2012-04-19 / Outdoors

Steelhead fishing in Leelanau is

By Alan Campbell
Of The Enterprise staff

The noon-day sun bore down into the Crystal River, exposing steelhead bedded over a bottom of colorful pebbles. A sunburn appeared imminent — for anglers, of course. The fish were too spooky to stay long, darting between cover and spawning beds, torn between safety and reproduction.

Steelhead fisherman Chris Carruthers, whose parents started visiting the Homestead Resort in the 1970’s, about the time he started flipping spawn bags into the Crystal, figured he’d be lucky if a steelhead opened its mouth to feed. His years of experience were right, although it was just too pretty a spring day to stay home.

“You’ve got to get up early in the morning, as early as you can before people get on the river and the fish start to see better,” said Carruthers, who resides in Glen Arbor. “And it helps to fish in the middle of the week. The fish get riled up on the weekends when everyone is fishing.”


STEELHEAD ARE prevalent in the Crystal River, but angler Chris Carruthers, above right, suggests arriving early before they’re disturbed. STEELHEAD ARE prevalent in the Crystal River, but angler Chris Carruthers, above right, suggests arriving early before they’re disturbed. Steelhead fishing on the Crystal is different than on most other rivers, Carruthers maintains, and it would be hard to argue with him. For one thing, the river is small, with long gaps between holes suitable for holding fish. While it’s not uncommon for steelhead fishermen on premier rivers such as the Platte or Manistee to work within an arms-length of each other, the fish in the Crystal would never put up with such a crowd. Most holes hold only a few fish, if that. Spook one, and it’s time to head to another hole.

But Carruthers likes the coziness of the Crystal. He only fishes 8-10 holes, which takes him to many of the catchable fish in the river at any one time. He has names for each that will make them easily identifiable to some residents: “675 hole,” “Brammer hole” and “log jam” hole, to give away three.

But anyone with an eye for reading rivers could find the best holes in the Crystal. The trick is to find them first.

“During the week is best. On the weekend is when traffic picks up,” Carruthers said.

The Crystal won’t tolerate a lot of anglers. Spawning fish are usually accessible from only one spot in the river. If someone’s there, you’re better off having a seat to watch the action than trying to elbow in and ruin any chance of a hook-up.

The steelhead run is close to full throttle, with recent rains expected to bring in a few more silver fish from Lake Michigan. Most of the steelhead observed last week were dark — meaning they had been in the river for weeks.

The longer steelhead stay in the river, the spookier they become, observed Carruthers.

“I started checking the river about five weeks ago, and there were fish in there that were already darker,” he said, explaining that warm weather got the steelhead run off to an early start. “I usually don’t start looking in earnest until about mid-April.”

Normally he would fish holes that likely had not been pushed by other anglers, but the March snowstorm dumped limbs and in one case an entire tree on some of his favorite spots. So he headed to some popular stops for anglers.

“Those two have been there at least a couple weeks,” Carruthers said, quickly picking out two long, dark shadows in a spillway below Co. Rd. 675. The Crystal crosses the county road three times within a onemile stretch. Spillways at each crossing often hold fish.

Steelhead are measured in pounds, not inches, and the bigger one eyed by Carruthers might have gone six pounds. He or she was also holding just behind a deadfall in the river, making an accurate cast and drift impossible. Soon all opportunity was lost, as the steelhead moved out of the run and into cover.

Carruthers slipped into position to fish the spillway, where a steelhead would be impossible to see on the bottom. He flipped a spawn bag into the broiling whitewater, and handfed plenty of line to allow the bait to drift through the run.

Nothing. A couple more times, and he was done. That’s the advantage of living near the river: If the fish don’t bite, you can just as easily try tomorrow.

And Carruthers figures there are many more tomorrows left in this spring’s steelhead run.

Tips for getting steelies

Before retiring for the day, Chris Carruthers offered more insight into the challenges of steelhead fishing in Leelanau County:

• Don’t give up too early in the season. Carruthers often finds fish well into May. The steelhead run is usually later on the Crystal than other area rivers such as the Platte and Betsie. It’s also later on Shalda Creek — which is a good thing, as the river is off limits to fishing until the regular trout opener on the last Saturday in April. Shalda Creek is hosting a run of steelhead right now.

• Fish downstream whether using spawn or a spinner. His “lucky” spinner is a No. 3 Mepps with a rainbow-colored blade whose bucktail looks the worse for wear. Whether drifting spawn or swinging a spinner in front of steelhead, the key is to provide a natural presentation. Don’t put too much weight on the spawn that it doesn’t move freely with the current, although occasionally touching bottom. Steelhead will give up on spinners when they hit bottom or break current.

• Be aware that the Crystal above Fisher Dam is off limits until after the last Saturday in April. For some reason, salmon and occasionally steelhead will jump the dam to hang out upstream, an area that doesn’t look like good trout water. But in this case, looks can be deceiving.

Also, the spillway area of the dam can be a good — and easy — place to fish. There’s a parking lot and even an outdoor privvy off Dunns Farm Road. It’s just a short walk to the dam, which on clear mornings can be heard a few steps from your car.

• Understand that most property downstream of M-22 is privately owned. If you do receive permission to fish, respect the rights of landowners.

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