With classroom and on-the-water instruction, steelhead clinic hooks students

Carl T. Johnson Hunt and Fish Center's John Zakrajsek instructs at a recent steelhead clinic.

April 3, 2014

The transition from lake fishing to river fishing is hard enough for many anglers, even if they're pursuing the same species of fish. But when they shift gears to try something completely different, well, there's a fairly steep learning curve.

And that's the point behind the Department of Natural Resources' steelhead clinic that was held recently at the Carl T. Johnson Hunt and Fish Center in Cadillac - a two-day event designed to turned neophytes into bona fide steelheaders.

The clinic - one of a number of classroom-plus-field experiences put on at the Johnson Center over the course of the year - is the brainchild of Ed Shaw, the center's interpreter. Now in its third year, the steelhead clinic, which features classroom presentations combined with on-the-water instruction, has converted a number of slack-water anglers into steelhead buffs.

Interpreter Kevin Perry (foreground) helps student John Wisniewski with proper cast placement."The goal is to get them to where, when they're done with the class, they're competent to go out and do it on their own," said Shaw.

"The first year we were overwhelmed - we put more than 30 people through the class," Shaw recalled. "The second year we had 17. The smaller classes are better because, when you get on the water, you're spending time with each one individually."

This year there were about the same number of folks who signed up as last year, but fewer attended. One group of five - which had planned to camp out - canceled because of the late-arriving spring and didn't want to camp in the snow. But those who showed up got more than their money's worth - especially considering the clinic is free of charge.

"I haven't done a lot of steelhead fishing," explained John Wisniewski, a retired banker from Plymouth who made the more than three-hour drive from his home in Plymouth to attend the clinic. "I've done a lot of bass fishing, but I needed some information on the rigs and understanding the setup. This is different."

Wisniewski said he learned a lot in the classroom session, and by late afternoon he was picking up the finer points of steelhead fishing at the elbows of DNR staffers in the Manistee River below Tippy Dam.

Carl T. Johnson Hunt and Fish Center's John Zakrajsek instructs at a recent steelhead clinic.Bill Burgess said much the same thing. A former automotive tool and die maker who moved from Toledo to Wexford County when he retired, Burgess said he's been steelhead fishing a few times but thinks he still has a lot to learn.

"I figure anybody who says they know it all doesn't know nothing," said Burgess, who accompanied his son Jason and another buddy in the class. "I love these classes."

Taught by staffers at the Johnson Hunt and Fish Center, the class covered about everything a beginning steelhead angler would need to know, from rods and reels to baits and rigs. John Zakrajsek, a part-time interpreter at the center and an officer with the local Trout Unlimited chapter, led the classroom discussions. He showed the students a number of techniques - bottom bouncing, bobber fishing, spinner chucking - and carefully answered questions, both big and small.

"How much weight do I use?" one asked.

That's something you learn by experience, Zakrajsek said.

Steelhead clinic students and the DNR's Ed Shaw (far right) head for the Manistee River."Start out with less than you think you need," he explained. "If you're not feeling the bottom, go to a bigger size or, if you're using split-shot, add more. But you don't want to use too much; go too heavy and you'll hang up more."

Shaw said some of the steelhead clinic students had attended the center's ice-fishing clinic and others were participating in the center's rod-building class.

"We're seeing some of the same students over and over," he said. "They're building their skills."

Shaw brings extra gear for the on-the-water sessions, just in case. If an angler hangs up and breaks off, Shaw will just hand him another rod so he can continue fishing while the staff repairs the angler's rig. And Shaw told everyone that he was available later in the day if they wanted him to accompany them to the tackle store to make sure they bought the right stuff.

Kevin Fent, a 56-year-old engineer who lives in Cadillac and brought his wife Marilyn along with him, said he'd take Shaw up on that offer.

"I've never been steelhead fishing," he said. "I don't know anything about it and nobody's ever offered to take me. I needed this."

Fent said he plans to take the center's fly-fishing clinic later on this summer, too.

The Johnson Hunt and Fish Center has become a regular learning institution, as Shaw schedules programs almost weekly. He is planning another steelhead clinic and has scheduled his first Fins & Feathers Festival for April 12-13, something he hopes will become an annual affair. It will feature hands-on activities, seminars, demonstrations and a sportsman's swap meet. For information, you can reach him at shawe@michigan.gov.

Similar outdoor skills-building programs are offered at many of the DNR's visitor centers and parks throughout the year. For an idea of what's available, visit www.michigan.gov/dnrcalendar. To see what's happening at the Johnson Hunt and Fish Center, visit www.michigan.gov/huntfishcenter