Aug 18 2008 8:26 am

Indiana steelhead: the Charles Bukowski of great lakes fishing

The skamania steelhead run out of Lake Michigan hasn't happened yet.  It's late.  In kind of a big way.  It seems fish are starting to trickle into the St. Joseph River in Michigan.  These fish will eventually make their way into Indiana.  But typically by now the Steelheadsite boards are alive with pictures of guys holding up 40" inch fatties from a mud bank slough 15' wide and local vitriol about the Illinois "license plate hatch."  Funny thing is I drive way farther for my skamania mania than do Chicago folk. 


Either way, in lieu of another New Mexico post, I'm putting up the first in the "best of the old blog" series.  This one's about my first (and only) Lake Michigan Steelhead.  It was originally published September 22 2007.  I've made some minor revisions. 





The highway hums persistently in the background. The river is flat and muddy mostly, yellow and brown mostly, sandy in some places. Beer cans, Styrofoam worm containers, plastic bags, garbage can lids: various Michigan City cultural artifacts litter the log jams. It’s ninety degrees and humid. The ever present sheen of grease on my forehead does little to dissuade the multitudes of blood sucking insects that swarm exposed skin. My hands are exposed. I swat at the back of them killing three and four mosquitoes at a time, smearing swaths of blood over my knuckles. They get into my nose. Stinging nettles rake my legs and with no balsamic Jewel weed around I plunge into the cool river to ease the burn.  And mosquitoes can’t bite underwater.

Indiana is a pit of hell and despair. But there are steelhead here. And salmon.

I woke up at 3am to drive more than two hundred miles to the shores of Lake Michigan where the anadromous fishes of autumn are beginning their annual migration up Trail Creek, Salt Creek, and the Little Calumet River, following their biological orders like good soldiers do. The commando is strong. Little do they know their efforts are mostly in vain. They too were once hatchery brood. They’ll spill their futile gametes all over the river in a sad genuflection to their native cousins swimming strongly in the Pacific. Then they’ll get snagged in the face, taken home on ice trying to breathe the thin, foreign atmosphere, feeling dizzy and disoriented. The youngest son will help dad with the “cleaning”, but while father’s sharpening the knife, junior pokes at the still gleaming eyes until one pops crooked, exposing plastic looking, layered white tissue underneath. Dad tells the kid to stop. Then sticks his knife in the fish’s asshole and cuts open the stomach and the guts spill out.

I arrived at Trail Creek around 6:30am. Still dark. I strapped on my headlamp, rigged my rod, and had filthy, sweaty, unprotected sex with a disgusting 47 year old heroin addict, perm-headed Michigan City prostitute behind the porta potty in the Public Access parking lot just off route 20. Several people saw us.

The sun rised. I fell.

I raced up and down the dirt banks of the river, over tree roots, cigarette butts, and half buried bottles of beer. The mosquitoes were horrible. The worst I’ve ever seen. They feasted on my fat blood. They feasted through my shirt. I let my hair down and tried to evenly distribute the tendrils over my face, forming some sort of faux mosquito netting. It worked pretty well actually, but was incredibly uncomfortable considering it was so hot. And I couldn’t see.

After several hours of racing around, possibly trespassing, I hadn’t seen a single fish. Where were the forty pound Chinooks? The silvery Cohos fresh from the depths of Lake Michigan’s blue-green purity? Fresh from BP’s last illegal ammonia discharge?

I kept my muddy wading boots on and got back in the car. I ate three hardboiled eggs with Tabasco sauce and sliced ham. And some carrots. I drove to another Public Access parking lot further downstream that had fewer prostitutes.   

I walked through the woods to the translucent yellow-brown waters and immediately saw my first real fish. A behemoth to be sure. Thirty five, forty inches long? Twenty, thirty pounds? It was a big one and swam away rapidly like a log alive as I blundered in for a closer look.

I fished my way upstream through the swarms of mosquitoes, around impenetrable tangles of logs with cans and lawnchairs pushed tight against the upstream side. Eventually I stumbled across two dead steelhead. So they are here. One was still alive, it turns out. Belly-up in a stagnant pool, but still alive. I wrapped my hand tenderly around his massive tail and gently maneuvered him into cooler, clearer waters. I cradled his soft body with my left hand and held his tail with my right, keeping him upright, his gills pumping quietly while I absurdly sang to him in a low voice, “and I know loving you is not enough, and you know future is as future does.” When I gave up my grasp he turned over, fat white belly like a ball floating down the river over wood and rocks roughly.

A long green shape shudders on the shallow edge of the pool. I’m in a good position. I cast an orange egg at his nose. Nothing. Again. Nothing. Several more times. Nothing. Change flies. A red egg. Several times. Nothing. A chartreuse double bunny. Several times. Nothing. Turks Tarantula with a Caddis nymph dropper. Several times. Nothing. I’ll try my plastic eggs. Smaller than the glo-bug eggs. But when I have the new fly tied on the large green shape has disappeared. But then a pod of ten fish move into the pool, fish of all sizes, just like that. I sink the eggs into the pool for thirty minutes. Nothing.

Thoroughly chewed and exhausted at noon I start to head back downstream to my car. I’ve had enough of Charles Bukowski’s great lakes fishing adventure. Screw Indiana. I trespass briefly to access a shallow bit of river so I can cross to the public side. I walk for ten minutes then cross the river again when the brush becomes thick. I walk another ten minutes. I don’t recognize anything. Where am I? That dark blue pine tree is very conspicuous. I would remember that. Am I lost in Indiana? In the Chicago metro area? Are you kidding me? What if I got lost in the woods in the Chicago metro area?


I’m relieved to find the trail and decide to take another shot at actually fishing, as opposed to walking around the woods getting progressively itchier. I tie on an egg sucking leech (black wooly bugger with a pink chenille head). I step into the river and think I see a large tail flick in a long, deep run upstream along the bank. I cast the fly several times and strip it back slowly. The marabou tail undulates like a hula dancer or an experienced stripper.  It looks delicious.

I readjust my faux mosquito net and swat a fresh batch of mosquitoes from my hands, smearing their little blood engorged bodies on my skin. I smear some of it on my cheeks and around my eyes.  War paint.  On the next cast a fish hit my fly with fifteen pounds of salmonid ferocity so stunning that I cried out loud, “holy fucking christ!” He makes a long first run upstream, stripping forty or so feet of line from the reel as my cheap drag screams its scared little whine. I palm the reel to slow the fish and eventually he turns and I take up the line as fast as I can. He’s running for the log jam.  If he gets in it he’s gone. I lean on him and the 10lb tippet holds.  He's got big pink hole on his side and looks genuinely pissed off.  I stare him down but the war paint doesn't phase him. 



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