Photo By Dick Swan.
Skamania trout have been attracting a solid following of dedicated anglers for their summer migration up Lake Michigan tributaries for years. It’s no surprise. These fish are hard-hitting, bait-slashing brutes that will tear up light fishing gear.
“The average-sized Skamania in the summer is approaching about 10 pounds and measuring 28 to 29 inches,” said fisheries biologist Brian Breidert of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Lake Michigan office. “Fish reaching from 32 to 36 inches are taken every year.”
According to Breidert, the trout numbers were down a little last year and the fishing was a little slow, but there were still good numbers of fish.
Skamania start staging near the shoreline in the Burns Ditch and Trail Creek areas when the wind is in a southerly direction. The wind pushes the warm, shallow water out into the lake and pulls the cooler Lake Michigan water in underneath it. The steelhead will follow the cooler water in, and when the streams flood, the fish will head upstream. Given enough rain, Skamania will continue moving up into Trail Creek and Burns Ditch throughout the summer months and into the fall.
“Watching the weather and wind patterns is the key to successful lakefront steelhead fishing,” Breidert said. “When the fish move upstream, they’ll be found under logjams and in the deeper pools. They’ll go as far upstream as they need to go to find suitable gravel substrate for spawning. When they’re moving, they’ll be spread out the length of the rivers from one end to the other.”
By late June, these trout start returning to the streams where they were stocked by the DNR and the action usually picks up in July. Spawning takes place in February and March, and though most of the fish will move back out into the deeper Lake Michigan waters, many of the trout will stay upstream in the Trail Creek, Burns Ditch Calumet River waterways to create a year-round fishery.
Over 226,000 Skamania were stocked in 2005 and this year-class should be joining the spawning runs this summer.
The offshore areas near Trail Creek and Burns Ditch are major holding areas. The fish will stack up until the rivers rise and they move upstream in droves. Within hours, the new arrivals will start stacking up again to wait their turn.
“The nearshore Burns area is where I usually take my steelhead-seeking clients in July and August,” said Captain Doug Iliff of Anglers-Adventure Fishing Charters.
Iliff begins trolling in a zigzag pattern in the mouth of Burns Ditch and moves west along the beach, usually running planner boards and a two-color lead-core line as a flat line out the back. Rapalas in green and orange and dodgers in orange and chrome colors with blue-and-pearl colored flies are good, but his two top producers in shallow water are the red Artie crankbait and a small red walleye-sized dodger that he puts black dots on. His favorite is a small hand-made red fly that looks like a cluster of ladybugs.
Staging steelhead along the beach all tend to be the same distance out from the shoreline, and every day it will be different. If Iliff doesn’t connect with fish, he moves out into deeper water and continues to zigzag his way across the beach area. The first couple of rock points and the breakwall are also worth a try.
“It’s feast-or-famine fishing,” Iliff said. “Fishing success here, as well as other creek mouths, is directly related to the flow of water coming out of the creeks. If it rains during the evening, they’re upstream and gone.”
Over the last couple of seasons, Iliff has found the trout offshore in 50-foot depths. The winning patterns for the largest fish have been Fishlander’s Sister Sledge, Water Melon Glow and Yellow Tail spoons a foot off the bottom. The trout have been full of gobies, a fact that has surprised Iliff.
“I don’t know how these top-feeders found the bottom, but they have, and in good numbers,” Iliff said. “It’s a changing fishery and anglers have to change with it.”
Captain Mike Tapper of N’ Pursuit Adventure Charters guides in this area as well.
“The fish will stage here until the ditch swells with fresh rainwater,” Tapper said. “A light rain will move them upriver, while others come in to replace them from just offshore.”
The mouth of the ditch and the beach areas west to the U.S. Steel breakwall has been top producers for Tapper. Planer boards, dodgers, flies and spoons on lead-core line trolled at about 3 knots are the mainstay. After the fish move up into the ditch, smaller boats can follow into the area west of the “Y” where it meets the Calumet River.
Fish will stage right in front of the breakwall, by the No. 4 marker at the Port of Indiana and the No. 2 marker at the port’s entrance.
Anglers wanting to boat inland on Burns Ditch won’t be able to go far, according to Mike Ryan of the Northwest Indiana Steelheaders. Boat access is fairly good for about half a mile upstream, but then the logjams can make the river impassable for larger boats. Bank-fishing and wading are about the only way to effectively fish the upper reaches of the ditch and then up into the Calumet.
The nearshore Trail Creek area is another dynamite staging area where the same tricks work. Over the last several years, the fish have been staging close to the piers and then shoot upstream within a day or two. Offshore fishing can be good, but it doesn’t last long.
“The pier-fishing is fantastic,” Ryan said. “A spoon or a shrimp under a bobber are all you’ll need. A lighted bobber will let you fish a shrimp at night. Fish 3 to 5 feet down and get ready because when the fish hits, it’ll rip the line right off the reel, and if you’re not holding onto the rod it can go in the water.”
The state-record Skamania came out of Trail Creek in 1999. There’s no reason to believe that it won’t be beat this year. Evan Nicholson’s monster-sized fish weighed 26.62 pounds. Ryan’s best so far was a 24-pounder.
Charter Captain Mike Schoonveld has plenty of experience guiding prospective Skamania anglers in the Trail Creek vicinity.
“The Skamania used to all arrive in a three- or four-week period, but now their arrival is all spread out,” Schoonveld said. “There were big concentrations of fish all showing up at once
and the fishing could be fantastic. Now there are a few days when there are big numbers of fish near the shoreline, but they tend to come in waves, a few at a time.”
A good day on the water in Schoonveld’s book is to hook 25 and land 17 or 18 while he’s on a charter. Anglers fishing for fun can catch half a dozen fish on a good day and maybe one or two on a bad one.
When the fish are near the shoreline, run baits from 15 to 45 feet deep and fish the upper half of the water column. If you’re over 30 feet, fish the top 15 of water, and so on.
The three favorite baits in Schoonveld’s arsenal are 6-inch Big Red Spoons, jointed jerkbaits like Rapalas and Thundersticks and noisy baits like Rat-L-Traps.
“The fish may bite on other colors, but you’ll never go wrong with florescent orange,” Schoonveld said.
Burns Ditch anglers can launch from the Portage Marina as well as from other private marinas. Access on the Little Calumet is at Glens Harbor near the police station and off state Route 149. Anglers on foot can reach the water from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore property as well.
The Michigan City Port Authority operates two ramps in the Trail Creek area. The first is in Washington Park off Lakeshore Drive and the other is the Creek Ridge Ramp on East Michigan Boulevard (Highway 35) across from the Blue Chip Casino. For more information on these fee ramps, contact the Port Authority at (219) 872-1712.
Additional information is available from the DNR’s Lake Michigan station at (219) 874-6824 or visit online at www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/fish.