailey explained that the fish spawn on the gravel beds and then spend time hanging out in the slightly deeper pockets in the area.

We went back to the floating approach.

“See that “V” on your left? Float right through there until you hit the gravel bar,” he instructed from his seat in the back of the raft.

On the second float, my bobber disappeared under the water’s surface. I gave the line a good tug and was hooked up.

As I battled the fish, Bailey maneuvered the raft to a position that allowed for an easier exit. As the fish drew nearer, Bailey hopped into the river with the landing net. After some minor adjustments and a bit of coaching, our first fish was secured. It was a beautiful male with a pink hue that complemented its silver complexion. Though it was on the smaller side, I couldn’t have been happier. It was my first river steelhead.

I disembarked from the raft and met Bailey in the river for a couple quick pictures. He coached me through how to handle the fish properly: wet your hands, put one hand around the tail and tuck the other near its head, and gently lift the fish above the water line. We captured some photos on Bailey’s phone and sent the fish back on its way.

Frankly, I would have been satisfied with my investment even if we didn’t catch another fish. I accomplished what I came to do. In a matter of a couple hours, I gained some incredible insight into pursuing river trout and had managed to score my first steelhead on waters other than Lake Michigan.

After a handshake and a fist bump, it was time to climb back into the raft and try to find another hungry fish. It didn’t take long. In short order, we pulled two more fish out of the same pocket. Another male that was similar in stature to the first, followed by a much larger female. We were in a groove now, with a trio of steelhead to our credit in the last six casts.

Satisfied that we had located all of the active fish in this pocket, we moved slightly downriver to another similar setting. After a few casts, I had another fish on the line. This one was sizable, much closer to the type of trout I have encountered on the open waters of the big lake.

The fish surfaced, revealing its large tail. And, just like that, it was gone.

Since the fight was short, we decided to keep working our current pocket fairly confident that the lack of disturbance didn’t alert other fish to our presence.

A short while later, I had another fish on. This one made its way to the landing net. It was another solid female.

One more spot near a gravel flat yielded another small male. We went from no bites to five fish in, what seemed like, a few minutes.

A persistent downriver breeze forced us to move on. So we floated downriver to a deep hole near one of the downstream bends.

“We pulled a big fish out of here yesterday. We are going to put our time in,” Bailey said.

After roughly a dozen drifts, we decided to change bead colors. As it turned out, that was the ticket. Just as Bailey was about to tell me to pull up my line and start a fresh float, my bobber disappeared. It was probably 30 yards or more from the front of the raft.

I set the hook and felt the type of tension I had become familiar with. It quickly became apparent I was dealing with a strong specimen.

The fish and I went back and forth. For a while, I gained a bit of ground as I began to reel down on the fish. But most of my progress was quickly erased as my opponent went on a series of runs that made the drag sing. I was locked in, what turned out to be, the longest battle of the day.

After nearly 10 minutes, Bailey jumped out of the boat and moved downriver with the net. A short while later, he was making his way back to me with the fish in tow. It was the third female of the day. Though it wasn’t the largest, it was definitely the most energetic of the fish we encountered.

Even as our trip drew to a close, Bailey continued to coach me up on reading the river and the different types of habitat to look for. We also spoke about the handful of brown trout that remained in the river as well as the ins and outs of his king salmon trips in the fall.

I told him I would definitely be booking a trip with him this fall for a shot at my first brown trout in the river.

Before I knew it, I spotted my truck on the far shoreline. Our river adventure was over. But what a trip it was.

I am fortunate enough to have been on many guided hunting and fishing trips. When things are slow, the joke often is: “you should have been here yesterday.” It sometimes seems like I never get to have one of the days that the guide will brag about on Facebook or in their marketing materials afterward. But today, I felt like I was that guy.

We ended the day with six fish on, what we later estimated to be, 10-12 bites.

I still haven’t shut up about it.

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