NEWAYGO — We arrived at the Pine Street launch ramp just before daylight, but still had five boats in front of us. And after we launched and rounded the first curve, I counted seven boats within the first couple hundred yards of straightaway.
"We're fishing in what is probably the most popular stretch of river in all of Michigan today," said my buddy Denny Bouwens.
Well, that's to be expected the last Saturday of March on the Muskegon River. Prime steelhead time on one of the state's most fishable streams.
Bouwens motored upstream past the traffic, then cut in toward the bank just short of the next phalanx of anglers queued up to attack the gravel.
"This is a deep run," Bouwens explained as we rigged up with spawn bags to fish below bobbers. "I prefer to fish for them in the dark water when everyone's competing for those gravel spots. That way you don't have to fight the boats to fish."
On my second cast, the bobber went down, I set the hook and thought for moment — when the line didn't start cutting across the current — that I'd latched onto a limb or something. But as I cranked, the end of the line came to life a little bit. It was a 15-inch rainbow, maybe not exactly what we were seeking, but not a bad consolation prize.
Less that 30 minutes later, Bouwens' bobber went down and when he set the hook, there was a no doubt. A silvery hen steelhead came out of the water and headed across current into the middle of the river. It was a 5- to 6-pound hen, as full of spit and vinegar as if it were October.
Thirty minutes later, Bouwens landed another 'head, this time a colored-up male.
"I'd rather fish those spots where the pressured fish go," Bouwens said, noting that we had three fish in an hour from deep water while everyone else seemed to concentrating on gravel. "A lot of people are attracted to fishing for the fish they can see. They have confidence that if they can see them, they can catch them.
"But as long as I can catch fish in the dark water, I will," he continued. "You can catch fish in all phases in the deep holes — fresh fish that haven't moved up yet, post-spawn fish that are dropping back down, and fish that have been spooked off the gravel and are just trying to hide.
"And I think float fishing them is the way to go. You can fish fairly fast and cover a lot of water."
Bouwens, a 42-year-old industrial equipment salesman and part-time fishing guide, and I have been fishing (and occasionally hunting) together for years, mostly on the Muskegon, but on other waters as well. We've done a little bit of it all for steelhead — run plugs, drifted flies, tossed spinners — but bobber fishing is Bouwens' preferred technique.
We were rigged with Bouwens standard gear — 11-foot rods and reels (he had both spinning and baitcasting rigs) spooled with 12-pound high visibility mono. Bouwens ties a five-foot length of 10-pound test mono to the main line and then a swivel above a length of 8-pound fluorocarbon leader. He finished with a small hook (size 10) and a small spawn bag, tied with five to seven steelhead eggs.
Small bags are a key once the steelhead start spawning, Bouwens said.
"There's a lot of eggs in the river right now," he said. "That's what they're feeding on."
We moved upstream, found another deep run along an outside river bend and hit a couple more fish, landing one. At the next hole, Bouwens tied into a big, hot fish that broke him off.
By noon we'd hit eight steelhead, but only landed half of them. (One of us, who shall remain nameless, wasn't executing very well.) But we'd also landed a couple of additional trout (a brown and a rainbow) as well as a big walleye, which really isn't an unusual occurrence in early spring on the Muskegon.
We shifted gears, getting out the fly rods and looking for fish we could see. After a lengthy search — trying to find a stretch of gravel that didn't have boat on it was no small task — we spent an hour chuckin' yarn flies and wiggler nymphs up on the redds. Both of us hooked fish, but neither of us landed one.
So we decided to go back to where we'd started and fish deep water, but we could never get back on any of holes. Boat traffic had increased from merely crazy to ridiculous. We fooled around another hour, hooked a couple more fish (but didn't land them) and decided to call it quits before all the guides quit for the day so we wouldn't have to wait in line to get out of the water, too.
I was pleased with what we'd done; after 10 days of June-like weather in March I was afraid the best of the steelheading was done for the year. Not even, Bouwens said.
"There's still another month, maybe more" he said. "The steelhead run has been of epic proportion this year. And anytime you have strong run like this you're going to have good drop-back fishing. It's one of my favorite times to fish."
He offered to show me. What do you bet I take him up on that offer?
You can reach Bouwens at (616) 828-7910.