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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Superior's Swollen Tributaries Fuel Angler’s Steelhead Passions

When someone teaches you how to fish their favorite steelhead river on Lake Superior, you’re obligated to learn how precisely you can identify the place to friends.

Calvin McShane didn’t hesitate when asked.

“Just say we’re in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” he said.

Can I be more specific?

“We’re 50 miles from the nearest Walmart, just upriver from where I married my wife,” he replied.

OK. Got it.

McShane, 30, grew up near Detroit, but regularly fished steelhead in the UP’s skinny waters because that’s where his father pursued his passions. He recalls sleeping in the family car while his dad drove them northward through the Lower Peninsula, across the Mackinac Bridge, and deep into the UP’s night to reach Lake Superior’s tributaries.

McShane loves the UP and its steelhead so much that he moved there 12 years ago, not far from where his parents settled in retirement. He and his wife, Miranda, fish together often; more recently with their infant son, Ivan, strapped to McShane’s chest like just another fly box or long-nosed pliers.

McShane doesn’t limit his steelhead fishing to the UP. He freezes his fingers and numbs his toes routinely while exploring Superior’s tributaries from the eastern UP to Duluth, up the “Arrowhead” coastline of Minnesota, around Ontario’s shoreline, and back to the UP.

He and Miranda met hundreds of miles to the south while earning degrees at Grand Valley State University on Lake Michigan. In those days he described himself as a “steelhead obsessed, trout-bumming, average college student.” He retains that modesty today. He’s still “obsessed and trout-bumming,” but undersells himself as an “average outdoor writer.”

When we rendezvoused in early May in a state forest where I camped overnight, McShane handed me a 9-foot, 8-weight fly rod. Its fly-fishing reel held 10-pound monofilament as its main line and 8-pound fluorocarbon as its leader. As I studied the setup, its orange-yarn fly and split-shot dropline, McShane smiled and said something like: “Real fly-fishermen would puke if I handed them that rig.”

I’m obviously not a fly-fisherman, because I felt only intrigue, not nausea.

McShane said we’d be “drift-fishing,” which meant stripping about 25 feet of line from the reel, flipping the yarn-fly upstream, and monitoring its downstream tumble as the split-shot bounced off bottom in the wild current. Once the yarn and split-shot finished their drift and suspended downstream in the flow, we yanked the line back in and flipped the fly upstream to another spot.

McShane said he learned this method several years ago from some trout bums out of Duluth. He also said it’s a fast, relatively efficient way to work a river. During the next two days, however, I learned that catching spring-run steelhead isn’t just a simple matter of flipping chunks of orange yarn into the tannin-stained torrents of a river swollen by snowmelt.

No, success on steelhead tributaries requires multiple skills and endless hours in chilled waders. Much like riverboat captains on the Mississippi, steelhead anglers must read the water’s roils, ripples, eddies and foam streams to interpret the forces and obstacles below. McShane said it helps being a local, because he explores these rivers when they’re low in summer, rising in autumn, frozen in winter and overflowing in spring.

And the more time he logs year-round, the better he understands the forces beneath every boil or riffle. From time spent on home waters, McShane catalogs the details of each rock or snag in his mind’s eye, and transfers that knowledge when reading similar signs in more distant rivers when hunting steelhead in spring and fall.

In comparison, amateurs like me flip our lines more blindly into the river, no matter how carefully we imitate our guide and recite their advice. I soon realized I just can’t learn some things quickly, like tuning into signals telegraphed by my hook and split-shot, and interpreting their meanings reliably. Was that the split-shot clanking over a submerged branch, or did a steelhead just inhale the fly after mistaking it for a fish egg? Can I now expect a hard snag or spongy hookset?

“There’s one!” McShane said minutes after we waded in and flipped our lines upriver. I looked over to see McShane’s flyrod bent and pulsating toward a loud splash as a steelhead slapped the surface and stripped line. Seconds later, the fish pulled free and McShane reeled up to check his hook.

“You’ll land about one in five steelhead you hook,” McShane said with a shrug. “The river’s full of wood and rocks, and you can’t see or avoid a lot of it because you’re always looking for a place to land the fish. The only constant is that you won’t land the fish where you hooked it. You have to chase it. At least now we know they’re still in here.”

McShane explained that the steelhead’s spawning run had peaked in late April, and was winding down as the run-off ebbed and the waters warmed. Submerged streamside brush now snatching at our stripped monofilament would soon regain the dry ground, and the logs now stealing our hooks and weights would soon return them to summer’s brook-trout anglers.

We were roughly 5 miles inland from Lake Superior, where steelhead spend most of the year before entering spawning streams from late October to early May. Unlike salmon, which spawn once before dying, steelhead spawn several times during their lifetime. Still, it’s hard to imagine a fish so accustomed to Superior’s vastness not feeling claustrophobic in the obstacle-strewn narrows of Northwoods rivers.

By midmorning, as I awaited my first steelhead connection, McShane proved prophetic when landing the fifth steelhead he hooked. He estimated its weight at 7 pounds, and admired its bronze-tinted beauty. He explained that the longer a steelhead remains inland in the UP’s tannin-tinted rivers, the darker its silver sides appear.

We fished late into the afternoon before McShane headed home for the day, and returned at dawn the next morning. Soon after making our first drift, I heard McShane announce again, “There’s one!” Seconds later he splashed downriver, rod and reel held high, as the morning’s first steelhead raced through a deadfall and around a bend.

I reeled in and followed while dropping my rod and recording a video with my iPhone. Somehow the steelhead didn’t break the line when dragging it through submerged branches, and McShane used one hand to deftly guide the monofilament free. He then picked out a landing strip downstream, waded toward the sandy bend, and grabbed the hen’s tail once she tired.

While admiring the old girl, McShane pointed out some blemishes and raw rubs atop its belly. “She’s banged off a few rocks and logs in the river, but she’ll be fine once she’s back out in the lake.”

And with that, McShane let loose of the broad tail and watched the fish flash back into the copper-colored water.

Calvin McShane admires a spring-run steelhead he caught in early May while fishing a Lake Superior tributary in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. — Patrick Durkin photo

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